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How to Use Calibrated Questions to Negotiate Strategically

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 6, 2020 • 4 min read

Approaching the negotiation strategy as a novice can seem daunting. Conducting a successful negotiation requires top-notch problem-solving and conflict-management skills. It also demands a willingness to accept trade-offs and concessions in order to build trust with your counterpart. Luckily, almost anyone is capable of leveraging their bargaining power and pushing a negotiation toward a win-win solution by learning to employ a few basic negotiation skills. One of the fundamental tactics used by seasoned negotiators is the calibrated question.



Chris Voss Teaches The Art of NegotiationChris Voss Teaches The Art of Negotiation

Former FBI lead hostage negotiator Chris Voss teaches you communication skills and strategies to help you get more of what you want every day.

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What Are Calibrated Questions?

Calibrated questions are “how” and “what” questions structured for maximum effect. They are designed to change the power dynamic of the negotiation and force consideration of your position into the equation. In other words, they allow the other side to see things from your side of the table and allow everyone to keep their sense of autonomy intact. Calibrated questions often sound like this: “How am I supposed to do that?” or “What’s going to happen if I do that?”

Calibrated questions are a negotiating concept taught by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. He wrote the book Never Split the Difference and formed the Black Swan Group to teach successful negotiation strategy to clients in the private sector. Voss urges his pupils to learn how to use calibrated questions to shift the frame of a negotiation and give their counterparts the illusion of control.

How to Use Calibrated Questions in a Negotiation

If you’re new to the world of business negotiations and approaching the bargaining table for the first time, you can take comfort in the knowledge that calibrated questions are a relatively easy technique to learn and employ. They are essentially open-ended questions that force your counterpart to see things from your point of view while still providing them with a sense of autonomy. Though they may be simple to learn, calibrated questions are an essential part of a conflict-resolution strategy and should be employed in any negotiation process. Here are some tips to start using calibrated questions as part of a negotiation:

  1. Put the onus on your counterpart. Great negotiators are adept at slowly walking their counterparts into a desired position while still providing them with the illusion of control. Good calibrated questions force your counterpart to reckon with your own point of view and predicament without coming across as aggressive or combative.
  2. Practice active listening. The only way to craft an effective calibrated question is to pay close attention to what your counterparts are saying. Calibrated questions show your counterparts that you are listening to them, prompting them to lower their defenses. Good negotiators use calibrated questions to make their adversaries feel heard while gently nudging them toward a deal.
  3. Ask the same question three different ways. A slightly more advanced method of employing calibrated questions is to rephrase the same question in three different ways. The so-called rule of three, can help push your counterpart past a reflexive response and ensure that you are receiving a revealing answer to your question.
  4. Use pauses. If you’re new to negotiation training, your default negotiation style might be to play hardball and speak over your counterparts during a contract negotiation or business deal. You might be surprised to know that most FBI agents are often soft-spoken and calm, even during tense crisis negotiations. When employing calibrated questions, it can be tempting to fill the silence while your counterpart thinks about an answer. It’s much more effective to allow that silence to work in your favor. Become comfortable with controlled pauses that can place leverage on your counterpart and force them to do the work in your negotiation.
  5. Pair calibrated questions with an accusation audit. An accusations audit is an exhaustive list of all the negative things the other side may think, feel, or say about your side. Compiling an accusations audit helps you get ahead of the types of negativity and objections that could hinder the successful completion of your deal. Using calibrated questions to reframe items from your accusation audit is a great way to defuse points of tension and lead your counterparts into making concessions.
  6. Perfect your delivery. When employing calibrated questions, it’s important to be in control of your body language, eye contact, and tone of voice. Calibrated questions can demonstrate power and shift the balance in a negotiation—but only when they’re posed in an assertive yet non-confrontational way. Before you ask calibrated questions, make sure your default voice is calm and composed and your body language isn’t closed off.
  7. Alternate between calibrated questions and labeling. Labeling is the process of verbally acknowledging the other side’s feelings and positions. Labels are powerful tools for reinforcing positive feelings and deactivating negative ones. Calibrated questions and labeling are negotiation techniques that can be paired together to shift your counterpart into a positive frame of mind. When used effectively, these two techniques are a potent one-two punch that can help you find common ground with your negotiating partner.
  8. Elicit tactical empathy. Tactical empathy is the deliberate influencing of your negotiating counterpart’s emotions for the ultimate purpose of building trust-based influence and securing deals. Calibrated questions are a key tool in establishing tactical empathy. A great negotiator knows how to ask empathic questions that don’t come across as accusatory. By demonstrating emotional intelligence, you can draw your counterpart in and establish trust.
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Learn more about negotiation strategies and communication skills from Career FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. Perfect tactical empathy, develop intentional body language, and get better results every day with the MasterClass All-Access Pass.