Last weekend we went to a birthday party for my older daughter's best friend. Both of my girls (Jade 7 and Morgan nearly 5) were invited and played hard. At the end of the party we nearly had a meltdown over the goodie bags they were to bring home.
Each goodie bag was tied to a helium balloon. Normally my girls would each pick the bag with their favorite color balloon on it but this time Jade had picked first and taken the only bag with a red balloon. Morgan was distraught and wanted Jade to take a bag with a green balloon. No dice.
The day was saved with one word -- a word even professional negotiators often forget to ask.
It turns out that Jade made her choice because she saw (through the transparent bag) that the red-balloon bag had a toy she wanted. Not only didn't Morgan care about that toy, she actually preferred the small giraffe in the green-balloon bag. Morgan just wanted the red balloon. Now that we knew why they each wanted that bag, we asked them if it would be OK to switch balloons so Jade got the bag she wanted and Morgan got the balloon she wanted. Both girls were happier with that solution than if they'd just got their choice.
Multi-million dollar deals have floundered because the parties assumed they knew the answer to why and so didn't bother to ask. Bazerman and Malhotra, in Negotiation Genius, relate an anecdote in which negotiations over an $18 million contract for an important chemical broke down when the supplier refused to agree to exclusivity. The representatives of the buyer assumed they knew why he was refusing -- he wanted to get more money or else sell to one of their major competitors. Only when one of them asked, "Why?" did they learn that he didn't want to break a longstanding agreement he had with his cousin who bought a tiny amount for use in a local product. Rather than losing the deal or paying more money they were able to solve the problem by allowing a small exception to the exclusivity provision.