This Simple Question Changed the Way I Interact With Others

“I was surprised at how much he opened up.”

GaudiLab / Shutterstock
GaudiLab / Shutterstock

“Tell me” is the most open question you can ask on any topic. It allows the person to share anything they want about themselves or a particular topic. No question unlocks trust, creativity, understanding, and mind-blowing solutions like “Tell me.” Open questions like “Tell me . . .” have been called “wellsprings of innovation” because the information they produce can transform institutions as well as individuals.

Casting the Widest Possible Net

This one question invites the other person to share with you (1) their view of the goal or problem that’s brought you together; (2) any important details relating to the problem or goal; (3) their feelings and concerns; and (4) anything else they feel like adding. It’s the negotiation equivalent of casting a giant net into the water to see how much you can catch. This question is the most important question you should use, for any negotiation, with any person, anywhere.

“Tell Me” Allows You to Learn the Other Person’s Definition of the Problem

“Tell me” as a negotiation starter helps you get the most information possible by allowing you to hear someone else’s perspective on your problem or goal. Getting this perspective requires deliberate effort, but produces so much value.

Switching perspective can be surprisingly hard to accomplish. Seeing things from another person’s point of view can feel like putting on a new pair of glasses: initially it takes work and focus and may feel unpleasant before your eyes adjust. But getting that perspective is important.

It helps us move from a black-and-white (and often biased) view of a situation to what some negotiation experts have called a “learning conversation,” where we grow in our understanding of an issue rather than remain stuck. It gives us the best possible information from which to advocate, allows us to examine our contribution to a situation (which enables us to then change it if we desire), and empowers us to design a workable solution.

Sometimes the Problem Isn’t What You Think It Is

The beauty of “Tell me” is that sometimes it transforms your view of what a situation is about. By starting your negotiation with “Tell me . . .” you are stepping into the other person’s shoes and allowing yourself to learn from the conversation. But that’s not all you get from asking this question.

“Tell me . . .” allows us to hear what our partner, kids or coworkers are actually thinking, instead of suggesting the answer we think is right. When sincerely asked, it also registers as genuine in a way that encourages an actual answer.

“Tell Me” Builds a Relationship With the Person Across From You

When the person across from you feels as though you’re making a genuine effort to understand them and their perspective, rather than just pushing your own agenda, they’ll share more with you and be more open to what you have to say. “Tell me” not only allows you to see the person as they are; it also implicitly puts you on the same level as the person across from you, and invites that person into a conversational partnership with you that encourages greater trust and openness. “Tell me” also communicates confidence in a way that helps you build rapport with your negotiation partner. The best negotiators are those who are comfortable enough to listen, stay open, and not just stick to a script of points they want to make. 

Using “Tell Me” as the First Question in Every Negotiation

“Tell me” works as a first question not just in a formal business setting when you don’t know the other person well, but also across virtually every kind of negotiation.

The most important thing is to gain their trust. Because then we can work together. I know they’ll be more likely to tell me if something hurts, or if they feel they’ve overdone it one week. It’s important for me to know what they enjoy, what motivates them. Because if we link the work to something they love, it all becomes that much easier.”

Using “Tell Me . . .” with Loved Ones

It takes practice to ask “Tell me . . .” of the people closest to us. Even as a trained mediator, I realized in shame one day that I had been coming home every day and asking my spouse, “How was your day?” Sometimes the response I got was, “Pretty good,” and other times only a shrug as he sorted through the day’s mail. Why? I was asking him a completely closed (not to mention rote) question! The day I finally decided to practice at home what I preached in the office, I arrived home from work and said, “Tell me all about your day.” I was surprised at how much he opened up. He was wrapping up a difficult work project and stressed about it. The trains had been late getting into the office, but he ran into one of our classmates from law school and got a chance to catch up. He’d had a good morning workout and was feeling strong. And so on. These days, “Tell me . . .” is the number one question I ask my spouse, on almost every occasion.

Your Turn: How to Ask This Question

Now that we know why we are asking this question—to learn more and build better relationships—we’re going to work together on how to ask it. You’re going to ask the other person to tell you their perspective on the situation you’re discussing. How exactly you pose the question depends on the type of negotiation. Here are some examples of what “Tell me . . .” can look like depending on the situation.

When You’ve Initiated the Negotiation 

If you’ve initiated the negotiation, you will want to frame the issue first, and then ask the other person to tell you their perspective. Before you ask the question, you will explain the reason you asked for the conversation, as briefly as possible, and let the other person know the issue on which you’d like to hear their perspective.

For example, an employee could say to their manger: “Thanks so much for making time for me today. I  asked for a meeting because, as I think you know, I’d like to discuss my progress at the company and compensation package going forward. When I signed on last year, we had an agreement that we would review my terms after I’d been with the company for a year and we had some results to discuss. I’m very pleased with how things have gone and I’m eager to make my long-term home here. But before we get down to discussing the future, I’d love it if you could tell me, from your perspective, how things have gone this past year.” In this way, the employee has framed the issue in a way that sets himself/herself up for success, but also provides an open space for her manager to share information to round out the picture.

When Someone Else Has Initiated the Negotiation

For a meeting with a boss, client, or family member where you’re not sure of the topic, you might begin by saying something like: “You asked to meet with me today. Tell me what’s on your mind.” Or “Tell me your hopes for this meeting.”

When You’ve Both Agreed to Discuss a Particular Topic

 If you are sitting down with someone by mutual agreement, with a specific topic in mind—for example, your performance at work or a difficult argument at home—you want to ask the broadest possible “tell me” question about that topic: “Tell me your perspective on what’s been happening recently.” “Tell me about the position you’re looking to fill.” “Tell me your thoughts on the settlement.” When in doubt, a great way to start the conversation can be something as simple as “Tell me your perspective.”

Land the Plane

Landing the plane means that you ask your “Tell me . . .” question and then wait. Landing the plane is critically important for this question! This is your first Window question, and it’s meant to be extremely broad. Don’t add another question on the end. I have seen countless people say things like, “Tell me what’s brought you here . . . Have you made an offer yet?” You’ve taken a great open question and completely closed it. Instead of staying open to what the person had to say about their situation as a whole, you’ve now told them you’re just here to talk numbers. Ask your question and then keep your lips closed.

Enjoy the Silence

Often we are scared of silence. We fear that we won’t be prepared for what’s on the other side of that silence. We fear the other person may feel pressured or burdened by the pause in conversation. But “Tell me” is a big, important question. It may take time for the other person to consider their answer. Give them that time. If you’re nervous, try counting in your head while you maintain eye contact and a positive expression. Challenge yourself to see how high you can go before you break the silence. If you’re on the phone, you can take this moment to stretch or just fix your gaze out the window.

Follow Up

If my favorite question is “Tell me,” can you guess my second favorite? “Tell me more . . .”

That’s right. Let’s say you’ve asked someone, “Tell me,” and heard a bunch of information in response. After you ask someone to tell you their perspective on a situation or topic, you then will want to follow up and get more information about any valuable topics or insight they offer in response. So once you’ve heard the person out, you’ll want to continue by summarizing what they said and then asking “Tell me more” questions about aspects of what they told you.

For example, in a conversation with a direct report about changes they’d like to make to their position at work, you might say, “So you’re seeking more client contact as well as the greater feeling of autonomy you had in your previous position. Can you tell me more about that prior position?” By asking “Tell me more,” you keep the person talking and get more detailed information without resorting to yes-or-no questions that shut the conversation down.

The purpose of “Tell me more” is to continue to keep the conversation open for as long as possible. Sometimes, people do a great job asking an initial open question, and then they narrow it precipitously in the second round. For example, you might ask me to tell you about my recent trip for a summit, and then follow up with: “How many days did the summit run?” That’s a really narrow question that doesn’t get you nearly as much information as “Tell me more about the summit.”

If you stay with the conversation and ask “Tell me more” for the information you uncover, you’ll get the most out of this question and set yourself up for success in the rest of your negotiation.

Excerpted from Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything by Alexandra Carter. Copyright © 2020 by ABC Resolutions, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

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