“I don’t know why they sent me to this workshop. I don’t negotiate as part of my job.”

When I teach negotiation skills to business professionals who neither buy nor sell for their company, I often get this statement before the day begins. I respond with understanding and promise that by the end of the first hour, as I broaden their understanding of negotiation, they’ll realize they negotiate many times every day.

Early in my workshops, I help people understand what constitutes a negotiation. It is simply what you do when someone approaches you with a request or demand and you don’t want to say yes, but you don’t want to say no either. In its simplest terms, negotiation is facilitating agreements between two or more parties. Consider the following scenario:

Elaine, who is Jim’s boss, walks in at 3:00 on Friday afternoon and says, “Jim, I hate to ask this, but I need your budget report by Monday at noon, not Thursday as I had requested. That’s not a problem is it?” Jim panics because he can’t get the full report completed by Monday. His weekend is booked solid with an anniversary trip to the mountains with his wife. On the other hand he can’t just tell the boss he won’t get it done.

Both yes and no are bad answers. Jim only has two possible next steps: feign a burst appendix or negotiate.

We all negotiate—with customers, coworkers, family members and others.

If Jim doesn’t choose the fake burst appendix and decides to negotiate with his boss, how does he begin? His dilemma is that if Jim gives his boss what she wants (the full report by noon on Monday) it will ruin his weekend and negatively impact his marriage. If he refuses to give her what she wants, it could be a terrible outcome for him at work in the long run. The third option available to Jim is to not give Elaine what she wants but instead give her what she needs. This represents a negotiated outcome.

Jim’s first and most important step in this negotiation is to discover if there is a difference between what Elaine is requesting and what she really needs. Great negotiators never respond to a request with a counter proposal, they always respond with discovery questions. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Great negotiators follow the same pattern.

Jim should start the negotiation by asking a broad discovery question such as, “I thought the committee review was Thursday. What’s going on Monday at noon?” This isn’t rudeness or insubordination. It is just curiosity. Jim is curious about why Elaine is making the request, so he can do his best to help her.

Now cut from our scenario to before Elaine entered Jim’s office when Elaine’s boss approached her and said, “I’m not really comfortable with the section of next year’s budget dealing with the plant expansion. I need to review that with you on Tuesday to ensure I am prepared for Thursday’s budget meeting. I don’t need to go over the rest of the budget with you, just the plant expansion.”

Elaine agrees, and then starts to determine how she can be ready for this meeting. Eventually she says to herself, “I hate to do this to Jim but I am going to have to get the budget report by Monday at noon so I can review the plant expansion and be prepared for my Tuesday meeting.” (A classic case of how stuff rolls downhill.)

By asking discovery questions, Elaine’s real need—to be prepared for Tuesday’s discussion of the plant expansion budget—will become part of the discussion. Jim should share his need, to honor the weekend commitment with his wife, as well. Elaine had identified one solution to her need, but perhaps there are additional solutions she hadn’t considered.

Once Jim and Elaine both have their needs on the table, they can work together to craft a solution that meets both of their needs even if it doesn’t meet the original request. For example, Jim could commit to complete only the plant expansion section of the budget on Monday, but not have the rest of the budget completed until the original due date of Thursday. This gives Elaine what she needs to be prepared for her meeting yet doesn’t interfere with Jim’s previous commitment.

There are countless books filled with negotiation strategy and tactics, but if all you do is learn to be curious, you will significantly increase your ability to negotiate effectively. Learn to wait before making an offer or counter offer until you have discovered the other party’s true needs. A counter offer will only satisfy your counterparty if it meets their needs—their needs are the target. Your ability to uncover and creatively meet the real needs of your counterparty will ultimately determine your success as a negotiator.