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Negotiation Blog

Can probing ever backfire in negotiations?

By Thomas Wood

One of the most revered practices in the world of negotiating is to “Probe.” Most professional negotiators will use the word “Probe” (or an equivalent term) as if it is sacred, and the answer to most negotiation roadblocks. Yet, does probing ever create hostility in your counterpart? Could it backfire? The answer is yes, it might.

Simply put, a Probe is a succinct and relevant open-ended question designed to elicit helpful information. Probe to understand your counterpart’s interest.  Probe to turn their no into a yes. Probe when they are using a hardball tactic.  Probe, Probe, Probe.

One way probing can backfire is when your counterpart is not used to your probing questions, and is not prepared for them. For example, you get a call from someone within your company asking you to do something for him or her. You just took our Best Negotiating Practices course, so now you see this request as an opportunity to negotiate, for a give and take. Previously you always just said yes or no, but not today; today you Probe.

You say something like, “Tell me more about why you need the report to you by 2:00?” How will he react?  Your colleague’s initial reaction might not be so friendly. He is not used to your probing questions and might feel threatened by them, which will elicit a defensive reaction. Your colleague might say, “Why do you want to know?  Why can’t you just get the report to me by 2:00?”

Your colleague might not be prepared to have a discussion and share information, as he does not see this as a negotiation. In this situation, you might want to consider giving your colleague time to think about your questions before he responds.

For example you might say something like, “I am not sure I can get it done by 2:00; I will call you back in a few minutes and let you know.” Then write down two or three probing questions, and call back and say, “I just have three questions I want to ask before I can say yes or no. Would you mind taking a few minutes and thinking about them and then get back to me?  The reason I am asking them is because I need a little more information before I can switch priorities to do this for you.” 

If you give your counterparts time to think about your questions, they might not feel so defensive. This will gradually become less necessary as they get used to your style of gathering information before you respond to a request.  But initially it is a good idea to give your counterpart some time to adjust to your new negotiation style of probing.

Negotiating Tip

Do you have a clean, funny story or joke? Tell it in a negotiation. Laughter relaxes people. Relaxed people are less confrontational and say yes.

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