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?

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