Even before the first class in my negotiation courses, I always ask my students to read Getting to Yes. Indisputably the most influential book on negotiations, it breaks down the misconception that negotiations are necessarily combative, presenting four principles to help readers identify win-win solutions instead.
It’s a great book, and that’s why I assign it. But in the first class, I also tell my students that it’s got at least one major problem: its title. Because “getting to yes” implies that the goal of negotiation is reaching agreement. And often it is, but sometimes it’s not. If my students don’t learn to tell the difference, they open themselves up to calamity.
And the same goes for you—and me, and everyone else. Knowing when to get to no—when it’s actually better to walk away from the table instead of reaching a crummy agreement—is essential for making life negotiable. So let’s consider three common situations when you should consider setting your cooperative instincts aside, agreeing to disagree instead:
- When you’ve got a better alternative. If you can buy a car for $20,000 at another dealer, don’t pay $21,000 for the same car at this one. Pretty obvious, right? Yes in theory, no in practice. Although we know we shouldn’t agree to something obviously inferior, many of us still do. We can’t resist the sweet smile of dealer sitting across the current table. Or we’d feel guilty abandoning him after taking so much of his time. Or we convince ourselves that it’s not really worth a thousand dollars to deal with another car dealer, even though it definitely is. All of these issues contribute to the agreement bias: our well-known tendency to agree to inferior deals. Luckily, now that you know about it, you won’t have to do it.
- When the process or outcome would be questionable. Sometimes you’ve got a perfectly good deal cooking, but something about the whole affair just doesn’t smell right. Perhaps the deal is prefaced upon a conveniently omitted fact. Or it would damage a really important relationship. Or it would make you tremendous amounts of money at a vulnerable party’s else’s expense. Although the temptation is to charge ahead, chances are that you’d eventually land in hot water—with your own conscience if no one else. Another good time to walk away.
- When you need more time to decide. Sometimes you’ve got a perfectly good deal cooked up and it seems perfectly ethical, but you’re still not sure you should settle. Why? Because you don’t have a better alternative at the moment but suspect you will soon. Perhaps you found a nice little house and are tempted to make a nice little offer, but you’re secretly afraid that a nicer, bigger house might come on the market if you waited a week. Negotiations are not static occurrences; they take place over time, which means your alternatives can change with time. Although there’s no perfect way to know what the future will bring, few of us having a perfectly clear crystal ball, the suspicion that you might have a better alternative tomorrow is a good reason to get to no today.
These are just three examples, but they highlight an important fact that will make life negotiable: agreements are nice, and reaching them is often a nice goal. But our real goal is achieving outcomes that make us and the people around us happy. When our current negotiation won’t do that, we’re best off walking. In praise of disagreement again!
Have you ever walked away and known you did the right thing?
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I was once negotiating through a job offer. When I started to walk away they all of a sudden were willing to meet my salary requirements and then some. Something about the end of the negotiation, with them panicking and throwing in everything and the kitchen sink made me uneasy so I politely walked away, leaving the door open for the future. About 2 weeks later I wound up getting an offer that was not only a better financial packager, but also had other benefits I would not have received from the original offer. While I was very nervous walking away, if I hadn’t I would not be where I am today. Sometimes you do have to just go with your gut.