When the other party asks you an open-ended question, beware that he or she may be fishing for information to use against you in a negotiation. Often the question seems innocent; the other party is smiling at you with eyebrows raised. Be sure to look for this body language, since it can be a signal that he or she is not your friend.
Common open-ended questions begin with “how about” or “what if”; both begin hypothetical questions that beg you to spill the beans about your position or interests.
“How about” questions ask for hypothetical responses; they solicit your reactions to options or new ideas. Sales people can use the how about question to trial balloon new options without really presenting them as options. Note that they are just ideas. For example, “How about we modify the payment terms?” The question is non-specific and verifies your interest in a concession.
“What if” questions can be used to modify the existing agreement or proposal; this can include removing pieces of the proposed agreement, extending the agreement’s term, or changing the agreement’s size. The buy side of the negotiation might use the what if question to better understand your pricing or cost structure. For example, the buyer might ask, “What if we increased the quantity of the contract by 25%; what would be the new price?” This is done to better understand the underlying pricing structure (which you may prefer not to share).
When confronted with these open-ended questions, you need to think before you speak, since what you say could be used against you. Make sure that your response is well thought out and consistent with your original strategy.
Maybe the best response to an open-ended question is to fire back an open-ended question back at them such as, “Why do you ask?” or “What has changed?” Hopefully, this clarification question helps verify the sincerity of the request.
Another way to handle the open-ended question is to stall. Thanking them for the question and promising to get back to them later can buy time and keep you from spilling the beans.
Remember, open-ended questions are requests for information that you may not want to answer.
John Bradley Jackson
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