To negotiate or let it go?

My posts have consistently highlighted our many everyday opportunities to negotiate—the fact that negotiations surround us, and that negotiating makes life negotiable. But if you buy that advice, which I believe and hope you do, then you should immediately spot a challenge. Most of us have many ways to spend our time—too many, in fact, for the 24 hours in each day. So, if we ever hope to sleep, we need to identify the situations that would most benefit from a negotiation—and the situations to just let go.

When to negotiate? It’s a tough question with many possible answers—see, for example, my earlier post on gratitude. And it’s especially tough for a negotiation professor, whose natural inclination is to say “whenever possible.” But that’s not realistic when you’ve got a lot of potential negotiations on your hands—when you’re buying and selling a house, for example, as I am now. The costs and complexities of: electrical repairs, roofing upgrades, plumbing repairs, termite inspections, radon mitigation systems, flooring updates, chimney service, painting service, cleaning service, closing costs. These are a small smattering of the many potential negotiation opportunities I’ve spotted in the last week.

Realistically, when we’re all this busy, we all have to choose. And ultimately, we’ll all have to use our best judgment. But here three guidelines I’ve found myself using, in hopes that they aid your judgment too. You might want to negotiate if:

  • The likely benefit of negotiating outweighs the likely time cost. Practically-speaking, this means that big-ticket items are more likely candidates for negotiation than mundane items. Of course, that conclusion depends on the value of your time. Whatever that value, you probably shouldn’t negotiate if there’s no hope of at least recouping it.
  • Negotiating would send a neutral or even positive signal. Sometimes, negotiations are expected: title companies are well-acquainted with buyers and sellers shopping around, for example. Other times, negotiations are admired: many employers are impressed by desired candidate taking their needs seriously. So, you should probably negotiate if it’s part of the “game.” If not–if negotiating would send an adverse signal–you should probably refer to the criteria above and below, making the decision on that basis.
  • You’ve come close to your goal. If you set a stretch goal and achieved an outcome that satisfies it, you might as well savor your success and plan your next negotiation. If you didn’t set or achieve a stretch goal–and especially if you achieved an outcome equal to or worse than your bottom line–it’s probably well-worth your time to try and right the ship.

If these rules seem a little too simple for the complexities of real life, that’s because they are. Deciding when to negotiate requires judgment, wisdom, and maturity in addition to simple rules-of-thumb. But hopefully they at least help you to wade through the murkiness of real life, as they have with the murkiness in mine!

Screw-ups as discounts

Products that perform poorly. Services that fall short. For most of us, these are nothing more than tremendous frustrations. Fewer of us realize that they also represent tremendous opportunities—opportunities to make life negotiable by requesting a discount!

Some people don’t know that companies offer discounts to dissatisfied customers. Others know but are too afraid to ask. So let me be the one to emphasize that underperforming products and underwhelming services represent opportunity knocking! And anyone who doesn’t heed its sound may be throwing money away. So, the next time you find yourself with a dud, I’d advise you to ask the provider for recompense. “How can we make this right?” you might say. Or, “In recognition of XYZ, may I request some money back?” Off the top of my head, this approach has helped to rectify a mortgage mistake, a smoking lawnmower, an underwhelming chimney service, an inappropriate medical procedure, and creaky sofa. Pretty cool, huh?

And pretty simple, so why are so many people so afraid to do it?

Probably because they fixate on the fact that people who ask for discounts don’t always receive them. But they forget the fact that people who don’t ask for discounts almost never receive them. And they never consider three critical facts:

  • You deserve it. You paid for a particular bundle of products of services that you did not receive. So something is due back for the crummier bundle you did.
  • It’s better for them. If they’re a small company or sole proprietorship, they will probably feel better about the combination of discount plus positive word-of-mouth than no discount and a verbal thrashing. If they’re a large company, they’ll at least appreciate your reduced propensity to ding them on social media.
  • You need it. If you just paid for something big that will eventually need repairs or replacement, you really need some money back now to afford it in the future.

So the next time a purchase falls flat, I would advise you to set aside your frustration and at least consider the possibility that it represents a golden opportunity. Of course, this advice comes with some serious and crucial caveats: People who get greedy, go out looking for things to fail, or say something failed when it didn’t are acting unethically, not following the advice offered here. And yet, when things do fail, as they sometimes (often) do, we need to know how to respond. I hope I’ve offered one response that can turn this storm cloud into a sunny day.

Have you ever negotiated a discount after a product or service failed?

James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and offers in negotiation

Last week, many of us watched as FBI director James Comey detailed the FBI’s investigation into Hilary Clinton’s email practices, then recommended against criminal charges. Many of us continued to watch as he was criticized from both sides of the aisle—in an unusually intense grilling by the House, for example. Although such a politically-fraught statement was sure to make one side angry, this statement seemed to make everyone angry—the left for its critique of Clinton’s behavior and the right for its recommendation not to charge.

Why would that be? Well, I’m not the FBI director, and I do understand why the person who is felt compelled to give an especially detailed statement. But I am a negotiation professor. As such, I believe that three negotiation principles can help to explain the universal sigh following Comey’s statement. They all originate in the idea that his explanation resembles a negotiator’s attempt to engage in persuasion, and his recommendation about criminal charges resembles a first offer (albeit one that everyone had to accept). If you buy that analogy, then negotiation research would suggest three problems with this approach:

  1. The arguments didn’t clearly support the conclusion: Perhaps the most basic principle of persuasion and offers in negotiation is that that the persuasion has to logically support the offer. The most consistent criticism of Comey’s statement was that the explanation implied that charges were coming. But then they didn’t. This created an uncomfortable inconsistency between the two—a “gap,” as Democratic Representative Elijiah Cummings put it.
  2. It was easy to generate counterarguments. Negotiation research has suggested that attempts to couple persuasion and offers backfire when the person who receives them can easily generate counterarguments. In that case, the research suggests that an offer without much persuasion may work better. I think it’s fair to say that Republicans didn’t have a hard time generating counterarguments, meaning that the simple, traditional, “here’s our recommendation” approach may have worked proven more compelling.
  3. The persuasion preceded the offer: Some intriguing and emerging research by negotiation scholars Nazli Bhatia and Robin Pinkley suggests that an offer followed by persuasion has a stronger influence on the listener than persuasion followed by an offer. The reason? The former approach leads the listener to start justifying the offer in their own minds. Unfortunately, Comey’s statement followed the latter pattern, the bulk of the presentation focusing on persuasion and the “offer” coming only at the end.

Again, who am I to second-guess the FBI director? No one, but I do believe that these three negotiation principles may help to explain the reaction he received. The lesson for the rest of us? If we’re going to make an offer and persuade someone to accept it, we’d better make sure to do it in that order, with the persuasion supporting the offer, and only when we’re confident that obvious counterarguments won’t pop to mind.

Negotiating with seatmates: Making flights negotiable

I recently experienced the joy of a 13-hour flight without a functioning video system (thanks “Reunited Airlines“!). On the plus side, those 13 hours afforded ample time to reflect on making life negotiable. What I realized was that flights themselves offer untold opportunities for improving our lot through some simple negotiation strategies, many of which I’ve already discussed on this blog.

So while the memories of those 13 hours are fresh in my brain (not to mention other body parts), I thought I’d jot down a few of the many opportunities for in-flight negotiations with our fellow passengers. You might consider negotiating if your flying compatriots are…

  • Taking up too much space / using your armrest / spreading their newspaper: Perhaps the most common offense, our fellow passengers often seem blissfully unaware that they haven’t purchased two seats, one being yours. Here, I’d advise making the first offer by occupying all of your own space before they sit down—and I do mean all of it. Then don’t let that arm leave the armrest! And if their newspaper strays into your space, well then, it may be time for a thoroughgoing yawn and stretch of the arms.
  • Blowing the air on you: Why do they do that? Can’t they see your eyebrows flapping in the breeze? Here, I find that simply asking them if you can move the blower a bit may help, as they probably don’t have any awareness of your impending frostbite. And if they’re really that hot, well then, they’d probably appreciate a more direct encounter with the gale-force winds.
  • Kicking / bumping your seat: This one’s tricky, as it often involves people of an age group that is physically incapable of regulating their leg movements. All too often, though, it involves people old enough to control their appendages with precision. With adults at least, I find that sharing information about your frustration by casting a brief (albeit intense) glance backwards is enough to curtail the kicking. If not, then your counteroffer could involve a sudden seat recline.
  • Moving your bag / cramming something on top of it: It’s amazing – once that bag goes into the overhead bin, others seem to totally forget that somebody actually owns it. Who among the flying public has not seen someone else crushing their bag in a futile attempt to cram their enormous treasure chest into the bin? And how did they get that thing onboard anyway? Frustrating as this behavior might be, I find that it most often results from a fear of having to check the treasure chest, not a malign attempt to destroy your Samsonite. Thus, it’s more of an integrative negotiation than a distributive negotiation: you both want to find a suitable place for the treasure chest. Accordingly, I often offer to help the person with the treasure chest, even while preventing it from puncturing my 3-oz toothpaste.
  • Blocking you from using the bathroom: It’s the moment that every flier fears. A large cup of coffee, a window seat, turbulence requiring a sustained seatbelt, and a sleeping set of seatmates. If you get to that point, it’s too late. You better hold it or jump over them. The solution to this one starts way before the need to go—at the very beginning of the flight. While I’m the last person to seek out an extended, transformative conversation with my seatmates, it is helpful to schmooze at least a little upon boarding, if only by smiling or saying hello. This early overture toward trust will pave your path to the bathroom later.

These examples are mostly for fun, but they do point out how often we can (and probably should) negotiate our way through the most common situations. Here’s hoping they start you thinking about all of your own opportunities to negotiate (or at least make your next flight a bit more negotiable).

Have you ever negotiated on a plane?

Learning to love deadlines

Oh, deadlines…even the word stresses us out. Whether it’s the last minute to submit the meeting minutes or the last day to sign up for daycare, the prospect of an approaching cliff challenges even the calmest to remain calm.

Yet, wisely imposed deadlines can make life substantially more negotiable. To illustrate, consider three big benefits of deadlines in negotiations:

  1. Deadlines focus the mind: The deadline effect indicates that deadlines, not timelines, indicate when negotiators get serious. In other words, whether you’re negotiating for two hours or two days, the most productive part of the negotiation may well happen in the last two minutes. That’s because deadlines focus the mind, raising the costs of delay for both sides and leading both sides to say what they probably should’ve been saying the whole time. The bottom line? If your negotiation has a deadline—if you’ve both booked flights at 2 on Tuesday, for example—savor the deadline rather than sweating it. And definitely don’t change your flight! Your collective deadline is likely to make everyone’s life more efficient.
  2. Deadlines are contagious: Another important feature of the deadline effect is that one party’s deadline becomes both parties’ deadline. If you’re really going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight, losing your ability to negotiate any further—and if the other side knows that—well, then the other side effectively turns into a pumpkin at midnight too. Since they can’t accomplish anything without you, they really have no choice but to finish by the time you say. The bottom line? If you really have a deadline, make really sure your counterpart knows it.
  3. Deadlines are tactics: Sometimes negotiations are going approximately nowhere. Both sides’ intransigence is generating universal frustration. In that case, you might consider imposing a deadline yourself. Knowing that deadlines contagiously focus the mind (and that you could probably fudge your own deadline if you had to), an imposed deadline will probably generate the stress necessary to get your counterpart talking, if not yourself. Of course, use this tool with extreme caution, as you lose credibility if your deadline passes and you keep on negotiating. And you lose the whole deal if your deadline proves a bit too aggressive.

And so it is that one of the most feared words in the English language—deadline—has a rather positive connotation in negotiation. Bottom line: Don’t shy away from the deadline, but embrace it and impose it as required.

Have you ever imposed a deadline to move a process forward?