Negotiating the suboptimal scheduling of virtual meetings

With virtual meetings omnipresent, many of us find their scheduling suboptimal for our productivity. “That mid-morning meeting just severed my chain of thought!” “That 30-minute break wasn’t even long enough to clean up my inbox!” While many of us perceive the productivity loss associated with the suboptimal scheduling of virtual meetings, however, fewer of us see a solution.

Luckily, the negotiation literature can help. In particular, negotiation research highlights some basic principles that can make the scheduling of meetings more negotiable, assuming you have some discretion:

  1. Make the first offer: Research has long suggested that negotiators who make the first offer often (though not always) achieve beneficial outcomes. So, the next time you learn of the need to meet, why not be the first one to suggest a time (that suits your schedule)?
  2. Give equivalent options: Research has also suggested that negotiators like to receive multiple options rather than singular proposals. Giving them a choice casts you as flexible—and listening to their response might help you understand their situation. So, when you make the first offer as to a meeting time, consider suggesting not just one but a few options that work well.
  3. Consider a range offer: In normal negotiations—say over the price of a used car—there are reasons to be wary of range offers. Buyer: “I’ll pay $10-12K.” Seller: “Ok: $12K!” There are also reasons to use them strategically (e.g., by saying “$10-12K” if $12K is actually your goal). When scheduling meetings, however, the calculus is considerably simpler: If you’re free from 1-4 pm and indifferent as to when in the period you meet, it’s probably better to offer the whole range, as 1 pm, 1:30 pm, 2 pm, etc. sort of become equivalent options. With that said…
  4. Leverage the deadline effect: Just as deadlines tend to focus negotiators’ minds, a subsequent meeting tends to encourage productivity in the present meeting. That being the case, you might want to schedule the present meeting directly adjacent to the next one.
  5. Trade importance against timing: Negotiators can rarely get everything they want, but they can often get the really important things by making some tradeoffs. In the context of meetings, it’s probably unreasonable to expect a meeting with the CEO that perfectly aligns with your personal scheduling preferences. But if you can be slightly flexible on your preferences, the CEO might find a way to slip you in. Put differently, as important as your personal scheduling preferences might be, weigh them against the personal importance of the meeting.

In a world of constant Zooming, there are few easy solutions to persistent productivity loss. Still, by treating the scheduling process as a negotiation and deploying some time-tested negotiation principles, you might just find yourself zooming through your work instead.

Why the best negotiators bask in bad feelings

Most of us have had no shortage of bad feelings lately. So, many of us might be interested to learn of an important situation—negotiation—in which bad feelings are actually quite good. Put differently, bad feelings represent a necessary and useful component of many productive negotiations. So, the most effective negotiators tend to not only tolerate but bask in them—thereby making their task more negotiable.

Consider the following bad feelings and the reasons a knowing negotiator might indulge them:

  • Dissatisfaction: Negotiations rarely start until somebody, at some level, gets dissatisfied with something. You don’t buy a car until you realize you could drive a better one. You probably wouldn’t negotiate a job offer if it already fulfilled your dreams. Since dissatisfaction triggers the very need to negotiate, effective negotiators learn to appreciate it.
  • Anxiety: Truth be told, many effective negotiators feel quite anxious about negotiating. “Gulp! What’ll I actually say?” And if the anxiety persists into the negotiation, it’s probably not helpful. But at least in the short-term, anxiety may motivate them to prepare rather than winging it. Insofar as anxiety elicits the hard work needed to succeed, effective negotiators may learn to indulge it.
  • Irritation: The best negotiators don’t necessarily smile at their counterpart’s offers. They often recognize that those offers fall annoying short of a standard—perhaps a standard of fairness or a better offer. “But wait—my coworker makes twice that much!” And their irritation is critical, as it motivates them to respectfully offer a counteroffer rather than roll over and accept something suboptimal.
  • Fear: Even as they respectfully offer a counteroffer, many people experience abject fear at their counterpart’s reaction. “Are they gonna hate me? What if they say no?” Or maybe they offered a counteroffer a while ago and haven’t heard squat. “Do they already hate me?” It’s scary! But effective negotiators know they need to not only deal with their fear but bask in it, as withstanding adverse reactions and prolonged delays is often the only way to show resolve.
  • Guilt: Negotiators have many behaviors at their disposal, some more ethical than others. Since many of these behaviors fall into a gigantic grey area, negotiators must often consult their feelings—and particularly their feelings of guilt—to obtain an imperfect signal of ethicality. If an upcoming tactic elicits preemptive guilt, probably best to avoid it. If a past behavior seems skeezy, probably best to rectify it. Having had to make many tough ethical calls, the best negotiators are happy to hear from their consciences.

In sum, many bad feelings have an upside in negotiation—and the best negotiators know it. No one’s advocating for more dissatisfied, anxious, irritated, fearful, and guilty people walking around. We’ve got enough of those! Nor is anyone saying that all negotiations—or all of a negotiation—should feel bad. They shouldn’t! I’m simply suggesting that a moderate dose of negativity can be functional in negotiation—and even that experiencing bad feelings should help you walk away feeling better.