Cartesian Questioning

By Derek Sarluis

As Third Party Neutrals we ask open-ended questions in order to bring information to the surface that can reveal the needs, hopes, perceptions, fears and expectations of the parties, the true crux of the dispute, and what is possible in order to attain a resolution.  The answers, however, may or may not lead a conversation surrounding resolution. Certainly a better appreciation of the parties’ positions results.

When the answers to the why, how, when, where questions do not reveal enough information upon which to start a resolution discussion, a deeper dive, with the use of Cartesian questions, may assist.

A review of Cartesian logic follows with the permission of Raphael Lapin, Lapin Negotiation Services, Los Angeles, CA.

Introduction

Defining negotiation as “making the deal” is a common misconception. The deal is really only the successful conclusion of an effective negotiation process. It is however, the process used to achieve the desired negotiated outcome, which accurately defines negotiation.

An effective negotiation process expands dialogue and develops crucial information around which a deal might be structured. Effective dialogue and productive information development is driven by advanced questioning and strong probing skills.
Negotiation theory draws on various disciplines including psychology, mathematics (game theory), communications, anthropology, sociology and others. I would like to draw on philosophy, specifically Cartesian logic, to introduce you to a simple, yet powerful questioning technique to add to your negotiation quiver.

The Four Cartesian Questions

At the core of Cartesian logic, credited to the French philosopher Rene Descartes, (1596-1650), is a set of four simple questions that are useful in evaluating any action or decision. The questions are (where X is the question or action you are contemplating):

  1. What would happen if you did X?
  2.      What would happen if you didn’t do X?
  3.      What won’t happen if you did X?
  4.      What won’t happen if you didn’t do X?

To illustrate how these questions are implemented, consider being faced with the question of settling a dispute rather than going to court. I would apply the Cartesian questions as follows:

  1. What would happen if I settled?
  • I would save time and money.
  • I would have closure.
  • Maybe the relationship could be salvaged
  • I could put my energy and resources in more productive pursuit.
  1. What would happen if I didn’t settle?
  • I would have the uncertainty of court.
  • I would be tied up in discovery, depositions and trials indefinitely.
  • I would be derailed from more productive efforts

BUT

  • I might win the case.
  1. What won’t happen if I settled?
  • I won’t ever be able to litigate the case.

BUT

  • I won’t need to spend resources on litigation.
  • There won’t be a public record of the dispute.
  • There won’t be further animosity and acrimoniousness.
  1. What won’t happen if I didn’t settle?
  • I won’t be relieved and at peace.
  • I won’t be able to have any relationship with the other party.
  • I won’t be able to forecast the budget with the looming uncertainty surrounding the cost of continuous fighting.

Although on the surface, these questions may seem repetitive, they are effective in helping parties to understand the consequences of decisions and actions from a 360 degree perspective. They also challenge the parties to think about things in new ways that they may not have before, thereby providing fresh and valuable insights.

Lessons Learned

  • Defining negotiation as “making the deal” is a common misconception.
  • Negotiation is defined by the process used to achieve the desired negotiated outcome.
  • An effective negotiation process expands dialogue and develops crucial information around which a deal might be structured.
  • Effective dialogue and productive information development is driven by advanced questioning and strong probing skills.
  • Use the four Cartesian questions in your negotiations, which are:
  1. What would happen if you did X?
  2. What would happen if you didn’t do X?
  3. What won’t happen if you did X?
  4. What won’t happen if you didn’t do X?
  • They can be used within your own team in evaluating an action, strategy, decision or proposal.
  • They can also be very useful in questioning the other party to help them see the various consequences of a particular course of action realistically.
  • Use them to evaluate a proposal or to walk the other side through evaluating your offer.
  • They are a powerful means of generating constructive dialogue and obtaining crucial information towards building satisfying outcomes.