February 2013
Raphael Lapin



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Tel: 888-964-8884

Dear Clients and Friends




In  this February  '13 edition of  NEGOTIATION STRATEGIES is a one-minute case study in which we explore effective questioning techniques in negotiations. We also distill the column into a brief lessons learned at the end for your convenience.


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With very best wishes! 



Raphael Lapin


Common Ineffective Negotiation Behavior  


In our work assisting executives, diplomats and negotiation teams in high stake negotiations, we have found often that their natural tendency is to incessantly assert their positions, and the more resistance they encounter  and the more they perceive their  key interests to be threatened, the louder and more aggressively they assert themselves.


Typically, when observing this sort of pattern in  negotiations, I allow this to play out a little before intervening and redirecting. I can attest categorically  that this approach never ends in a productive, constructive, mutually satisfying result.


Often it descends into an ugly cycle of  reaction and counter-reaction with each side trying harder and louder, to impose their will on the other.


Why, I ask myself, do these otherwise sophisticated professionals engage in such primitive and ineffective negotiation behavior?  I can only conclude  that it is because they have never been provided with an effective and refined alternative approach and therefore resort to the "default" battle-of-wills approach that we all learned as children.

Strategic  Questioning 


We are conditioned to think that the more we talk in a negotiation (or any conversation for that matter) the more in control we are. Paradoxically the exact opposite is true! The less we talk, the more in control we are. We guide and direct the negotiations through purposeful, deliberate and strategic questioning rather than trying to "pitch" and "sell" our positions. This requires a disciplined questioning methodology and trained questioning and probing skills.


There are several useful questioning techniques each designed for a different purpose and to elicit different kinds of information. One technique that we find particularly effective both at the opening stages of a negotiation and also at any time during the negotiation is the non-directive/directive continuum technique.

Non-directive vs. Directive Questioning


As  negotiators we need to elicit, develop and expand as much information as possible (before trying to find solutions) so as to uncover that which is really important to the other side and where their concerns and fears may lie. 


To do this effectively  we need to provide them with a degree of latitude to talk about what they wish to express and what they feel is important to them. If we impose our agenda, we will forfeit the opportunity to learn important information from them.


We therefore start with a non-directive question, for example at the beginning of a meeting one may ask: "What would need to happen for you to consider this meeting productive and successful?" This is "non-directive" in the sense that it does not direct the respondent to any specific issue or answer, but rather gives the respondent enormous latitude as to what he or she wishes to talk about. Based on their response, you  can initially assess that which is important to them  before probing further with more directive questioning.


They may answer with something like: "From my standpoint I would like to see a clearly defined work product at the end of this meeting". Now you are ready to start moving along the continuum towards more directive questioning to better flesh out their statement. You may say:"Can you perhaps give us some examples of the kinds of work product you could envision?" This is more directive as it requires them to narrow their response to the work product. As the dialogue continues, you can dig still deeper by asking more directive questions.


Think of the non-directive/directive questioning continuum as a funnel-shaped system where you start at the top broadly and then proceed to funnel down issue-by-issue.

Non-directive vs. Directive Questioning to Break Impasse


Another useful application of the non-directive/directive questioning continuum is to break an impasse. This involves "zooming" in and out, from the specific to the general and back to the specific by oscillating from the direct questions to the non-direct and then back to the direct.


We used this technique effectively when we were helping a client company  involved in a friendly takeover negotiate a buyout. Our team was meeting with the board of the target company and offering a premium price-per-share based on what we felt was a fair evaluation and aggregate of how the stock would perform as a result of the acquisition. The other side was digging their heels in and demanding a higher price. We were at an impasse haggling over dollars and cents essentially, with the very directive question of "how much?" dominating the discussions.


It was time to "zoom" out and move from directive to non-directive to loosen the positions and unlock the negotiations. I asked the other side a more non-directive question: "Tell us more about some of your concerns with regards to this deal?"  My strategy was to "zoom" away from the price issue in order to expand and develop the information further. We learned that they were concerned that the share value would grow exponentially after the buyout and they would not be discharging their fiduciary duties responsibly. They were also concerned as to how they might justify this price  to their shareholders in a cogent way. 


Once we understood this, we were than able to move the discussions to ideas for structuring the buyout in a way that addressed their concerns. Ultimately a general structure  framework was agreed to which involved fixing a price for 50% of the shares based on current projections and waiting for 12 months to establish the price of the other 50% based on an agreed upon formula taking the 12 month share value into account.

  • The less we talk, the more in control we are
  • We guide and direct the negotiations through purposeful, deliberate and strategic questioning
  • Become skilled in the technique and application of the non-directive/directive questioning continuum
  • Start  broadly and then proceed to funnel down issue-by-issue.
  • Use the technique to zoom in and out from the specific to the general and then back to the specific to loosen positions, unlock the negotiations and break impasse
About1About Lapin Negotiation Strategies


Lapin Negotiation Strategies offers training, consulting, advising and executive coaching in negotiation, business diplomacy and dispute resolution services.


Our proprietary and aggressively results-oriented services are designed to help your leadership, teams and individuals master the essential negotiation, relationship-building and conflict management skills that increase revenues, decrease the high cost of conflict and build strong working relationships. 

Our skilled specialists will:
  • Help your organization build a highly effective negotiation competency and culture which translates into increased revenue and strong business relationships.
  • Develop high impact, customized learning systems to develop advanced skills and powerful techniques in negotiation, dispute resolution and relationship management.
  • Provide advice, strategy, guidance and representation in live negotiation challenges
  • Facilitate, mediate and advise in dispute resolution
  • Create a culture of collaboration by guiding and training teams and divisions to engage in dialogue, to negotiate and to partner
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Raphael Lapin

Raphael Lapin, a Harvard trained negotiation and communication specialist. He is adjunct professor of law at Whittier School of Law in Southern California and visiting professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. Raphael trains and advises Fortune 500 companies and governments around the world and is the author of "Working with Difficult People" (DK Penguin Essential Managers Series)
Working with Difficult People
 Learn more about Raphael Lapin's book, "Working with Difficult People" by clicking on the image above