How to Use the Power of Open vs Closed Questions in Negotiations

Imagine you’re approaching your boss to request a salary increase. You probably have an ideal figure in mind, and you plan to present a convincing argument to build your case. You begin by listing each of your valuable qualities to show that you deserve higher pay. Eventually you hold your breath and ask one big question: Can you have a raise? 

In this scenario, that single question yields an all-or-nothing response—and carries a high risk of rejection. What if you could act differently to be more certain that you’d actually get that raise when you asked for it? Could you change the conversation to increase the likelihood of achieving your desired outcome? 

Rather than telling your boss why you’re an essential team member, what if you had asked questions that led them to that conclusion on their own? “Would you say I bring value to the company?” “Have you been pleased with my contributions?” 

There’s incredible value in guiding the person you’re negotiating with to arrive at the answer you’re looking for—and the key is to ask the right questions.

The Power of Asking (Good) Questions During Negotiation

Asking questions is a lot like conducting a Google search. If you’re too specific, results may be scarce. If you’re too broad, results may be unhelpful or even erroneous. Typically, the most successful Google searches are somewhere in between these extremes and contain a couple keywords to lead you exactly where you want to be. I like to apply this same principle to asking questions during negotiation. 

Negotiations depend on your ability to ask the right questions; otherwise, you risk losing common ground. Asking good questions ensures that both parties understand each other’s feelings, wants, and needs. The best negotiations inherently invite new and creative solutions, as rigid opinions and belief systems rarely lead to desired outcomes. 

There are different types of questions to ask during a negotiation, but most fall into two main categories: open questions and closed questions. 

Open Questions

An open question demands an explanatory response beyond “yes” or “no.” These types of questions are most useful when you need detailed information or when you want to keep the dialogue going and improve communication. Asking open questions also suggests that you’re interested in the other party’s opinions, in turn making you appear empathetic and understanding of their needs.

Here are common open questions to ask during a negotiation: 

  • Why do you want/need this result?
  • What are you trying to accomplish or achieve?
  • How would you handle this situation?
  • How can we resolve this conflict?

Open questions invite thoughtful responses, so practice active listening, allow the other party to complete their thoughts before responding, and reflect back what you’ve heard in the most generous terms possible. 

Closed Questions

Closed questions limit responses to a simple “yes” or “no.” These types of questions are ideal for framing dialogue to control or limit discussion. If you’re concerned that an open question will invite too many follow-up questions, consider using a closed question instead.

The true power of closed questions lies beyond generating succinct responses. When you’re strategic about the questions you ask, you can subtly guide the other party into generating the answer you’re looking for! 

Using Closed Questions to Generate a “Yes” Response

Leading questions that invite a “yes” answer can help drive the other person toward providing the ultimate “yes” response you’re waiting for. 

This theory is most successful when you know what the other person wants and can structure your leading questions accordingly. Psychologically, you want the other party to get in the rhythm of saying “yes” to build consensus. Sales people use this method routinely when they ask things like, “Do you like new cars? Do you want the best bang for your buck?” Yes, of course!

“Yes” questions might look like:

  • “I know you care about [some irrefutable need tied to the negotiation outcome]. Am I right?” YES! This question sets you up as the understanding questioner and the recipient as the hero. 
  • “I’m sure you want [insert an obvious beneficial outcome or byproduct]. Would you agree?” YES! Again, the other party sees themself as magnanimous or benevolent. 

After asking a series of leading questions, you can move on to the question you’re really driving at: “Would you agree that [insert your ultimate ask]?” YES! The recipient felt heard and was “pre-suaded” to give you the answer you sought. 

Beware: a caveat to the “yes” approach is that it may induce an inauthentic, pressured “yes” if the recipient’s objections haven’t been adequately addressed, so make sure you let them clarify their needs.

Using Closed Questions to Generate a “No” Response

When you know the recipient is wary of saying “yes,” get them to say “no” first. I recommend this approach when it’s clear that the other party desires control or harbors suspicions. These types of people usually feel most comfortable saying “no” first in negotiations until they better understand who you are and what you want. Giving them the freedom of “no” answers helps them believe they’re in control of the conversation. 

“No” questions might look like: 

  • “You don’t care about [a less important aspect tied to the negotiation outcome]. Am I right?” NO! This question allows the recipient to vocalize their opinion while leaving both parties in complete agreement and understanding.
  • “I’m sure you don’t want [insert an obvious negative outcome or byproduct]. Would you agree?” NO! Again, the other party appears to be in control, but you’ve actually manufactured this interaction. 

There will of course be times when you receive a “no” response that catches you off guard—one that you weren’t deliberately coaxing yourself. When that happens, be sure to ask follow-up questions: “What would it take to make this a ‘yes’ for you?” “What about this doesn’t sit right with you?” These questions give you the opportunity to gather valuable information and reach better outcomes.

Remember that an unwanted “no” is not necessarily the end of a negotiation. In fact, some people believe “no” puts them in control at the start of a negotiation, ultimately providing them a source of permission and comfort. Learn to hear “no” as a negotiator: desensitize yourself to this word and embrace it as an opportunity! 

Determining the Right Type of Question to Ask  During Negotiations

The ideal question to ask varies greatly depending on the situation, but your end goal is always to reach consensus. Ideally you should drive the recipient to a series of “yes” questions, but if you know the other party doesn’t trust you or needs to be in control, allow them the luxury of a few “no’s”. 

Regardless of the questions you choose, ask with intention and know the outcome you’re looking for. I’m confident that with this approach, you’ll be successful in your next negotiation, whether you’re asking for a salary increase or anything else that gets you closer to what you know you deserve.

Let’s keep the questions coming! Join the Women on Purpose Facebook group and let me know what questions you have about negotiation. I’ll personally answer every one.

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Tags

communication, confidence, Negotiation


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