Making hotels negotiable

The Memorial Day weekend saw me and many others staying in a hotel. And staying in a hotel reminded me just how many aspects of a hotel stay are negotiable—how many aspects of a hotel stay often require negotiation to make life negotiable.

Luckily, many hotel negotiations rely heavily on just one principle: the notion that you may not get it if you ask, but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t. A few basic topics we must all at least occasionally raise with our hotels:

  • Additional amenities: A two-year-old with afternoon naptimes is not conducive to housekeeping. Accordingly, on our recent trip, we found ourselves running out of towels daily. In situations like these, many people are inexplicably afraid to request more. What will they think if I ask? Will they snicker behind the counter that I must shower all day long? But then you have to think: who cares? Do I dislike snickering more than I dislike drying myself with a sopping wet towel?
  • Erroneous bills: It didn’t happen this time, but it did happen the last. Mysteriously, a fancy steak dinner from the fabulous Embassy Suites restaurant showed up on my bill. As much as I love steak dinners from the Embassy Suites, I was reasonably sure that this one wasn’t mine. In such situations, many people are afraid to confront the hotel, lest they get offended or combative. But unless you like to pay for someone else’s steak, you pretty much have to. And it’s not likely to result in offense or combat since the hotel desires your satisfaction almost as much as you do. In my case, they simply looked up the receipt in question, which revealed that someone had creatively remembered their room number, creatively footing me with their filet.
  • Extremely random items: Since a hotel is your home away from home, you may well have to borrow some extremely random items that you could easily access in your own home. On the recent trip, for example, my two-year-old inexplicably glued a rubber band in her hair: A problem only scissors can solve. But since the TSA pretty much guarantees that I don’t travel with scissors, the situation called for an extremely random request—one that many don’t make on account of its randomness. And while the lady at the front desk scrunched her brow slightly, she was very happy to lend her scissors nonetheless. And everyone was happy to have the gluey rubber band removed.
  • Idiosyncratic preferences: Everyone has an idiosyncratic preference about their hotel rooms. Some need an outside-facing window, lest they feel incarcerated. Others need separation from the sunlight, lest they stay permanently awake. Many care heartily about distancing themselves from the elevator or ice machine. Such preferences, while idiosyncratic, are completely fair game to mention while checking in or later. Indeed, you have to mention them if you want the preference honored—how else would they know? And the hotel hopes you do so they can immediately and rather easily boost your satisfaction (and their rating).
  • Maintenance requests: Stay in enough hotel rooms, and you’re bound to encounter a rickety old air conditioner, constantly running toilet, or completely spent bulb. “I’ll just deal with it,” many of us think, not wanting to raise a ruckus or trouble the maintenance department. But why? I’m quite sure the hotel wants to know about the maintenance problem just as much as you want to tell them, so they can then head off a long line of dissatisfied occupants. There’s every reason to mention it and virtually no reason to stay mum.

These are just examples. Other opportunities to negotiate with hotels abound—from extra services, to late checkouts, to compensation for a generally crummy experience. The bottom line is that many hotel problems are quite easily solved by simply raising the issue. And raising the issue is exactly what a halfway decent hotel wants you to do.

Proactive concessions: A secret weapon for making life negotiable

Peruse The Art of the Deal or a negotiation book like that, and you’re likely to encounter some advice like this: “Never concede unless you have to!” And that mindset sorta makes sense if you think that all negotiations consist of competitive battles with slimy car dealers.

But my posts have consistently sought to convince you that negotiations are a lot more common than that. We negotiate anytime we depend on someone else to achieve our objectives, meaning essentially all day long. And in many of our negotiations, the advice to avoid conceding is just wrong—so wrong that I’d actually advise you to do the opposite by racing to concede first. Proactive concessions, I submit, can make life more negotiable.

To see what I mean, consider the following negotiation that we rarely consider one: a work project in which you and a team member—let’s call her Judy—have much different visions about a collective project. By making a proactive concession…

  1. You get to choose the issue: If you wait for Judy to concede, you might find yourself reciprocally conceding on a really important issue. If she backs down from a January deadline to something later, for example, you’ll probably have to back down from a December deadline to something sooner, even if anything sooner seems impossible. But if you beat Judy to the concession, you might be able to avoid a concession on deadlines entirely, backing down on some other issue that you care about less—who’s responsible for what, perhaps.
  2. You generate felt reciprocity: If Judy concedes first, you’re on the psychological hook to concede something in return. And that’s not where you want to be in the midst of a contentious negotiation, particularly if you’ve already arrived at your bottom line. If you concede first, however, you’ve got a chip to cash in when it’s time to talk turkey.
  3. You generate trust: If Judy concedes first, she’s sitting there stewing over the need to work with a stubborn meany. If you concede first, she’s sitting there realizing that you’re surprisingly reasonable and potentially even worthy of trust.
  4. You dictate the size of your subsequent concessions: If Judy makes a big concession on the deadline issue—say January to May—and thus basically forces you to back down from December to August, you can bet both parties will be arriving at a June 15th compromise in no time. If you concede first and make a small concession on the deadline issue—say December to November—you set the tone that your subsequent concessions will be smaller (as concessions usually are). Thus, you’re less likely to lose your summer vacation.
  5. You get to send a signal: If Judy moves first, you may or may not learn anything about her preferences. If you move first, you get the chance to explain your preferences in a subtle but potent way: “Anything earlier than December is impossible, Judy, but I’m happy to take responsibility for writing the initial draft if it helps.” With that simple statement, you’ve not only conceded on who does what (with all of the associated benefits); you’ve also signaled to the formidable Judy that dates are more important.

In sum, concessions are routinely underappreciated and often flat-out denigrated. But smart negotiators know that proactive concessions offer a potent strategy for setting the tone and steering the conversation—a secret weapon for making life negotiable.

What can moms teach us about negotiation?

Today being devoted to mothers, we might consider what our mothers can teach us about negotiation. Everyone’s mom being different, it’s far from an easy task. But I’d venture that many of our moms display a few simple attributes that, should we choose to emulate them, can serve us well at the bargaining table and beyond. In short, I’d like to suggest that emulating the following five features of many of our moms can make life more negotiable:

  1. Patient: Moms endure a never-ending stream of challenges from their kids. But many seem to do so with patient resolve, quietly awaiting the day when we stop dropping food and start using our $^%^*^& plate. As I’ve said before, patience is one of the best negotiators’ least appreciated virtues.
  2. Calm: Even while we drop our spaghetti, then our meatballs, then our milk, many moms remain remarkably calm. Sure, the milk tests their nerves more than the meatballs, and the meatballs more than the spaghetti. Sure, we can even detect a slight edge on the fifth straight night of food-dropping. But somehow, many moms remain strangely serene, even while we push all of their buttons, and then some. Negotiators would do well to do the same, never letting their counterparts’ emotions or maneuvers dictate their own reactions.
  3. Caring: If many moms are just one thing, it must be caring. Many moms’ wellspring of caring for their own kids runs deep, so deep that it usually even endures the teenage years. Put in their position, I’d bet that few of us could do the same. But most of us must do the same when we negotiate, as we pretty much have to show some concern for our teenager of a counterpart to find a mutually-satisfactory solution.
  4. Prepared: Most of us need an app to stay on top of our own schedules and to-do lists. Somehow, many moms are intuitively prepared to manage the schedules and to-dos of an entire family unit with the precision of a military commander. Somehow, they keep the exact time it takes to get to soccer, the exact amount of peanut better our sister prefers, and the exact dosage of children’s Tylenol in their head at the same time. In a word, they’re always prepared—as are the best negotiators.
  5. Firm: Many moms are soft and sweet, but not entirely so. They also know how to draw a bright red line in the sand. Should we dare to cross it? Hell hath no fury. Put simply, many moms have a firm bottom line, and they know what to do if and when we foolishly decide to cross it. Likewise, the best negotiators remain forever cognizant of their bottom line, never failing to exercise plan B if they have to.

In short, many moms can teach us a great deal about negotiation, should we choose to reflect on their positive attributes and link them to our own lives, personal and professional. For this and so many other reasons, happy Mother’s Day.

The classroom as a negotiation

Being a good teacher is no easy task, never easily reduced to a soundbite. And I’m far from the authority on pedagogy. Nevertheless, I think I’ve discovered a reasonably important practice that most decent teachers use at least implicitly: negotiating some aspects of a class and never negotiating others. So, in this post, let me try to make teaching slightly more negotiable by offering some observations on the aspects of a class that good teachers treat versus don’t treat as negotiations.

Good teachers, in my view, consider negotiating:

  1. Explanation of concepts: Excellent instructors know what they want to say and how they want to say it. But they’re also flexible on the means by which they convey their message if the students aren’t getting it. In other words, they show the willingness or even eagerness to explain themselves differently or at least repeatedly.
  2. Exploration of concepts: Sometimes, students wish to take a discussion in a totally different direction. And sometimes, that direction is counterproductive, so I don’t take the bait. But oftentimes, the direction they wish to go is constructive and interesting. Examples of potentially productive diversions might include: “How does principle A apply in other cultures?” “Does principle B still apply if C happens?” “I’ve experienced principle D in way E at work.” If the students want to stretch or test their understanding in a thoughtful and productive way, I’m usually more than happy to go there.
  3. Midcourse corrections: I’ve found that the best instructors not only ask the students halfway through a course how it’s going. They also actually act on whatever the students say. Indeed, it never fails to amaze me when the students say they’ve never seen an instructor make a midcourse correction. This resistance is somewhat understandable, as it’s not realistic or even productive to overhaul a whole course right in the middle. But I’ve found that students often have some very simple midcourse requests, which I can often satisfy rather easily. For example, they often ask for a little more information on X, and, lo and behold, I often have a little more information X handy. They really appreciate it.

But good teachers, in my view, don’t usually negotiate:

  1. Grades: I start my negotiation class by telling the students that nearly everything in life is negotiable except for their grades in this class. And I mean it, because one step down the path of negotiating grades with one student means an endless stream of students, all of whom want to apply their newfound negotiation skills in my office. It’s not sustainable nor equitable to the students who actually heeded my message.
  2. Core methodologies or course objectives: Instructors know best what they need to teach and how they need to teach it to ensure student learning. And it’s their job to teach it that way even if a few students gripe. Thus, while I always remain open to ways of refining the methodology or material, I never consider deviating from the core learning objectives or central methodology. If a student wishes to learn negotiation without actively negotiating on a weekly basis, for example, they won’t do well in my negotiation class.
  3. Experience versus evidence: Many of the evidence-based lessons taught in a negotiation class (and other classes) are counterintuitive. “What, it’s better to make the first offer?” And it’s good thing they’re counterintuitive, because what’s the point of the class otherwise? But some students just can’t stomach any evidence that doesn’t fit with their experiences. “But what about my random experience Y?” While it’s certainly true that every piece of evidence will not fit every experience that every individual has had—and more research to broaden the reach of the evidence is always welcome—I don’t let myself negotiate on the value of evidence versus random experiences. In other words, I don’t respond by saying “Well, maybe the evidence is wrong then.” Doing so, in my view, undermines my purpose as a conveyor of science. And I’ve discovered that the other students—everyone except the person with the random experience—don’t much like it either. “Who cares about that guy’s experience? I’m here to learn something new!”

In sum, good instruction is a complex and multifaceted matter. But thinking critically about which aspects of the classroom to treat as a negotiation and which to never negotiate can make teaching significantly more negotiable. A gold star to any of my students who read this and either validate my points or put me to the test!



What’s up, doc? Negotiating in healthcare

Most of us spend more on healthcare than we’d like to—more, in some cases, than our annual car or mortgage payments. That being the case, why do we spend so much time negotiating the terms of our cars and houses, and so little the terms of our healthcare?

Frankly, the negotiation professor in me just doesn’t know. From my perspective, a few simple principles from the research literature on negotiation can make our healthcare much more negotiable. Just a few illustrative examples:

  1. Setting high aspirations. Negotiation research consistently shows that those who set and stick to aggressive goals tend to achieve better outcomes. With respect to our own bodies, though, I suspect many of us are dissuaded from our goal of ideal health when a well-intentioned doctor tell us “there’s nothing wrong,” or “you’re just fine,” even when we know there is and we’re not.
  2. Reiterating our core interests. Negotiation research shows that the most effective negotiators are those who hew to a consistent script—reiterating their core problem or motivation as consistently and repeatedly as possible. This seems particularly important in healthcare, when we often have to answer the very similar questions of a seemingly endless series of people. On a visit to the ER, for example, we might have to state our symptoms to the front desk, triage nurse, attending nurse, doctor, radiologist, and so it goes. The more consistent our message to each person, even in response to slightly different turns-of-phrase, the better our chances of proper treatment.
  3. Cultivating an alternative: The best negotiators always develop an alternative possibility—another car or house they’d be willing to buy, for example. Negotiating the terms of an alternative affords them power in their primary negotiation but also, importantly, helps them learn about whatever they’re negotiating. What price should I really offer for my preferred Corvette? Some of us cultivate an alternative in healthcare by obtaining a second opinion. But I suspect that some of us don’t because we think the doctor will get offended. Assuming we’re at least as motivated to learn about our health as our cars, I’d suggest we should.
  4. Asking questions: The best negotiators ask a lot of questions. Indeed, they probably use their listening ears more than their speaking lips. Well, few contexts are quite as rife for questions as the cryptic explanation of benefits. $392.54 for an octowhatgraphy with Dr. Whosehisname? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that calling the insurance company and asking about it not only helps me mitigate confusion. It also turns up quite a few clerical errors that end up saving me money.
  5. Just asking: Asking a lot of questions is great, but even more basic is asking in the first place. The best negotiators are those who simply ask for whatever they need or want rather than expecting their counterpart to guess. But I suspect that few of us really ask for what we want in healthcare, mainly because we think we can’t—especially with a high-status doctor across the table. Lower prices, less invasive procedures, fewer unnecessary appointments: it’s all worth an ask if it matters.

In short, few aspects of our own lives are more important than our health. So why not do what we can to negotiate a healthier deal?