Smash through the standoff! Introducing issues to unproductive negotiations

At some point, many negotiations spiral into an unproductive standoff over money—an issue over which the negotiators tend to utterly disagree. Most often, such standoffs end with an escalation of conflict or proliferation of concessions, neither of which is particularly productive. But, as I teach in my negotiation classes, there’s third way that can make life negotiable: adding another issue to the table.

“So what types of issues should we add?” asked a participant named Stuart Merkel in one of my recent executive education courses? “Is there a set of categories—a list of topics to consider adding to the table?” And I must admit that I was hard-pressed to provide a reasonable answer. I had no choice but to scratch my head and say no, to the best of my knowledge.

So why not take this post as an opportunity to detail the most common categories of issues that negotiators add to the table—new topics that can smash through the standoff and make everyone happier? Drawing from negotiation research and my observation of innumerable students negotiating, I’d propose the following top-ten list of issues to consider introducing, should you find yourself in a standoff:

  1. Time: How quickly will the agreement be executed?
  2. Quality: At what level of quality?
  3. Performance incentives: Will the seller get a bonus for completing the work / delivering the product early or excellently? Or a penalty for completing it tardily or poorly?
  4. Responsibilities: Which part of the agreement will each party be responsible for executing?
  5. Payment terms: How quickly, at what level of interest, and in what form will the buyer issue payments?
  6. Add-ons: What additional services or products will the seller bundle with the main commodity?
  7. Future business: After the current agreement, will either party consider or commit to engaging with the other?
  8. Future events and contingencies: How will the parties adjust for future events, foreseen or otherwise?
  9. Warranties: Will the seller guarantee the quality of the product or service, and for what period of time?
  10. Returns: Under what conditions will the buyer be able to change their mind?

So thanks, Stu, for the great idea—an idea that inspired a post that will hopefully help people break through the standoffs they’ll inevitably encounter eventually.

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Success as a steadily improving BATNA

How can you know your life is broadly successful? The question is often asked, but rarely from the perspective of negotiation research. So let me share an answer implicit in that research, an understanding of which can make life negotiable: you can measure success, in part, by the trajectory of your BATNA.

Huh? Let me explain.

BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, is your next best alternative to any particular negotiation. Put simply, it’s your plan B. In general, successful people tend to see the number and quality of their BATNAs steadily increasing over time. Just a couple quick examples:

  • Multiple job offers: The most successful people tend to have employers fighting for their services rather than the reverse. In other words, they have many alternatives to any particular job. Thus, they have the luxury of choosing the best option.
  • Multiple life choices: The most successful people have many choices about how to live their life. They can choose to continue working, as most of us must But they can also choose to take some time off, sail the world in a small schooner, or simply take a mental relaxation break. In other words, they have many alternatives to their current way of living.
  • Multiple friends and colleagues: The most successful people have many people, both friends and colleagues, beating a path to their door—whether to have a beer or start a project. In other words, they have many alternatives to the relationships they find less than fully enriching.

Across several definitions of success, then, the common denominator is a consistently improving BATNA. So if you’re looking for a way to measure your success, you might consider the trajectory of your BATNA.

Negotiating while the iron’s hot

In many negotiation situations, you have no choice about when to act. If your car breaks down, you’d better negotiate with the dealer. If your teenager brings home a biker, you’d better negotiate now.

In more negotiations than you think, though, you can actually choose when to negotiate. Since picking the right moment—the moment when you find the wind at your back—can make life negotiable, let’s consider some common examples.

Timing matters tremendously, for example…

  1. When you want a kid to do something. So you need your little Shnookums to clean up the 6,793 stuffed animals coating the family room floor? Should you ask them to do it before or after their dessert? While it might seem more logical to wrap up their dinner and wash their little hands first, they’ll probably be more motivated by a future rather than a past dessert.
  2. When you want to buy a car. So you want to buy a new car later this year? Should you try to buy it in the summer, when your bonus rolls in and your workload slackens? Or the fall / early winter, when the sellers are stressing to clear their lots for the new cars? I’d consider celebrating your New Years Eve at the dealer.
  3. When you want to buy a house. So you want to buy a house in a hot market? Should you lowball the seller with an aggressive offer, knowing that they’ll get 12 better alternatives? Or make a reasonable offer now and ask for concessions later, as the inspection report and appraisal turn up the inevitable curveballs? You’ll probably get farther with the latter.
  4. When you want a coworker to support you. So you have an urgent idea and would love your coworker to support you? Should you ask them right now, before you forget? Or next week, after you’ve found yourself on the same side of a separate issue? The answer is pretty obvious, albeit overlooked often.
  5. When you want a customer service agent to help you. So you want a customer service agent to reverse that fee? Should you come out demanding it the moment she answers? Or wait until you’ve patiently provided your information and asked about her day? Since everyone else has probably tried the former, you might as well give the latter a go.

So timing matters tremendously, and here’s hoping that helps you the next time.