Adversarial debate has been the key form of advocating for claims in enterprise bargaining in Australia. In traditional power based negotiations, debate has its merits and place. Arguing for one’s position is invariably a necessity but it is not the be-all and end-all.

The famous exchange between George Negus and the late Dame Margaret Thatcher emanating from a 60 Minutes interview in 1981, demonstrates an alternate path.

George Negus says, “Why do people stop us in the street almost, and tell us, that Margaret Thatcher isn’t just inflexible, she’s not just single minded, on occasion she’s plain pig-headed and won’t be told by anyone.”

Thatcher could have debated the point. “I’m not pig headed. Now let me prove it”. Instead, she adopts the tactic of enquiry. “Would you tell me who has stopped you in the street and said that … tell me who and where and when.”

Negus answers by drawing on what is apparently anecdotal evidence of “ordinary Britons in the restaurants…in cabs”.

She presses him to justify his position by probing him further. She concludes with an observation about the tone of his voice “changing” – a not too subtle suggestion that he was wavering in his justification.

In a negotiation you might say, “We want a performance based at risk pay structure and here’s why.” Assume the union responds with “We won’t agree with it.”

“Please tell us why?”

“We just don’t agree with it.”

“Why, you must have reasons (and you are compelled to provide them)”.

“We don’t think the at risk pay structure is transparent and we don’t think the criteria is relevant.”

“Okay, assuming we can get over your concerns regarding transparency – can we talk about the criteria?”

“Sure.”

“Good, so how isn’t the criteria relevant and what would make it more so for you?”

At this point the discussion has advanced around the issue as opposed to being polarised by debate.

Getting Past No – Negotiating in difficult situations” by William Ury is great read for more on the power of questions over debate.