My posts often talk about getting more of what you want. That is by design, as some basic negotiation skills can often help you get more and give more at the same time. Who wouldn’t do that if they could?
Yet, the holidays—and especially their gift-giving traditions—offer an opportunity to make the opposite point: that getting more is not always the goal. Indeed, life’s only negotiable when we can at least sometimes suspend our desire for more and be thankful for the people around us.
But when should we do that? This post will offer five questions that—answered in the affirmative—suggest it’s time to at least momentarily supplant desire with gratitude. Beyond the holidays, they offer some clues about other situations in which negotiation’s not your best option:
- Are they obviously trying to benefit you? It’s true: those 48 Snoopy socks were not atop your Christmas list. But did your sister buy them thinking you’d love them? Or did she just have an expiring Kohl’s coupon? If the former, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
- Is it about the process or the outcome? Gift-giving is one of many life situations when the outcome is less important than the process—or at least should be. As another such situation, I’d venture that few of us throw our toddler a birthday party in hopes of excellent hospice care. If you’re in a situation when everyone’s focus is the activity or human interaction itself, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
- Have you already achieved your primary objective? What’s your primary objective for the holiday season? For many people, it’s to be surrounded by a happy and healthy family. The temptation, having read posts like mine, is to negotiate everything just because. In fact, when you’ve already achieved your most important objectives, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
- Would the costs of initiating a negotiation outweigh the benefits? Go back to the Snoopy socks. True, you could probably get a better present next year by, for example, laughing and demanding an Xbox next time. But would the Xbox outweigh the strained relationship? If not, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
- Are you the only one dissatisfied? Suppose the whole family got the Snoopy socks. Is everyone else trying them on and enjoying the (awkward) moment while you’re brooding over the expected Xbox? If so, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
So the point is this: If you can find an opportunity to get more and give more this holiday season, by all means do it. But if you find that the effort to get more is actually giving you and everyone else less, gratitude is probably the better option.
Last week’s post discussed an important work lesson we can learn from toddlers: the power of why. Briefly, we often learn a lot by asking “why” of those who oppose us.
This week, I’ll discuss another critical work lesson from toddlers: the power of distraction. Briefly, we often have to deal with colleagues who don’t directly oppose us but aren’t exactly on our wavelength either. In these situations, distraction is essential for making life negotiable.
A common toddler scenario (other parents have told me) is the inexplicable and unexpected meltdown. Suzy is happily playing with a toy, asks to take it outside or something else you reject, then responds to your rejection with (Chernobyl x Fukushima). Immediate diffusion of the situation, parents agree, is all but impossible. Your options are to ignore her until her reactor cools or try to cool her reactor by distracting her with something more interesting. “What do you want for dessert tonight, Suzy?”
What does Suzy have to do with work? When you’re trying to convince a work colleague of something, I would argue that distraction is often essential there too. Consider the following five reasons that you might need to distract a colleague:
- Inexplicable and unexpected meltdown: Suzy isn’t the only one. Though hopefully more common among toddlers, meltdowns have been known to make an occasional cameo in the workplace. When you need the support of someone having issues, you need to distract them from their issues before the discussion can even begin.
- Talking about something irrelevant: More often, colleagues are calm but completely off-topic. Now it might be worthwhile asking why they’re off-topic, just in case there’s a method to their madness. But if there isn’t, you need to distract them from their tangent.
- Talking about something unimportant: Quite often, colleagues are somewhat on-topic but focusing a trivial aspect of the issue. If a “why” still doesn’t help, you need to distract them from their trees to refocus them on the forest.
- Just talking: Sometimes colleagues just won’t…eh hem, be quiet. You need to distract them from their monologue just to get a word in.
- Not talking: Sometimes colleagues are day-dreaming or otherwise unusually silent. You need to distract them from their reverie so you can understand their reactions.
It would be nice if you could just ask what them they want for dessert tonight. Sadly, that works better on Suzy than an adult. Instead, I’d suggest trying one or more of these approaches:
- Take a break: If they need to cool their nerves (#1) or vocal cords (#4) – or if they are way off-topic (#2) – develop the sudden need to visit the bathroom. Much like the ratification strategy, a well-executed break followed by a proactive attempt to restart the conversation can often refocus it.
- Synthesize and suggest: If they are somewhat on-topic (#3), summarize their thoughts in a way that explicitly connects them to your thoughts. Even if the connection is shaky, hearing you synthesize signals you’re listening, and hearing your suggestion gives them an easy way to change course. “It sounds like you’re really concerned about sales in Detroit, Steve. I understand that concern, but may I suggest that we think about Detroit in the context of our national sales trends?”
- Open-ended question: If they are just silent (#5), enroll them in the conversation by asking them an open-ended question that necessarily requires more than a one-word answer. Not “Is something bothering you, Steve?” but “What are your thoughts on our national sales trends, Steve?”
These techniques are not rocket-science nor surefire. But I hope they provide a framework for working with coworkers who are meandering in and out of your wavelength. Have you ever felt the need to distract a coworker?
Our organizational colleagues and toddlers often have one thing in common: they seem opposed to whatever we support. Whether they “won’t back that idea” or “won’t eat that macaroni,” their intransigence is one in the same.
By learning to deal with stubborn toddlers, then, we can also learn to deal with stubborn colleagues. In a word, toddlers can help make our work lives negotiable.
Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from toddlers is the power of three words: “why” and “why not”. Now, some toddlers say these words almost as often as they inhale, but that’s not where I’m going. Here’s where I’m going: A common pattern among toddlers (though certainly none that I know) is to eat part of their macaroni, then refuse to eat the rest. A common response from parents is frustration, followed by an escalating battle of wills. A better response from parents are the deceptively simple questions: “why?” or “why not?” A small assortment of the real responses that I would’ve really heard, had I really known such a toddler:
- I’m not hungry
- It’s yucky
- I have to go potty
- I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork
- Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy!
Now, these responses and the questions that precipitated them are critical, as they each pave the way for a different integrative solution that should still involve the macaroni:
- I’m not hungry (Possible solution: Slow down the meal, try again later, or mention the implications of satiation for dessert)
- It’s yucky (Possible solution: Mix in the chunks of cheese that she doesn’t like)
- I have to go potty (Possible solution: Excuse her from the table, then try again)
- I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork (Possible solution: Help and/or teach her to balance it)
- Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy! (Possible solution: Take away the blocks and reiterate the need to focus)
Of course, none of these solutions is surefire, but all of them are better than an escalating battle of wills. But now let’s tie the toddler’s behavior back to the corporate world. Suppose you were proposing an organizational change to your colleagues; here are some corporate analogs of the toddler’s responses, along with some possible solutions from you:
- I’m not hungry = My appetite for change is waning; these changes are coming too fast (Possible solution: Slow down)
- It’s yucky = I just found something I didn’t like in your proposal (Possible solution: Probe that issue deeply)
- I have to go potty = I’m distracted because of other priorities right now (Possible solution: Approach them later)
- I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork = I’m having trouble understanding how this will work (Possible solution: Walk them through the details, perhaps in a separate meeting)
- Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy! = I’m trying to distract or confuse you in hopes that you don’t succeed (Possible solution: Set the meeting agenda and ensure that everyone publicly agrees to it in advance)
Both the analogues and possible solutions are just examples. But I think you can see that the toddler’s behavior is surprisingly reminiscent of your colleagues’ behavior. So the three little words of “why” and “why not” can often prove useful at the boardroom table in addition to the dinner table.
Have you ever asked why (of an intransigent toddler or colleague) and been surprised at the response?