There is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

Published: May 16 , 2013
Author: Alan Smith

Asking good questions that are tough, direct and specific is one of the key things we can do to improve the quality of our negotiation behaviour and resulting outcomes.

A study in the US tried to identify the best kind of questions to ask in a classic buyer seller relationship.

In the study participants acted as a seller in a role-play negotiation to buy a second hand iPad. They were briefed and understood everything there was to know about the iPad. It was 4 months old, had a protective cover and an impressive collection of films and songs already loaded on it. It had also frozen up twice in the past, creating a loss of information and making a re boot necessary.

The researchers wanted to know the best questions to ask that would disclose the freezing behaviour from the sellers.

The researcher acting as a buyer said "what can you tell me about it?" Only 8% of the sellers revealed the problem.

When the question was, "It doesn't have any problems does it?", 61% of the sellers came clean.

Best of all was "What problems does it have?" which got an 89% hit of truthful answers.

It seems that we have to ask direct and well thought through questions when we need to pry information from people in whose interest it might be to spin the truth.

Whilst it seems so obvious often in our external consultancy and classroom exercises we see people reluctant to be direct. They seem to hope that just asking for a discount or inviting the other side to justify their position is good negotiating behaviour.

The bad news is it may only work 8% of the time.

Active and persistent curiosity is a real virtue for the good negotiator. Watch our video here to see more. 


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Alan Smith

About the author:

Alan Smith
My background is marketing and advertising. After graduating in Economics I entered the agency world to become, at 28, MD of London's largest independent below-the-line marketing provider.

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Who is Going to Pick the Fruit?

It’s amazing how many people go into negotiations with no clear idea about their bottom line. “We’ll see how it goes,” seems to be the rather naïve thought and of course they leave themselves open to the risk of a really poor and unprofitable deal at the end of it. It is empowering to know your bottom line, especially when you have internal agreement at senior level. Think about it: the other side are aggressively demanding that you improve your terms, but you know that what they are asking for is beyond your bottom line.

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