The power of HOW

“How” can be an incredibly powerful but often neglected negotiation tool.

My favorite reference to this word can be found in a Kipling poem in ‘Just so stories‘:

I keep six honest serving men
(they taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
and How and Where and Who”

The poem illustrates brilliantly the power of open-ended questions and the way they can help understand one’s counterpart and overcoming impasse. Quite a number of consulting approaches and workshops are based around the “six honest men”, particularly in connection with innovation and problem solving.

But “HOW”  has an even more powerful negotiation application – it can be used as a substitute for NO, itself one of the most powerful negotiation tools available.

There are times when the other side will make unacceptable or outrageous demands. In principle we would advocate countering with a clear No to ensure that the other side clearly understands that their demands are not realistic.

The risk with No however is that the other side will dig in or shut down the negotiation.

How can be phrased as a challenge to be constructive – few people will be able to resist and even fewer will take offence. It can provide a tactful way of pushing back if used along the following lines:

“How do you think this can be justified” or  “How can we make this work for both sides if we were to consider this concession?”

A variant, which we use to introduce creative negotiation would be: “How about if….”. This could lead onto additional discussions that can make a deal more creative and value generative.

How can also be combined with What as in: “We would need to think of how this could work. What can you offer in return for …….”

How is better than Why as Why can have defensive connotations – as in: “Why on earth would I ever agree to this?” or “Why are you asking for this?”

Next time when faced with an impossible demand from the other side – consider how it might work or what it would take to make it work and ask the counterpart – How they would make it work. The results may well come as a surprise


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