In negotiations, assumptions are just as dangerous as uncontrolled emotions and positive or negative expectations. Assumptions can work against us because most of us come to believe that we’re pretty good at reading other people, at understanding what they’re really feeling and thinking. But they can also work for us if we can get the other party making assumptions about us.

How Assumptions Hurt Our Advantage

Negotiators, in particular, tend to pride themselves on their people skills. Often, before a negotiation, we hear someone make an assumption such as:

“I know what they’ll do if we make that offer.”
“This is the way they operate.”
“If you raise the price, they’ll want a volume discount.”
“I’m pretty sure she makes the decisions over there.”
“There’s no way they’ll make an offer today.”

The problem is, having an assumption before you go into a negotiation is setting yourself up for an ambush. Making assumptions means that you’re going into a meeting for one reason, only to find out that you were there for a completely different reason—and then you’re caught unprepared.

Other common assumptions that will come back to bite you at the negotiating table are those based on economic class, character, experience, education, clothes, or even the type of car the other party drives. Anyone with much experience in business can recall when they didn’t even bother calling on a potential client, supplier, or customer because they assumed this deal would never work out, only to learn later that they might have blown a great opportunity.

Breaking the Assumptions Habit

There are two ways we can get rid of assumptions: by way of sound research and smart questioning.

I want to caution you on the first: research. How many of us really do research? How many of us really dig in and do enough research?

One of the things the Internet does is connect us to the world. But how many of us just go to a website of an opponent, look at their website, and think we’ve done research? In fact, how many of us even make assumptions that everything on that website is correct? How many of us dig in and find out who our opponents really are, whom they’ve negotiated with, and what they stand for? How many of us go do the real due diligence required?

Research in itself is artwork. But one of the keys to breaking your assumptions habit is to develop impeccable research skills. Once you do, you’ll be able to go into any negotiation armed with much more information, ammunition, and resources than your opponent likely possesses.

The second way to break the assumptions habit is to learn how to ask intelligent questions early and often during any negotiation. It is actually much better than looking at data, because the way your opponent answers your questions will give you vast amounts of information that a slick PR piece or a strictly factual news story or financial report won’t provide.

You ask questions to create vision. The vision you are trying to build for your opponent is his problems, goals, objectives, and even pain, with your proposal and the unique benefits you offer as the solution. To do that, you need to find out what your opponent’s issues are by asking interrogative-led questions. Ask questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes/no, questions that start with what, how, why, where, or when. Rather than assuming what your opponent wants or needs, find out. Open your mind and allow yourself to be fully educated by your opponent, not by something you believe you already know.

How to Get Assumptions Working for You

Now, just as assumptions work against us in business, they can also work for us. We can plant assumptions—and if the other party lets you, why not? Say you’re asked how much your widget costs. “It’s expensive,” you say. Well, this word means very different things to a millionaire than to a man making $30,000. And here’s the kicker—each immediately assumes that you mean what he means, and you may well find him preparing to pay a price much higher than yours. In fact, people—negotiators—make offers higher than you ever dreamed they would because of such false assumptions on their part.

“When can this be done?”

In the above example, “soon” can mean anything. If the other party tells you “soon,” you have to find out what that means. Ask a question. But when you say “soon,” you can take advantage of the fact that your adversaries don’t find out. Our assumptions always work against us. Their assumptions can work for us.

When you go into your next negotiation—and this can mean an email or phone call or any face-to-face meeting in which you have an agenda of some sort—try to keep your mind free of assumptions. Notice how doing so automatically helps you listen and open up to what’s actually happening in the moment—as opposed to what you thought would happen. It’s a great mindset to learn and practice.