What You'll Learn
  • There are many uses of the probe
  • It is almost impossible to ask too many sincere questions
  • Use open-ended questions
  • Be direct
  • Plan ahead
  • Dumb is smart
  • Let them say it
  • Encourage creativity
  • Triangulate
  • Give feedback
  • Summarize

Probing is a type of questioning used in negotiations. Done correctly, it is far more powerful than an off-hand question, and far more strategic than a tactic designed to prove a point. We explore The Negotiator's Probe as a tool of many uses throughout the negotiation process. Master negotiators use the Probe prolifically and artfully to the benefit of all parties.

Purpose of the Negotiator's Probe: To engage in a sincere discussion of the issues that results in collaboration to reach mutually beneficial outcomes.

General reasons for Probing in negotiations:

  • Build rapport and test assumptions (during the Exchange Stage)
  • To get information
  • Isolate real areas of interest and concern
  • When the other party says no to your offer
  • When you need to say no to them without saying no

The tone in which a Probe is delivered should demonstrate genuine interest. BNP 2: Win-win is an attitude, not an outcome. If you resort to a cross-examination style of questioning or interrogation that is designed to elicit a singular response such as an admission or commitment, you are not Probing. You Probe precisely because you do not know the answer to your inquiry, or because you want to see if your counterpart knows the answer.

Design of the Negotiator's Probe

The Negotiator's Probe is

  • Intentionally delivered,
  • well thought-out,
  • succinct,
  • on-point,
  • often open-ended,
  • always followed by good listening,
  • consultative, and
  • contextual.

It is these attributes of The Negotiator's Probe that make it well suited for building trust. The other side trusts you with information about their interests when they sense from your questions that you are sincere in solving the problem and need and want their help (consultative). It is the Negotiator's Probe, artfully executed, that enables you to fulfill BNP 8: Focus on building trust and relationships, and identifying clear interests.

The Negotiator's Probe is often delivered as an open-ended question that asks

  • Why and Why not
  • How and How about
  • Who and Who else
  • What, What if, What more, What else

But not always. The Probe can also be delivered as a Crunch, which can be verbal or through the use of body language. Crunching is covered next as a special kind of Probe.


Example of a poorly framed Probe – How NOT to Probe

“If the market is moving toward electronic invoicing, why are you insisting on paper?”

Analysis: The question is succinct, on-point, open-ended and contextual, but

  • Perceived as confrontational
  • Puts the other side on the defensive
  • Is likely to elicit a knee-jerk response, and
  • Does not advance exploration of a solution

Example of a well framed Probe

“Given that the market is moving in the direction of electronic invoicing, help me understand why you want to maintain a paper process?”

Analysis: The question is succinct, on-point, open-ended and contextual, and

  • Shows sincere interest in understanding the other side’s needs
  • Assumes the other side has good reasons and therefore consults them
  • Calls for reflection by the other side so that they can question their own interests and position
  • Is more likely to lead to a solution that addresses your counterpart’s current reason for maintaining a paper process

Many Uses of the Negotiator's Probe

The Negotiator's Probe is used extensively in both the Exchange Stage and the Bargaining Stage. It can be position-based or interest-based, meaning that it can be designed to explore the other side's interests or get the other side to move off its positions. There are many uses of the Probe:

  • Identify and isolate real areas of interest and concern
  • Elicit additional information about the other party's interests and motivation, or why they want to achieve a particular outcome
  • Explore for creative options
  • Test assumptions and convert "Don't Knows" to "Known Facts"
  • Enhance understanding of interests and positions
  • Prompt the other side to move off their current position as they negotiate with themselves
  • Confirm whether interests are indeed aligned
  • Gain and maintain control of the agenda
  • Generate helpful emotions
  • Uncover hidden fears and objections
  • Reach minor agreements
  • Build rapport
  • Build trust

Tips for Mastering the Art of Probing

  • Keep asking. It is almost impossible to ask too many sincere questions.
  • Use open-ended questions. The more open-ended the question, the more likely it will lead to discussion and creative solutions.
  • Be direct. People sense when you are trying to say something that you are not saying. In some cultures, you may need to be more indirect, lest you be perceived as confrontational or rude.
  • Plan ahead. Formulate on-point, succinct, consultative questions before bargaining on those issues where you lack sufficient information and where you anticipate the other side will challenge you.
  • Dumb is smart. This means don't be a "know-it-all" kind of person. The more you ask for their input and collaboration, the more likely they will give you the information you need to find creative solutions and create value.
  • Let them say it. With well conceived Probing, you can help the other side reach inevitable conclusions as a result of your Probing and the ensuing discussion. If you say it, they tend to doubt it…If they say it, it tends to be true.
  • Encourage creativity. Probe about alternatives that may at first seem unreal from your perspective and from theirs. Reaching for the limits often results in a solution both parties find feasible.
  • BNP 3: Use the power of listening. Hear the complete answer to any Probe. Do not interrupt them while they are still answering your questions.
  • Triangulate. Ask related but different questions designed to flush out a complete and accurate answer. These do not need to be sequential.
  • Give feedback. Respond to your counterpart's answers with ideas, concerns, assessments, data, and of course, more questions, before offering any solutions.
  • Summarize. Recapture what the other side said to test your own comprehension and solidify the point in their minds.