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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.