Bartering over burgers: How trades and transfers can make you happier and healthier

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Negotiations over Netflix

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.

Five reasons to love ambiguity in negotiation

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” A simple question to make life negotiable

The situation’s more complicated, but I’ll first state it simply:

If I had to pick just one way that people go wrong in negotiations, it’s that they don’t negotiate. Facing a dissatisfactory situation, they just live with it. And if I had to pick just one reason that people live with it, it’s that they don’t ask a simple but immensely powerful question of themselves: “What’s the worst that can happen?” By asking that one simple question routinely, I think you’ll find your life becoming more negotiable.

Now the more complicated version: When we encounter crummy situations, we can’t always negotiate our way out of them. In particular, we’re sometimes stuck with a situation no one else can control—a difficult past, a chronic disease, weeks of icy rain in Maryland. But other times, we’re stuck with a situation another person could resolve: A crummy schedule the boss could resolve with flexible hours, a ridiculous price the dealer could resolve with a discount, a relative’s annoying habit they could resolve by just stopping it (!).

In the former situations, negotiation’s not going to get us far (though this post might help). But in the latter, the question we need to—and often don’t—ask ourselves is this: “What’s the worst that can happen?” For example, will the request of our boss really lead her to fire us, will the ask of the car dealer really cause him to kick us out of the dealer, will the huddle with the relative really drive her to the eggnog, never to utter our name again?

If the answer to such questions is yes, then kudos to us for living with it. The costs of negotiation are just too high.

But here’s the problem: Many of us don’t know the answer since we never ask the question. Instead, we implicitly equate the worst that can happen with the worst outcome in the world. But how accurate is that assumption? Will our boss really fire us for requesting some flexibility? Will the car dealer really forgo our business entirely? Will our family member really slosh away our entire relationship past and present in the eggnog? If we never ask the question, we never know the answer.

In sum, by never asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”, we often vastly overestimate the costs of negotiation, which makes any benefits pale in comparison—which makes us suffer through a wide array of solvable situations. It’s an exceedingly common situation, and thus an exceedingly common mistake. Consider some other common examples:

  • Fees from service providers: What’s the worst that could happen if we ask the bank or the airline or the cable company to waive the fee? They won’t, in which case we’re right back where we began. But they’re not going to send us to a different bank or different airline or different cable company unless they’re exceedingly irrational (no comment). And they might just make a “one-time exception.”
  • Creative ideas in meetings: What’s the worst that could happen if we raise a new and creative and slightly oddball idea in a meeting? Generally, people will ignore it and move on. But unless we’ve developed a thorough reputation for irrelevance or insanity, they won’t immediately put our career on the slow-tack. And they might just consider what we said.
  • Family preferences: What’s the worst that could happen if we suggest a different restaurant or alternative family vacation? They’ll decide against us, and then we’re stuck with the same Applebee’s or Disney getaway we were. But hey—maybe they’ll at least consider our dislike of overcooked burgers or overpriced opportunities to wait in line next time.

These are just a few of the innumerable situations where failing to ask what’s the worst that can happen leaves us with the worst that’s already happened. I’m certainly not saying that you always have the ability to ask, nor that you always should. But I’m certainly saying that when you do have the ability, you should always at least consider the worst-case.

Better meetings now: Agendas as first offers

As I and many other negotiation researchers have observed, it often makes sense to make the first offer in negotiations—more sense than most of us suppose or most of the random websites on negotiation suggest.

As I’ve argued throughout my writings on negotiation, however, the lessons of negotiation research are far from confined to formal negotiations. Instead, much of life becomes more negotiable when we construe it as a negotiation and apply the appropriate lessons. Here, let me tackle one particularly nettlesome aspect of organizational life—the meeting—suggesting that we can reasonably construe meetings as negotiations and apply the research on first offers to make them more negotiable.

If you define negotiation simply, as strategically managing situations in which you depend on others to achieve your goals, it’s easy to see why many meetings are negotiations. We go into many meetings with a purpose (if not, we might want to find a way out). And we presumably approach that purpose through a meeting because we depend on the other attendees to achieve it (if not, we might want to spend our time meeting with someone else). So at least when we go to meetings to solicit other people’s cooperation or participation, our meetings are negotiations.

Likewise, if you conceive of first offers simply, as opening gambits and not necessarily dollar amounts nor wild and aggressive demands, it’s easy to see meeting agendas as first offers. An agenda is simply the gambit that attendees use to understand the topics under discussion and plan their reactions. And that’s exactly what first offers do in negotiations—inform the other side what’s being negotiated and anchor their responses.

With that background in mind, could the features of effective first offers help us devise more effective agendas? I’d venture they could. Consider the following five features of an effective first offer in negotiations, all of which apply analogically to agendas:

  • Ambitious: The best first offers are not outrageous, but they’re ambitious. They map out the best-case scenario from your perspective. Likewise, the most effective agendas map out the full set of topics you’d like to cover, in the right order, and none of the topics you don’t. The meeting will go where it goes, but your agenda should anchor how much it covers and how far it strays.
  • Precise: The best first offers are not round numbers but precise figures (with some important caveats). That way, the offerer looks smart and the offer justified. Likewise, the most effective agendas don’t list vague topics like “status update.” They list precise topics to be covered by specific people.
  • The product of careful preparation: The best first offers don’t fly off the lips of the offerer in a flurry of over-exuberance. Rather, they reflect the output of a very deliberate plan born of very careful preparation. Likewise, effective agendas are devised slowly, through a process of careful deliberation and often preliminary consultation.
  • Firm then flexible: The best first offers are not wishy-washy nor presented in the form of a range (again, with some important caveats). In particular, they’re firm during the offering and flexible later, as the need for concessions or conversations about other issues becomes apparent. Likewise, the most effective agendas are very specific as to the intended topics, but their creators harbor no illusions that the meeting will go exactly as listed, nor do they want to. Rather, they appreciate and anticipate the importance of flexibility and improvisation as the discussion evolves.
  • Offered first: As implied by the name, first offers come before anyone else’s offer (though not necessarily “first thing,” as people sometimes suppose). That’s why they anchor the discussion that follows. Likewise, the most effective agendas aren’t whipped up and sent out in the minutes before the meeting. They’re distributed far enough in advance to preclude the possibility that anyone co-opts the discussion or proposes a counterproductive agenda instead.

Meetings are undoubtedly among the hardest features of organizational life to negotiate. So no guarantees that treating meetings as negotiations and agendas as first offers will suddenly make them negotiable. But I hope that conceiving of meetings as negotiations and agendas as first offers starts to anchor your meetings around productive conversations rather than unproductive status updates.

An underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations

I have previously argued that treating the important issues in life as negotiations rather than rules can make life negotiable. But of course, if you do that, the person on the other end and will have to decide whether to accept your attempt at negotiation or refer back to the rules. And herein lies, in my experience, a vastly underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations: Jerks are likely to see their negotiation attempts rejected in favor of the rulebook, making life distinctly non-negotiable.

Now, no one reading this post is probably “a jerk.” But since we all have to work hard to suppress our moderately-quasi-jerk-like impulses at times (or at least deal with others who seem to be working distinctly less hard), it’s worth anyone’s time to consider this underappreciated cost of jerkiness.

Allow me to explain.

When people interact in organizations, they obviously make a variety of judgments about each other. One of the most important judgments, however, is simple and dichotomous: jerk or non-jerk? And at a later point in time, when the person deemed a jerk or non-jerk comes back to the person who did the deeming—the perceiver—to try and negotiate around the rules—an exception to the approval process, a benefit not conferred to others, a faster-than-normal turnaround time—chances are the perceiver will revert back to their initial judgment. Jerk or non-jerk?

If the former, then the requester has a problem. But it’s not the problem you might think—it’s not that the perceiver will negotiate vociferously against them. It’s that the perceiver won’t even entertain the idea of a negotiation. They’ll refer back to the rules—the approval process as described in the handbook, the benefits as listed in the offer letter, the turnaround time listed on the intranet.

But what if the same request comes from a person previously deemed a non-jerk? No guarantees on the easiness or success of the ensuing negotiation for the requester, but the point is that they’re more likely to get one. The perceiver may at least consider the possibility of bending the approval process, extending an extra benefit in the interest of non-jerk retention, lighting some fires to get the critical document turned around early.

And herein lies a vastly underappreciated reason to avoid even moderately-quasi-jerk-like impulses in organizations. Only by doing so can one preserve even the possibility of solving problems through negotiations rather than rules—the former of which can make life negotiable, the latter of which won’t. It’s a simple point but one worth considering in the most trying workplace moments, or at least when the jerks seem to be outpacing the non-jerks. In the end, they’ll probably run into the rulebook.

In defense of the quid pro quo

There have been better historical moments to advocate for the quid pro quo. And I’m certainly not supporting its usage in the circumstances being considered by Congress (see below). But the recent, public demise of the quid pro quo is all the more reason it deserves a public defender. Since seeing and approaching negotiations through the lens of a quid pro quo can make life negotiable, let me try my hand.

The essence of the argument is this: Understood appropriately, as giving something in exchange for getting something, the quid pro quo is a far better way of approaching negotiations than the way we usually do. Consider three of the quid pro quo’s finest features:

  1. Balance: Implicit in the quid pro quo is the idea that both parties to a negotiation must benefit, ideally in equal measure. That’s exactly what we spend most of a negotiation class teaching the students to appreciate, as opposed to nearly everyone else’s assumption that the goal of a negotiation is to trounce the other side royally. And once the students appreciate that one simple fact, they suddenly find negotiation substantially more fruitful and substantially less hostile.
  2. Difference in kind: The literal meaning of quid pro quo is “something for something.” The beauty of the double somethings is that they allow for the two sides’ benefits to differ in kind. In other words, quid pro quo’s inherently allow for tradeoffs in which each party gets something different from a deal—ideally, whatever they want the most. This is yet another foundational lesson we seek to impart to aspiring negotiators, as opposed to nearly everyone else’s assumption that the goal of a negotiation is to focus on just one issue—typically money. Understood as the opportunity for mutually-beneficial tradeoffs across multiple issues, negotiations suddenly start spitting out many intriguing and unexpected possibilities. (More on this in my book, The Bartering Mindset, if you’re in the mood for a quid pro quo).
  3. Separation in time: As we’ve all learned from our TVs or streaming devices of late, the two parts of a quid pro quo do not necessarily happen at the same time. When that becomes possible—when negotiators entertain solutions in which each delivers when they’re ready or best equipped as opposed to right now—the range of potential agreements expands exponentially. The parties can agree, for example, to pay up when one side has the money, to update an agreement in response to a future event, or to reciprocate at a specific and crucial moment in the future. Those possibilities pretty obviously expand the solution set.

These are just a few of the quid pro quo’s finest features. Appreciate and implement them, and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll negotiate far better. But if quid pro quos are so fantastic, why have they suffered such a precipitous public demise? Let me play the part of Switzerland on the specifics but simply observe that the debate has revolved around the way the quid pro quo was used. In particular, some have argued that the specific quid pro quo in question:

  1. Was unethical or illegal: Some would claim that one or more of the somethings in question violate widely shared societal norms, ethical principles, or laws.
  2. Involved a power imbalance: Some would claim that the quid pro quo in question didn’t meet the balance criterion above because one of the parties was vastly more powerful than the other, crowding out the other’s ability to reject an imbalanced deal (and possibly any deal at all).
  3. Created unacceptable collateral damage: Some would claim that the potentially win-win quid pro quo at the bargaining table created an unacceptable win-lose for parties away from the table—parties like ambassadors and citizens of small Eastern European (or large North American) nations.

So here’s the key point: The problem with a quid pro quo is not the quid pro quo per se. The quid pro quo, in veritas, is actually a commendable negotiation philosophy, de facto. The problem with the quid pro quo, as with most philosophies in life, is when it’s applied in the wrong circumstances. Ergo, say what you will about recent public events, but please don’t knock the quid pro quo.