The trick in negotiations, experts agree, is managing to balance the need to be tough with the need to be liked (especially, it's sad to say, if you're a woman). The people that drive the best deals somehow manage to keep things friendly while still advancing their agenda.
Which sounds super hard. How do you manage it?
According to a fascinating recent Big Think video from former FBI crisis negotiator turned CEO Chris Voss, the answer is forcing the other party to empathize with you. He even offers a phrase that can help you accomplish this feat, allowing you to get what you need out of nearly any negotiation.
The magic question
"The secret to gaining the upper hand in negotiations is giving the other side the illusion of control," Voss says kicking off the video. And doing that, he insists, is as simple as asking one magic question: "How am I supposed to do that?"
These seven little words can accomplish an amazing amount, according to Voss. First off, the question obliges the other side to empathize with your position, whether they're inclined to or not.
"You conveyed to them you have a problem," Voss explains. "It's something also referred to as forced empathy, because one of the reasons we exercise tactical empathy is because we want the other side to see us fairly. We want them to see our position; we want them to see the issues we have; we want them to see the constraints we have."
Second, asking this question is also a great alternative to simply saying no (which other experts also suggest you avoid in negotiations). "It's a way to establish a limit that doesn't back the other side into a corner," notes Voss. "You really want to be able to let out no a little bit at a time. And the first way to start letting out no as an answer is, 'How am I supposed to do that?'"
What if they don't back down?
Asking "How am I supposed to do that?" is a great way to force the other party to see the constraints you're working under, and also a method of gently signaling your boundaries. But accomplishing those two aims is contingent on the other side sympathizing with your predicament. What if they simply shrug off your problems and answer with something like, 'I don't know, but you're going to have to manage."
In that case, Voss says, you've gained some highly useful information. "When you say, 'How am I supposed to do that?' and the other side says, 'Because if you want this deal, you'll have to,' what you've just found out is they've been pushed to the limit on that issue," he explains.
"Tough!" may be hard to hear, but when you get this response, at least you'll know you've gotten as much as you can, given the other side's constraints. Now you just have to figure out if that's good enough for you.
Have you ever used this question in a negotiation? Did you find it useful?