One of the biggest challenges any negotiator faces is getting the full truth from their counterpart—in particular, learning the real interests lurking behind their positions. Why’s my coworker really pushing that proposal? Why’s the homeowner really delaying that inspection?
Facing a less-than-fully forthcoming counterpart, most of us draw a simple conclusion: They must be concealing something. Or, taking it a step further—they must be a liar.
I’m here to tell you, however, that negotiators fail to disclose their full interests for many reasons that have nothing to do with deception. Since understanding those reasons can make life negotiable, let me outline five of the most common:
They don’t understand their interests: It’s much less intriguing that than the hypothesis you’re facing an ethically-craven knave, but it’s probably more likely: Your counterpart simply doesn’t understand themself. Be it time pressure, an overabundance of issues, or a shortage of self-awareness, a plethora of factors conspire to place many negotiators at the table without a full understanding of their own interests. If so, then the best recourse is not to suspect them but to stimulate some introspection.
They’re too close to the problem: Conversely, some negotiators understand their situation quite well—so well they’ve got a set of blinders glued to their faces. They’ve been in the organization so long, know the business so well, etc. that they’re just sure their position is right. Only problem is they can’t tell you why—and don’t see the need to. If so, the best recourse may be to ask a series of open-ended questions that progressively unglue their blinders.
It’s too sensitive: Sometimes, negotiators hesitate to disclose their interests—or at least write them in an initial email or state them in an initial phone call—because those interests are simply too sensitive. Maybe they’re pushing that proposal because the boss has threatened them if they don’t. Maybe they’re delaying that inspection because they’re too busy grieving for the person who lived there. In these situations, the best recourse may be to win their trust over an extended period of time, then ask.
Telephone game: Sometimes, the person across the table is not the person with the problem under consideration. They’re just representing the person with the problem, in which case they could’ve easily fallen victim to the telephone game. Maybe the problem owner didn’t reveal their own interests, or maybe they did and something got lost in translation. Either way, your counterpart’s reticence may amount to garden variety communication breakdown. If so, the best recourse may be to send some questions back to the problem owner or request their presence at the next meeting.
High-context communication: Sometimes, the person across the table thinks they’re sharing their interests, plain as day, but you’re not hearing them. This may or may not happen in married couples, but excellent research suggests it’s quite common in cross-cultural negotiations. Whatever the setting, here’s the issue: One negotiator is using high-context communication—embedding the message in facial expressions, tone of voice, and other subtle hints—whereas the other is receiving low-context signals—looking largely to the words. If so, the best recourse may be for the low-context negotiator to play back what they’re hearing and ask the high-context negotiator to elaborate.
What’s the point? It’s really simple actually: When you encounter a negotiator who seems less-than-fully forthcoming, resist the temptation to diagnosis their behavior as deception or their demeanor as deceptive. Instead, consider that something about the situation may be prompting their seeming evasiveness, and focus your attention on discovering what it is.
I love to eat out with my family. But I and any other adult who eats at restaurants receptive to small kids often encounters a problem: The meals on offer don’t quite match their culinary or health goals. In these situations, and in accordance with my book The Bartering Mindset, I’ve found that trading and transferring resources can make everyone happier—and life more negotiable.
Allow me to explain.
My family and I frequent a favorite American restaurant. Despite the many tasty dishes, most have a few features that don’t entirely satisfy. In particular, most taste great but come in unnecessarily large portions, or with incredibly unhealthy sides. What’s more, the kids’ menu is disappointingly small. In sum, most of the menu options promise a less-than-entirely satisfactory meal to one or more parties.
And that was the situation facing us on a recent Friday. Sitting there staring at the menu, I wanted a burger that happened to come with an unnecessary second patty and an overabundance of fries. The older of my two young daughters wanted a burger but couldn’t find one on the kids’ menu. My wife’s selection came with a bun she never eats. The younger of my two young daughters hankered for some fries but only wanted mains that didn’t come with them—in particular, plain pasta. And she scoffed at the meatball that would actually accompany the pasta. Finally, those potatoes that came with my wife’s dish looked awfully good to me.
Can you guess what we did? That’s right – we transferred and traded food! Specifically, we sent:
My burger to daughter: I offered my second patty to the daughter who wanted a burger, and thereby eliminated my temptation to eat it (which, of course, required a negotiation with the waitress, who was not accustomed to serving the second patty on a separate plate).
Wife’s bun to same daughter: When the daughter facing the prospect of a bun-less patty complained, my wife happily offered to unload the bun she never ate. Needless to say, a reduction in complaining benefited us all.
A few fries to other daughter: Once the younger daughter agreed to eat the plain pasta and I later observed her doing so, I fulfilled my promise to give her some fries. This allowed her to enjoy the preferred dinner option plus some fries while further advancing my own health.
That daughter’s meatball to me: In return, I politely requested her entire, delicious, homemade meatball, which I knew she didn’t want (and I couldn’t understand why). This put my health right back where it would’ve been if I had eaten the fries—and perhaps the second patty.
My wife’s potatoes to me: I asked to sample my wife’s potatoes. She obliged, perhaps in tacit anticipation of some reciprocal fries.
This idiosyncratic and slightly embarrassing story illustrates a much broader and more important point: Neither mealtime nor life typically satisfies every last one of our wants and needs. But by openly exploring whether to transfer and trade resources with those around us, we can often make several parties happier at the same time. Indeed, as my book suggests, that’s the essence of negotiation. So whether it’s as simple as a meal or as complicated as a business transaction, I’d encourage you to barter your way to a better life.
One of our most common negotiations occurs on the couch. There we sit, next to a partner or friend, vigorously debating our differing opinions about what to watch.
Given their ubiquity, could more productive “Netflix negotiations” (as we’ll call them) make life as a whole more negotiable? On the off-chance they could, let’s review some of the most contentious types of Netflix negotiations and, for each one, some lessons from negotiation research that might help.
What to watch: Probably the most common Netflix negotiation involves two parties with fundamentally different preferences for entertainment. One loves the lovey-dovey, while the other soaks up the blood and gore. In these cases, as in many negotiations, the parties tend to spend far too much time persuading each other to love the love or soak up the gore. They spend far too little thinking up creative solutions like: 1) Outlander, or 2) You watch the love on your time, I the gore on mine, and we spend our collective time watching an entirely different genre we both like. I mean, neither solution is THAT creative, but since they both require a fundamentally different mindset, many of us just miss them.
Whether to binge: There are those of us who would prefer to watch an entire show on one exceptionally long sitting. And those of us who like to savor a show for weeks if not months. Assuming both parties could theoretically adapt to the other’s preferences, perhaps a tradeoff would help: We binge-watch the show that’s got you all hot and bothered, then we savor the show that’s really firing my pistons?
Whether we’re going to like it: Sometimes, we’re both open to trying a show, but we have differing expectations about its likely entertainment value. Rather than diving into the uncertainty with apprehension, as many people do, could the apprehensive person hedge by preemptively requesting that both parties reevaluate the show’s quality after a certain number of episodes, sort of like a contingency contract?
Whether to turn it off: Similarly, and more than most people would admit, we’re both eager to watch a show, and we invest a huge amount of time in doing so. But then we privately sour on the show and don’t really say anything for fear of disappointing our partner or friend. Instead of wasting yet more of our precious lifetime, however, may I suggest something like a post-settlement settlement – an open, albeit gentle discussion as to whether both parties would actually prefer to move on? Research on pluralistic ignorance suggests that you’ll be surprised by the proliferation of yeses.
Which show to prioritize: Given the abundance of excellent content, we’ll naturally encounter numerous situations when our partners or friends prioritize shows differently. They’ll really want to watch show X next , whereas we’ll really want to watch Y. We could draw straws or choose one or the other depending on the parties’ persuasiveness. But why not rely or an objective standard like Rotten Tomatoes? Or ask each party to develop a list of several shows in order of priority, kind of like a multi-issue offer? Who knows—the show you both ranked second might increase your collective happiness more than the show they listed first and you listed twelfth. And if you’re truly talking to a partner or friend, it’s your collective happiness that matters.
In the context of international treaties, mega-dollar mergers, and impeachment procedures, Netflix negotiations may not seem so consequential. But negotiations over Netflix, in addition to being more frequent, probably have a more direct line to our immediate happiness. So I’d say we should at least consider whether the lessons of negotiation research can produce happier and more harmonious moments on the couch.
One of the least-liked features of negotiations is their ambiguity. In many negotiations, we say some things, our counterpart says some things, and then it’s totally ambiguous what anyone should say or do. But I’m here to tell you that ambiguity is one of the very greatest features of negotiation; indeed, a negotiation particularly mired in ambiguity is often a negotiation going well. In a word, ambiguity makes negotiations negotiable.
If that seems paradoxical, let me outline five unambiguous reasons to love the ambiguity of negotiations in general—and to particularly appreciate our most ambiguous negotiations. Ambiguity in negotiations allows you to:
Make the first offer: In most any negotiation, both negotiators face major ambiguity as to the appropriate terms: what price to offer, what raise to request, which division of labor to propose. But that’s fantastic, as it allows the negotiator with slightly more courage and preparation to make the first offer and thereby set the tenor of the conversation.
Move from positions to interests: The worst negotiations feature no ambiguity at all. Instead, the parties’ positions are crystal-clear, opposed, and set in stone. What could be clearer than that—and less productive? But if you’re experiencing ambiguity instead, chances are the parties haven’t yet locked themselves into intractable positions, meaning you still have hope of moving from positions to interests.
Ask a lot of questions: If the options on the table seem clear, many people typically feel foolish asking a lot of questions. If it’s your way or my way, what else does anyone need to know? A pervasive sense of ambiguity about the viable options, in contrast, provides a beautiful justification for a multitude of questions. Blame it on your slow cognition or apologize for your embarrassing need to clarify, but query away! Since open-ended questions are one of the most powerful tools for ferreting out those critical interests, chances are your queries will help immensely.
Explore creative solutions: Relatedly, people who seem to face clear agreement options tend to resist muddying the waters by proposing something entirely new and possibly a bit wacky. When nobody at the bargaining table knows what constitutes a viable solution, however, there’s no yardstick for judging what’s wacky and what’s not. And wackiness in the form of creative and unanticipated solutions is often all that stands between you and an impasse. Ambiguity lets you go there.
Use ratification: In non-ambiguous negotiations, it’s kinda uncomfortable to ask for some time to think it over or check with someone else. If the possibilities are so straightforward, why would anyone need to? But the presence of lingering ambiguity, even as the deal seems done, affords ample reason to contemplate, crunch the numbers, or consult the various stakeholders. In a word, ambiguity provides cover for a strategy, ratification, that can dramatically improve your leverage.
In sum, as much as we might dread it, the ambiguity of negotiations is typically our friend, and particularly ambiguous negotiations tend to be particularly productive. To those points, let me hasten to add one thing: not all ambiguity. It’s obviously unhelpful if you or your counterpart has no idea what you’re trying to get from a deal, or has ambiguous authority to decide. More generally, ambiguity that obscures the negotiators’ own interests or authority probably won’t help. Still, I hope this post helps to highlight how many of the ambiguous moments in negotiation we should really appreciate or even stimulate in hopes of keeping the possibilities open—and our chances of satisfaction intact.