Behind the Scenes

Questionable Material

‘Always the beautiful answer / Who asks a more beautiful question.’ — e.e. cummings

The thing you need to remember about people,” Deepak Malholtra told us during the PCMA Partner Conference this past March in Chicago, “is that most people will go to some lengths not to lie — but they don’t mind if you are deceived by them.”

Malholtra, who teaches negotiation in the MBA program at the Harvard Business School, made that comment in the context of leading a group of PCMA partners and industry suppliers in a workshop on negotiating. The way to avoid being deceived, he said, is to ask questions. Lots of questions.

That struck me at first as a little counterintuitive. In a negotiating situation, wouldn’t it seem that the person asking the questions is in a weaker position, by appearing ignorant or uninformed? No, Malholtra said. You become a stronger negotiator “by asking focused questions and listening carefully to the answer the other side gives.”

A few other points he made about questions: Before the negotiation, think about all of the questions you need to ask the other side, and then add 10 more. You should always be asking questions during the negotiation process, especially when something happens that surprises you. And asking “why” questions is more important than asking “what” questions.

Hearing Malholtra’s focus on asking questions made a very concrete connection in my mind between its importance to that one aspect of meeting professionals’ roles — negotiating — and the book I had just started reading at that time: A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. In the book, author Warren Berger traces the relationship between asking questions — something we naturally do as young children but tend to grow out of — and business innovation. I felt the book’s message meshed so well with the meetings industry that I interviewed Berger — and made it this month’s cover story.

Why? While we may not see ourselves as being in the innovation business, meeting planning is dedicated to creating experiences and education. And to do that well, we have to be in the business of constant re-creation.

In a recent Fast Company interview, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust said: “We don’t know where the world’s going. Technology is disrupting so many traditional assumptions, employment options, economic foundations…. People need to have the skills and adaptability that will make them flexible enough to be successful in a world that we can’t predict. So what are those skills? Imagination. Insight. Perspective.”

Later in the interview, Faust made the connection between (you guessed it) asking questions and creating the future. On one of her trips to China, she said, she sat down with a group of Chinese university leaders, many of whom were business- or science-oriented. They told her: “Our students don’t know how to ask questions. They take too much for granted. They don’t know how to use their imaginations to get beyond where we are to where we want to be.”

A New Wrinkle

In this month’s CMP Series article, we take a look at the latest disruptor to the hospitality — and meetings — industry: Airbnb and the sharing economy. While only 11 percent of the meeting-planner respondents to Convene’s latest epanel see Airbnb as a threat to their room blocks, it is certainly something they need to keep on their radar.

To paraphrase Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust: Technology is disrupting many traditional business models.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.