Achieve Understanding George Bernard Shaw astutely commented that “the single, biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” How do you break through the illusion and enter the world of effective persuasion? Questions Are Crucial Before 400 BC or more than 2,400 years ago, Socrates taught Plato and other students by using questions to get the students to provide the answers. The teacher’s effective use of questions stimulates thoughtful discussion, probes perspectives and assumptions, fosters original and creative thoughts, and promotes a greater understanding and awareness of problems and inconsistencies.
In many law schools, the Socratic method of teaching students by asking questions rather than providing answers has been effectively used because it develops critical thinking, serves as a good introduction to effective cross-examination, and develops public speaking skills. I well remember my first year of law school more than 34 years ago when a Contracts Professor used an effective line of questioning to walk one of my classmates off the plank of what he considered to be a reasonable position and into an abyss of the illogical – certainly made me think more carefully before answering a question or taking a position that didn’t recognize reasonable alternatives.
Assuming that the parties are motivated to truly participate in a reasoned discussion, are prepared for such a discussion, and are capable of staying engaged, the successful negotiator using a Socratic method of questioning can facilitate conflict resolution by getting parties who are adverse to one another to change (or at least appreciate) perspective or understand a different point of view, accept (or at least realize) an alternative line of reasoning, and be a part of creating a solution.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, “resolucioun” in Middle English usage beginning at around 1412 meant “a breaking into parts.” We break down problems, issues, disputes, etc. into parts to get to the truth. Interestingly, resolution is akin to resolute which means the “power of holding firmly.” (See “Resolving ‘Resolution’” by Rosa Menkman). How can you get adversaries who are resolute in their positions to bend, modify, adjust, and perhaps even accept? The same steps apply to negotiating any deal.
I like to think of visual resolution – how well an image, color, and light are revealed. Through effective questioning, we get to a clearer understanding by breaking fixed thoughts, conceptions, and ideas into parts that we can reassemble into a new and enlightened state after we have adjusted perspectives. Consider this point in the context of the following story told in “Mindfulness Hurts. That’s Why It Works” by Arthur C. Brooks published on May 19, 2022 in The Atlantic:
“Some years ago, a friend told me that his marriage was suffering because he was on the road so much for work. I started counseling him on how to fix things—to move more meetings online, to make do with less money. But no matter what I suggested, he always had a counterargument for why it was impossible. Finally, it dawned on me: His issue wasn’t a logistics or work-management problem. It was a home problem. As he ultimately acknowledged, he didn’t like being there, but he was unwilling to confront the real source of his troubles.”
Both the learned Counselor and the Counseled held firmly to a belief that the time on the road away from family was related to something other than the root cause of the problem, i.e., a problem with the family. Apparently, the friend Counselor started with incorrect assumptions that perhaps the friend Counseled unwittingly led him to believe rather than come to grips with the root cause of the problem.
The point is that resolving problems, issues, and disputes and attaining goals are most effectively achieved by a root cause analysis that begins with open ended questions, a discerning ear to listen, and a willingness to jettison assumptions. From another perspective, telling someone what to do, how to do, and when to do something is not as effective as getting that person to actively think of their own solution to a problem, issue, dispute, or goal. And by asking effective and thoughtful questions and truly listening to the answers, the effective negotiator and counselor lessens the risk of being perceived as biased or prejudiced and preserves the appearance (appearances matter) of neutrality.
Consider the following Socratic questions to negotiate a winning result: Please help me understand how …. Not, Why. Sincerely follow up with, What else?
When asking the questions, you must be sincere, and the party that you are questioning must believe that you are sincerely interested for the questioning to work:
Would you do me the favor of further explaining? Can you imagine an alternative(s)? Tell me what you perceive to be the negatives to your position? Your smart: can you come up with any negatives to your position? Will you list them for me? What else? What are the positives to your adversary’s/competitor’s position? What else? What are your greatest concerns about your position? Surely you have at least one concern? If you were in your adversary’s/competitor’s position, what would you do or say to best address this issue or concern?