How am I supposed to do that?

The other day I was reminded of a great (and very simple) negotiating technique that can work in a lot of different scenarios. I (and the person who reminded me) had first seen this idea in the book ‘Never Split The Difference’ by Chris Voss. Voss had picked it up as part of his experience as an FBI Hostage Negotiator and as a student of negotiation techniques.

The idea is simple – find a way to get the other side to offer their help. We’re all wired to respond to force or aggression with more of the same. If you push me, my instinct is to push back. So if you’re in a conflict situation that requires negotiation you need to watch out for pushing on the other side – because they will feel like they have to push back, ultimately making the situation worse.

Instead, ask them a ‘calibrated’ question (How or What?) that engages the other side and enlists them in helping you find an answer that works.


Example – I need to get paid!

An example from the book is a freelance contractor who worked for a large corporation. She had logged a lot of hours over the last couple of months, but her payments from the company weren’t coming through and it was starting to become a real problem for her.

However… if she pushed them, there was a real chance that they would kill her contract (and she still might not get paid). What she really wanted to say is “You’re screwing me out of my money and it has to stop”.

Instead, when the client called her to ask for more help, she calmly summarized the situation (she hadn’t been paid for a couple of months and she was out of cash) and then simply asked “How am I supposed to do that?”.

The response she got back was thoughtful – ‘You’re right, you can’t do that, and we apologize for you not getting paid’. The client set her up with a new accounting contact and promised her payment in 48 hours, which is what happened!


The Illusion of Control – making it their problem

The reason this technique works (beyond not triggering a show-down) is that you are calmly and logically asking for help – and essentially making it the other parties problem to solve. Because you’re asking an open-ended question, you give them the illusion of control and they’ll want to help you come up with a solution.

In fact, by asking How or What types of questions you’re encouraging them to engage with you and to put themselves in your shoes (which is ultimately what you want when you’re trying to resolve a conflict).

The FBI started using this approach as a way to get kidnappers to offer up proof of life… “You want me to come up with a $1 Million – how do I even know they’re alive?”.


Another Business Example

Back to my friend that reminded me of this idea – he was working with the owner of a successful business who wanted to transfer the business to his sons and in fact had made an offer to sell to them below the market value of the business as the way to do that. Unfortunately, the sons didn’t agree with the offer and had responded with a counter-offer that was quite a bit below his original offer.

Here’s a man who had spent most of his adult life building his business and he was willing to lose money in order to keep it in his family – and they were trying to squeeze him even further. If he held his ground and pushed back – there’s a strong likelihood that things could have become heated and the deal never gets done… and the relationships get damaged.

Instead – on the advice of my friend, the owner went into a meeting with his sons, summarized their counter-offer and the implications that it would have for he and his wife (their mother) and simply asked “How are your mother and I supposed to do that?”.

The end result was an open and honest conversation on the situation and a recognition from the sons that they were already getting a good deal (without making them feel defensive). Eventually they came back with an offer that almost exactly mirrored what the owner had asked for in the first place.


This approach works best when there is some kind of an existing relationship and there is already some empathy built up. However, it can be used for almost any transaction – next time you go shopping for a more expensive item, ask the sales person to help you out. Once they make a suggestion that fits what you’re looking for, let them know that you like their suggestion, but it’s more than you budgeted for – and then simply ask them ‘How am I supposed to do that?’. If you’re genuinely asking for help and if they have any options, it’s likely you’ll get a better deal offered.

What do you think? Have you ever tried this kind of calibrated question when you were in a disagreement with someone? Could this work for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach