Most negotiators pay great attention to getting the right terms on a critical issue—a great salary, for example. Advanced negotiators also pay great attention to negotiating the right issues—not just a great salary but the right set of benefits and career trajectory, for example. But almost no negotiators pay great attention to a topic that’s at least as important as the first two: making sure they’re negotiating with the right people.
In the interest of convincing you that paying attention to the parties with whom we negotiate is just as critical for making life negotiable, let’s consider five risks of failing to do so:
- Your counterpart might not be able to decide. Oftentimes, the counterpart the world hands us can make some basic decisions but not the big decision required to honor our request. The frontline car dealer may not be able to offer that super-special discount. The HR rep may not be able to offer that super-customized work schedule. Unless we ensure we’re talking to the person who can make such decisions, they won’t get made in our favor.
- Your counterpart may be unnecessarily opposed. Sometimes, and especially when negotiating within organizations, we can choose which of several individuals to approach. We could take our proposal directly to senior executive A, or go through junior executives B or C. Without carefully considering which one to approach, we run the risk of hitting a raw nerve—a counterpart whose authority or very existence would be threatened by our idea, or someone who has some other idiosyncratic sensitivity to it. Sure, we can’t know everyone’s sensitivities in advance, but a little advance contemplation goes a long way.
- There may be a better match. As described in my book, The Bartering Mindset, the best and most successful negotiations take place between people with complementary needs—parties who happen to have what each other wants and want what each other has. Car dealers who are just dying to get our coveted model off the lot. Contractors who just happen to have a sale on our coveted cabinetry. If you haven’t considered whether your counterpart is complementary, you’ll be lucky to find that they are.
- There may be power in numbers. Many times, the best deal is actually a combination of deals. For example, you might find that a particular contractor will produce the best-looking kitchen, but sourcing your cabinetry through them would imperil your life savings. But hey, what if you hired them to do the kitchen and sourced the cabinetry from someone else? I’ve done it, and it works. Without considering your counterparts carefully, though, it just won’t happen.
- It’s a waste of time. None of us has oodles of time. But by negotiating with someone who can’t decide, who’s unnecessarily opposed, etc., we throw what discretionary time we have away. In other words, we reduce the benefits of negotiating by the opportunity cost of our wasted time. For most of us, those opportunity costs are nothing to sneeze at.
Unfortunately, as I said at the beginning, most people pay no attention to the parties with whom they’re negotiating. They might, if exceptionally talented, pay attention to negotiating the right issues. They’ll probably pay attention to getting the right terms on a critical issue, often monetary. But you, having read this post, may well be the only one considering your counterparts. For the reasons above and others, I think you’ll find it making life negotiable.
Most people assume that the benefits of negotiating = the concessions you extract. You benefit by the exact amount of the discount, raise, or additional dinner eaten by your kid.
One of the biggest benefits of negotiating, though, has nothing to do with concessions. You often benefit the most not from the concessions you extract but from the information you unexpectedly glean.
Based on experience and research alike, let me assure you that acting on this underappreciated benefit of negotiating rather than immediately accepting an unattractive fate can make life negotiable. Accordingly, let’s consider some of the most common and beneficial facts you’re likely to unexpectedly learn in a negotiation:
- Upcoming sale: While pushing for a better price, a vendor may well reveal that you can obtain it by simply holding your horses—for a month, or perhaps until Black Friday. That’s interesting, because the sale was already planned and generally available, so it doesn’t reflect a concession. Still, simply learning while negotiating surely benefits you personally.
- Untapped discount: Alternatively, you may well learn from a retailer—especially a small or local retailer—that they will charge you less if you pay by cash or check. Interesting, because the retailer didn’t make a concession—they simply informed you of a preexisting policy that, for whatever reason, had previously eluded your attention.
- Unwanted features: In the process of trying to negotiate down a peskily high-price, you may well learn that part of its peskiness is attributable to a fancy feature you never wanted and still don’t. A meaningless warranty, frivolous upgrade, unwanted add-on. Take that feature out of the mix and you suddenly have a manageable price. Again, no real concession on their part, especially if it was included not because of profit margins but because of faulty assumptions about your desires. But by stripping out whatever you don’t want, you just got the price you did.
- Unexpected sensitivity: Or, consider negotiations in your own organization. In the process of pushing for a particular objective—an exception, strategy, important procedural change—you may well learn of an odd, idiosyncratic sensitivity likely to stymie your objectives. Maybe some executive really objects to proposals that make an arch nemesis look good. Or maybe some other executive really objects to proposals he or she hasn’t reviewed first—even though he or she has never had any comment. You haven’t obtained any concessions from anyone. But in the process of negotiating, you’ve learned an odd idiosyncratic fact that would’ve otherwise sunk you.
- Underlying motive: Particularly but far from exclusively with kids, you may discover a hidden underlying motive. Perhaps the kid isn’t eating her lunch for reasons entirely unrelated to your hot buttons. Perhaps she’s just afraid of her upcoming flu shot. Now that you understand as much, can you perhaps nudge her toward nourishment by reminding her of the sticker and sucker awaiting her after the shot? No guarantees, but the point is that you haven’t extracted any concessions. You’ve simply addressed the real problem.
So when pondering whether to negotiate, don’t just ponder the likelihood of concessions. Ponder the likelihood of learning something new. Or, since you don’t know what you don’t know, perhaps ponder my assurance that there’s usually something you don’t—and should.
Ask a person their favorite activities, and they’re not likely to say “negotiation.” Most of us dislike negotiation, and some utterly despise it.
But does it really have to be that way? Isn’t it at least conceivable to enjoy negotiation?
In my role as negotiation professor, I’ve had the pleasure of observing at least a few students who seem to genuinely enjoy negotiating, in the classroom and beyond. In hopes of helping the rest of us make our negotiation-filled lives more fun and negotiable at the same time, let me recount a few of their common characteristics.
People who enjoy negotiation tend to:
- Understand the worst they can do is the same. Many of us dread negotiation because we fear a phantom calamitous outcome. We imagine ourselves getting a salary reduction or a higher price on the car. People who enjoy negotiation know that’s not likely to happen. In the face of a respectful and reasonable request for something that genuinely matters, some counterparts will say no but few will retract their offers. And assuming your request is in fact respectful and reasonable, few will fault you for trying—some may even respect you that much more. People who enjoy negotiation know that the worst possible downside is often the status quo.
- Understand the other side needs them too. Many of us dread negotiation because we assume we’re the only one who needs something. But if we’re in a negotiation rather than a command-and-control relationship, we’re not! The car dealer needs our purchase and trade-in. The employer doesn’t want to interview additional candidates after choosing you. Even the cable company needs our business, sort of. Those who enjoy negotiation know that dependence runs both ways.
- Treat the negotiation more like a puzzle than a problem. Many of us dread negotiation because we hate dealing with interpersonal problems, and negotiations seem like yet more of those. People who enjoy negotiations don’t see them that way at all. They see negotiations as puzzles to be solved by two smart and motivated people. Sure, they recognize that those two people may not be entirely aligned, but they don’t confuse partial misalignment with total opposition.
- Think beyond money. Many people hate negotiation because they fixate on money—and specifically on the risk of losing it, e.g., by paying too much for that car. As suggested in my book, The Bartering Mindset, those who enjoy negotiation know that money is typically one of several issues to be negotiated—and often the least negotiable. So they don’t shy away from the ever-important monetary issues, but they also don’t hesitate to consider the many non-monetary issues that are often substantially more malleable. With the car dealer, for example, they’re talking not just about price, but financing, floor mats, servicing, the value of their trade in, etc., etc., etc.
- Don’t knock themselves for trying. Many of us hate negotiation because we’re mortified at the prospect of failure. We can’t stomach the prospect of asking for something, getting denied, and walking sheepishly out the door. The best negotiators know they won’t always succeed—and they don’t expect to. If they try their best to no avail, they learn from whatever might have happened and congratulate themselves for trying, knowing they won’t have to wake up at 4 am questioning the salary they “could have had” if they’d asked. And sometimes they even high-five themselves vigorously for the failure, knowing as they do that “no” was actually the right answer in light of the better deal they just got elsewhere.
So consistent are these assumptions that I can usually identify the people who verbalize them as the outliers who enjoy negotiation. Here’s hoping the rest of us can learn a few lessons from the outliers that make negotiations—if not fun—at least negotiable.
Many of our most important negotiations happen at work. We negotiate job offers, reconcile competing strategies, allocate limited funds. So it would really behoove us to understand the drivers of our success in such situations—the factors that will determine whether we walk away happy or sad.
If I asked you to name just one such factor, what would you say?
Chances are, you’d name a negotiation strategy. Aggressively insist on your demands! Persuasively plead your case! Creatively seek a solution! Or some other behavior to display in the negotiation itself.
While none of these answers is inherently wrong, I’d suggest that your success in a critical organizational negotiation is often determined long before the negotiation itself—in the many less-critical negotiations and non-negotiation situations that crystallize your reputation. Critical negotiations become substantially more negotiable, in other words, when you’ve developed the right reputation beforehand.
It’s easier to see what the right reputation is if you first consider the opposite—the type of reputation you really don’t want to bring into a critical organizational negotiation. At that point, you really don’t want to be known as the:
- Constant negotiator: We all know someone who negotiates every flipping, last thing. Why do I only get 10 pencils? I need at least 12! Do we really have to go Applebee’s? I’m really hankering for the Olive Garden. Constant negotiator is not the type of reputation you want to carry into your critical organizational negotiations, as everyone will think this important negotiations is just another in your never-ending string of demands.
- Selfish negotiator: We all know someone who, though they don’t necessarily negotiate everything, they approach every negotiation (and non-negotiation) with exactly one objective: themself. Would it cost three jobs to guarantee my 12-pencil minimum at all times? No matter, as long as I get my pencils. You obviously don’t want to develop this reputation either, as everyone will come into the critical negotiation ready for battle.
- Pushover negotiator: Conversely, kind of, we all know someone who never ever sticks up for themself. Want to reduce my pencil allocation by two pencils a month, ultimately leaving me with pens alone? No matter, I’ll just buy some pencils myself. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as everyone will approach the critical negotiation with the demeanor of Jaws in the presence of a bleeding beluga.
- Reactive negotiator: We all know someone who, despite the “manager” in their title, sits around and lets the world conquer them. They seem utterly incapable of steering the course of events, and they often respond bitterly when the world steers them. Oftentimes, they just fade into the background. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as someone else in the critical negotiation will steer the negotiation in their own direction before you have the chance to, well, react.
- Incoherent negotiator: We all know someone who can never seem to collect their thoughts. Their statements are jumbled, and their requests tend toward the internally inconsistent. Thought 1: We should all get more pencils! Thought 2: Management should really cut costs! Developing such a reputation may well keep the other party on their toes. But you’re unlikely to get what you want from a critical organizational negotiation, for the simple reason that neither you nor they has a clue what that is.
So if you shouldn’t cultivate any of these reputations before a critical negotiation, what type of reputation should you to develop? A reputation as someone who confidently negotiates when they have to, but only when they have to. And when they do, as someone who confidently or even insistently sticks up for their true needs but also gives in on their non-needs, particularly when the other side truly needs the opposite. And someone who doesn’t react to negotiations as they happen but leads the way, typically by initiating and coherently guiding the discussion.
Do all of that in the small situations before your critical organizational negotiation and, dollars to donuts, you’ll walk away with the critical outcome.