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In Your Negotiations, Stop Wishing and Start Asking Questions

When I was less experienced in my negotiations, I made the mistake of making wishes without asking questions. Making a wish is lovely. because it can help you feel warm and fuzzy inside. But it doesn't get you anything. Asking questions, however, gets you things. Asking questions gets you access to information. Information gives you both clarity and direction.

Let's illustrate the difference between a wish and a question with the following example

  1. I want to make a higher salary

  2. How come my salary is 70% lower than the AAMC median?

Do you feel the difference between the two? In a way, they are getting at the same thing: Your pay sucks and you want more money! However, #1 may get you some empathy but it doesn't give you access to information that moves you forward.

Let's try another example.

  1. I would like to get a promotion.

  2. What metrics must I meet to achieve promotion in the next 6 months?

Again, both are getting at the same thing: You want to be promoted. But one gets you access to actionable information while the other does not. One is specific, while the other is vague. One shows that you have already done some legwork, the other makes you look kind of lazy.

I know I am being a little simplistic. But the point I want to make is that it is time to step up our negotiating skills. That means doing some homework and finding out what information you need and then crafting the questions that get you access to that information. To accomplish this, we need to get better at asking. Asking the right questions gets you more information than wishful thinking.

Let's go back to the question from the first example:

  1. I want to make a higher salary. (Smiles broadly) "Well, things are really tight in the Division right now. No-one is getting any raises. We really want to get everyone to the right salary; but the economy . . . "

  2. Try this instead: "How come my salary is 70% lower than the AAMC median?" (Stutters, clears throat, and starts choking. You offer them a glass of water . . .) "Why don't I take a look into your salary and get back to you."

Let's look again at the second example.

  1. "I would like to get a promotion." (Pauses, leans back in the chair). You're doing all the right things. Keep doing what you are doing and the promotion will come at the right time.

  2. Try this instead: "What metrics must I meet to achieve promotion in the next 6 months?" (Picks up the Faculty handbook, pulls up your CV and starts thinking hard). "You have the requisite number of publications and you recently got that big grant in the last 3 months. You may be ready to go up now.

The goal of any negotiation is to gain access to information. Information comes from asking good questions. While wishing can help you get in touch with the outcome you want, it doesn't get you the information you need. However, not all questions are created equal. Let's use another salary example.

  1. Is it true that my salary is the lowest our Department?

  2. Try this instead: How does my salary compare to faculty with equivalent productivity and years of experience?

Question #1 gets you a blank stare and, at best a lie, while question #2 gives you information that is actionable. Question #2 may lead you to additional questions like:

  1. What can be done to fix that?

  2. How do we get to parity?

  3. Who is the right person to make things right?

Good questions take time to formulate. They require thoughtfulness and preparation. Good questions are hard to ask. That is why, if you will negotiate well, you must take time to learn to ask good questions.

In your past negotiations, what are some questions that have helped you gain traction?

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