Friday night fights: Choosing negotiation instead of persuasion

Where to go? What to do? Where to eat? At least once a weekend, most of us discuss at least one of these questions with someone else—a friend, a significant other, a spouse.

But what happens when we disagree? It’s difficult, but negotiable.

To make it negotiable, however, is to understand the difference between negotiation and persuasion. Specifically, it’s to treat differences of opinion as opportunities to negotiate, not invitations to persuade. This post will discuss why and how to do that.

To make this real, imagine it’s Friday night. You’re dead-set on visiting your favorite gastropub, but your significant other is just as dead-set on visiting her favorite Italian restaurant. Seeing a stalemate in the cards, what will you say next?

If you’re like most people, you’ll start to extoll the gastropub’s virtues (the beer selection! the TVs! the burgers!). If that doesn’t work, you’ll probably start to subtly trash the Italian restaurant (the grumpy waiters! the tiny bathroom! the runny sauce!). In short, if you’re like most people, you’ll start to persuade. But wait, “most other people” probably includes your significant other, right? What’s she likely to do? Seeing you start to persuade, chances are that she’ll do that too. Where’s this likely to lead? Another Friday night eating stale Trader Joe’s burritos in front of Dateline NBC.

But imagine for a moment that you instead saw the situation as a chance to negotiate. What would you say then? Well, you wouldn’t just drop your taste for the gastropub, developing a sudden interest in spaghetti. To clear up a basic misconception, negotiation does not mean surrender. No – what you’d do is share your fundamental reason for wanting to visit the gastropub, which often has surprisingly little to do with the arguments you would’ve used to persuade. Perhaps the real reason underlying your gastropub preference, for example, is its proximity to your house—you’ve had a rough week and want to walk somewhere close, not drive to the Italian place three suburbs away. Next, after sharing your fundamental reason, you’d ask hers: why do you want to go to that Italian place? “Because I want somewhere quiet so we can talk,” she might say, “and we always have to shout at that gastropub.”

Well now you’ve opened up a world of possibilities. You want somewhere close, and she wants somewhere quiet. There are about five quiet restaurants within walking distance. Just by negotiating rather than persuading, you’ve avoided a nasty dispute and all of its ramifications for your Friday night.

The critical point is that negotiation is not the same thing as persuasion. Negotiation may involve some element of persuasion—you may still have to persuade your significant other than one of the five restaurants is better than another. But negotiation is much broader than persuasion, and it starts much differently—with both parties sharing their fundamental reasons.

Have you ever selected a restaurant this way?

 

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Three traps to avoid in every home repair negotiation

We’ve all been there: We’ve seen something BIG—and I mean BIG—start to break in the house. A roof, a furnace, a major piece of plumbing: the feeling of dread is the same. So is the need to get several bids, lest you expose yourself to outrageous bids from unscrupulous repairmen.

But what to do with the multiple bids as they arrive? It’s not obvious, but it’s negotiable. This post will discuss three traps to avoid when soliciting multiple bids for a major repair. Since you should really entertain multiple offers in any negotiation, though, these traps are truly universal.

So imagine the dreaded day has arrived: your ailing roof now needs replacement. You’ve set a budget ($30,000 or less), solicited three bids, and just begun to receive them (gulp). Here are three traps to avoid as the bids roll in, each grounded in a particular psychological state and each likely to produce a particular type of poor agreement:

  1. Satisficing: Grounded in laziness, satisficing involves accepting the first offer that satisfies your minimum requirements. Supposing that the initial bid was $31,000 and the next was $28,000, satisficing would involve accepting the second bid before waiting for the third or continuing the discussion with the first two companies. Why would anyone do that? Because it’s easy (and easy to justify). Instead, wait for all three bids, then continue the discussion with the best two (at least), in order to see which can fulfill your fundamental interests best. Note that those interests might have nothing to do with price (e.g., the timeline for the work).
  2. Hubris: Grounded in anger, hubris involves walking away from a negotiation even though it serves your interests better than the alternatives. Suppose that the third bid came in at $27,000, which made you so angry at the initial $31,000 bid that you tore up their offer and shot off an email chastising their greediness. But oops! Reading the fine print on the remaining two offers, you now see that both are offering to complete the work in six weeks. You seem to recall that the first bid promised immediate repairs, which sounds a lot better in light of the impending rainstorm. So hubris involves rejecting a better offer. Why would anyone do that? Because it feels good to voice our irritation. Instead, try to retain and compare all offers against your fundamental interests (e.g., preventing the drowning of your daughter’s stuffed animals), staying at the table with the parties that meet them best—even if certain aspects of their offer, well, make you displeased.
  3. Agreement Bias: Grounded in fear, agreement bias is pretty much the opposite of hubris. It involves staying in a negotiation and actually reaching an agreement that serves your interests less well than the alternatives. Having ripped up the first bid, imagine you’re now negotiating with the second company ($28,000 bid). You’ve since learned that their offer is essentially identical to the third, except for the additional $1,000, which they refuse to remove. But there is the salesman from the second company—sitting across the table, smiling sweetly, and pushing the contract in your direction. Agreement bias involves signing it even though you know the third offer is better. Why would anyone do that? Because it feels uncomfortable to say no to somebody’s face—many of us are actually afraid of it. Instead, and again, try to stay focused on your interests, one of which must be saving $1,000. If that’s too hard, now would be a good time to try ratification.

Bottom line: When comparing multiple bids, it’s all about staying focused on what you really want and need. That sounds unbelievably obvious, but decades of research show people falling into these traps, then struggling to climb out solvent and satisfied.

Have you or someone you know ever fallen for one of the traps?

My toddler STILL won’t eat their dinner! Timing your first offer

One of my first posts tackled one of the most intractable problems: convincing a toddler to eat dinner. In brief, it suggested making the first offer: approaching the toddler before dinner and offering a cookie if they eventually eat their meal. Not waiting for the meltdown and offering several cookies out of desperation.

As I said there and will reiterate here: getting a toddler to eat is not easy, but it’s negotiable! To make it negotiable, though, is to understand an important distinction in the advice originally provided: making the first offer does not mean making an offer first thing. It just means making an offer before your wily counterpart (in this case your toddler) does. As I said in the first post: “it’s generally a good idea to make the first offer—that is, to make an offer before the other side does.”

This distinction is subtle enough that it merits its own post. To see why, imagine that you implemented the initial advice by offering the toddler a cookie before they even approached the table. Specifically, you said: “Little Billy dearest, if you sit down at the table right now, finish your entire plate of broccoli, and don’t get up until you’ve done that, you can have one chocolate chip cookie. If you don’t sit down, don’t eat all of your broccoli, or get up from the table before eating all of your broccoli, you don’t get any cookies.” That’s a good first offer: it’s clear, it’s specific, and it preempts any possible protests by Billy dearest.

But it may also be premature. What happens if Billy sits down promptly, starts eating earnestly, but stops eating halfway through the broccoli? “Billy dearest,” you say, “remember what I said: You have to eat that whole plate of broccoli without getting up in order to get your cookie.”

“But mommy / daddy,” Billy protests, “I have to go POTTY!”

Now you’re in a jam. On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of bowel self-awareness you’ve been pining for. On the other, you made it perfectly clear that Billy would not get a cookie if he got up. Let him go potty and you reinforce his bowel self-awareness, but you also undermine your credibility and undercut your offer. If he’s anything like my toddler, he will suddenly find the need to go potty anytime he doesn’t want to eat something—then demand the cookie.

What happened here? You followed my advice and made a very respectable first offer. But you made it before fully understanding Billy’s situation. That is, you made an offer first thing, not just before Billy did. Had you asked Billy, prior to the offer, “Billy, do you have to go potty before dinner?”, chances are this particular jam could’ve been avoided.

So the general point is this: when negotiating with toddlers or anyone else, it’s best to understand everything you can about their situation—and make sure they understand all the critical aspects of your situation—before anyone makes an offer. Then and only then do you want to make a first offer, meaning the first offer that anyone makes in the negotiation. It’s not a risk-free strategy, but in matters of human interaction, those are few and far between.

How you ever made an offer too soon?

My family or yours? Using integrative negotiation to allocate holiday time

With the holidays fast-approaching, many of us face a decision: my family or yours? As anyone who has made this decision can attest, its consequences often stretch far beyond December.

Dividing up family time can be contentious. But it’s negotiable!

For this post, imagine you’re married or in a serious-enough relationship to worry about the division of family time. Imagine, further, that both you and your partner have already insisted that, “It’s my family this year!” Having one family in Chicago and another in San Francisco, having one week of vacation, and having both refused to back down, you’re now on the brink of crisis. Specifically, you can only see three options:

  1. 50/50 time split: You both spend two days in Chicago, two days in San Francisco, and about 3 days flying Reunited Airlines. Obviously a bad option, and not just because you have to deal with Reunited. Two days with each family is not nearly enough: both will feel slighted, and you’re likely to feel unfulfilled if not exhausted.
  2. 50/50 person split: You spend the week with your family in Chicago, and your partner spends the week with his/her family in San Francisco. But that doesn’t sound so great either – who wants to remember 2015 as the year they spent the holidays apart?
  3. 50/50 relationship split: You could actually see this discussion getting so heated that—in combination with other various and sundry disputes over the years—it strains the relationship itself. Though that might facilitate the second option, it’s obviously not preferred.

In short, you’re stuck in a holiday pickle. But why? Because you’ve assumed that the pie is fixed—engaging in what negotiation researchers call distributive or win-lose negotiation. In other words, you’re trying to slice one fixed resource—the week of holiday vacation—rather than entertaining the possibility that you and your partner could discuss multiple resources. The latter would imply that the pie can grow, which researchers call integrative or win-win negotiation.

Integrative negotiation is a HUGE topic that many researchers have studied for many decades, and that I will write about for a long time to come. The current point is not to describe integrative negotiation in all of its glory, as that would be a 1,589,230-word posting. The point is to highlight the difference between distributive and integrative negotiation and mention some of the many solutions to the holiday pickle that become possible when we assume that the pie can grow:

  1. Trade the holidays: We spend Christmas (for example) in San Francisco and Easter (for example) in Chicago. Come to think of it, that sounds better, as only a masochist would try to fly Reunited into O’Hare in December.
  2. Trade this holiday: We spend this Christmas in San Francisco and explicitly agree to spend next Christmas in Chicago. In other words, we recognize that this is a repeated decision, bringing time into the equation to develop a schedule. Come to think of it, that sounds better, as your brother will probably be able to make it next year.
  3. Introduce a new issue: Suppose that you love extreme downhill skiing but rarely get to do it, tethered as you are to the rolling hills of the East Coast. The sounds utterly irrelevant to the holiday pickle until your partner suggests five days in San Francisco and two in the Sierras. Come to think of it, that sounds awesome.

These are not earth-shaking ideas, nor do they come close to exhausting the possibilities. The point is only to emphasize the power of integrative negotiations. By assuming that there are many possible resources to discuss—multiple holidays, multiple iterations of this holiday, an extreme skiing trip—the holiday season looks a lot rosier.

How have you resolved your own holiday pickles?