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Alexandra Carter

Questions to Seal the Deal: Our Expert Interview with Alexandra Carter

July 23, 2020

In 2012, the United Nations was looking for a conflict resolution expert to teach female diplomats how to negotiate. They reached out to Alexandra Carter, a junior professor at Columbia Law School. She seized the opportunity – but wanted to do things a little differently.

Instead of traditional training, she wanted to “give those women tools that they could walk out and use immediately, not just to resolve a transnational mediation, but to help them advocate within their own countries, within their own missions,” she says.

Now, as Director of the Mediation Clinic at Columbia Law School, she and her students train hundreds of diplomats from over 80 nations. This work has helped Carter develop the negotiating framework she shares in her new book, “Ask For More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything.”


In our Expert Interview podcast, Carter explains why questions are key to successful negotiation. Here’s a clip.


10 Negotiation Questions

Carter’s book outlines 10 specific questions. The first five represent a “mirror,” delving deep into what we want from the other person, and why.

We should work through all of these before entering into discussions, she says, because they may reveal surprises. Take question one as an example: what’s the problem I want to solve?

Carter asks us to imagine we’re remodeling our bathroom. Unless you ask yourself why you’re doing it – what problem you’re trying to solve – you may end up with the wrong bathroom for the wrong price.

“If you’re trying to renovate your bathroom so that you can sell your home, maybe your strategy is going to be to design a bathroom that’s roughly comparable to the homes in the neighborhood that have sold well,” she points out. “If you’re renovating because you’re going to live in that home for 30 years, you have a whole other set of priorities and choices.”

Likewise, when you’re negotiating a raise or approaching potential clients, think carefully about the problem beforehand. What is the problem you want to solve? The answer may surprise you.

Carter’s questions encourage us to look beyond the usual cut and thrust of disputes.

Negotiate With Feeling

Unlike many negotiating experts, Carter emphasizes the importance of feelings in reaching successful outcomes. This is because, to Carter, negotiations are more about “steering relationships,” than “a back and forth with someone else over money.”

In her book, she cites the work of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “Who was studying people whose brains were completely intact except for the part that processed emotions.”

It turns out that these patients couldn’t make decisions. Not just big life decisions but everyday choices, like what to eat for dinner. If we can’t respond emotionally, we can’t prioritize our options – whether we’re choosing between Italian and Chinese food, or different pension plans. Carter’s advice? As you prepare for any negotiation, ask yourself: what do I feel?

Ask More Questions

The second set of five questions is for your opponent.

Carter calls these the “window,” and they echo the “mirror” questions with their reflective style. In fact, the last two questions in each set are exactly the same: how have you handled this successfully in the past? And what’s the first step?

It’s a measure of the success of her framework that both sides’ answers to that last question are often in sync. And if you’re still struggling to find agreement, “Simply ask more questions,” Carter says. Find out more about their needs and concerns, and tailor your pitch accordingly.

“I find that when I continue to ask really good open questions, inevitably I hear something that I think, ‘That’s it! That’s how I’m going to close this deal.'”

Listen to Our Interview With Alexandra Carter

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