The Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of Negotiations

Poem by Rudyard Kipling

(from the Elephant’s Child)

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

I send them over land and sea,

I send them east and west;

But after they have worked for me,

I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,

For I am busy then,

As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,

For they are hungry men.

But different folk have different views;

I know a person small

She keeps ten million serving-men,

Who get no rest at all!

She sends em abroad on her own affairs,

From the second she opens her eyes

One million Hows, Two million Wheres,

And seven million Whys!

Why does “no” feel so personal? Frequently, it evokes a visceral, often negative reaction when we hear it.

Like anything else that involves emotion, understanding why “no” affects us so powerfully and how it drives our behaviors is crucial to dealing with others, including during negotiations. For these reasons, the exploratory or discovery process should include who, what, where, when, why and how.

When these areas are addressed, discussed and/or justified rationally, it paves the way for a more seamless discovery process for yourself and your counterpart. Understanding your counterpart’s mindset, motivations and objectives, as well as guiding them to see yours, sets the foundation for a successful negotiation.

The five W’s and one H are powerful tools. Individually, some are more impactful than others. If exploratory time is limited, make sure you focus on the “how” and “what” of the scenario. Good discovery questions include: What do you expect from this negotiation? How can we work together to ensure that it is a good deal for both of us? In order to move things forward, how do you envision your ideal outcome? What would be a deal-breaker for you?

These “what” and “how” questions put your opponent at ease, allowing them to feel safe. They also convey your sincere interest in reaching an amicable and reasonable conclusion.

The One W That Makes Us Defensive

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for a comfortable, open discovery process (using your what and how questions), you can probe further. Additional W questions such as who, where, and when can be broached. For example: Who else should be involved in the decision-making process? Where do you want to see your (sales forecast, production volumes, etc.) in the next six months, year, etc.? When do you think you’ll make a decision?

One thing to consider: Unlike the other W and H questions, the why question can have the opposite intended effect. Queries such as “Why did you do that?” or “Why do you want that?” provoke defensiveness in the receiver. Such questions can sound accusatory, causing your counterpart to feel pressured or cornered.

When one of his kids would do something he wasn’t sure about, this father I knew would sometimes say, "Why would you do that?" Instead of getting the answer or information he wanted, it would invariably put the child on the defensive.

The ultimate goal is to make your counterpart feel safe, comfortable, and in control. However, there are times when a why question appears to be the only recourse. A better way to phrase it is to replace “why” with “what”. “What is motivating that action?” “What was driving that decision?” “How is that going to help you?” or “What are you hoping to accomplish?”. Rephrasing these questions makes others feel less aggressive, confrontational, or probing. Such questions lead to greater discovery and a more receptive counterpart.

Control, and the importance of safety

Real or perceived, phrasing questions in a more empathetic, genuine and curious way helps the other side feel safe throughout the negotiation process. Really, it’s a feeling of control for your counterpart.

Here’s a good hypothetical scenario: A customer asks you to make a specific part for them. You agree to produce it and are eager to get started. However, after following up with them multiple times, the project still hasn’t moved forward.

Naturally, you’re tempted to call them, asking “Why haven’t you sent us your purchase order? We want to start production. What’s the hold up?” Before you do, stop and think. Would you be receptive to an inquiry like the one above?

Instead, rely on the merits of the discovery process. Rephrase your inquiry as, “Is there something holding up the project?” or “What needs to occur before the project can be released to us?” Delving deeper into the actual problem is more likely to lead to better understanding and more efficient problem solving, rather than putting the client on the defensive. By initiating the conversation with empathy and genuine concern, the client will be more willing to open up and have an honest dialogue.

A good leader will employ the same system during a negotiation. He or she will be patient and astute enough to know that the control and safety process takes time. However, if it’s done right, it will result in a better negotiation.

Use what and how questions to break down walls, gain insights, and provide your counterpart with a feeling of control. You’ll reach negotiations fairly and amicably.

Understanding and executing negotiations effectively creates leaders that are successful in all aspects of life. It’s much more than a business deal power tool. Acquiring and practicing effective negotiation skills can improve your professional and personal life immeasurably.

Your Turn…

What questions have been posed to you that have lead to greater discovery? How have these probing questions helped you in negotiations?

P.S.-Did you notice something? First person to respond with the correct answer will receive a complimentary 30-minute phone session with me!

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