In one sense, negotiations are a strategic exchange of ideas and information. But the value of what information we give (and when) can have a very real bearing on our success.
As you seek leverage in the deal, you are trying to find key information from the other side. If you’re negotiating with seasoned professionals, you can expect them to do the same with you. Sometimes difficult questions arise that, when answered, could erode your position. For example, if you have few or no real alternatives to doing an important deal, revealing that fact to the other side can cost you dearly. That’s why experienced negotiators have a handful of practiced blocking techniques they use when they feel a certain question must be deflected. As always, consider your purpose, audience and personal style as you decide how, and when, to use any of these strategies.
Change the subject
If you don’t want to answer a question, you can change the topic. Your response doesn’t have to be as clumsily obvious as “How about Manchester United?” or “Isn’t this some crazy weather we’re having?”
Instead, you may subtly shift to another item on the agenda or another aspect of the negotiation. This can mean going back to a more comfortable subject that was discussed earlier. You can easily use “As we had discussed earlier…” as a segue into the previous topic.
Broaden or narrow the answer
Think about politicians. They often block information by being general rather than specific or by focusing on a particularly favorable detail of the topic in question. This is a tactic that can help you along from tough questions on to other items in the agenda.
Answer a question with a question
We suggest this blocking technique because it can help you elicit more information by turning the other side’s fact-finding into yours. For example:
Customer: “What will be the capacity of the manufacturing plant you are building in Malaysia?”
You: “Hmm, that’s an interesting question. Why do you ask?”
In this case, you are gathering information regarding the customer’s requirements and concerns. This creates the opportunity to tailor your value statement to their stated aims.
Use body language
Body language is not an exact science, but you can send pretty strong blocking signals with body language, such as crossing your arms or placing your hands on your hips.
A few notes of caution: body language can be culturally based, so don’t assume that a customer is reading your body language the way you intend. Eye contact is prized as a sign of presence and attentiveness in some cultures, while others see it as insolent and challenging. Be careful reading other people’s body language if you are not an expert.
This story came to us years ago and is a great example of humor in a tough situation:
Lucy, a sales manager, stood before a group of key customers who had been gathered to observe a demonstration of her company’s brand-new, state-of-the-art computer. During the demo, the monitor blurred and rolled. Lucy’s attempts at a different internet link failed. Lucy called her company’s tech support for assistance, but the liaison was gone for the day. She took a deep breath, faced the group, and said: “This concludes my demonstration of our competitor’s product. Next week I’ll come back and show you ours.”
The laughs she got helped temper the question in everybody’s mind: “Why doesn’t your product work?” If you’re confident in its use and can read the situation well, humor is a great blocking technique.
Set aside the topic
If you want to acknowledge that the question is important, but not answer it immediately, you can suggest setting aside the topic. You might say it has dependencies on other topics, you need to gather more information, or any number of believable reasons to table it. You can prove your sincerity by creating a public record (visible to all) that you will come back to this topic.
Understand the risks
All blocking techniques should be used carefully. Any tactic can ultimately cost you credibility when overused. Too many blocks? You look evasive and untrustworthy. As with all your negotiating choices, make them consciously – understand the possible outcomes and make your tactical decisions based on which actions will lead you toward the best outcomes.