Trump’s curious opening offers

As anyone following politics is well-aware, Donald Trump has made a habit of staking out aggressive negotiating positions. Whether it’s insisting that Mexico will foot the entire cost of a wall or suggesting that he might entertain nuclear retaliation against ISIS, Trump seems unafraid of making the first offer, and making it aggressively.

In that sense, he’s following the advice in one of my earlier posts, as aggressive first offers can often make life more negotiable. And I’m sure it’s because he carefully studied that post.

Yet, Trump has also made a habit of coupling his first offers with other, more curious and less comprehensible tactics. In this post, I’d like to highlight what they are, advising you to stay away from them if you’re using the first offer to make life negotiable:

  1. Calling it a tactic. Aggressive anchors work, in part, because they convince the other side you mean business—that you might actually have a plan to strong-arm the Mexicans or nuke the Islamic State. But that’s only when you avoid suggesting you don’t. Shortly after making each of the first offers above, Trump labeled them negotiating tactics, implying that he didn’t really mean what he said. For example, he followed the nuclear comment by saying: “at a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would.” If you’re going to make a first offer, say it like you mean it and don’t call it a tactic. Otherwise, you look weaker than if you hadn’t made the first offer in the first place.
  2. Waffling. Trump has the habit of staking out an aggressive position on one talk show, saying the opposite on the next talk show, then going back to the initial position on the third talk show. For some humorous examples, see this Washington Post article. As I’ve said in a previous post, there’s nothing inherently wrong with changing your mind when the situation demands. But reversing most of the aggressive positions you take when nothing has changed suggests confusion, at best. If you’re going to make a first offer, don’t make the second offer; and if you do, don’t make it the opposite of the first offer.
  3. Overshooting. As I’ve said before, the best first offers are aggressive but realistic; they are not outrageous, as outrageous offers just drive the other side away. So when you offer to simultaneously deport 11 million illegal immigrants, that probably doesn’t convince your potential negotiating partners in Congress you’re serious. It makes them laugh (or cry). If you’re going to make a first offer, try to make one that the other side finds just slightly unacceptable, not completely unbelievable.

I’m not a billionaire, nor on the cusp of becoming president. So, let me be measured in my critique and admit that there may be a method to his maneuvers, insofar as they make him look unpredictable. But if you’re planning to make the first offer, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you adopt his approach. Instead, make a confident, consistent, realistic first offer that the other side will probably take seriously.

Putting on the brakes: Negotiation via procrastination

We’ve all heard Ben Franklin’s advice to never “put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” And many of us probably even try to follow that advice. But is procrastination always bad? Not necessarily in negotiation. Indeed, it’s often flat-out strategic to halt negotiations rather than resolve them right now.

Be it with kids or coworkers, most of us encounter differences of opinion daily. What if we resisted our natural tendency to fight through these differences, and instead just waited? Facing differences of opinion, procrastination can often make life more negotiable.

Why? Consider the following five arguments for procrastination:

  1. They may forget about it: Many disputes can seem earth-shaking in the moment but forgettable soon after. Rather than fight about earth-shaking issues today, why not wait for them to fade away tomorrow? So when your three-year old absolutely insists on applying an assortment of expensive Doc McStuffins Band-Aids to a non-existent cut (not that mine has ever done that), you might suggest we sort it out after dinner, by which point you’re sure she won’t give a rat’s behind about Doc McStuffins.
  2. You may learn more: Many business negotiations get hung up by differing expectations about the future. Will the amazing new leptons we’re selling command the 50% market share we claim (thereby justifying our high price)? Or the 10% market share you claim (thereby requiring a discount)? We could fight through it. But we might as well agree to see how the leptons are doing in six months, then settle our accounts based on what we learn.
  3. Their emotions will cool: The two arguments above emphasize what’s going on in our heads while disputing, but negotiations often involve our hearts too. The basic reason for a dispute may be no particularly good reason at all: elevated emotions. The nice thing about emotions, though, is that they tend to fade with time. You might want to give them some, in hopes that the sands of time will wash away their affect (even if they don’t forget about the issue itself).
  4. Your emotions will cool: It’s easy to blame our irrational counterparts for their uncontrollable emotions, but the truth is that one person’s emotions often spill over into the other person’s emotions. So even if we bring a rational mind to such matters, our own emotions may, we must admit, occasionally flare. In these situations, Thomas Jefferson’s advice is appropriate: “When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” After a few repeats of the Doc McStuffins dispute, you may have to make that 1,000.
  5. You’ll be more likely to discover a creative solution: Negative emotions are not helpful for discovering the innovative, out of the box solutions that would so often solve a dispute. Two angry sisters, for example, are more likely to slice their one orange down the middle than discover that one needs the inside and the other needs the outside of the orange. Even if it does nothing else, the sheer passage of time increases the probability that a creative solution may happily cross someone’s mind.

In sum, I’m not contracting Ben Franklin. But I am suggesting that, in the context of the disputes we face daily, Thomas Jefferson was probably on to something.

Have you ever waited to solve a dispute that could as well solve now?

The power of false dilemmas

Whether we use the term or not, most of us know the concept of false dilemmas. Should we carpet bomb ISIS or take zero action? These are obviously not the only options. Most of us know that—and thus know better than to choose between them, lest the questioner control our thinking.

And yet, there are reasons that people pose false dilemmas, some more ethical than others. So I submit that we should at least consider some situations where it might help to pose them ourselves. Used ethically and appropriately, false dilemmas can help make some of our most difficult personal and professional situations more negotiable.

Which ones? Consider the following three:

  1. When a decision-maker won’t focus. How many decisions don’t get made simply because the decision-maker gets distracted? I’m certainly talking about kids, who can’t be bothered to choose a shirt before building a spaceship out of all the couch cushions. But I’m also talking about executives, who have so many important decisions to make that many don’t get made at all. Sometimes posing a false dilemma—the blue shirt or the red shirt, the quark strategy or the lepton strategy—can simplify the decision just enough to attract their attention.
  2. When a decision-maker will focus but won’t decide. Sometimes the problem is not attention but indecision. The decision-maker is focused but still can’t decide: how to choose among the 342 shirts in the closet? Or the 50 states where we might pilot our leptons? Sometimes a false dilemma can cut through the indecision, convincing them to act instead of worrying about the risks of a failed decision. Having done research indicating that New York or California are the best places to pilot the leptons, for example, you might tell the decision-maker as much and ask for a preference.
  3. When any other options are unacceptable. Sometimes you feel so strongly about a decision that any other options just won’t work. Little Charlie, do you want to go to a private university or a public university after high school? Though the dilemma may seem false to them, set as they are on working at McDonalds, it’s not false at all to you. In that case, posing the choice as a dilemma can help to persuade them.

So false dilemmas can in fact be useful. But the word “false” should immediately call our attention to their ethical implications (even today, the Monday after the spring time change, when many people are so sleepy as to worry less about moral issues). By suggesting that two choices represent the entire decision set, we are inevitably attempting to control their decision. And this is probably the most popular reason for posing false dilemmas: to attain self-interested objectives by curtailing another person’s autonomy. Just my opinion, but that motivation seems ethically suspect.

Indeed, false dilemmas are probably only justifiable when the costs to the decider are trivial (it doesn’t really matter which shirt they wear) or the benefits to the decider are substantial (you know that New York and California are the best pilot sites; you just need to get approval).

An ethically-fraught strategy, then, but one to consider in the face of the difficult dilemmas that surround us—even or especially on “sleepy Monday.”

Is flexibility only for yoga masters?

Does flexibility help or hurt in dealing with others? Last week’s Republican debate featured a vigorous discussion of the issue. Trump sang the praises of flexibility, saying, “I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible and who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility.” Rubio noted the drawbacks, suggesting that Trump was so flexible he should do some yoga moves. Who’s right?

Sorry to say that negotiation research indicates it’s much more complicated than the politicians make it out to be. In particular, research suggests that flexibility is helpful in some circumstances and harmful in others. Thus, although this is not a blog about politics, I thought this might be another appropriate time to wade into the national discussion. So what does research have to say on when to be flexible?

  1. When you’re talking about means rather than ends. You go into a negotiation to achieve specific ends, often called your interests. The tactics you use to achieve those interests are your means. Rubio is right that flip-flopping on your core interests amounts to wimpiness. But Trump is right that flexibility on how you get there—the kinds of means you consider—is often the only way to find any way there at all. The best negotiators are rigid on their interests but flexible on the possible pathways that lead them there.
  2. When you’re talking about a relatively unimportant tissue. In any negotiation, some issues matter a great deal. You just have to find a house with better schools. Other issues are less essential. A fireplace would be nice but you could probably live without it. Rubio is right that flexibility on the critical issues is foolish. But Trump is right that rigidity on the unimportant issues is too. The best negotiators know how to flexibly trade their less important issues in order to stubbornly insist on their most important issues.
  3. When the facts change. Sometimes, the world frustratingly changes its mind in the middle of the negotiation. Your salary bump isn’t quite as big as expected—and as needed to afford that big house. In a stable and unchanging world, Rubio is right that shifting positions is the mark of a wobbly leader. In the changing world we often encounter, however, Trump is right that leaders have to adapt. The best negotiators know how to hold firm in stable times but adapt as instability arises.
  4. When your tastes change. Sometimes the world stays the same, but it’s you that changes your mind. Perhaps you thought you could deal with that split-level floorplan, but you’re now thinking it would make you nauseous each time you open the door. Rubio is right that the leader of the free world shouldn’t let their tastes shift whimsically with the wind. But Trump is right that real people do change their minds. The best negotiators know how to establish firm preferences but change their positions if their preferences happen to meander.
  5. When you realize you’ve made a mistake. Sometimes, you realize you made a big flippin’ error. Your initial decision was just downright wrong. You didn’t look hard enough at the school data; now that you do, you know you can’t buy this house. Rubio was right that the president can’t afford too many judgment errors. But Trump was right that holding firm in the face of an error is foolhardy. (In fact, it’s a documented decision bias called escalation of commitment.) The best negotiators know how to make and stick to the best decisions but also admit their errors and flexibly move on.

I wish that the truth about flexibility was as simple as a soundbite about small hands. But the world doesn’t care what I wish, and we’ve heard more than enough about hand size anyway. So the best leaders can only use their best judgment about the situations they face, trying to determine whether those situations call for enlightened flexibility or firm intransigence.