Someone recently told me that you can’t argue with a story, only with a position or another argument. That’s why narrative is such a powerful impasse breaker and why asking diagnostic questions, which elicit stories rather than arguments, so often bridges gaps between the parties that yawn as wide as the Grand Canyon That’s why I’m listing Asking Diagnostic Questions as the second most powerful means of breaking negotiation impasses.
Professor Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has written that in controlled experiments, only seven percent of all negotiators ask diagnostic questions when to do so would dramatically improve the outcome of the negotiation.
Diagnostic questions are those that reveal your bargaining partners’ desires, fears, preferences and needs. Though your bargaining partner will never reveal its true bottom line, it may well acknowledge that it places a far lesser or higher value on the subject of litigation – real property, for instance — than you do. And though your adversary will never acknowledge the rectitude, nor even often the good faith, of your legal or factual position, she may easily disclose that she needs the money she seeks to infuse capital into her business, to pay back debts, to put her children through college or to acquire much-needed catastrophic health insurance.
You may also find that your bargaining partner is willing to disclose whether he is risk averse or risk courting and whether his predictions for the future of an enterprise – yours perhaps – are more optimistic or pessimistic than your own. Once you learn what your opponent wants, needs and prefers, you can commence – or reconvene – a negotiation that is more tailored to your adversary’s desires; one that will increase the number and value of items both of you have to exchange with one another.
Just a few examples from my own practice:
As you can see from these few examples, diagnostic questions break impasse on “pure money” cases, as well as in those where the parties more or less obviously have something other than money to trade. Once again, it is critical to remember that no one wants money but everyone wants something that money can buy. Ask the ultimate reporter question about your negotiating partner’s fears, desires, wants and needs — WHY? — and you will see impasse dissolving before your very eyes.
With apologies to “staying on topic” purists, I give my Lit Major readers the literary passage that comes to mind whenever I think too long about asking questions:
try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.
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