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How to stay truthful while blocking answering strategically critical questions.

“What should I do if he asks if I have the authority to agree to his figure?” one seminar participant asked me. “If I truthfully answer yes, then he’ll probably just stick to that amount and not move. If I answer no, it would be a lie.”

“Excellent question,” I responded. “It raises one of the most sensitive and challenging areas in many negotiations – how to effectively block and avoid answering strategically critical questions and still be truthful.”

Here’s what you should do.

1) Understand the “information exchange game.”

 It’s perfectly legitimate, expected and strategically crucial to avoid answering certain questions in negotiations. In every negotiation, parties seek information that will give them a strategic advantage and seek to avoid sharing harmful information. I call it the “information exchange game.”

Assume I want to hire a new marketing manager and advertise in several trade publications seeking qualified applicants. Despite receiving 100 applications and interviewing four applicants, assume I only found one, Laura, with the requisite skills and qualifications.

So how should I respond if Laura asks me if she’s the only one qualified and interested in this position? Deflect it. Why? Because sharing this information will decrease my leverage and allow Laura to hold me hostage in negotiating her compensation.

Instead, I want Laura to believe that, while she is extremely qualified and I’m quite interested, other applicants could also do this job well. How can you do this?

2) Answer truthfully – but don’t voluntarily share all your strategic information.

 I would never recommend that a person lie in a negotiation. Lying is morally wrong, and you will be far less effective if you are caught and your credibility takes a hit.

However, this does not mean you cannot or should not honestly respond in a way that still protects your crucial information.

In fact, parties in negotiations commonly evade or misdirect in response to certain questions.

The key is to do this in a way that protects the information and your credibility. How?

3) Prepare to block certain information-seeking questions. 

It’s very tough to effectively and credibly avoid sharing harmful information if you have not (A) anticipated the questions, and (B) considered how to strategically block them.

Plus, preparation will help you take the initiative after you block and refocus on issues beneficial to you.

So, how can you honestly and effectively block questions in a way that minimizes the likelihood your counterpart will perceive it as an effort to cover up harmful information?

4) Use these tactical blocking techniques. 

Here are some examples of how to block ethically and effectively, using Laura’s question as the starting point. Each can be used separately or in conjunction with each other.

Question: “Marty, am I the only one qualified and interested in this marketing position?”

– Change the subject and/or delay indefinitely.

“Good question, Laura. I can certainly appreciate where you’re coming from. But it’s critical to first address my overall marketing needs and your possible ability to satisfy them. I’m also interested in what other opportunities you’re exploring, if any. It’s tough out there now for those looking for marketing positions.”

– Answer a different question.

“Funny you should ask that. Just the other day, another applicant asked me how many we were interviewing, and I told her four.”

– Respond with your own question.

“You know, that reminds me of an issue I forgot to raise earlier. Why don’t you tell me a bit about your references?”

– Discount the question’s relevance, or ask for clarification.

“I’m not quite sure I understand how that makes a difference to you and to your interest in the position? If we’re a good fit, this will work. That is more important than anything. Right?”

– Answer a specific question by focusing on the general.

“Excellent question. Let’s take a look at the market. After advertising this position in three trade magazines, we received 100 résumés. My assistant narrowed these down to four, each of whom has excellent credentials and experience. I interviewed each and have been generally impressed.”

Alternatively, you can also block a general question by responding with such specificity that the answer has little value to the questioner.

– Refuse to answer due to policy, tradition, lack of authority, etc.

“I would be happy to tell you, but our policy prevents me from sharing that information.” (Of course, this response requires that you have such a policy or implement one prior to this conversation.)

Next time you’re about to start an important negotiation, take a moment to consider what information you don’t want to share and prepare a few blocking techniques.

Remember, inadvertent disclosure of critical information may destroy your best deal. Don’t let this happen.

Published January 4, 2002 The Business Journal

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