How to Win Your Negotiation Battle Using Calibrated Questions: Episode 181


Is negotiation a skill?

How do you win when your back is against the wall? When negotiating will aggression help or should you use something else, like questions? Questions play a role, but nothing does the job quite like calibrated questions. In this second part of negotiation strategy we find out exactly the questions you need to ask to get the information you need to get your negotiation to work out stunningly well.

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The three negotiation concepts we’ll cover are

1) Going too fast—and why you need to slow down and listen.
2) The power of labelling—and why it validates emotions.
3) Calibrated questions—a way to completely remove the attack mode and get the opposition to give you vital information.

If you’re a cartoonist and want a job as a copywriter, how do you get that job?

This was my dilemma around the age of 20. I’d finished university, and my dream was to become the top copywriter in the city I lived in—which was Mumbai, at the time. There was this peculiar problem, of course: I didn’t know much about copywriting.

To smoothen my entry into the world of advertising, I did a class, which loosely promised a job in an ad agency, but it was just a hot-air promise. No one got a job, or not at least one with the big agencies. And I was impatient.

I can’t remember the details, but there I was sitting in front of the creative director who was leafing through my cartoons. She looked up and said: “You know there’s a difference between cartoons and copywriting, right? I agreed, but it wasn’t a time to be coy.

As most negotiators will tell you, there’s a way out of any negotiation, if you know what to ask. When FBI and other international negotiators get on a scene, the situation is already way out of control. Their job is to somehow, get a nutter to give up hostages; and to surrender. In short, their job is simply to win in a situation where winning seems implausible or even impossible.

Which is why Chris Voss talks about calibrated questions

Calibrated questions are easy to dismiss as everyday open-ended questions, but they’re pretty precise in how they get the discussion moving forward. They’re designed first to acknowledge the other side (that’s always super-important).

Once that acknowledgement is achieved, calibrated questions get you to introduce ideas and requests that would generally seem pushy. It edges you forward. Instead of getting all riled up, a question that’s calibrated swings the problem across to the other person.

In the book, “Never Split the Difference”, the author gives a range of questions you can choose from

However, most of the questions he recommends you work with, are simply “HOW” and “WHAT” questions. Quite by chance, this is approximately what I did back at that early meeting with the creative director. I asked her:

What can I do to be a part of this agency?

How about I work for free for a month and then you can decide if you want to pay me, or I can decide if this agency is a good fit?

The questions seem pretty mundane, and even silly when you think about them, but they get outstanding results.

Voss insists that calibrated questions have the power to educate your counterpart. It brings the problem to the fore and completely defused the conflict. Calibrated questions aren’t random at all. Once you have a conversation going, or if you’ve decided how that conversation should move, you design what and how questions that make the other person think it’s their idea.

Of course, when I was sitting in front of my potential boss, I had no idea I was asking intelligent, let alone calibrated questions, but they were “how” and “what” questions and I was hired. Without pay for a month, as you’d expect, but I had a job in Leo Burnett, one of the largest agencies in the world.

The same kind of questions apply to most negotiations because they get the other side to explain their situation

You start with “what” and “how” and completely avoid the “why”. Why is very confrontational so barring rare situations (which Voss describes in the book) you stick closely to “what” and “how” questions. Which is what I did when we were negotiating the fence issue earlier this week.

• What about this is important to you?
• How can I help to make this better for you?
• How would you like me to proceed?
• How can we solve this problem?
• What are we trying to achieve here?
• How can we look at this in a completely different light? What if we could put in a hedge instead of a fence?

Notice the tenor of those questions?

They’re all about the other person and their agenda. And you almost appear subservient. You’re not even asking “what can “WE” do to make this better. You’re asking what can “I” do? And only once you’ve moved along do we get to “we” solving the problem. Or “we” trying to achieve a goal.

The scene outside my dining area was complicated. The builder didn’t want to leave out the space that was owed to his client. The client didn’t want the area to become a problem when she developed and sold the property. In short, there wasn’t even one person to deal with, but a range of people, some of whom weren’t even on the scene until they bought the property somewhere down the line.

Even so, being calm and working through the problem got the builder to progress from, “We are sorry, but there’s no way out,” to pitching in with a whole bunch of very workable solutions.

The trees at the far end weren’t going to be touched. The apple and the pear espaliers (which grow on the fence) will be removed in the dormant winter season in June. Even the big tree that’s in the way will have a skirting around so that it doesn’t have to be cut down.

In short, the builder got precisely what he wanted, including every inch that was on his client’s property, and we got our trees, our fence and yes, there will be some minor inconvenience, but what a good solution, wouldn’t you say?

The calibrated questions led the way at all times

As we went through the questions, he showed me his plans, explained his situation, worked with me. And though we went for the win, and not the win-win, both of us ended up getting whatever we wanted and without any fuss or aggression. The key to your success is to make sure you stay calm at all times and ask the questions. However, one question did make me a bit queasy. That question was “how am I supposed to do that?

“How am I supposed to do that?” seems anything but an open-ended question.

It seems like someone who has the upper hand would simply snap back and say: I don’t know. You figure it out. However, that’s not what happens. Once I went through the above questions, I blurted out the last question too. And I was amazed at the response. Instead of telling me to go take a hike, the entire set up of questions before this one caused the builder to be even more helpful than before.

In the end, we shook hands on a decision that we both loved and went our merry ways!

The next time you’re in a negotiation, use just three of them and see them work like magic, though I’d add the fourth one about creativity too. It helps the other side come up with a slightly different point of view, especially if you give an example. However, here are the three questions and the fourth that I added to the mix.

• What about this is important to you?
• How can I help to make this better for you?
• How would you like me to proceed?
• How can we look at this in a completely different light? What if we could put in an “x” instead of “y”?

What?
How?
And no WHY.

And on that happy note, let’s go to the summary.

But here’s something even more interesting. “Never Split the Difference” is almost like a layer over The Brain Audit. It handles the conversion issue in almost an identical way. Let’s find out how these two books almost match each other, shall we?

Negotiation Summary

1) Going too fast—and why you need to slow down and listen.
2) The power of labelling—and why it validates emotions.
3) Calibrated questions—a way to completely remove the attack mode and get the opposition to give you vital information.

With The Brain Audit, you’re likely to be using it more in written material, whereas negotiations tend to swing to words and situations. I think that’s the core difference between these books (from a bird’s eye view). However, the book had more than I could chew off, at least after going through it twice.

So I worked out three core aspects:

1) Labelling. I moved very quickly to labelling the situation.
2) Calibrated questions: I used only three and a half: important, better, proceed (and the half was: how am I supposed to do that?).
3) Information gathering with two parties: I listened and made mental notes (and Renuka came along). The listening with two parties (and Renuka didn’t say a word) meant she picked up stuff that I didn’t hear at all. And she also was able to see things from her perspective, because I was too focused on working with the other person.

The match with The Brain Audit.

Often, when you read or listen to a book, the information either seems old or new.

Old, as in, “I already know this stuff, so it’s slightly boring, or at least not very groundbreaking”. Or “new” in the sense that you’re learning nuances, and you have to pay close attention to what’s being said.

For instance, there’s a tiny nuance in the calibrated questions: e.g. How can “I” make this better for you? which moves to “how can “we” solve the problem? The nuance is so tiny it’s easy to miss unless you pay close attention, or someone points it out.

Either way, whether you consider the information to be old or new, you’re always working out how to implement the information in your own life, your own chat with a client, or when you have to negotiate something like a lease or rent. Which is why, when I listened to this book for the first time, I missed a lot of the information.

Then, the whole fence-dispute started up and I was instantly focused on trying to speed up the learning and implementation. I downloaded the Kindle version of the book and marked it up (I have special software for the iPad, which I’ll cover in a future series). Even though the negotiations are mostly over, I’m listening to it once more. Even so, I didn’t realise how much this book fit with The Brain Audit, until I was being interviewed for a podcast.

During the podcast, me being me, I stopped talking about The Brain Audit and went on to talk about “Never Split the Difference”, instead. And I realised something pretty cool. The books are almost identical from a bird’s point of view. Let’s see what Chris Voss’ book really says:

• Listen to the person
• Ask them calibrated questions
• Mirror what they are saying
• Slow down and listen
• Label their emotions

What do you find in The Brain Audit?

• Listen to the client (and fix an interview)
• Ask them calibrated questions (the questions in the target profile interview)
• Mirror what they’re saying by writing down their exact words on your sales page
• Slow down and listen (don’t talk, just ask questions in the interview)
• Label their emotions. How does it make them feel? Do they feel like hostages, in a way? Why?

The Brain Audit, has an almost identical layer as FBI procedure, it seems

You have the target profile; you ask them their problems, you listen carefully to their version of the solution. You write it down on your sales page. Mirroring, slowing down, listening all the time. You have now finished the first section of the book, which gets the attention of the client. Then you move to the second part of The Brain Audit, where you’re reducing risk.

In “Never Split the Difference”, Voss talks about “the objections” and how you need to destroy those objections, thus building trust.

Objections equal risk and removing them becomes a crucial part of dealing with people who are not seeing things your way.

You may not see the similarity between a kidnapper and a client, but they’re both in objection-land and their objections need to be reduced or completely defused if you are to reach a solution. I haven’t figured out how testimonials or case studies figure when dealing with terrorists or bank robbers, but they do reduce risk for a client. As I listen to the book for the second time, I’ll keep my ears peeled.

Finally, you have risk-reversal, which everyone wants. How are you reducing the client’s risk?

What guarantee will the hostage takers have when they walk out that door? Will the building project go through on time, or will there be a stall because of the fence? The risk-reversal needs to be in place for progress to do its thing. And finally, uniqueness: why you? Why not the other negotiator? Why should the client buy from you, and not from your competition?

The similarities hit me like a thunderclap

I simply hadn’t seen the two overlap in so many ways. I was excited to be on the call, and even more excited to get off the call and listen to the audio as I went for my walk every morning. And that’s just what I’m going to do today and tomorrow and for the week to come. And it’s what I’d suggest you do too. Listen and read both books. They’re really cool, but more than anything they’re result-oriented. They get you and your client to a common goal.

Negotiation is about information. So is writing sales pages. How cool is that?

Special Bonus: The Brain Audit: Why Clients Buy And Why They Don’t
Click here to get an excerpt of The Brain Audit.


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