Open questions are the most well-defined but least understood or used skills. People intend to, and believe they do use them, but a closer inspection often shows their language is actually dominating – in a friendly kind of way. Camouflaged by smiles – statements and closed questions, implied commands and instructions all get thrown in, hoping to have the same effect as open questions.

Ask them afterwards about their open questions, and yes there were plenty – except if you actually counted them. Try that next time – have a colleague count every open question you and the other party ask. It will surprise you.

Why bother with this technicality? We may say “The meeting went perfectly well. There seemed no conflict, and was some progress. There were no consequences when open questions were left out. All we’re talking about are harmless oversights, just my ‘personality’, my ‘natural style’, how I like to do it. Nothing is lost.”

Lack of open questions mean:

  • I tell you what I think first, which is more important than anything you might need
  • Trust-building (mutual exchange) is lip service only
  • Little new knowledge is gained, or value created – I tell you what I already know, you passively listen, creativity and innovation are lost, with money left on the table, zero sum game. Bogged.
  • Deadlocks hurt. In conflict, with shrinking goodwill, your closed-question habits and friendly instructions, (‘just let me finish’ shut downs), reinforce the hidden perceptions that don’t really care, making you an awkward and frustrating client to deal with.

At the heart of it are impatience and anxiety – I don’t have time for this (genuine engagement), I have another meeting shortly, I already know the answer, I don’t like this inbetween, vague stage. The trouble with learning is that it can expose your limitations – emotional and technical.

But its a habit, right, that you’ve lived with for ages. You’re blind to the worst of it, because you are invested in protecting your sense of self.

You make a statement (fair enough), and its challenged. So you ask a challenging closed question back, and get ‘no’ for an answer and a stony stare. Issue a polite command “Tell me about…” and create indignation. Suddenly, it feels like tennis, in dispute – where did that come from?

You say: its just a bump in the road – not major. It hasn’t ever cost you, that you’re aware of.  And changing my oral habits would be a dreadfully tedious and back-to-school goal.

These are just excuses and you know it!

In summary – two things:

  • A negotiator is most vulnerable when they are unaware how they are losing. When negotiators get open questions right, the impact and relationship they develop is staggering. Its visible from Mars.
  • Lifelong learning means you always have a personal development project on the table. What’s yours? Why not make open questions the current one. First step – get a colleague to count how many open questions you actually ask.

As a professional, lazy language is not good enough. Fix your ‘harmless’ bad habits before you lose another client, burn another relationship, undermine trust.

The best place to get this skill from, that I know of, is ENS International, www.negotiate.org