“That’s not negotiable.” (Yes it is)

Many an aspiring negotiator has been stymied by three simple words: “That’s not negotiable.” How often do car dealers, retailers, and employers utter that tremendously painful phrase? And how directly does it strike at the heart of our grand negotiation strategy?

Well, I’m here to tell you that sometimes it’s not negotiable. But many times, it is. And recognizing as much can make life itself more negotiable.

To show you what I mean, let me decode three common meanings lurking behind the three simple words, none of which amount to it actually being non-negotiable:

  1. “I’m going to try this tactic on you.” Oftentimes, people say it’s not negotiable simply because they know you won’t question them. Car dealers will tell you that a particular discount cannot be negotiated, only to remember an even better discount if you happen to start walking out in pursuit of a better offer. But most people don’t, so the non-negotiability rarely gets questioned.
  2. “I’m referring to price, specifically.” Oftentimes, people really won’t haggle on price, but they’re more than happy to haggle on anything else. I recently visited a sofa store with their no-haggle guarantee plastered on the door, echoed by the salesman’s immediate assurance that prices there were non-negotiable. But then he immediately informed me that I could get free shipping if I bought during the sale. “And can I get free shipping if I buy after the sale?” I asked. “Well, I guess we could do that,” he responded. Price was not negotiable, but he was chomping at the bit to negotiate delivery.
  3. “It actually is negotiable.” Oftentimes, people will tell you something is not negotiable only to trade it off with something else, thereby making it negotiable. Employers will tell you that salary is not negotiable, only to agree to virtual work, a different location, or a different bonus plan if you accept the given salary. But by trading the “non-negotiable” issue with other negotiable issues, they’ve essentially made the non-negotiable issue negotiable.

In sum, it might not be negotiable. And if not, so be it. But I wouldn’t conclude as much from the three simple words. Instead, I’d try to probe whether it’s a tactic or a comment confined to single monetary issue like price or salary, setting off in search of more negotiable terrain.

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