The crazy COVID situation has taught us many important lessons about negotiation—lessons that should make life negotiable whenever it returns to normal.
But COVID also holds at least one negotiation lesson that can make life negotiable now—one that, taken seriously and implemented immediately, could help us navigate this increasingly trying time: the power of bartering (trading the goods and services we have for the goods and service we need).
Immersed in a monetary economy, many of us scarcely consider bartering. When we need some toilet paper or flour, we pay some money to get them. When someone needs our labor or something else we have or produce, they hopefully pay us. So ingrained is the monetary approach to need satisfaction that even COVID is unlikely to change it soon.
Still, the following five features of the COVID situation do render the monetary approach marginally less relevant and bartering much more powerful than they were mere months ago. Now might be a good time to barter because:
Money is scarce: As industries dry up, layoffs set in, and salaries get slashed, many of us will find ourselves with fewer greenbacks in our wallets and bank accounts. So we will obviously need to supply the parties who can meet our needs with something else of value. The goods and services we have, when bartered, offer an alternative means of exchange.
Time is plentiful: Just as our bank accounts go empty, so do our calendars. Bereft of at least a few long commutes, unnecessary meetings, and social activities, many of us have at least a little more time on our hands. Whereas the absence of money is a liability, however, the absence of commitments is an asset, as it provides us with the additional free-time to put our diverse talents—from baking, to video-editing, to Etsy selling—to potentially marketable use.
It fits with family and community: As most of us spend much more time with our families and communities—and much less in a physical workplace—we need negotiation strategies suited to the setting. Our family members might be offended if we offered to sell them our bread; our neighbors might resent if we offered to rent their garden tools. But anthropological research as well as common sense suggest the bartering is more relational and thus more appropriate as a means of negotiating with family and friends. Fewer family members might get offended if we asked them to teach us video-editing after we shared our bread; fewer neighbors might resent our borrowing their tools if we emphasized they could borrow ours later. Oh, and since it’s more relational and less contentious, bartering may even offer a needed source of social connection.
Everything’s under- or over-supplied: As we all know, many traditional sources of TP, PPE, flour, and the like (i.e., stores) have become unreliable. Conversely, those of us who stocked ourselves up may find our shelves overflowing with reams of TP (or whatever else). In that world, where money-accepting stores are unreliable and friendly neighbors with TP deficiencies are cropping up everywhere, bartering may offer an alternative way of matching supply to demand.
It’s a better mindset for negotiation: Even if we weren’t living in a world with unreliable stores and widespread TP deficiencies, and even if we weren’t negotiating with friends and family instead of business partners, negotiators of all stripes may perform better when they treat their task as a bartering trade rather than a monetary transaction—even when their task involves money. Indeed, that’s the whole point of my book, The Bartering Mindset. So trying out bartering can make us a better negotiator now, and we might as well use our newfound free-time to give it a try.
In sum, for all the horrible aspects of the COVID situation, it holds some important and potentially helpful lessons about negotiation, few more urgent than the power of bartering. Happy trades to you!
Long before the virus abates, we can all see society reverting to its old ways. Be it in the increasingly strident commentary on cable news or the accelerating efforts to pin blame for a still-unfolding crisis, signs of a collective retreat into our polarized camps are apparent, as is the resurgence of the faulty assumption that anyone on the other side of any issue is wrong.
Before we completely retreat and slam our respective doors, however, let’s take a moment to review a few lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19. In particular, and in keeping with the theme of my writing, let’s review five key lessons with direct relevance for negotiation—lessons that collectively point toward a better and more productive way to negotiate, and thus a more negotiable life.
Many of us have learned from our COVID-19 experience that:
Our interests are not necessarily opposed: Pre-COVID, many of us approached negotiations thinking that whatever we want is precisely the opposite of whatever our negotiation counterparts want. COVID may have reminded us that we share at least a few select interests with even our bitterest opponents—our interests in life, health, and basic economic security, for example.
We don’t always understand our own interests very well: Pre-COVID, many of us assumed that our own interests consisted in overscheduling our family lives to the max or spending as many hours as possible chained to a solitary desk. COVID may have reminded us that these approaches to life didn’t reflect our core interests very well at all. In other words, we’ve realized that we have greater and deeper interests—perhaps in savoring small moments with family, living a fulfilling and well-rounded life, and learning to grow our own yeast.
Negotiations are all around us: Thanks to all that home time, many of us have been reminded that negotiations don’t just happen at car dealers or over job offers. They happen in our families, our communities, and really anytime we depend on anyone else’s cooperation—and who doesn’t need almost everyone’s cooperation to get by these days? More broadly, COVID may have reminded us that negotiation is nothing more than problem-solving in collaboration with others. And in the face of manifold social problems coupled with changes that upend all the rules, negotiations are sometimes the only type of problem-solving we’ve got left.
Not everything’s negotiable: Perhaps in jarring contrast to the last point, which essentially reiterated that much of life is negotiable, COVID may have reminded us that some of it isn’t. Certain issues—health, life, access to food—remain so necessary, so deserved, and/or so sacred that we might be able to negotiate them—meaning deal with them, manage them, navigate them. But they’re not negotiable—meaning optional, merely desirable, or useful as a bargaining chip.
Without preparation, everything falls apart: Say what you will about the U.S. response to COVID, but few would say we were well-prepared. Preparation matters for many reasons, but a key reason is that it enables people to make credible statements from the start—statements about the availability of testing or benefits of masks, for example—that bolster (or undermine) your trustworthiness as a negotiator over the long-term. Macro-level developments, like our own micro-level experiences, can teach us a few things about negotiation.
In sum, this virus has been undeniably horrible. But here’s hoping it’s taught us at least a few useful lessons about negotiation. They’re not new lessons—I and a great many others have said them many times before. But sometimes it takes a crisis to focus the mind. In that sense, let’s hope a very unhealthy period can teach us a few healthy lessons for the future.