People will always ask you questions in a negotiation. When it is important to find out the reasoning for their question asking "Why" or flat out answering is not the best solution. Use "What makes you ask?" instead.
Whenever we present this wording to a client or a classroom as a response to every question you get it seems inherently obvious. More often than not we get at least one response back that indicates the people we are speaking to use this question all the time. If you are one of those, I would implore you to really consider the words you use when executing. I would be willing to bet that more often than you realize, if not all the time, what you actually say is “Why do you ask?” Well, what’s the difference and why does it matter? I am here to tell you that there is a huge difference, if you have any interest in turning negotiations into conversations and creating a collaborative environment where you uncover black swans it may be worth considering this small change in wording.
Simply put, “Why do you ask?” causes defensiveness in the other side. A concept we talk about often is how a 100% of a message is delivered in three parts; content, delivery and physical cues. The physical cues (body language) being the largest source of information of the three. If you pay close attention to the physical response you get from your counterpart when you say "why" to them, I promise it is always a defensive one. The response to "Why do you ask?" often comes across in the contextual form of “Oh, I was just curious.” which is basically code for "I’m not going to tell you the real reason why". The defensive reaction to “why” is something that we discovered within the hostage negotiation world but has proven to be true in both business and personal communication.
As we all know, especially in business, the question behind the question is always where the gold is. It is what makes the original question important in the first place. How would we go about accessing that information in a stealth manner? The answer is by simply changing “why” to “what”. For all intents and purposes the response to any question should be “What makes you ask?” Not only will this get to the question behind the question, but also you won’t have to proceed wondering if you missed the chance to get a good handle on all the variables or whether you are personally letting yourself in for a misunderstanding because you answered too quickly without enough consideration.
The most common push back we get on this idea is; what if you upset the counterpart? What happens if every time they ask me something and I say “What makes you ask?” they get offended. First of all we need to remember people don’t ask as many questions as they should because they are too caught up in what they have to say. Hearing their own voice makes them extremely happy and makes them feel like they are in control of the conversation. I would be willing to bet this may have happened to you in the past, I know it has happened to me. Second, if you do get push back we have the perfect response,
“I want to make sure that I answer your questions as best I can (fully as possible). At no time do I want you to feel as though I misled you in any way. I want to make sure you feel like I treated you fairly.”
Next time you are faced with a question in a negotiation. Take a moment and thoughtfully ask your counterpart “What makes you ask?” This will make sure you are addressing the important issues. It gives them a chance to tell you what they are really looking for and gives you the time to thoughtfully consider your answer.