COVID-19: Life’s still negotiable

In moments like these, when the world’s out of control, little seems negotiable. But I’m here to tell you that negotiation is needed now more than ever. Indeed, if we don’t at least try to negotiate a new path through uncertain and frightening times, we’re sure to make an already bad situation worse.

To see what I mean, consider just a few of the many situations that now require many of us to negotiate:

  1. Cancelling a non-refundable reservation: Yes, it says the travel reservation is non-refundable, no exceptions. But actually, it SAID the reservation was non-refundable before the whole world changed. There’s literally no risk in calling up our favorite travel website, explaining the newfound need for a cancellation, and seeing what they say—though there might be some lost time. Indeed, some airlines have already said yes preemptively. Don’t negotiate, however, and you’re setting yourself up for a sure loss.
  2. Setting the new terms with your kids: Things were going swimmingly with the kids. They’d go to school, you’d go to work, and you’d reconvene in the evening. But now, they’re not going to school, you’re not going to work, and you’re about to interact continuously for a solid two weeks (at least). In situations like these, it’s important to make the first offer as to the new rules: That is, proactively and preemptively inform them what learning activities (for example) they’ll be doing before watching cartoons each day. Don’t do that, and the cartoons will automatically appear immediately.
  3. Upgrading your service: Maybe that modem was working for emails. Maybe that cord-cutting was working for the evening news. But chances are, they’re not working for your new needs now. When negotiating a new deal with your service provider, don’t get desperate! Don’t go to the provider, hat in hand, and ask what you’ll have to pay for an upgrade. Go to them with a viable fallback option in hand—another internet or cable company—and only when you’ve researched it thoroughly and would actually be willing to exercise it. Don’t do that, and you’re sure to pay through the nose.
  4. Whether to attend the meeting in-person: Hopefully everyone’s gotten the memo. Just in case someone hasn’t (or it’s ambiguous whether you can), though, you may have to negotiate virtual attendance at a meeting. In these moments, it may be helpful to remind them that social distancing is ultimately a win-win—in the final analysis and the long-term, your interests aren’t opposed. Couple that with a demonstration of the ways you can still accomplish the meeting’s objectives, and you’ll hopefully convince them. Don’t, and we all experience community spread.
  5. Speaking to someone who won’t work virtually: And then there’s (sort of) the opposite. To illustrate, I entered a parking garage the other day, only to hear the parking attendant coughing violently for what seemed like minutes. Maybe it was only those few minutes. Maybe her water went down the wrong pipe. Maybe her employer wouldn’t let her leave, or she couldn’t afford it. But if it was actually COVID-19 and she chose to stay there, think of all the parking tickets touched! If you have to talk someone into leaving the workplace, it might be helpful, rather than urging or ordering them to leave, to probe their underlying reasons for staying–their interests. Do they need a social connection? Not have the necessary technology? Need the money to make it? All problems that can, at least in theory, be solved by an employer without contributing to community spread.

In sum, notwithstanding all the bad news about COVID-19, we’d all do well to remember that life’s still negotiable. Indeed, challenging times call on all of us to negotiate life ever more vigorously than before.

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.

“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.

Small wins: Or motivating kids to eat

High-stakes negotiations often go south when the parties perceive a lack of progress. Think trade-related brinksmanship, abandoned mergers, and athletes who walk away from failed contract extensions. In such situations, the absence of progress is decisive. For the same reason, though, the presence of small wins—tiny victories offering at least a glimmer of hope—can help avert disaster.

More immediately relevant to most of us, though, are negotiations that happen closer to home: negotiations, for example, with children who refuse to eat their darn food.

Here too, the lack of progress can lead to negotiation breakdown. And here too, the presence of small wins can make life negotiable. An anecdote to illustrate:

Suppose that I had two daughters and the younger of the two—let’s call her Penelope—was taking forever to eat her food and typically leaving most of it uneaten, day after day. Not that I do or she is. What would a despairing parent do?

Well, an increasingly insistent set of demands wouldn’t work: Penelope would just dig in her heels in the face of escalating parental frustration, trust me.

But what about creating some opportunities for small wins? What if Penelope, on a nightly basis, was actually failing to eat because she saw so little chance of finishing her entire meal and thereby getting the coveted cookie for dessert? Would small doses of dessert scattered throughout the meal serve as a stronger motivator than one big dose at the end?

And such I would decide to do with Penelope, if she was real and really resisting her meals. Specifically, I’d say that for every five bites of real food, she gets one small bite of the coveted cookie. And, lo and behold, it mostly worked…eh hem, would work.

Importantly, the strategy doesn’t involve any change in the reward structure—Penelope gets a whole cookie for a whole meal, regardless. So the strategy is less about upping the ante and more about instilling confidence in Penelope—specifically, the confidence that she can in fact make it to the next bite of cookie, seeing as it only lies three bites of pasta away, rather than a whole bowl.

Just as a president’s subtly positive statement can get a trade deal back on track, a subtly subdivided cookie can help avoid disaster at the dinner table—at least until the little negotiator requests the cookie after two rather than three more bites of pasta.

 

Are kids better negotiators?

Does older mean wiser and better? In negotiations, the answer is far from clear. Indeed, as most parents can attest, kids are often surprisingly adept negotiators, displaying a plethora of negotiation skills their elders have long since forgotten. So in hopes of making parenthood and adulthood more negotiable, let’s unpack some of the long-forgotten secrets of our precious little negotiators:

  1. Sticking to their guns: Most kids have shockingly firm aspirations. Come hell or high water, they are going to get that toy, eat that junk food, or watch that particular show. In other words, they know how to fixate on their aspirations until they win! Since fixating on firm aspirations is a foundational negotiation skill that most adults have long since suppressed for social harmony, kids often succeed where adults fall short.
  2. Asking open-ended questions: My six-year-old Petunia’s favorite word is “why,” and she often utters it immediately after a nonnegotiable decree: Clean that mess, put your PJs on, eat that cereal—now! But here’s the interesting part: I don’t always have a good reason why that mess, those PJs, or that cereal really requires immediate attention. And my Petunia’s “why” quickly surfaces as much, which she quickly exploits. Long conditioned to comply with authority, most adults quash their curiosity and suppress their open-ended questioning, thereby settling for a plethora of suboptimal situations.
  3. Bartering: There’s nothing more natural to a kid than trading their candy, swapping their chores, or bartering their Christmas presents. To their own tremendous benefit, kids innately barter. For some odd reason—probably the prominence of monetary thinking in our own adult lives—most adults have long lost touch with bartering, as well as the creativity it requires (as described in my new book). So, most adults ignore or never really perceive the possibility of many trades that would improve everyone’s lot.
  4. Understanding alternatives: Kids innately understand everyone’s alternatives, and particularly their relative strength. For example, they know that if they cause a ruckus in a restaurant, the parents’ alternative of paying for an uneaten dinner and settling for rotten leftovers is worse than their own alternative of going home for free and enjoying some Kraft. Put differently, kids inherently understand their leverage. Perhaps chastened for their overly aggressive maneuvers in the past, most adults don’t see or don’t act on the leverage they have.
  5. Developing alliances: Kids don’t see the existence of two parents as a hindrance; they see their dual counterparts as an opportunity to divide-and-conquer. They know which parent is more inclined to give them soda, less inclined to mind their sloppy homework, or more inclined to forgive their misdeeds. So they naturally build an alliance with the more conciliatory parent in a given situation, entreating that parent to convince the other. Adults, perhaps aware of the social and political risks of alliances, seem less comfortable in building them.

In my opinion as a parent and professor, these are just a few of the many ways that kids tend to outperform adults in negotiations. Of course, adults generally have a good reason for their behavior: If they acted like a kid indiscriminately and across situations, they’d be kicked out of every social circle and organization. So the message is not to become a kid completely and at all times. It’s to recognize the true negotiations we face and use our cultivated wisdom to consider whether a small dose of childhood audacity might help.

Parenting by imposing a bad alternative: The battle of the stuffed pig

Parents universally struggle with fighting kids. Whether the battle concerns toys, TV shows, or name-calling, bickering opportunities about.

Faced with fighting kids, many parents detect two unappealing options: Take a side and appear to arbitrarily play favorites. Or avoid intervening and hope they figure it out. I’m here to suggest a third way that can make such situations more negotiable: imposing an unappealing alternative.

To see why that helps, let’s analyze the situation: When two kids bicker, a nearby parent becomes an obvious third-party. By imposing a decision, the parent becomes a particular type of third-party—an arbitrator—and may therefore be seen as arbitrary. By avoiding the issue entirely, the parent becomes a different type of third-party—an observer—hoping beyond hope for a cooperative solution that may never arrive in the presence of a seemingly costless impasse.

But a third type of third-party—a mediator—is probably better suited to solve this problem than either of the previous options. And, while there are many ways to mediate, a common mediation strategy is to highlight or even impose a bad alternative.

Let me illustrate with a story—not that it happened to me last week. Imagine two young children who both simultaneously demand the incredible opportunity to cuddle with a particular stuffed pig. As any parent can tell you, this situation could turn ugly quickly. But what if a parent suggested that, should the kids not identify a fair solution themselves, the pig was about to cuddle with the parent instead, perhaps permanently?

Since the parent hasn’t made a decision about the pig’s status, this approach avoids the adverse perceptions associated with arbitration. And since the parent has motivated cooperation by raising the costs of impasse, it’s considerably more potent than silent observation.

If this whole situation had happened to me, not that it did, the kids would’ve quickly seen the need to sharpen their conflict resolution skills and come up with a solution. Indeed, they would’ve rapidly surfaced the obvious idea that the pig could cuddle with one kid one night and the other kid the next—obvious, but invisible and impossible for two angry parties who attach no obvious costs to impasse.

The point is that parents naturally become third-parties when their kids go to war. Imposing a solution makes them an arbitrator; avoiding the issue makes them an observer. Better yet is a mediator, and parents have the ability to act as a high-powered mediator who not only encourages agreement but motivates it by altering the alternatives. Do that, and the most intractable conflicts we face—battles with the gravity of a stuffed pig—suddenly become more negotiable.