“Who has control in a conversation, the guy listening or the guy talking? The listener, of course. That’s because the talker is revealing information while the listener, if he’s trained well, is directing the conversation toward his own goals. He’s harnessing the talker’s energy for his own ends.”― Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It

What Are Calibrated Questions?

Calibrated questions are open-ended questions that have been deliberately prepared to keep the conversation flowing. They're made to acknowledge the opposite side first (which is always crucial). Once you've received that acknowledgement, you may use calibrated inquiries to present ideas and requests that would otherwise appear forceful. You are pushed forward by it. Rather than becoming enraged, calibrating questions shift the problem to the other person.

Chris Voss, a veteran FBI negotiator, teaches the notion of calibrated inquiries. He wrote Never Split the Difference and founded the Black Swan Group to educate private-sector clients on excellent negotiation methods. Voss encourages his students to learn how to ask calibrated questions in order to shift the negotiation frame and offer their rivals the impression of control.

How Do Calibrated Questions Work?

If you’re new to the concept of negotiation in everyday life, you can take comfort in the knowledge that calibrated questions are relatively easy to employ. Though they may be simple to learn, calibrated questions are an essential part of a conflict-resolution strategy and should be employed in any negotiation process.

They're frequently constructed as "how" and "what" queries for maximum impact. They're meant to shift the negotiation's power dynamic and compel consideration of your stance into the equation. In other words, they allow the opposite side to see things from your perspective while maintaining everyone's sense of autonomy. "How am I expected to do that?" and "What will happen if I do that?" are examples of calibrated questions.

Tips to introduce calibrated questions in your negotiations:

  1. Practice active listening. The secret behind crafting an effective calibrated question is giving attention to what is being said by your counterpart. Calibrated questions show your counterparts that you are listening to them, prompting them to lower their defenses. Good negotiators use calibrated questions to make their adversaries feel heard while gently nudging them toward a deal.
  2. Flip the responsibility onto your counterpart. Great negotiators are endlessly patient, and capable of slowly walking their counterparts into a desired position while providing them with the illusion of control. Good calibrated questions force your counterpart to reckon with your POV without being perceived as too confrontational or combative.
  3. Ask the same question three different ways. A slightly more advanced method of employing calibrated questions is to rephrase the same question in three different ways. The so-called rule of three can help push your counterpart past a reflexive response and ensure that you are receiving a revealing answer to your question.
  4. Remember to pause. You might be surprised to know that most FBI agents are often soft-spoken and calm, even during tense crisis negotiations. It can be tempting to fill the silence while your counterpart thinks about an answer when responding to a calibrated question. It’s much more effective to allow that silence to work in your favour. Become comfortable with controlled pauses that can place leverage on your counterpart and influence them to do the work in your negotiation.
  5. Pair calibrated questions with an accusation audit. An accusation audit is a list of all negative things the other side may think, feel, or say about your side. Compiling an accusations audit helps you get ahead of the types of negativity and objections that could hinder the successful completion of your deal. Using calibrated questions to reframe items from your accusation audit is a great way to defuse points of tension and lead your counterparts into making concessions.
  6. Perfect your delivery. When employing calibrated questions, it’s important to be in control of your body language, eye contact, and tone of voice. Calibrated questions can only demonstrate the power and shift the balance in a negotiation when they’re presented in a non-confrontational way. Before you ask calibrated questions, make sure your default voice is calm and your body language isn’t closed off.
  7. Switch between calibrated questions and labeling. Labeling is the process of verbally acknowledging the other side’s feelings and positions. Labels are powerful tools for reinforcing positive feelings and deactivating negative ones. Calibrated questions and labeling are negotiation techniques that can be paired together to shift your counterpart into a positive frame of mind. When used effectively, these two techniques are a potent one-two punch that can help you find common ground with your negotiating partner.
  8. Use tactical empathy to your advantage. Calibrated questions are a key tool in establishing tactical empathy. Tactical empathy is the influencing of your counterpart's emotions to build trust. A great negotiator knows how to ask empathic questions which don't appear to be confrontational. By demonstrating emotional intelligence, you can establish trust and build rapport with your counterpart.


Calibrated questions are an effective method to guide counterparts to the best solution - your solution. Combined with patience and conducted in an appropriate manner, calibrated questions are effective in keeping to conversation flowing in the direction of your choosing. For calibrated questions to be most effective, remember to breathe and keep a cool head - you'd be surprised how often asking these questions can get you out of a tight spot.

Further Reading:

64: Constraints and consistency 🎲
People become great by being creative within the boundaries and pushing the expectations of those who merely tow the line.
35: Beyond Black and White
Lessons from three books on the importance of seeing through binary bias, being brave enough to be wrong, and changing your mind. It is impossible for you to switch on the news and not see a debate. Any simple truth might be challenged by a panel of overnight experts and
43: Searching for easy answers
Pattern-matching and robust thinking are more important than tactics and abstraction. I get messages from strangers all the time. That’s part of the fun of being on the internet. Many of those strangers become friends. But I’ll always remember one particular incident because it sparked my desire to

Get a copy of Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss here.

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