The Negotiator Magazine

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Rule One: Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know

Why are people reluctant to gather information? Because to find things out, you have to admit that you don't know, and most of us are extraordinarily reluctant to admit that we don't know.

So the first rule for gathering information is: Don't be over confident. Admit that you don't know and admit that anything you do know may be wrong.

Rule Two: Don't be afraid to ask the question

I used to be afraid to ask questions for fear that the question would upset the other person. I was one of those people who say, "Would you mind if I asked you?" or "Would it embarrass you to tell me?" I don't do that any more. I ask them, "How much money did you make last year?" If they don't want to tell you, they won't. Even if they don't answer the question, you'll still be gathering information. Just before General Schwarzkopf sent our troops into Kuwait, Sam Donaldson asked him, "General, when are you going to start the land war?" Did he really think that the General was going to say, "Sam, I promised the President that I wouldn't tell any of the 500 reporters that keep asking me that question, but since you asked I'll tell you. At 2.00 AM on Tuesday we're going in"?

Of course, Schwarzkopf wasn't going to answer that question, but a good reporter asks anyway. It might put pressure on the other person or annoy him so that he blurts out something he didn't intend to. Just judging the other person's reaction to the question might tell you a great deal. If you want to learn about another person, nothing will work better than the direct question. In my own experience-now that I'm no longer afraid to ask-I've met only a few people who were seriously averse to answering even the most personal questions. For example, how many people get offended when you ask them, "Why were you in hospital?" Not very many.

It's a strange fact of human nature that we're very willing to talk about ourselves, yet we're reticent when it comes to asking others about themselves. We fear the nasty look and the rebuff to a personal question. We refrain from asking because we expect the response, "That's none of your business." Yet how often do we respond that way to others?

When you get over your inhibitions about asking people, the number of people willing to help you will surprise you. When I wanted to become a professional speaker, I called up a speaker I admired, Danny Cox, and asked him if I could buy him lunch. Over lunch, he willingly gave me a $5,000 seminar on how to be successful as a speaker. Whenever I see him today, I remind him of how easy it would have been for him to talk me out of the idea. Instead, though, he was very encouraging. It still astounds me how people who have spent a lifetime accumulating knowledge in a particular area are more than willing to share that information with me without any thought of compensation.

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