Don’t ask why! Negotiate with someone else.

Those of us who work in organizations—by which, I mean most of us—at least occasionally get responses we don’t like. That expense is not reimbursable; that laptop is not available; that TPS report is not acceptable without its cover sheet. It’s a fact: our organizations’ policies don’t always agree with our priorities. Although we probably can’t hope to rewrite the policies, there’s at least one thing we can do to make our post-response lives more negotiable: don’t negotiate with other people who can’t change the policies either.

It sounds simple—and it is. If the expected outcome of a negotiation with the person who delivered the annoying news is the same as the annoying news itself, why waste the time discussing it? Worse yet, if the expected outcome is the same annoying news plus an annoyed person on the other end, why risk the additional and spreading annoyance? And yet, nearly everyone’s temptation in the wake of some unpleasant news is to negotiate with the person who delivered it:

  • Dear finance department, WHY isn’t that expense reimbursable?
  • Dear IT department, WHY isn’t that laptop available?
  • Dear TPS department, WHY is that cover sheet so essential?

This response is understandable in light of the seeming silliness of certain organizational policies. And it’s consistent with my previous advice to ask why. But it’s still not the best response for an embarrassingly obvious reason: the person who delivers such news is usually not the same person who created the policy or has any ability to amend it. So initiating an immediate negotiation is not only fruitless; it’s also likely to prompt irritation that turns the messenger against you the next time a similar policy needs enforcement.

Making life negotiable, then, requires a polite thank you, followed by a careful assessment of the relevant organizational policy and the person or group who created it. Perhaps this assessment, combined with the passage of time, will reveal that a delayed negotiation is just as fruitless an immediate negotiation. Is the TPS report worth the CEO’s time? Or maybe it will reveal that a negotiation would actually help. But with the benefit of some contemplation, you’ll now negotiate with a deep understanding of the policy and a real decision-maker across the table.

Have you ever negotiated with the bearer of bad news, only to realize you should’ve been negotiating with someone else?


Getting the most out of your contractor

With the advent of the do-it-yourself revolution in home improvement, we are all tempted to look it up on the internet and then, well, do it ourselves. Tiling, painting, plumbing—internet as guide, house as palette. And when we can’t—when the task is too complicated or the time is too short—the temptation is to once again look it up, then pay somebody to do exactly what we would’ve done if we could’ve done it. Right?

Right, but wrong approach. Useful as the look-it-up-and-shoot approach may be for DIY, it’s usually not the best way to engage with a contractor. So if you need to hire such a person anytime soon, here’s a tip that can immediately make life more negotiable: tell them what you’re trying to accomplish, not what you want them to do.

The difference is subtle but significant. And it’s well-established in negotiation research, which consistently advises negotiators to focus on interests rather than positions. In negotiations, that means telling your counterpart your underlying needs and motivations as opposed to your overt demands and offers. In working with a contractor, it means telling them your overall objectives rather than the exact piece of equipment (down to SKU and aisle number at Lowes) that you’d like them to install (bin number available on request).

A quick real-life story that might clarify: we once wanted to redo some wood floors that looked as if they hadn’t been redone since the advent of wood itself. After obtaining multiple bids, as advised, we settled on a contractor who offered high quality for a reasonable price and also came highly recommended. Rather than telling him exactly what stain we wanted and exactly which rooms to stain, we told him what we wanted to accomplish: to lend the house a light, airy feel; to do everything in a cost-effective manner; and to avoid doing anything that would ultimately interfere or look bad with an eventual kitchen renovation. Telling him what we wanted highlighted several possibilities we hadn’t envisioned or found in aisle 27 (bin 6) at Lowes: not staining the floors at all but letting the natural wood shine through and not yet redoing the floors in the kitchen, seeing as they might get damaged by the renovation or at least might clash with the cabinets. Brilliant! The solution looked great, saved a bunch of money, and paved the way for a beautiful kitchen renovation, complete with future flooring update.

With the benefit of a story, it’s easy to see the benefits of telling a contractor what you want to accomplish rather than exactly what you want. In general, here they are:

  1. You might find a cheaper solution. For example: not staining the floors.
  2. You might find a solution that better fits your needs. For example: not redoing the floors in the kitchen.
  3. You might discover you have a different problem. If you tell a contractor to install something from aisle 27, they probably will. If you tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and ask them how to get there, you have a fighting chance of leveraging their expertise. Hearing you put your trust in their expertise, they’ll probably put said expertise to work and give you their opinion as to whether you’ve accurately diagnosed the problem. If not, then wouldn’t it be great to solve the real problem?
  4. You might find that you don’t really have a problem. Again, contractors usually do what you tell them when you pay them to. But if you tell them the perceived problem and what you’re hoping to do about, they just might point you down a much easier path—at least if they’re honest. And if they’re not, well then you can always go with someone else or go back to aisle 27. Which leads to the next point…
  5. You might discover how competent or honest your contractor is. Again, you’re advised to get multiple bids. If you do that and tell each person exactly what to do, each will probably give you a price for doing just that. If you tell multiple people what you’re trying to accomplish, however, their responses will—if nothing else—tell you something about their level of knowledge. Or, if someone suggests something way out of left field (not that this has happened to me several times recently), you might even learn about their honesty.

So, the next time you have a problem with your home, I’d advise you to resist the siren’s call of Instead, figure out what you’re really trying to accomplish and tell your multiple potential contractors your overall objectives. Wonderful and reliable as always is, leaving room for your contractor’s judgment can leave you much better off.

Have you ever told a contractor your overall objectives and been surprised by their response?

Southwest seat selection: The art of choosing the right partner

I recently offered some tips on dealing with annoying airline seatmates—the ones taking up your space or blowing the frigid air on you, for example. The underlying assumption was that you can’t choose your seatmates, and for most airlines (e.g., Reunited), that’s all-too-true.

Yet, a couple of recent flights on Southwest have reminded me that you sometimes CAN choose your seatmates. And that reminded me of a critical and more general point: you can often choose your negotiation partners—the company that fixes your faucets, the person who buys your car, the coworker you approach for help.

So in this post, I thought I’d offer some tips for choosing the best negotiation partners, drawing from the Southwest seat selection process (i.e., line up by number, board plane, choose seat) for inspiration. Ultimately, I think you’ll agree that paying particular attention to partner selection—on Southwest and in general—can make life more negotiable.

When selecting a seatmate or another negotiation partner, I would generally advise you to:

  • Choose someone who seems more rational than emotional. If you’ve ever flown Southwest, then you’ve walked on the plane, seen a bawling baby, and kept on walking. I know you have; we all have. Nothing against babies (I wouldn’t throw one out of a political rally), but it makes sense to choose negotiation partners who could at least potentially see the light of reason.
  • Choose someone complementary. If you anticipate an inability to stow your unwieldy behemoth of a bag, it makes sense to sit near a strapping young lad. If you plan on working, it makes sense to sit next to someone snoozing before the seatbelt sign goes on. As I’ve pointed out before, differences make deals possible. It makes sense to look for someone whose talents and needs complement your own.
  • Choose someone with whom you already agree. Alternatively, you could choose a partner with whom you’re already in complete agreement. Experienced Southwest fliers know that the businesspeople all buy priority boarding and sort themselves into the front of the plane, whereas the families with babies never do and sort themselves into the back. There’s no rule dictating such self-sorting, nor would I advocate forcing the babies backwards (again). But experienced fliers (and negotiators) know the wisdom of choosing partners with whom they already share a basic worldview.
  • Attract the partners you want. On one of my recent flights, the flight attendant jokingly encouraged passengers in the window and aisle seats to recruit the right type of person for the middle seats. She might’ve been joking, but it was funny because the joke contained a kernel of truth. Southwest fliers know that they can recruit a talker if they smile and chat with the people in the aisle. And they can recruit a quiet worker if they bury themselves in their Blackberry with furrowed brows. Partner selection’s not just about selecting someone; it’s about having the right person select YOU. So I’d encourage you to pay attention to the signals you’re sending and which partners they might be recruiting or driving away.
  • Have an alternative. The seat selection process generally works well, with mechanisms like these placing agreeable people together. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you get a talker if you wanted a worker, a baby if you wanted a sleeper. You can’t always choose the people who surround you; such is the uncertainly of Southwest, of negotiation, and of life. In that case, all you can do is have an alternative, i.e., a BATNA. Being a worker myself, mine is a pair of brightly colored earplugs. (Honestly, though, I love babies.)

What’s the point of all this? The point is that negotiations don’t start when you sit down at the bargaining table. They start well beforehand, when you’re choosing which table to approach. Hopefully these tips offer some guidance for your next negotiation, or at least your next flight.

How do you select a seat on Southwest?

Contagious conflicts: The case of the brawling boaters

My home state of Maryland is famous for all things water: crabs, the Bay, the Naval Academy, devastating floods, and now this viral video. In case you don’t care to watch, let me summarize in a sentence: a bunch of…less sophisticated folk…are boating on the Choptank River, and two of them get in a massive and unrestrained brawl, which sends the boat flying and threatens the safety of their fellow passengers and many nearby sailors.

This amazing video illustrates an important feature of conflict, an awareness of which can make life negotiable: blind spots. In general, blind spots are important factors or consequences that we overlook when making decisions. In negotiations and other conflict situations, blind spots are common. In the case of the brawling boaters, the obvious blind spot was this: an insufficient appreciation for the impact of their conflict on the many people around them. With the possible assistance of their friend James Beam, they showed no apparent concern for the many innocent people imperiled by their uninhibited violence.

While these brawlers may seem very little like ourselves—and let’s hope that they are—I’m sorry to say that this particular blind spot probably afflicts us all. Even if we don’t brawl on the Choptank, most of us are insufficiently cognizant of the ways our conflicts afflict others. When we fight with our coworkers, we often overlook the effects on our families. When we fight with our families, we often overlook the effects on our coworkers. And understanding this particular blind spot after the fact is not enough if we can’t process it in the heat of the moment.

So here’s the point: conflicts are almost never confined to the people at the table. At a minimum, our conflicts afflict other people through our sour demeanors. Quite possibly, those sour demeanors help to fuel further conflicts with the people afflicted. While blind spots are inherently hard to spot (hence the name), an awareness of this particular blind spot is a good place to start. Knowing that our conflicts afflict others might at least motivate us to define all of the relevant “others” in our own lives. Having consciously defined who we care about, we’re in a better position to erect a Chinese wall between our conflicts with one group and our interactions with another.

As usual, not rocket science, but hopefully food for thought—especially if you happen to find yourself on the Choptank with an angry and intoxicated fellow.