Giving gifts as an analogy for mastering negotiations

The holiday season seems like an appropriate time to tackle the topic of gift-giving. A little reflection suggests that there are two types of gift-givers:

  1. “Recipient-focused” gift-givers think about what their recipients really like and try to give them that, even if they themselves find it boring. For example: the guy who gives his girlfriend a spa trip even though there is no place on planet earth that he would rather avoid more.
  2. “Self-focused” gift-givers think about what they themselves really like and make that their present, under the assumption that the recipient will like it too. For example: the guy who gives his girlfriend some NASCAR tickets on the assumption she couldn’t possibly find the race anything less than exhilarating.

Which approach is better?

Well, the first is probably more thoughtful, in that it actively takes the recipient’s preferences into account. But it’s also a lot harder, in that the gift-giver has to truly understand those preferences and might just get them wrong. In contrast, the second approach is easy, requiring only that the gift-giver understand themself. Still, it’s always possible that this someone else will be less than enthralled with the wave of the checkered flag. On balance, I’d say the first is the safer route to holiday happiness.

And to negotiation prowess. Beyond their holiday relevance, I raise these examples because they offer a useful analogy for negotiations.

Negotiators, like gift-givers, can seek to understand their counterparts’ preferences, making no assumption that those preferences resemble their own. “The most important thing for me is a low price on this sofa,” a negotiator might think, “But let me try to understand the salesperson’s priorities on their own terms.” Or they can start from their own preferences, assuming that their counterparts definitely see the world the same way. “Low price is the key for me, so high price must be the key for the salesperson.”

As in the case of gift-giving, the first approach is harder: the conversation with the salesperson is going to be a lot longer and more complicated than a simple exchange of prices. But it’s also much more likely to produce an ideal outcome. Why? Because differences and diversity abound in this world, so our negotiation counterparts often value things that we consider relatively unimportant if not trivial—and vice-versa. Yes, the salesperson would probably prefer a high price, but isn’t at least conceivable that she might be more concerned about your willingness to buy an entire living room set (with each piece discounted)? Or your willingness to accept the store’s financing plan? I’d say it’s at least conceivable.

So here’s the point: If we apply the second gift-giving approach to negotiations, assuming our counterparts think about the world the exact same way that we do, we stand to miss out on the major reason for negotiating in the first place: capitalizing on different value systems to make ourselves and our counterparts reasonably happy at the same time.

In sum, when you spot one gift-giving approach or the other this holiday season, please don’t think about negotiations. Please savor the moment. But if your brain needs something to do after said savoring, consider asking yourself which mode of gift-giving describes your own negotiation style—and whether that’s the style you want to carry into 2017.

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