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Harvard negotiation expert says one word can break any deadlock

Whether you're making corporate deals, asking for a raise or resolving a business dispute, negotiating is far from simple.

At the iConic conference in New York City on Wednesday, Harvard Business School professor and author of "Negotiating the Impossible," Deepak Malhotra, offered 22 "quick fixes" to help anyone improve their negotiation skills.

Just one word can help break any deadlock, Malhotra told the audience. "When you shift the conversation from 'what' to 'why,' you often find more ways of resolving the dispute, resolving the conflict, resolving the deadline."

Harvard negotiation expert Deepak Malhotra
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Harvard negotiation expert Deepak Malhotra

In general, asking "why" is more important than asking "what," the expert said: "People talk about 'what' all the time — what they want: 'We want the deal done in six months. We want more money up front. We want exclusivity. We don't want exclusivity.'"

The key, said Malhotra, is to "figure out why they want these things. What are the things that are driving them? What's the underlying motivation?"

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"Often, the two sides have seemingly incompatible positions," he continued. For example, one side might want exclusivity, while the other doesn't want to give exclusivity. "Those seem incompatible. ... But sometimes, when you start digging a little bit underneath the surface [and] when you go from 'what' to 'why,' often you find that seemingly incompatible positions are hiding underlying interests that are actually reconcilable."

The next time you find yourself in the middle of a negotiation, "get into the habit of asking more questions," said Malhotra. "Get into the habit of asking 'why' and figuring out what is actually driving their demands."

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