In most negotiation courses, professors repeatedly ask students to complete a seemingly silly exercise: playing a guessing game alone. That is, professors require their students to read a negotiation case, then take a wild guess as to their future counterpart’s situation—in particular, the counterpart’s interests, priorities, alternatives, and bottom line.
“What’s the point?” the bolder students ask. “How would do we go about that?” the more circumspect students say. By the second or third class, though, most students fully get the point. Taking even the wildest of guesses about their counterpart’s situation, they see, is a form of perspective-taking that can make even the toughest situations negotiable.
Consider the following five reasons to play a pre-negotiation guessing game, alone:
- You’ll understand them better once they start talking. You wouldn’t play a real guessing game alone because you’d never know whether your guess was right. But you’ll definitely have a chance to validate your guesses about your negotiation partner, and research suggests that people who have gone through the exercise can process their counterpart’s statements more easily and rapidly once the negotiation starts—even if their initial guesses were wrong. Simply simulating another person’s thinking, it seems, prepares us to comprehend that thinking once we actually hear it.
- You’ll anticipate potential tradeoffs. Another reason you’d never play a real guessing game alone: you’d have no idea what you were guessing about. But you definitely know what you’re guessing about before a negotiation—all of the topics above, which often attune you to creative, win-win tradeoff opportunities. And it never fails to amaze my students (or me) how many such opportunities pop to mind even before the negotiators ever meet. Planning to ask an overworked boss for a raise? Could you offer to take over a critical task that you actually find fun in exchange for said raise? Such ideas often arise long before the negotiation begins.
- You’ll anticipate potential pain points. Steering clear of needless controversies and exposed nerves is often a prerequisite to a deal. Otherwise, all the creative tradeoffs in the world won’t get you to yes. Playing a guessing game often surfaces plenty of pain points. Does your overworked boss seem overly insecure about his or her own performance? Better frame your offer to take over some work as an effort to learn from the boss’s expertise.
- You’ll generate trust. People who play pre-negotiation guessing games tend to mention the products of those games during the negotiation itself. “I was wondering whether you’re interested in / concerned about / hoping for X?” Such statements not only open the spigot of information-sharing; they also convey your own earnest interest in the counterpart’s welfare, thereby signaling your trustworthiness.
- You’ll develop a healthy sense of humility. Without playing a pre-negotiation guessing game, we often think of our counterparts as automatons who reflexively seek to deny our every hope and dream. Pre-negotiation guessing games help to remind us that they’re humans too, complete with needs, wishes, and aspirations of their own. Humanization can go a long way toward a good deal (and being a good person).
Silly as a guessing game alone may seem, then, it’s well-worth my students’ time before their simulated negotiations—and yours before your real negotiations. Guess right or guess wrong, I’ll guess that you start negotiating better.