Initiating the right relationship with seatmates

There comes a critical moment at the start of each flight—the moment you encounter your seatmate. At that moment, your actions can easily dictate how negotiable the next 2, 5, or 7 hours are going to be. Initiate a positive relationship, and you just might make it to Michigan. Initiate a bad one, and you’re bound for a fight over Phoenix.

That being the case, what can you do to set up the right relationship with your seatmate? Consider the following five research-based suggestions for happy flying:

  1. Be cordial to build trust: It’s the nice and human thing to do. In addition, smiling and saying hello can start a cycle of trust. Flights are long and arduous encounters, and numerous contingencies are likely to arise. Maybe their air will blow right on your face. Maybe their gargantuan bag will encroach on your under-seat space. With the benefit of some pent-up trust, you can probably figure out a solution. Without it, good luck.
  2. Help with their bags: In addition to being the nice and human thing to do, helping to put up their bags (or fetch their pen from an overhead jacket, as I recently did) generates a cycle of reciprocity, whereby they will later feel motivated to help you too. What if you need to get up and use the bathroom four times? Or get the Wi-Fi signal to work just once? A seatmate who you previously helped will probably be eager to reciprocate.
  3. Claim your territory: In addition to these cooperative and integrative overtures, it’s important to start claiming some value in the form of the armrest. We’ve all flown next to the guy—and it usually is—who thinks he owns all three seats in the row. If that norm leaves the ground, all three fliers are in for an extended squishing.
  4. Signal your intentions: Similarly, it’s important to set some expectations as to how you intend to spend the next 2, 5, or 7 hours. If you’d love to the chat the trip away, then start chatting even before the safety demonstration. But if you’d prefer to work, read, or sleep, you’d better set those expectations even earlier. An ambiguous signal—some idle but unenthusiastic chatter, for example—won’t serve anyone well. You’ll both end up chatting the flight away even though both preferred to sleep (something akin to the Abilene Paradox).
  5. Don’t be weird or annoying: If I had a quarter for every time my seatmates acted weird or annoying long before takeoff, thereby generating angst that lasts the whole flight, I’d be able to a buy a plane and avoid the whole situation. From continuously messing with the air vent, to standing up and sitting down ala ants-in-the-pants, to taking a cell phone call loud enough to render the phone superfluous, to pulling out reams upon reams of paper, to shooting visual daggers into the seatback, crazy or annoying maneuvers in the early stages of a flight abound. Other people aren’t going to stop acting weirdly, so you might have to lead by example.

In sum, flights are gliding laboratories for making life negotiable. But they’re applied rather than basic research laboratories, in that your efforts will directly dictate your happiness. Here’s to this amazing opportunity to make life negotiable!

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Doing their job for them

Achieving your own objectives often requires the assistance of customer service representatives whose job is to help you. Just one problem: At times, the representatives on whom you depend seem to have no intention of doing their jobs. Accordingly, making life negotiable can require you to do at least a portion of somebody else’s job for them, in hopes of motivating them to do at least the remaining portion for you.

To see what I mean, consider the following story:

A few weeks back, I booked a car using an online booking service—let’s call them “Coldwire”—for a guy’s trip to Alaska. Weeks later, with the benefit of flight confirmations, I learned that my flight arrived nearly eight hours after my friends’ flights, meaning that I was the wrong person to retrieve the car from the agency—and let’s call them “Mavis.” Easy peasy: just call Coldwire or Mavis and ask them to add a driver, right? Wrong!

I first called Mavis, having learned from prior experiences that the rental agency can often do more than the booking service. “You’ll have to call Coldwire, sir,” they informed me. And what do you think Coldwire told me? That’s right: “You’ll have to call Mavis, sir.”

Frustrated at having lost a good 15 minutes of my life to this tail-chasing exercise, I then tried to enlist the help of the Coldwire representative. Explaining how Mavis had told me just the opposite, I described the predicament and tried to engage the agent in a little problem-solving, Getting to Yes style. Her unhelpful refrain: “The booking is final.” This refrain made little sense, as adding a driver would cost neither Coldwire nor Mavis a red cent. “The booking is final,” she repeated again, apparently hoping I hadn’t heard her the first 24 times.

“Ok, so what can I do here?” I asked, leaving an Alaskan-sized pause after my question to encourage a productive response. “The only thing you can do is rebook,” she said, “and the rate will probably be much higher now. Would you like me to look it up?” Seeing few options, I said I did, only to learn that a rebooking would cost us at least $200 more. So I said thanks but no thanks, and we cordially parted ways.

Luckily, I knew about this new technology called the internet and did a Coldwire search myself, only to find the same car, same dates, same agency going for $50 less! Now, I’m not sure how my internet differed from hers, but here I was—doing most of her job for her. And with that, I did most of the rest, calling her back and telling her—this same representative—that I had found a lower rate and rebooked with my friend as the driver. Could she kindly cancel my other reservation? She would be happy to complete that 5% of her job, she told me.

What’s the point, other than the humorous and all-too-common storyline? The point is that you sometimes depend on people who aren’t opposed to helping you—they just can’t be bothered to do so. In those cases, it’s worth trying to motivate them, supplementing their salary and benefits package with a little old-fashion persuasion. But when that doesn’t work, you might just have to do at least a portion of their job for them, asking them to do the rest as a matter of kindness or generosity. It’s annoying, and it requires time—too much time in our harried world. But it’s better than flying off the handle at unhelpful people, or simply giving up and making your friend sit around the Anchorage Airport for eight hours. Plus, it hones your résumé should you ever seek a job in customer service.

 

Negotiating with the airlines (i.e., from a position of complete powerlessness)

Disputes with the airlines tend to elicit a sense of complete powerlessness. Bad seat? Full bin? Overbooked flight? It’s David versus Goliath x 10. Given that you need to get somewhere and they get to decide whether you do, your own power position seems tenuous, at best.

Since such disputes will probably only increase in the age of “Basic Economy” (airline-speak for terrible)—and since the airlines are but one of many bigger and brawnier counterparts we encounter on a daily basis—let’s use the airlines as an example to consider whether we, the weak, can still make life negotiable.

Despite our seeming lack of power, I submit that we still have at least five strategic options, affording us at least some semblance of power. They include:

  1. Exercising your alternatives: The former flagship carriers have tripped all over each other in a race to add fees and cut amenities. Southwest and a few others haven’t. As a former weekly traveler with a clinical addition to United, I understand the difficulty of making the switch. But I finally bit the bullet and switched to Southwest. And I survived to tell you that I’ve never been happier (on a plane). The ability to leave a particular partner is a major source of power in any negotiation.
  2. Increasing the costs of your departure: If you fly once a year and have no particular relationship with a flagship carrier, your friendly airline representative will probably hold the door on your way out. But if you fly with them all the time, use their credit card assiduously, and relish their vaunted status, they’re likely to protest a smidge more loudly when you make for the exit. In other words, if you slavishly show your loyalty to a particular carrier—connecting through Cleveland and Phoenix to get from Baltimore to St. Louis if you have to—then you’ll have slightly more leverage when push comes to shove.
  3. Negotiating with someone else: The best way to deal with a sense of powerlessness is often just to ignore it—especially by negotiating with someone who is no more powerful than yourself. Just try negotiating your way out of a cramped middle seat with your friendly flagship representative! But why do that, when you could instead give your middle seat to one of two lovebirds, who would prefer to sit next to the other lovebird than enjoy the window?
  4. Documenting their power abuses: Just because they’re powerful doesn’t mean they can be abusive. Such was the hard lesson taught to United by a bunch of passengers who caught their apparent mistreatment of Dr. David Dao on video, then posted it all over the interweb. You can fight fire with fire if you have to—and the airlines sometimes even pay attention.
  5. Demanding your due: People booted off United in the wake of the Dao incident have been known to receive four-digit figures. You could meekly accept the $300 voucher plus $0.30 bag of peanuts they offer (both which expire tomorrow), or you could hold out for the amount they’ve publicly promised to offer. I’ve heard that the latter is becoming popular—so popular that onboard auctions, where no one agrees to get booted until the four-digit figures start flowing, have been known to occur routinely.

In sum, in situations of seeming powerlessness, you still have options. Accordingly, you still have power. You may just have to think outside the overhead bin to find it.

Asking more of our sales associates

Most people try to spend as little time in a store as possible. If we can get into a store, find the desired product, and get out without ever talking to a sales associate, we would we ever dilly-dally?

Well, that philosophy works well enough for most purchases. But I’m here to highlight the types of situations in which we might want to ask more of our sales associates—when engaging them in a conversation might make everyone’s life more negotiable. Consider the following three situations in which conversing with the associate instead of hard-charging for the exit might help:

  1. When you aren’t 100% sure which product to buy. Imagine you need to buy a new phone. Most people are probably inclined to find the best phone online, then (if they have to go into a store to get it) just go into the store and get it. But why? Why not spend at least a few minutes with the sales associate, asking for his or her perspective on the desired phone versus others. It’s true—the associate might be totally unknowledgeable or unhelpful, as associates sometimes are. But my experience is that many associates are experts in small domains. When we ask about their experiences with a product, they not only have personal experiences to recount. They have the stories of untold customers, who have complained about or complimented the product in question. And since so many people come into the store and ask the associate to robotically fetch a phone, they seem to really appreciate when someone respectfully requests their advice.
  2. When you aren’t 100% sure what your money buys. I recently needed a new windshield wiper for my car. Anyone who’s ever needed and tried to purchase a windshield wiper at an auto parts store knows that the wiper aisle stretches for 4.2 miles and includes 6,529,000 options ranging from $5 to $50 in price. In the face of such choice overload, many people’s temptation is to simply select the right sized wiper at random, then hope and pray that it turns out to wipe their shield appropriately. But why not ask the sales associate what exactly your money buys? Why not ask why one wiper costs 10 times the cost of another—does it wake up in the middle of the night and proactively wipe your shield? Sure, the friendly associate may seek to upsell you, at which point you can thank them and go back to the random selection. But my experience is that, unless they’re on the payroll of the company whose wipers they’re trying to sell, they’re often surprisingly honest. On my own recent trip to the auto store, for example, the associate gave me some exact figures about the lifespan and level of visibility associated with each wiper. He also recounted his personal experiences and told me of the perfect wiper fluid to complement my wiper of choice. A synergy between wipers and fluid? Who knew. I was glad that I did—and he seemed glad to recount this particular nugget of wisdom.
  3. When you aren’t 100% sure how to use a product. I recently walked into a home and garden store in need of some holly tone. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone. I didn’t either. Nor did I have any idea, once acquired, how to actually use it. In such situations, the temptation is to buy the holly tone, then read the back and/or consult the internet. But why not leverage the expertise of a holly tone expert? Why not ask the associate, looking exceptionally bored at the cash register, what exactly holly tone is and how it could solve your problem? And that’s what I did. I explained my underlying interest in protecting a depressed rhododendron plant and asked whether and how the holly tone would do that. At this point, she helpfully explained the product’s benefits, as well as how exactly to apply it, even going so far as to draw an air-diagram depicting the distance between the rhododendron’s stem and the holly tone applied to the soil. Having explained all that and drawn the air-diagram, she seemed distinctly pleased with her expertise and my distinct interest in tapping into it. And who wouldn’t prefer being knowledgeable and helpful to robotically operating the cash register?

In sum, I’m not proposing anything amounting to rocket science. Perhaps you already enlist the help of your sales associates, and if so, I hope you’ve taken the liberty of ignoring this post. For the rest of us, though, I’m simply proposing that most of us routinely ask too little of our sales associates—and that literally asking more can make their lives and our own more negotiable.

Negotiation lessons from the safety patrol

I recently volunteered to serve as safety patrolman for my neighborhood. In essence, this involved trolling around the neighborhood at night, making sure no one (i.e., no teenager) was breaking community rules (e.g., loitering at the community beach) or even breaking the law (e.g., defacing said beach).

Since my duties tended to bring the community’s interests (and my own) into conflict with the interests of others (i.e., teenagers), these duties introduced several opportunities to negotiate. Accordingly, the experience reminded me of several important negotiation principles, which I thought I’d share in the hope of making life more negotiable.

  1. Interrupting other peoples’ interests is not particularly pleasant. Who wants to act as the killjoy that spoils some lovestruck teenagers’ lovely evening on the pier, shining a flashlight right in the face of affection? Not me, nor many others I know. In general, I remembered that interests consisting of interrupting other people’s interests are not particularly pleasant to pursue. With that said…
  2. It’s easier when you’re representing others. While less than lovely to give some young lovers (or young tokers) the boot, it was made much easier by the underlying motive: I wasn’t being a killjoy of my own accord. I was doing the community’s bidding, essentially representing the will of several hundred people. In general, I remembered that representing other people often strengthens your resolve. What’s more…
  3. Symbols help. The job of patrolman does have some benefits. I got to drive around with a flashing orange light on my car and wear a flashy orange vest apparently stolen from the Village People. Ridiculous to me and anyone who knew me, these symbols were quite intimidating to teenagers, for whom they legitimized my annoying requests. Perhaps for this reason, the experience also reminded me that…
  4. Most people comply. Thankfully, precious few teenagers protested. Sure, there were the aspiring few negotiators who tried to convince me that they were, for example, “just enjoying the lighting show.” But even these enterprising young negotiators agreed to clear the beach, as per community rules, after a further request. Perhaps they realized that…
  5. It’s good to have an obvious and powerful alternative. Any lip from these teenagers and I had the community and county’s approval to reel in the long arm of the law (i.e., call the police). A strong alternative for me, albeit not one I was particularly eager to engage. A weak alternative for the teenagers, who would find themselves with a rap sheet before even completing their FAFSA.

These examples are probably a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the lessons are real. They highlight, once again, that negotiations truly surround us. And they reminded me—and can remind us all—that negotiating power comes from the surrounding situation at least as much as your prowess.