The key to a stress-free Thanksgiving: Celebrating our differences

My last post suggested that we’re often so concerned about (cultural) differences that we fail to negotiate decisively. In a word, it highlighted a hidden cost of an excess focus on diversity. This week, I think it’s appropriate to sing the praises of diversity (of a different kind, for a different reason): It is differences—not similarities—that make deals possible. In a word, diversity of interests makes life negotiable.

I discuss this now because few settings make differences more apparent than the Thanksgiving gathering of far-flung family members. Our normal equilibrium gives way to Cousin Jack (who would love to spend Thanksgiving watching nine hours of football), Aunt Jill (who prefers to spend those same hours cooking, eating, and visiting), and Sister Sally (whose just wants to get a head start on Black Friday). And they all descend at the same time! Rarely do differences become more apparent.

A common reaction—daresay our normal reaction—is to dread such differences before they arise and paper over them or fight over them once they do. “Jack, Thanksgiving is not about TV!”, Jill yells from the kitchen. “Jill, who in their right mind spends nine hours standing around a kitchen?”, Jack retorts. Sound familiar?

But these differences are not the bane they sometimes seem. Indeed, they’re actually one more thing to be thankful for this holiday. To see why, imagine that the parties had no differences whatsoever with respect to their preferred activities. Suppose that everyone wanted to spend all day watching the one TV in the house: Jack the football, Jill the early onset holiday movies, and Sally the home shopping network. Well then, we’d have a REAL problem: we’d have a serious fight about which channel to watch.

Thankfully this Thanksgiving, you don’t have that problem. While Jack veg-es out, Jill can happily cook and Sally happily shop. And if spending your time apart is not your cup of tea, well, you can probably even find an integrative solution: Jill can time her turkey for Jack’s halftime, and Sally’s shops (we hope) won’t be open then. In short, we can all enjoy our preferred Thanksgiving activities, while still finding a way to give thanks together.

The bottom line is this: On Thanksgiving and in any other potentially contentious negotiation, we often wish and hope for our differences to go away. In fact, we should thank our lucky stars that we disagree because it’s only through differences that potential solutions emerge. In short, it’s differences that ultimately make life negotiable. Just one more thing to be thankful for this year.

How do you manage the differing priorities of family members?

Advertisements

Negotiations across cultures: To make or not to make the first offer?

Every day, most of us interact with several people from unfamiliar cultures. In many of our cross-cultural interactions, our inclination is to tread carefully, lest we commit an unwitting cultural faux pas. In a word, many of us act tentatively across cultures.

In general, that’s a good thing, reflecting a genuine desire to avoid offense and the correct intuition that cultures extensively differ. But what about when we negotiate with a cross-cultural counterpart? Should we bargain tentatively too? Our cross-cultural negotiations will be more negotiable if we don’t.

To see why, recall one of my previous posts, which generally advised you to make the first offer in a negotiation if you can. By doing that, I argued, you can direct your counterpart’s attention to your own goals rather than theirs. As a result, they will use the first offer to estimate the value of the commodity being negotiated, and their subsequent offers will look very much like your first offer. Many years of research have supported this so-called “first offer effect,” attributing it to the basic hardwiring of our brains and showing, for example, that the person who moves first does better.

But what about when you negotiate across cultures? Should you still make the first offer or should you follow the inclination to be tentative? It turns out that the previous research on the first offer effect had come almost entirely from Western cultures, so some colleagues and I recently conducted new research to find out. Recognizing that people from different cultures differ in several ways, many of which are relevant to negotiation, we predicted that they wouldn’t differ in the fundamental hardwiring of their brains. From Baltimore to Beijing, we expected the first mover to walk away from negotiations happy.

Almost uniformly, they did. Across two studies, the first offer effect still emerged in a prototypical East Asian culture: Thailand. In addition, the effect emerged in negotiations among individuals representing 32 cultures and all continents except Antarctica. Regardless of culture, then, making the first offer produced advantageous outcomes, and failing to make the first offer produced a problem.

The bottom line? Being tentative is probably a good antidote to cultural offense, but it’s also a recipe for getting hammered in cross-cultural negotiations. Though you may convey your cultural sensitivity, waiting for an offer is also likely to put you in a perilous position.

With that said, here’s an important reminder before applying this advice: making the first offer doesn’t mean making the first offer right away. In fact, in many cultures (especially Latin American and East Asian), it’s vitally important to build a strong relationship before anyone makes an offer. (Future posts will discuss this and other things that actually do differ across cultures). So the point is not to start making offers the second you meet a cross-cultural counterpart. The point is that it’s worth trying to make an offer before they do, whatever their culture.

Have you ever made the first offer in a cross-cultural negotiation? Or felt uncomfortable doing that?

Reactive devaluation and reverse psychology: Or, how to get the house clean

Hurricane Joaquin may have missed the East Coast. But if you have a small kid, then Hurricane [small kid’s name] probably hits often.

Keeping a house clean with a small child around seems impossible. And without the child’s assistance, it probably is. But a thoughtful approach can elicit said assistance and make even this mess negotiable!

When you ask a small child to clean up the egregious mess they just made—say by emptying a toy chest then propelling its contents across three counties—they often say “no.” Now there are many potential reasons for the “no,” along with many potentially appropriate responses. But a common reason is reactive devaluation: automatically discounting what somebody says because of the particular somebody who said it. Small kids, like business negotiators (and teenagers), often automatically disagree with a request just because it came from a perceived “opponent”—in this case, a parent.

Well, at least for small kids, knowledge of the reason paves the way for a potentially appropriate response: reverse psychology. The kid is doing the opposite of what you want because of who you are. You can’t change who you are, but you certainly can say the opposite of what you want, at which point the kid will likely do the opposite of the opposite of what you want—that is, what you want. “Billy,” you could say, “please—whatever you do—DON’T pick up all of those toys. Get yourself dressed, take a nap, wash your face, but DEFINITELY don’t walk around picking up your toys.” Notice how you’re contrasting the toy pickup with three other activities that Billy doesn’t much like but you do, just in case he decides to drop the reactive devaluation.

I’ve seen reverse psychology in action—it works, particularly with feisty / smart / willful kids (not that I know any of those). But it has some clear drawbacks that you should know before making it your go-to. First, it fundamentally involves deception—you want Billy to clean up his toys, and you’re telling him you don’t. Is lying to achieving your personal goals the kind of strategy you want Billy to learn (remembering that he will eventually become a teenager)? Probably not. In addition, on a more practical level, it sends the message that you don’t give a rat’s behind about the cleanliness of the house, which you most certainly do, and which Billy may eventually take to heart. Finally, Billy will eventually figure it out. In other words, you may get a few messes cleaned up through reverse psychology, but Billy will eventually learn your tricks and consequently ignore your requests not to do things. That will surely catch up with you and Billy eventually.

This is all to say that reverse psychology is an effective antidote to small kids’ reactive devaluation. But it’s a strategy to use mindfully and sparingly, in moments of true desperation.

What do you think of reverse psychology – do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Are the best negotiators just like Trump?

Since it’s election season and Donald Trump often pins his qualifications on his negotiation prowess, this post will depart from my normal focus on solving everyday problems. Instead, I’d like to explore the qualities of the very best negotiators, comparing and contrasting them with the Trump persona we all know well.

I hope you’ll forgive the diversion, but I think it’s useful for making life negotiable.

The Donald is a very wealthy man who often attributes his own success to his negotiation skills. Since none of us knows what he does at the bargaining table, he could very well be right. For the very same reason, however, we should all pause before leaping to the conclusion that his public behaviors reflect the features of successful negotiators. Are the best negotiators carbon copies of the public Trump? Well, several decades of negotiation research would use words like the following to describe the very best negotiators; you can judge for yourself whether they also describe the public Trump:

  1. Humble: The best negotiators don’t brag, nor suggest that they know everything. Quite the opposite, they try to deemphasize their past achievements, knowing that braggadocio will only raise their counterpart’s hackles. Indeed, they actively shift the focus away from themselves toward their counterparts, assuming that they absolutely have to learn by listening. Out-hearing rather than out-talking their counterpart, they know, is the key to negotiation triumph.
  2. Enlightened: The best negotiators are concerned about their counterparts’ outcomes in addition to their own. But it’s not an act of charity—it’s the enlightened realization that making their negotiation counterpart better off tends to make them better off too. It’s the fully-rational understanding that a small slice of a big pie is usually bigger than a big slice of a small pie.
  3. Creative: The best negotiators approach problems with an eye to uncovering creative solutions. In particular, they spend most of their time looking for “out-of-the box” ways to help themselves and their counterparts both achieve their goals at the same time. I’m just guessing here, but building a big wall is probably not the first solution to our immigration challenges that they would entertain.
  4. Balanced: The best negotiators know that negotiation is not a byword for aggression. They realize that negotiations sometimes call for competitive behavior but often call for cooperation, and they know how to use both in good time and measure. Ultimately, they gauge their success by the extent to which they created value and built a relationship, not the depths to which they crushed their counterpart.
  5. ProblemFocused: In the words of Getting to Yes, the best negotiators focus on the problem instead of the people. In others words, they never get personal. Disaster, moron, dummy, lightweight, loser. These are not words you’d often hear them using.

Are these the qualities of the public Trump? You can be the judge. I suspect you know my answer, though I hope you also know that I don’t aspire to trash the man or his negotiation skills—with his billions and billions (and my distinct lack thereof), he must be doing something right. My goal is simply to suggest that anyone who aspires to make life negotiable by emulating the public Trump should pause and perhaps consider a few other role models first.