Five negotiations in one short trip

I recently took a business trip up the east coast, and it amazed me how many negotiations I faced in a short day of transit. Since it never hurts (and often makes life negotiable) to remember how many daily situations qualify as negotiations, let me recount the five negotiations I faced in one short trip:

  1. Large cups: At my home airport, early in the morning and desperate for a cup of coffee, I ordered and paid for the largest cup possible. Only then, after collecting my money, did the employee notice they ran out of large cups. And believe it or not, she was prepared to offer me a small coffee for the large price! Despite my fatigue, you can bet I wasn’t willing to accept that. The interesting thing was what to do about it: Should I ask for the difference back in change (thereby getting less coffee and a whole lot of heavy change), or should I ask for a bottomless small cup? I did the latter and therefore got about two or three larges for the price of one.
  2. Shared space: My good luck continued through boarding, when I discovered that the flight wasn’t busy at all, meaning an empty middle seat. The fickle hand of fate struck back after buckling into the aisle seat, though, as I discovered that the passenger in the window seat was intent on claiming the middle seat and all its under-seat storage as her own. But then my luck swung back, as she got an important phone call that allowed me to covertly reclaim my own 50%.
  3. Seatbelt sign: Let me see if I can put this delicately: As a result of the 2-3 coffees in negotiation #1, I found myself with a visceral need shortly after takeoff. Unfortunately, I also found myself with one of those pilots who forgets to turn the seatbelt sign off. After about 25 minutes of blue skies and the notable lack of turbulence, I politely asked the flight attendant if I could use the bathroom anyway. “At your own risk,” she said. And believe me, I was ready to risk it.
  4. Engine trouble: The airport at which I landed was about 90 minutes from my destination, necessitating a car service through a rather isolated set of mountains. Unfortunately, halfway through said mountains, a loud clanking sound emerged from the engine. The driver dutifully got out, checked the engine, and somehow determined that he could keep driving up the mountain despite the clanking by reducing his speed to 30 mph. “I’m glad I’m going to get there (maybe),” I thought, “but now I’ll get there late (if at all).” So, I had to take the opportunity to ask my host for a schedule adjustment, which he generously granted.
  5. Wet weather: Ok, this negotiation wasn’t my own. But since it impacted me directly, I think it’s fair to include it: Several of us were visiting to give concurrent research presentations, but none had thought to check the Weather Channel before packing. Turns out we should have, as Mother Nature decided to drop a deluge. Luckily, one of my colleagues asked the hotel for an umbrella, then asked for an even larger one capable of shielding about four of us on the way to dinner.

These simple examples qualify as negotiations because, in all cases, I would’ve been patently displeased if I (or my colleague in the case of the umbrella) had failed to request someone else’s cooperation. The point is not to say that you should march around asking for everything in the world you want, nor would I expect every trip you take to necessitate quite so many negotiations. Still, let these stories offer a reminder that opportunities to negotiate are all around us—and seizing them is often the only way to avoid patent displeasure.

The five real meanings of “I can’t do that”

It’s your negotiation counterpart’s favorite phrase: “I can’t do that.” And it’s a discouraging phrase that most of us take at face-value, deeming our dreams as good as dashed. And sometimes we should, as it signifies the actual impossibility of our request.

But many times, we shouldn’t. Because, many times, it means something subtly but critically different. And here’s where we usually go wrong: We don’t recognize the many subtle meanings of the very same phrase, thereby rendering life less negotiable. So, the next time your negotiation counterpart says, “I can’t do that,” know that they might mean:

  1. I don’t want to do that. “Can’t” implies utter impossibility, total infeasibility, absolutely no way that could happen. Unfortunately, many of our negotiation counterparts actually mean “don’t.” As in, they don’t really feel like it. Since not really feeling like it is far less final than not being able, you’ve just discovered a golden opportunity to pry back the reasons for their reluctance. Are they concerned about the work required, precedents broken, approvals needed? Whatever it is, it’s possible you can address it (once you understand it).
  2. I can do that but don’t want you to know. It’s a sad fact of negotiation, and life more broadly. Sometimes people lie, or at least bluff. So saying they can’t is an exercise in flexible ethics meant to crush your dreams before they ever take flight. Luckily, a simple “Why?” is often enough to catch the underprepared bluffer red-handed and unable to answer convincingly.
  3. I won’t do that unless you do this. Sometimes, “I can’t” is less a lie than a gambit—an attempt to get something out of you before they comply. Luckily, a “What if I did X?” on your end can often turn the most non-negotiable issues negotiable.
  4. I can’t do that, but I can do this. Relatedly, negotiators sometimes say they can’t because they really can’t grant your super-specific request. But that particular can’t says nothing about their willingness to grant other, as-yet unmade requests. To see so for yourself, try an experiment the next time a wily HR negotiator tells you they “can’t” negotiate salary: Say ok, but ask whether they would give you something else you value for the given salary. Often, they will, which means they actually can negotiate salary—and have, by accepting your proposed tradeoff.
  5. I haven’t really thought about it. Sadly, some of our negotiation counterparts aren’t as astute or motivated as we are. We surface an idea, and it doesn’t sound much like the clunking of their mental machinery, so they reject us without really thinking it over. Here, your job as negotiator becomes to educate—to show them just how simple it would be for them to comply. Shown a simple way to say yes, many will, if only to be rid of you.

 The point is embarrassingly simple: “I can’t do that” is a popular phrase that you shouldn’t automatically accept at face-value. Maybe they really can’t—and so be it. But if it’s just that they “can’t,” then chances are you can find a way to eliminate the ‘t.

Negotiating the revision of academic articles

Anyone who writes research articles knows that responding to a revise and resubmit (R&R) decision is a negotiation between authors and reviewers. But it occurred to me recently, while working through a revision myself, that this is but when one of the many negotiations wrapped up in the revision process. Since an awareness of the other negotiations between and among the parties to a revision can make publishing negotiable, let’s consider five such negotiations:

  1. Editors with reviewers: Both action editors and reviewers generally read your paper. Since all are humans with unique perspectives, sometimes they disagree. When that happens, editors face an implicit negotiation with reviewers, born of the need to convey their own opinions to the authors without alienating the reviewers or minimizing their perspectives. Editors often resolve this negotiation through coded language, e.g., by suggesting that the authors focus on certain issues or by offering their own interpretation of a reviewer’s comment. Experienced authors learn to interpret their subtle signals.
  2. Authors among themselves: On the receiving end of a whole lot of requested revisions, the best-intentioned and most knowledgeable authors may still reach very different conclusions about the appropriate response. One author may see the need to follow the reviews to a T, collecting a boatload of data just to be sure, while others may wish to respond (more quickly) by arguing against the need for it. Thus, the authors face a negotiation amongst themselves—a negotiation that experienced authors expect and respect through its satisfactory conclusion.
  3. Authors with funders: To the extent that R&Rs request new data, they have a tendency to require more money. Thus, they also have a tendency to necessitate a negotiation between authors and funders—particularly their departments and external funding agencies. Experienced authors anticipate that and don’t hesitate to ask for more when they have to.
  4. Authors with theory and data: Whatever an R&R asks the authors to do, they cannot ethically disregard relevant theory or their own data. Sure, they can (and often should) challenge existing theory to make a contribution. Sure, they can (and often should) explore the review team’s hunches if their current or future data allow it (without pretending they hypothesized as much). But they cannot (and should not) disregard what is known or was predicted just to get published. Experienced authors know when to negotiate with theory or data and when to draw the line. Luckily, good editors respect and understand that.
  5. Editors with journals and managing editors: Least appreciated, perhaps, are the negotiations that action editors undertake with managing editors and editors-in-chief. Action editors with great articles that run long, challenge received wisdom, or miss the critical deadline, for example, may need to negotiate within the journal’s hierarchy for an exception. Experienced authors know that and try to minimize the amount of internal negotiating required to publish their article—or at least to give the action editor a strong case.

So revising an article is certainly a negotiation between authors and reviewers, as any reader of this or my previous post on this topic knows. But it’s a lot more negotiating than that, and experienced authors understand the complex web of negotiations involved in publishing their work. To the extent you wish to publish journal articles too, here’s hoping this post helps you wend your way through the web.