What, we agree? Compatible issues in a disagreeable world

It sometimes seems that seething disagreements surround us. Crazy passengers punching out flight attendants, angry politicians launching invective, nasty comments following a nice news story about puppies and kittens.

At times like these, it’s easy to forget that we actually agree with each other quite often. In negotiation-speak, we can easily lose sight of the compatible issues—issues on which we completely agree with our counterparts—all around us. To help make life negotiable, let me illustrate through five examples:

  1. We all want to have a good flight/stay/meal. So does the airline/hotel/restaurant. What with the bad service we so often receive, it sometimes seems our interests are completely opposed to the interests of airlines/hotels/restaurants. And it’s true: they all want to save money where they can. More importantly, though, they all want you to come back and/or say nice things to your friends and acquaintances. Our interests are more aligned than unaligned.
  2. We all want to be at a job where we can thrive for the long term. So do our employers. It seems that many employers want to squeeze every ounce of effort from their employees, then spit them out. And some do. More often than not, and in spite of outward appearances, though, many employers would prefer to keep you around for the long-term, if only because it costs so much to replace you (anyone, really).
  3. We all want to minimize the amount of time a contractor spends at our house. So do our contractors. When plumbers dawdle, when electricians take a smoke-break, it seems that they must be padding their paycheck. Right? And maybe some are. But most of the contractors I’ve dealt with are so busy that they’d rather get the job done and move on—if only to make more money, an additional call-out fee often exceeding an additional hour of time.
  4. We all want our kids to be happy. So do our kids. Kids do strange things, some of which seem almost certain to undermine their long-term happiness. In such instances, it’s worth remembering that our kids probably aren’t trying to ruin their own lives. They just don’t understand the consequences or have the benefit of long-term thinking. So arguments that start from the assumption our kids want the same thing we do (and did) will probably work better.
  5. (Most controversially…) We all want as few car repairs as possible. So do our dealers. Does it sometimes seem that your car dealer wants to reconstruct your engine every time you need an oil change? Some dealers undoubtedly propose unnecessary repairs. But many—at least of the manufacturer-owned variety—would probably prefer to do fewer repairs. And the reason resembles the airlines/hotels/restaurants. They can make a lot more money if your first car functions so well it convinces you to buy another from them (or advise your friends to).

These are just a couple of the many common real-world situations when we tend to agree with our counterparts more than we think, if not completely. This list is not intended to cover every airline, employer, contractor, kid, or car dealer—certainly not! Nor is it comprehensive—far from it! It’s merely intended to reiterate that we all actually agree with other once in a while, if not routinely. In a world of deepening polarization, rumbling faultlines, and spiraling incivility, I think it’s a point worth remembering.

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Mythical images of the negotiator

I recently attended the International Association of Conflict Management meeting in Berlin—an opportunity for negotiation researchers like myself to geek out. And in the process of geeking out, I had an interesting albeit especially geeky thought: the image of negotiation and negotiators that most of us hold in our brains is actually quite different than the portrait painted by negotiation research. Put simply, our images of negotiation and negotiators are more often mythical than evidence-based.

In the hope that evidence can make life negotiable (especially in the era of a self-identified Negotiator-in-Chief), I offer the following contrasts between mythical and evidence-based negotiation. In mythical negotiation…

  1. Negotiation is mostly about doing huge deals. When we hear the word negotiation, we think of multi-billion dollar mergers and business contracts—issues that grab the headlines and everyone’s attention. In actuality, most of the world’s negotiations focus on issues that are totally unimportant to anyone other than you. It’s a negotiation when your child won’t eat, your spouse won’t do the dishes, and your seatmate won’t cooperate on a flight. Most negotiations concern our own daily difficulties—issues that matter only to us.
  2. Negotiations focus on money. Relatedly, we tend to equate the word negotiation with the word money. And yes, many negotiations involve money. But many just don’t—consider the three right above. And in many that do, it’s the qualitative issues rather than the monetary issues that really make the difference. You’ll never get the car dealer to agree with your preferred price, but you just might get him to throw in some oil changes.
  3. The best negotiators are jerks. We tend to assume that the best negotiators must be people with whom we’d never want to share a flight or have a dinner (watch the beginning of this Facebook video where our Negotiator-in-Chief says just that)—people who aggressively demand concessions and accommodations from everyone around them. In fact, the best negotiators are the very people with whom we’d most want to dine or fly—people who listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, who trust and seem to understand us, and who ensure that we walk away feeling at least reasonably satisfied with the conversation.
  4. The best negotiators are easy to identify. Relatedly, we tend to think that we can spot a great negotiator when we see one. It’s the driver zipping around in the Mercedes and cutting everyone off. Or the CEO slamming their fist on the table and demanding that a poor subordinate come up with something better. In fact, the best negotiators are invisible—to us, yes, but often even to themselves. If I had a quarter for every time I taught a negotiation class and observed a self-proclaimed “bad negotiator” eventually get the “Best Negotiator” award…
  5. The key to negotiation success is tactics. We tend to think that the most effective negotiators use the most sophisticated tactics—the car dealer who slips in “one additional fee” after we’ve already signed the contract, or the politician who corners a colleague into supporting a pork-barrel amendment. Tactics are certainly important. Any claim to the contrary would be silly. But more important than tactics—and perhaps much more important—is preparation. If the best negotiators display the most sophisticated tactics, it’s only because they spent the most time and effort preparing, understanding everything there is to know about themselves, the people across the table, and the negotiation situation itself.

In sum, negotiations and negotiators are steeped in mythology, very little of which holds up to empirical investigation. So few of us should be surprised when our most prominent negotiators promulgate the mythology but experience much more difficulty in reality.

Our many everyday opportunities to negotiate

I might write about negotiation, but I’m still amazed at how often everyday negotiation opportunities present themselves. And identifying such opportunities is nothing short of critical, as finding chances to negotiate is often the only way to make life negotiable.

To see what I mean, consider three recent interactions with a single bike shop. The background: My wife had dropped off her bike in a moment of panic—when a blown tube left her incapable of getting home. I knew my own bike needed a tune-up but couldn’t drop it off at that particular time. The bike shop had called my wife on a Friday, indicating that her bike was ready for pickup:

  • Negotiation opportunity #1: My wife really wanted her bike. With two small kids and one small car, however, she had few real opportunities to pick it up. Identifying an opportunity to help her and potentially get my own bike serviced at the same time, I asked her to call the bike shop and authorize me to pick it up. She did, and they agreed. Many people wouldn’t see this as a negotiation, it was. By simply taking the initiative to ask for what she wanted rather than wait for a window of opportunity months later, she proactively achieved her interests (retrieved her wheels).
  • Negotiation opportunity #2: Showing up on my own bike, I indicated my desire to pick up hers. I also expressed my interest in having my own bike serviced, but only if: A) it could be done before Monday (when I needed it to get to work) and B) there was a volume discount available given the two sequential repairs. The bike shop indicated that they were open over the weekend and had just finished their other repairs, so A was no problem. And, although they usually only give discounts when two bikes are repaired together, they would offer me a volume discount just this once. Cheers to request B! Again, this might not seem like a negotiation. But insofar as I shared and achieved my interests (and also made the first offer), it certainly was.
  • Negotiation opportunity #3: Showing up to pick up my own bike, I paid and happily rode off. Unfortunately, the ride home revealed that the annoying clicking sound I had noted when I dropped it off was still there, clicking away. It would not be unusual for a biker in this situation to suck it up and ride home, assuming the shop did its best. But here was another opportunity to negotiate—namely to return to the shop and report, politely, that the underlying issue had not been resolved. Finding the shop skeptical, I offered the owner his very own opportunity to ride my bike. And, sure enough, there was the click. And the click. And the click. A little work with his reliable wrench, and voila! The clicking disappeared. I rode away happier, able to enjoy my bike without earplugs. And I probably left the owner, despite his initial skepticism, pleased that he had retained a customer.

Now, none of negotiations are high-stakes deals likely to reshape the global business or political landscape. Not even one would probably appear in a book like The Art of the Deal. But they indicate just how common negotiations can be, and how identifying everyday opportunities to negotiate can improve at least one small corner of the world—namely, your own.

Have you recently encountered any unexpected, everyday opportunities to negotiate?