In praise of disagreement

It wasn’t always this way. Anyone old enough to remember the world before cable news knows that, although we’ve always had our political disagreements, we used to disagree with each other. That is, our politicians and pundits used to vehemently dispute each other’s premises in hopes of knocking down each other’s conclusions. But even a casual follower of politics can see that we don’t really do that anymore. Neither party nor their cable news correlates cares as much about the other side’s conclusions as they do about their own. As a result, they don’t really worry about knocking down or even acknowledging the other side’s premises.

In a word, today’s political environment involves disagreeing past each other more often than disagreeing with each other. To offer an analogy, our political subcultures were once like the Cubs and White Sox grinding out the World Series (this is the year!). They’re now like the Cubs and Bears, grinding out the Series and Super Bowl in parallel—and alone.

In the political domain, these observations are not new. But, in the spirit of making life more negotiable, I do think it’s worth considering what we can learn about our own negotiations from this dynamic.

The two parties in a negotiation are much like the two parties in politics. Their interests often conflict, generating a disagreement they can choose to acknowledge, explore, and unpack. Alternatively, they can choose to justify and reiterate their own interests ad nauseam even while ignoring their counterpart’s interests, disagreeing past each other and effectively denying the existence of a disagreement. In negotiations, if not in politics, I would strongly advise the former approach, as a frank acknowledgment of the disagreement often paves the way for an innovative solution. A refusal to face down the disagreement, in contrast, often paves the way for disaster. Indeed, that approach is not even negotiation, but persuasion.

So why do negotiators so often disagree past each other? The same reason the politicians do: it’s a whole lot easier to ignore the disagreement than tackle it directly. And it’s a surefire way to please a constituency, since the missed opportunity is typically invisible. And it requires a lot less listening, creativity, and maturity—among other critical attributes that few people possess. For negotiators as for politicians, disagreeing past each other is a whole lot simpler. But its simplicity comes at the price of unresolved problems and simmering conflicts.

In short, whether or not our political environment works this way, I would advise all of us as negotiators to try and disagree with each other rather than disagree past each other. Only by doing that can we hope to avoid the fate that so often befalls politicians: promising much and delivering little. In short, I offer this rare ode to disagreement, in hopes that it ultimately paves the way to agreement.

Three responses to a perilous question: What’s your bottom line?

The world is full of people who want to know your “bottom line.” Real estate agents are immensely curious about “your budget.” Car salesmen are sure to ask how much you can afford, in total or each month. That company you hope to work for? They’d love to know your minimum salary requirements.

These are all attempts to ascertain your bottom line, i.e., your reservation price (RP). Though not necessarily malevolent, these are questions that you probably shouldn’t answer, at least not directly. If you do, you’re likely to get an outcome that’s just barely better. So if you admit your minimum salary requirements are $30,000, what’s your probable salary? Somewhere around $30,001.

But suggesting you shouldn’t reveal your RP, as I did in the linked article above, is not the same as saying what you should do. Indeed, I’ve found that having some readymade responses to this omnipresent question can make life substantially more negotiable. So here are three strategies for responding to RP questions, along with some advantages and drawbacks.

  1. Don’t answer: Perhaps the most straightforward way of answering the question is not answering it. Everyone gets a little distracted now and then, and the moments after the RP question might be a great time for you to take an immense interest in the sunroof on this car or the tinted windows on that one. If the questioner takes the bait, this strategy can effectively avoid the issue. And it’s a good “strategy” if no other strategy comes to mind. The downside, of course, is that they’ll likely ask again. And this strategy is unlikely to work twice.
  2. Respond with your target: My favorite strategy is to answer a different question. They asked about your RP, but there’s no law saying you can’t answer about your goal, i.e., your target. So when the real estate agent asks your budget, you can certainly tell them what you’re hoping to achieve. And when they scoff and grumble about how hard that will be, well, that’s great…it means you’ve motivated them. So the upside of this strategy is that it motivates the other side and actually provides them with useful information. But the downside is that the agent may then avoid showing you a few houses that you would actually consider. So if you use this strategy with a real estate agent, combine it with some judicious Trulia searches on your own.
  3. Ask theirs: Experienced negotiators know that it can be morally “squishy” to ask about a counterpart’s RP. But they often ask anyway since so many people answer. So it’s worth considering the most aggressive response to the RP question, which is to ask about theirs. When the car dealer asks what kind of a monthly payment you can afford, for example, you might ask the minimum price for which they’d sell you the car. They probably won’t answer, but they probably will start respecting you and stop asking RP questions. That’s the upside, but the downside is that this strategy can create some momentary hostility that you’ll have to overcome.

There are certainly other approaches, and the right one certainly depends on the context. So you wouldn’t want to aggressively ask a future employer about their own RP, for example. Combined with your own good judgment, though, these strategies can be immensely useful for responding to other people’s immense interest in your RP.

Have you used any of these strategies—or others—to deal with the RP question?

They’re everywhere! Honing your negotiation awareness

The word “negotiation” makes us think of slimy car salesman, long boardroom tables, and aggressive real estate agents. Those are certainly negotiations, but they’re not “negotiation” in total. Indeed, a goal of my blog has been to show how many negotiations surround us: in our difficulties with children, interactions with coworkers, and calls with the cable company, to name a few.

What I haven’t done, though, is describe how to know you’re in a negotiation. In other words, I haven’t officially defined negotiation or provided criteria to distinguish negotiations from non-negotiations. Knowing whether you’re in a negotiation is critical because it provides clues about how to achieve your goals. If you’re in a negotiation, for example, all of the topics in my blog (e.g., these from 2015) should apply. If you’re not, you may want to look elsewhere for guidance. So this post will try to make life negotiable by honing your “negotiation awareness.”

To put it simply: anytime you depend on someone else to achieve your goals, you’re negotiating. To get more specific, consider the following questions. The more you answer with a “yes,” the more likely you’re in a negotiation. Note that these questions are stated in the second-person (“you”), but since they apply to everyone, you might still find yourself in a negotiation if someone else in your life answers them in the affirmative.

  1. Are you dissatisfied with the status quo? Negotiations start with a problem. It could be something simple, like needing a waiter to bring your food. Or something complicated, like needing a new car. Regardless, if you couldn’t be happier and have no desire to bring about a change, you’re probably not negotiating.
  2. Can you tell someone about your dissatisfaction? Negotiations continue when people say something about their problem to someone else—with their voice, their email account, or some other medium. If you have a problem but don’t mention it to anyone else, you’re probably not negotiating (but you may be suffering).
  3. Do your interests differ from theirs? Sometimes people have and mention their problems to someone with the exact same priorities. For example, one team member laments the difficulty of a particular task to another team member who is also struggling with the task. These people are not really negotiating; negotiation requires at least the perception that your interests differ from someone else’s. If you have a problem and mention it to a completely sympathetic listener, you’re probably not negotiating.
  4. Do you have some common ground? By the same token, negotiations only happen when people perceive at least the possibility of a solution that satisfies both. If you’re talking to your sworn enemy, and neither of you sees any possibility of a solution short of all-out warfare, you’re probably not negotiating.
  5. Do you need to know more? If you tell someone with partially-conflicting interests about your problem (fulfilling the previous four criteria), you’re still not necessarily in a negotiation. You’re only likely to negotiate if you need more information from that person. In other words, negotiation involves the resolution of uncertainty. Married couples sometimes tell each other about their problems and have partially-conflicting interests but already know all there is to know about each other. If there’s nothing more to discuss, you’re probably not negotiating.

In sum, the more of the preceding questions you answered with a “yes,” the more likely you are to find yourself negotiating. And if you reflect on those questions for a moment more, you’ll see that an awful lot of everyday situations qualify as negotiations. Consider just one example that we don’t usually consider a negotiation: the slow arrival of your food in a restaurant. If you’re dissatisfied with the situation, say something to your waiter, believe that the delivery of your food is one his concerns but not his only concern, and don’t know exactly how much longer you’ll have to wait—well, it’s a negotiation.

Which of your daily situations fulfill these criteria and qualify ad negotiations?

To tell the truth? Three Republicans, three approaches

Against my better judgment, I’ve now written several posts about the current presidential election. For example, here’s the latest. The references to negotiation are just too good and too frequent to ignore! So why not keep going?

The three remaining candidates for the Republication nomination—Kasich, Cruz, and Trump—embody three distinct ways of dealing with the truth. Since most of us encounter ethical quandaries daily—and since the way we approach them can easily make life more negotiable—we might as well take this opportunity to talk honesty. So, we’ll use the three Republican candidates to explore three distinct ways of dealing with the truth.

Before tackling this treacherous topic, let me just say that I’m not personally labeling anyone a sinner or a saint (nor trying to impose my own moral view). I’m just using the public image of all three candidates—as constructed by popular news outlets and the politicians themselves—to highlight three particular approaches to the truth. So, if you don’t agree with my characterizations, I would have to refer you back to the popular news outlets and political maneuvers from whence they came. And with that, gulp, here goes…

  1. Kasich: John Kasich portrays himself—and is often portrayed as—the morally-upstanding guy in the room. As an example of his ethical image, he recently told Wisconsin voters that the GOP’s promise to repeal Obamacare was “stupid.” Anyone who understands the probability of repealing Obamacare under Obama can diagnose this statement for what it is: the truth. And yet, anyone who understands how primary elections work can diagnose it for what it’s likely to do: irritate Republican voters. Thus, with this statement at least, Kasich embodies the morally “pure” way of dealing with a tradeoff between truth and expediency: simply telling the truth.
  2. Cruz: Ted Cruz doesn’t portray himself this way, but Donald Trump has often called him “Lyin’ Ted.” Though one can never be sure, there are various suggestions that the moniker may have a kernel of truth—a questionable Facebook post about Rubio, the questionable circumstances surrounding scantily-clad photos of Ms. Trump, or the questionable phone call to Iowa voters about Ben Carson. To elaborate on the last, Cruz staffers apparently called Carson supporters to tell them—falsely—that Carson was planning to quit the race. If Cruz was behind for any of these choices—and again, we can never be sure—then he would embody the opposite, anti-Kasich way of dealing with the tradeoff: stretching the truth in service of political expediency.
  3. Trump: Trump embodies the most interesting approach to the truth: taking one side of an issue and then the other side so rapidly and seamlessly that no one knows which one he believes. Thus, no one can definitively say whether he was telling the truth. Supporters can claim that he was and opponents that he wasn’t—everyone’s right! In this way, Trump has found an innovative way of transcending the tradeoff faced by Kasich and Cruz, insisting on neither a disadvantageous truth like Kasich nor a potentially advantageous lie like Cruz. I think it’s fair to say that his dexterity with the truth is one of the many factors contributing to his ongoing appeal.

Do these approaches matter to our own lives, despite our lack of presidential intentions? Well, I’m assuming we don’t often face the specific tradeoff between truth and votes. But we often face the general tradeoff between truth and self-interest, or at least expediency. Each of us must come to our own conclusions about how to handle these situations, but the three Republicans offer three distinct models for dealing with the truth—honesty, deception, or some ways of transcending the tradeoff. Here’s hoping their approaches can help us forge a path through our own moral minefields.