Are the best negotiators bees or sloths?

The rest of the world often seems to be in a great big hurry. Cars zip by. Pedestrians charge past. Commuters race up the escalator. Everyone, it seems, had to finish something yesterday.

Yet, all this urgency masks an important fact about negotiation: Waiting is often the best negotiation strategy available, particularly when we’re in search of a deal. Resisting the urge to be urgent, it seems, can make life negotiable.

We’re often desperate for a deal—a cheaper data plan, a bigger discount on dryers, a better financing plan on cars. Despite our exhaustive search, however, it’s just not available. If our data plan is expired, our dryer is on fire, or our car is suddenly stalled, we obviously have to act. But if our data is still active; our dryer’s just beginning to creak; or our car would make it another 5000 miles, we may have the luxury of time. In those instances, it often pays to wait.

Consider three fairly obvious yet frequently-overlooked benefits of waiting:

  1. A deal might magically appear. Verizon’s or Best Buy’s or AutoNation’s management, in their infinite wisdom, might grace us with an unexpected data discount, dryer clearance, or big tent sale if we only give them time. Or a holiday with no particular relationship to cell phones, dryers, or cars might inspire a special deal. You won’t know unless you wait.
  2. You might develop an alternative. Even if no deal magically materializes on your coveted good or service, there’s always the chance that a deal might appear on an acceptable or even preferable alternative. If Verizon’s not playing ball, maybe Sprint will decide to get generous? You won’t know unless you wait.
  3. You’ll have time to think and research. Even if no deal nor alternative arises, the extra time will afford the time to consult that impressive bodily organ, the brain, or that impressive modern technology, the computer. It’s not rocket science, but often we’re in such a hurry to act (and/or so beholden to the salesman smiling sweetly in our direction) that we miss the benefits of our own logic or the internet—both promising the possibility of overlooked opportunities for savings. A waived upgrade fee on phones? A washer-dryer combo? An unnecessary feature that could be unbundled from the car? You won’t know unless you wait.

Bottom line, the best negotiators often detach themselves from the great mass of humanity and their irresistible tendency to buzz around like so many bees. Instead, they act the sloth, piecing together a deal ever-so slowly and methodically as to almost escape notice.

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“It’s not fair!”

Any guesses as to the most popular phrase in the toddler’s vocabulary? That’s right: “It’s not fair.” While we may be tempted to discount these three words as a manifestation of the toddler’s irrational mind, I’m here to suggest that they can actually teach us something important about disputes. In particular, I’d like to suggest that this phrase represents nearly everyone’s reaction in a dispute situation, and recognizing as much can make our own disputes more negotiable.

Any parent has experienced something like the following:

  • Toddler (7 AM): “I want chocolate!”
  • Parent: “No, not for breakfast.”
  • Toddler: “But it’s not fair!”
  • Parent: “Oh, yes it is.”

This is a classic dispute. The toddler made a claim, namely that chocolate was appropriate at 7 AM. And the parent rejected it, namely by saying no. Both sides found their own positions entirely fair.

While this dispute may seem silly or contrived, consider the following analogue: It’s January, and you wish to take your vacation a bit earlier this year than last. So you ask your boss: “Boss, can I take my vacation in February?” “No,” your boss says, “We’re pretty busy that time of year.” A completely different domain, but a very similar situation. You wanted to do something a little earlier than someone else expected, and they simply said no. Again, both sides probably found their own positions entirely fair.

Anytime one party makes a claim and another party rejects that claim, you have the basic outlines of a dispute. And anytime you have the basic outlines of the dispute, both parties think that their position is fair. The fact that we identify with our own vacation claim more than the toddler’s chocolate claim doesn’t change the basic situation: everyone in a dispute considers their own view the very epitome of fairness.

In this light, toddlers can teach us something important: in the context of a dispute, appeals to fairness are not likely to work. However fair your own claim seems, you can rest assured your counterpart sees things just the opposite. So how convinced will they be by the natural and oft-made argument, issued later and in a professional adult manner of course, that this particular decision is not particularly fair? Not very.

In this respect, I have to lodge a slight amendment to the book Getting to Yes. Despite the book’s many positive qualities, which I have often extolled in this blog, it advises the reader to resolve conflicts by focusing on objective standards. But the toddler’s behavior shows us that objectivity is subjective, at least when a negotiation becomes a dispute. Since everyone finds their own views the epitome of fairness, trying to be objective is unlikely to get you any closer to a resolution.

So what can you do? Well, you can probably turn to another insight from Getting to Yes: Focusing on underlying interests. The toddler wanted chocolate at 7 AM, but why? Perhaps they’re just hungry for something a little sweeter than the normal dose of plain oatmeal, in which case an apple may do? Your boss said no to the February vacation, but why? Are they concerned that you won’t finish the big report, which you’ve actually already drafted?

Bottom line: “It’s not fair” is everyone’s reaction to a dispute, not just the irrational toddler’s. And however professional and adult-like you put it, it’s not going to convince your counterpart. So the next time you find yourself in a dispute, resist the toddler’s temptation to highlight the unfairness of the situation and instead focus on unearthing whichever of your counterpart’s interests led them to reject your claim in the first place. It’s only by transcending the tendencies of a toddler—surprisingly hard for all of us in a dispute—that we can hope to resolve the disputes and achieve the interests in our own lives.

A simple psychological suggestion for acing your next job interview

Interviewing tips are a dime a dozen. “10 steps to a killer interview…” “5 words to avoid in any interview…” As far as I can tell, though, precious few of these tips are based on much scientific evidence.

What does science (psychology in particular) have to say about comporting ourselves in a job interview? Quite a lot, actually, but one of the most important lessons concerns how we present our abilities—namely, whether we wow them with the breadth of our abilities or focus on a thematic few. I’ll leave you in suspense about the bottom line except to say that its adoption can make interviewing more negotiable.

Consider the following scenario. You’re interviewing for a highly senior job at a highly impressive company. You’ve been invited to meet with three separate interviewers (separately), after which the three of them will presumably meet to discuss you and the other candidates.

Now, here’s the question. In your meetings with the three interviewers, should you:

  1. Emphasize the same three abilities to all three people, telling everyone about your impressive analytic, bookkeeping, and communication (A/B/C) skills, for example, or…
  2. Emphasize three separate abilities to each person, telling the first interviewer about your A/B/C skills but the next person about your diligence, extraversion, and flexibility (D/E/F) and the third person about your G/H/I?

It depends on the relevance of these particular skills for the job, of course, but let’s assume abilities A-I are all quite relevant. Which option should you choose?

I’ve asked this question of many students, and most prefer the latter. If you could emphasize three separate abilities to three separate people for a whopping total of nine, why would you ever emphasize a wimpy three? Wouldn’t that just leave them wondering about your diligence, extraversion, and flexibility, for example?

Well, mathematically, yes: 9 > 3. But we need more than math to understand what will happen here—we need psychology.

Imagine you emphasized your three separate skills to the three separate interviewers, and they’re now meeting to discuss your candidacy. How will the conversation go? Something like this:

  • Interviewer 1: “I was really impressed with her analytic skills!”
  • Interviewer 2: “Huh? Well, I don’t know anything about that, but I was sure impressed with her flexibility.”
  • Interview 1: “Huh? Not sure what you mean, but her bookkeeping skills could really help us out.”
  • Interviewer 3: “Huh?

You get the picture: This conversation’s not gonna go very smoothly, and guess who’ll pay the price.

But now let’s imagine you’d emphasized the same three skills to all three interviewers. How’s that meeting likely to go?

  • Interviewer 1: “I was really impressed with her analytic skills!”
  • Interviewers 2 and 3 (jumping out of their chairs with enthusiasm): “Me too!”
  • Interviewer 2: “And how about those bookkeeping skills?!?”
  • Interviewers 1 and 3: “Amazing!”

Just moments later, all three interviewers would go out for beers, having identified the right candidate in the first one minute.

You get the picture. Since you stayed on message with all three interviewers, you gave them a lot of common ground—what psychology calls common information or common knowledge. Decades of research show that, when groups of people make a decision together, they rely heavily on common information—information on which they all already agreed even before meeting. Indeed, compared to whatever private information they might have brought into the meeting, group members tend to trust, discuss, and use the common information a whole lot more. So when they share a lot of common information—about your A/B/C skills perhaps—the decision becomes easy. But when they have little in common—as they did when you mentioned nine separate skills—well, the conversation quickly becomes contentious. It seems they can’t agree on anything, so you seem scattered and unhirable.

The implication of the common information effect is pretty simple: If you want to make a good impression on a group of interviewers, you’re well-advised to stick to a few common themes rather than wow them with the breadth of your abilities. Be thematic!

But what if your three thematic skills don’t cover all the skills they need? Well, it doesn’t have to be three. Include as many skills as you’d like, knowing that they probably won’t remember more than 3 to 7. But what if they ask questions that have nothing to do with your three thematic skills? You obviously want to answer the question that’s asked; otherwise you’ll seem awfully strange.

  • Interviewer 1: “Tell me about your flexibility”
  • You: “Well, I’m very good at bookkeeping.”

But, as any experienced interviewee knows, any question has many appropriate answers, some of them relating more closely to your themes.

Bottom line: consistency is generally helpful when meeting with a group of interviewers. Just one suggestion from psychology. Hopefully it helps!

Responding to reviewers: Lessons from negotiation research

Those of us who write academic papers often describe the process of responding to reviewers as a negotiation, and a tough one at that. But is that just a handy metaphor or does the process of responding to reviewers really look anything like buying a car or requesting a raise? The answer matters because the latter possibility implies that the negotiation literature could actually teach us something useful about the review process.

I’m here to argue that responding to reviewers is, in essence, a negotiation. Thus, the negotiation literature does have something to teach us and can, in fact, make the review process more negotiable. I could write a book on the topic, and maybe someday I will. But now let me lay out five basic principles from negotiation research that can readily improve how we respond to reviewers:

  1. Concessions: When young scholars receive their first review, they often react in one of two ways. They either: a) fire offer a vitriolic response letter indicating how few of the reviewers’ brain cells are operable, or b) tear up the first draft of their own paper and start afresh. In other words, they tend to make no concessions or a ginormous concession. The research on concessions in negotiation suggests that neither response is optimal. Instead, the best concessions are real and meaningful but also not so huge as to undermine a person’s own interests. Better than either of the above responses, then, is to consider the reviewer’s comments carefully and make meaningful changes that reflect them, but never lose sight of your vision for the paper and thus lose control.
    2. Interests versus positions: Oftentimes, reviewers ask us to do things to our manuscripts that seemingly make no sense. In other words, they take positions that seem irreconcilable with our own. In these situations, we can take a cue from Getting to Yes, which advises us to focus on interests rather than positions. Much as the specific request a reviewer is making (“I’d like to see you do X”) might make little sense, the concern underlying the suggestion (the interest) is often substantially more valid. Moreover, once you understand it, you can often address it quite readily, albeit in a potentially different way—and your different way can often satisfy the reviewer even better.
    3. Listening and building trust: Acting as a reviewer, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is a response letter indicating that an author has not really read or considered my comments. They might’ve read and responded to the first half of a particularly important comment, for example, but neither said nor done anything about the second—hoping, perhaps, that I somehow miss the omission. Or they might’ve referred me to their answers somewhere else in the response letter—answers that I either can’t find or that don’t address the comment in question. As a reviewer, this has the effect of destroying my trust. I spent my own time trying to help an author, and here they are, the hot shot, signaling: “I’m not listening—I don’t care.” The research on trust in negotiation suggests that there is no better way to destroy a negotiation. As authors, we can do better, if only by always responding to every point every reviewer makes, even if we have to disagree or repeat some sentiments expressed elsewhere in a response letter.
    4. Asking questions: Oftentimes, a reviewer asks us to do something. We do something and say “here’s what I did.” There’s no dialogue: we assume we did what was requested, thank you very much, and we assume that the reviewer will obviously agree. Barring the obvious “drop the extra line break” or “make this heading italic” type comment, which don’t require much dialogue, why not at least occasionally ask the reviewer whether our response actually addressed his or her concern? Something like: “Here’s what I did. Did I address your comment sufficiently? If not, can you please let me know how to address it better?” Perhaps we think that avoiding such questions will prevent us from having to endure another round of reviews. (There’s gonna be one anyway.) Or perhaps we really don’t care whether the reviewer is pleased. (But if we’d better if want to see our ideas published.) Either way, asking questions seems like a worthwhile strategy (in moderation).
    5. Separating the people from the problem: Unfortunately, some reviewers are just downright nasty. Notwithstanding any of our own overtures to build trust or ask questions, they appear to despise not only our work but our entire selves. Or at least that’s what we gather from the tone of their reviews. Even more unfortunately, we often see such reviews as an excuse to respond in kind. We lose sight of the underlying goal and instead launch our own personal tirade. Or perhaps we even go behind the reviewer’s back and complain to the editor. Inappropriate as the reviewer’s behavior may be—and is—we just can’t respond in kind. Once again, Getting to Yes provides some guidance: “separating the people from the problem.” Despite the reviewer’s problem with us as people—and thus our problem with them—we have to find a way to detect the substance buried deep in their pile of poison, responding per points #3 and 4 regardless.

I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on responding to reviews. If I had a penny for every rejection…

Still, I do think these basic lessons from the negotiation literature can help us navigate the choppy waters of the review process, emerging at some port somewhere instead of sinking to the bottom of the sea.