top of page

Questioning Skills Essential for Effective Negotiation

They who ask the question, win the argument.

Good questions lead to good answers.

The answer is only as good as the question.

Asking the right question is 95% of the way to get the right answer.

Questioning skills are vital to all dispute resolution processes. Effective negotiators ask two times as many questions as average negotiators.

Moreover, effective negotiators ask quality questions strategically.

In The Essentials of Negotiation, the authors present a study comparing effective negotiators with average. There are fifteen communication behaviors where they differ. One is the amount of time spent on questioning. This is where effective negotiators ask many more questions than average. It is speculated that the average negotiator is busy talking. The effective negotiator is busy asking questions, listening and recording.

Behaviors of Persuaders and Communicators Average v. Skilled

Exploration of options and possible outcomes 2.6 v 5.1

(This means that skilled negotiators sought creative options twice as many times as an average negotiator. An average negotiator might say there are only two ways to do this. A skilled negotiator would realize there is a myriad of options for any issue.)

Search for Common Ground 11% v 38%

Focusing on the long term 4.0 v. 8.5

Concentration on sequence,: issue 1, then 2, etc. 4.9 v. 2.1

Use of irritators, target words or hot button phrases 10.8 v. 2.3

(Examples of irritators: You should, You ought to, Whatever, Yes but.)

Engaging in immediate counterproposals to proposals 3.1 v. 1.7

Use of defending or spiraling remarks or comments 6.3 v. 1.9

Behavior Labeling (“Let me ask a question….”) 1.2 v. 6.4

Behavior Labeling in re disagreeing (Let me disagree) 1.5 v. 0.4

Testing understanding 4.1 v. 9.7

Summarizing 4.2 v. 7.5

Testing understanding and summarizing 8.3 v. 17.2

Asking questions 9.6 v. 21.3

(This means that an effective negotiator asks twice as many questions as an average negotiator.)

Feelings commentary (“I feel confused…..”) 7.8 v. 12.1

Argument dilution (use of many reasons to support) 3.0 v. 1.8

Source: “The Behavior of Successful Persuaders,” Neil Rackham, Huthwaite Research Group Limited, Negotiation, Roy Lewicki

Purpose of Questioning:

Communication is defined as a sender, receiver and message. Effective communication occurs when the message is sent by the sender and the receiver understands the message.

An effective communicator has a reason to ask questions. Those legitimate reasons include

-Gather or give information.

-Understand facts of past events leading to the present situation.

-Catching someone’s attention.

-Discern consequences which have flowed from the situation.

-Conclude communications.

-Provoke receiver of the question to think in a certain direction or about an issue.

Effective questioning elicits information from the parties that might not otherwise be revealed and identifies issues and facts of the situation. Effective questioning clarifies and reflects good listening skills. People know that they are heard. Questions often seek to provide new insight or meaning.

Types of Questions:

Beyond the mere number of questions, they can be divided into four types:

-Open ended

-Close ended



These types fall within a continua of power and amount of information gleaned.

Open Focused Direct/Closed Leading

High………………..Continuum of Amount of Information…………..Low

Least……………….Continuum of power………………………………Most

Opened Ended Questions:

Examples: What happened?

How did you proceed?

What do you want to have happen?

What do you hope to accomplish?

What will it take for us to work this out?

What do you do for a living?

In open questions, the one asking the questions (the Questioner=Q) has the least power. Q has opened the door and does not know really what the response is going to be. The Respondent (R) has the most power. R controls how much and what type of information is shared.

Q gets the most information. Maybe it is the entire story of the whole business from the beginning. Maybe it is the whole story of the family back to the Great Grand Parent.

Focused Questions:

Examples: What happened last night?

How did you go about acquiring the motorcycle?

What is the best you can do if I decide to make a decision today?

What concerns do you have?

What is the best case scenario for you?

What would be the negatives, if we did it this way?

In focused questions, the Q has some power and the R has some power. Q has narrowed the scope and the R should stay within that scope.

In focused questions, Q gets a lot of information and in a focused way.

Direct or Closed Questions:

Examples: Did you buy the car?

When did you sign the contract?

What color is the bicycle?

Can’t you do any better than that?

Who owns this place?

Did you pay cash?

Is this the best you can do?

Do you ever have this item on sale?

Are there any other problems or concerns?

Is your system random?

Q has lots of power with direct questions. R has little power beyond offering one word responses.

With closed or direct questions, Q does not get a lot of information, but the information is specific or direct. One can identify a direct question since it can be answered with “Yes, No” or one word: Blue (bicycle), Sharon (owner).

Leading Questions:


-Don’t you think I should attend this conference?

-Did you sign this Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) under duress?

-How should pet chickens be regulated? (This was asked on NPR WAMU Kojo Show when regulations had not been mentioned heretofore.)

With leading questions, the Q has the most power. Most of the time, the Q knows the answer to a leading question. R has the least power of any of these questioning types.

With leading questions, Q gets the least information. Embedded in the question is the answer the Q desires.

Strategically Using Types of Questions.

As stated in previous blog entries, the problem solving process is the logical communication process most likely to reach an agreement or settlement. Stages usually include the following:


-Sharing facts and valuing perspectives

-Identifying the issues.

-Creating options

-Agreement or settlement.

Open and focused questions might be used in the beginning of each stage. Stage One-Introduction: How are you? Stage Two: What are the facts? What are the perspectives? Stage Three: What are the issues? Stage Four: What are the options? How would this work? Stage Five: What is the agreement?

Direct or closed questions become valuable post the open and focused questions.

-Facts: Where was your car parked?

When was the home built?

-Perspectives: What is the reason you see it this way?

How do you see this equipment as old?

-Issues: Which issue is top priority?

-Creativity: What would be the payment plan?

-Agreement Stage: What would be the date of the transfer? When would the move in occur?

Leading questions are usually the least used. They can be helpful to stimulate idea creation or overcoming an impasse.

-How would you feel if I included a trip to London in the budget?

-What if I put up the deposit and then get reimbursed at the end of the contract?

Some speculate that if one followed another around and recorded each type of question asked throughout the day, they would discover that most people ask

80%=Closed or Direct questions.




Most do not plan questions in advance. Most fall into questioning habits. Effective communicators avoid both of these. The plan ahead and do their best to ask more open and focused questions to gather more information and to stimulate discussion.

Value, Don’t Evaluate Each Question.

How many times has one hear someone say, That is an important question. That is a valuable question. Yours is a vital question.

First, there is no need to evaluate each question.

Second, if one evaluates one question then it seems necessary to evaluate each one. Would one ever say, Yours is not an important question?

Instead if one wishes, one could thank each person for each question, value the question and then respond.

More Questioning Tips:

-Ask only essential or necessary questions.

-Have a reason beyond curiosity to ask a question.

-Be aware of how many questions one asks.

-Be aware of the tone in which the question is asked.

-Phrase your question so that the answer is easy to give.

-When a question is asked, value that question. Respond immediately or create a plan of action as to how to respond later.

-Avoid double or triple questions. Often, these sort of questions are used out of habit. Often the questioner may be trying to more carefully craft the question. Instead, it would be better for the Questioner to carefully design the questions ahead of time.

Example: Have you seen this person? Do they live here?

Answer: Yes. (To what question?)

Example: Questioner asks, I am thinking about renting a room to John who stayed previously at your place. Was he neat? Did he pay his rent on time? Would you rent to him again?

Questionee replies: Yes.

Instead if the Questioner had asked each question separately the answers may have been, No, Yes, No.

Example: How much do you pay the handyperson? Do you pay them minimum wage? Do you pay them hourly?

Answer: Yes. (But to what question?)

Example Redux: How much do you pay the handyperson? $15.00 per hour.

Do you pay them minimum wage? I pay above the minimum.

Do you pay them hourly? Yes.

-Let the person asking the question, fully state the question. Often the Questioner is interrupted before asking the full question. The last words of the question may be the most vital.

-Value each question and respond. If the person is asking the question, most likely they are concerned with that particular issue. Don’t lose questions.

-Remember that a sentence beginning with “Tell me….) is not a question.

Just tell me the best price.

Tell me about your situation.

These are not questions but demands and can bring forth information.

-If a question is asked allow the Respondent to fully answer. Often silence works wonders in bringing forth information. Most folks are uncomfortable with silence so they fill in the silence with information, with words.


In most situations, one needs to get to the root cause before starting problem solving. The “Five Why’s” approach aids one in getting to the root cause of the situation or problem. Sakichi Toyoda of Toyota has been credited with creating this approach. This somewhat scientific approach is used widely now at various corporations. This fishbone diagram can be used to map this Five Why approach.


HR Director communicates to Independent Contractor Executive Coach (EC).

HR: I am not satisfied with the way this executive coaching is going?

EC: Why is this not working?

HR: I am unsure of the direction that you are heading.

EC: Why are you not sure of the direction?

HR: I am not receiving any information about the direction.

EC: Why are you not receiving information about the direction?

HR: I primarily communicate per text?

EC: Why are you not using the office email?

HR: It is too cumbersome.

EC: Why is it too cumbersome?

HR: Too many employees have my email so it is completely overloaded so if you are sending updates per email I am not receiving them.

EC: Okay, I will start sending summaries of the executive coaching direction per text.

So, this Five Questioning Method gets to the root cause of the situation.


Everyone knows those folks who dislike certain types of music. When they hear it, they believe it all sounds the same. Of course, it one likes that type of music, each song has a different story.

EX: A hates country music. A claims it is all about short shorts, trucks and beer. B pays for A a beautiful country song about a high school reunion and sweethearts reuniting. A only hears short shorts, trucks and beer.

A caught the big picture but not the details. A made assumptions. In the example case, assumptions are not that important. In many other cases, they are.

Larry Ray comment: I worked for five years at the Prosecutors Office in Columbus, Ohio. I performed lots of intake of criminal complaints. Many were domestic violence or family or neighborhood or landlord/tenant. After about a year, all of the types of cases merged. So, when a tenant complained of being locked out, I began to make assumptions leading to easy next steps. I began asking only direct questions.

A Mental Health colleague advised me that to be really helpful to each interviewee, I should treat every case individually and that I might be succumbing to the rigors of the job. She advised: Do not make assumptions. Ask open, focused and direct questions. I needed to know both the big picture and the details. In so doing, often I found that the tenant was not really a tenant or the common law marriage was not that. By using this method, each case was a separate story not a generalization.

I used this experience to create an exercise:

Filling exercise: In a classroom, a law professor places this phrase on the whiteboard: A woman of two who man has just left. The professor then asks each student to write a fiction story merely based on this phrase.

The class is usually mesmerized by the differing and creative stories.

-One story involved a Mother of two kids who husband is a long haul truck driver and has just left for an assignment.

-Another told the story of a woman “of two minds;” that is, she could take this path or another.

Lesson? In each situation, the questioner needs to get the big picture first by asking open and focused questions. Once the big picture is identified, the direct questions can be asked to secure the details-to fill in the real picture. Sometime this is called Funneling. The questioner gets the overview and then probes for more information.

Filling is like the concept of when you don’t like a certain type of music, all of that type of music sounds the same. If one doesn’t like that music, then one pays no attention to details. People also do this with Rap or New Pop (Billie Eilish, Finneas, Issac Davidson)


So, questioning is vital in teaching, training, interviewing, problem solving, coaching, negotiation, etc. Effective communicators tend to ask more questions, have a purpose for the question and ask questions strategically. They plan ahead so the questioning is timed correctly and appropriates. They ask open question to encourage discussion. They ask direct question to exact specific information. They also pay attention to the voice tone and nonverbal communication (which will be discussed in subsequent blogs.) Some even say,

Questions are windows to the mind.

NOTE: First, try the exercise below and second, your comments are welcome.

EXERCISE: Read through this conversation between A and B. Catalog each question.

Open, Focused, Direct/Closed, Leading

A: What is your situation? (Question 1)

B: I am unhappy in my job. I am thinking about changing jobs. What is your advice? (Q2)

A: Don’t you think you should discuss this with your partner C first? (Q3)

B: We are not really legal partners. Do you think we should legalize our relationship before I change jobs? (Q4)

A: Are you in love with C? Can you envision spending the next decades with C? Are you compatible? (Q5, 6, 7)

B: I need to think about these questions. What would be my first step in a job search? (Q8)

A: Have you posted your resume on Linkedin? (Q9)

B: No. Should I also post it on Twitter and Facebooks? (Q10)

A: Probably not. What are your areas of interest? (Q11)

B: We have a job counselor at work. Should I talk with the counselor at my present employer? (Q11)

A: I say yes, if you are talking with the Counselor about improving your present job. Would that be your focus? (Q12)

B: Maybe that would be a wise first step. Tell me what issues I should bring up with the job counselor. (Q13)

A: I would discuss what issues could improve to make your present situation happier. So, what are those issues? (Q14)

RESPONSES: Note these are called “responses” not necessarily “answers.” Remember that these types of questions (Open, Focused, Direct, Leading) are on two continua: One, is power and second, is the amount of information gained. This means that some of these questions may fall in between.

1. Open

2. Focused

3. Leading

4. Leading/Direct

5. Direct

6. Direct

7. Direct AND a triple question.

8. Open/Focused

9. Direct

10. Leading

11. Open

12. Direct.

13. Not a question.

14. Open/Focused

bottom of page