When and why to pick your battles: The hidden connection to logrolling

We’ve all heard the hackneyed organizational advice to “pick your battles.” But there are two interrelated and semi-obvious problems with this (and much other) advice: No one can clearly say when or why it applies.

Luckily, negotiation research has something indirectly but highly relevant to say about picking your battles. Since understanding what it is can make organizational life negotiable, let’s unravel these cryptic comments further.

The negotiation literature has not, to my knowledge, directly investigated picking your battles. But it has often investigated the negotiation strategy of logrolling, in which you make a concession on a relatively trivial issue if (and only if) your counterpart concedes on something of critical importance to you. You accept the silly financing plan if the dealer gives you the coveted discount. You agree to work on the task you secretly sorta like if your coworker relieves you of something onerous.

As you might suspect from the examples, the ability to effectively logroll is central to the ability to effectively negotiate in general. The logic is simple: It’s often considerably more satisfying to get everything you want on a really important issue (and nothing on something trivial) than is to get half of what you wanted on both.

Now what (in the world) does this have to do with picking your battles? Quite a lot, actually. Because what does it mean to pick your battles if not to let someone have their way on an issue that doesn’t really rock your world (but might rock theirs), in expectation that you’ll demand your way on a future issue capable of making your own world shudder? Put like that, the connection to logrolling is obvious: picking your battles is simply logrolling spread over time—conceding on the unimportant issues of the present in exchange for someone else’s concessions on the critical issues of the future.

If you buy the analogy, then you should find it easier to detect the situations when the advice really applies: when you’re dealing with an issue that’s trivial to you and critical to them, as well as a person you expect to depend on in the future. (If any of these conditions don’t apply, battle away!) Additionally, you should find it easier to motivate your own battle-picking since you can now see the benefits looming down the line. Most importantly, you should increasingly find yourself waging and winning the critical battles at work rather than belaboring and losing the continuous war.

College as negotiation

People don’t typically think of college as a negotiation. Just like other aspects of life, though, it is—actually a bunch of them. And just like other aspects of life, thinking of it that way can make life negotiable.

With the back-to-school season approaching, let’s unpack what in the world I’m talking about and why it matters. In particular, let’s consider the following five situations commonly faced by a college student and why it might help to think of them as negotiations, defined here as discussions with interdependent parties to resolve partially conflicting goals:

  1. Dividing the labor: The seemingly omnipresent group project almost automatically necessitates a discussion about who will do what. Though students might think of such discussions as purely collaborative—and hopefully they are!—they’re negotiations insofar as anyone’s preferences don’t perfectly align—and typically they don’t! Thinking of these discussions as negotiations should help you, the college student, build on points of disagreement, particularly by finding ways to ensure everyone’s at least sharing the load through tasks they find manageable or worthy of learning.
  2. Setting the rules. Anyone who’s ever live with a roommate—or several—knows that a common room or house does not guarantee a common set of assumptions about appropriate behavior. An open discussion of the obvious flashpoints before they flash, however, should help to prevent any flashing from happening—or at least provide a common reference point when it does.
  3. Negotiating work-life balance. College students are notoriously stressed by the competing demands of work and life. But as I’ve mentioned before, achieving work-life balance really involves negotiating thoughtfully with yourself. Thinking of it that way can prevent you from driving yourself crazy.
  4. Negotiating fair terms. Fellow professors, please forgive me. But you, the student, should consider yourself entitled to certain basic benefits from all of us (or at least our TAs). A non-exhaustive list might include an accurate syllabus, clear teaching, assistance with tough concepts, explanations of grading decisions, and referrals to additional resources if needed. (Please note the conspicuous absence of “the grade you want”.) If you’re not getting what you reasonably deserve, though, you might consider the situation a negotiation, though you also might also omit that term from the conversation with your professor.
  5. Requesting course assistance. The bad thing about college is that some courses seem impossible. The good thing about college is that different students consider different courses impossible. If you need some help from a particular course guru, don’t miss the opportunity to ask. By the same token, if you happen to be the course guru yourself, don’t hesitate to help. In the first case, they’ll surely make a reciprocal request later. In the second, you’ll make the request—or at least you’ll make yourself a friend or earn yourself a root beer. You might not think of such requests as negotiations. But trades like these actually lie at the heart of negotiation, as described in my negotiation book, The Bartering Mindset.

To conclude, it’s probably reasonable to think about college as a big bundle of negotiations. Since you go to college to educate yourself anyway, why not treat your college years as one big opportunity to learn negotiation too?

Using your BRAIN to negotiate with the doctor

Two of my most common refrains on negotiation are these: Much of life is a negotiation, and a negotiator’s success depends on what they do before negotiating. These two conclusions come together in a common negotiation we all face routinely: a trip to the doctor’s office. Simply put, understanding a doctor’s visit as a negotiation and preparing for it accordingly can make life negotiable.

But wait—why’s a doctor’s visit a negotiation? Because anytime we depend on others to achieve our goals, we’re negotiating. Since we surely depend on the doctor to achieve one of our most important goals—our own health—it’s a negotiation. And if a doctor’s visit is a negotiation, then you need to prepare for it for the same reason you’d prepare for any negotiation: because much of the outcome is predetermined by how well you understand the situation beforehand. But here’s the good news: the same acronym you’d use to prepare for any negotiation—BRAIN—applies to a doctor’s visit in spades. To see why, let’s consider each of the five letters in turn:

  • B=BATNA (best alternative): What’s your alternative to this particular doctor if you don’t get a satisfactory diagnosis or treatment? Seek another doctor, thereby spending more money, taking more time, and generating more incomprehensible bills in your mailbox? Unless you’re seeking to solve a serious medical issue, that doesn’t sound like a very attractive BATNA. So you’d better do what you can to achieve your objectives in this visit.
  • R=Reservation price (bottom line): What’s the least satisfactory outcome you’d accept from this doctor before seeking out another? If he or she suggests watchful waiting instead of active treatment, will you consent? If he or she is too busy to offer an adequate answer to your most important question, is that gonna work for you? Either way, you’d better ask beforehand to avoid walking out in a state of severe dissatisfaction.
  • A=Aspiration (goal): What’s the best possible outcome you could hope to obtain from this visit? Are you shooting for a particular medication, referral, or treatment plan? You need to know beforehand because the doctor may not think of it or be motivated to offer it unless you ask.
  • I=Interests (underlying motivations): What do you fundamentally need to achieve from this visit? Is it really the specific medication, referral, or treatment plan, or are you ultimately seeking to fix the aching shoulder, wobbly ankle, or elevated blood pressure? It’s important to keep your focus on the underlying problem rather than the surface-level solutions, as the doctor may well offer an even better solution. If so, you should probably listen rather than sticking slavishly to a suboptimal solution.
  • N=Negotiation counterpart (the doctor): How’s the doctor likely to answer the preceding questions? In particular, what’s their alternative to you? Probably to see the next patient. And what’s their bottom line in response to your requests? They’d probably refuse to offer you something risky, ineffective, or likely to require undue effort on your part or theirs. And what does the doctor hope to achieve in your visit? Probably to reach a quick diagnosis and make a simple recommendation that helps you our immensely. And finally, what’s the doctor’s underlying interest? For good doctors, hopefully to make you as healthy as possible. So you see, by putting these answers together, that the doctor surely wants to help but probably prefers to do so not just effectively but efficiently. And that should you immensely in framing your requests.

So visiting a doctor is not so different from buying a car or negotiating a raise. In all cases, you need something important from someone else. And in all cases, using your BRAIN beforehand is critical to achieving your objectives, be it fancy wheels, a fat salary, or a healthy you.