Win-win or win-whatever? Setting our sights just a little bit lower in negotiations

Why is it that most people—even those who take (or teach) negotiation classes—still find it hard to negotiate? I’m here to argue for one of many reasons: the possibility that in many situations, most of us set our sights just a little too high.

Anyone who’s taken (or taught) a negotiation class can summarize the course in a single phrase: “win-win.” But now let me convince you of a less ambitious but potentially more common and attainable goal that can still make life negotiable: win-whatever.

A story to explain:

My two daughters recently visited a fine-dining establishment—let’s call it Chick-pat-E—both receiving the same book as a giveaway with their kids meal. Arriving at home, one put their book on the table, and the other let theirs fall to the floor. Which is which, no one knows.

Later that day, my six-year-old arrived at the table, claimed the table-book as her own, and started to read it. My three-year-old, witnessing said events, developed uncontrollable fits of rage. “That’s my book!” she insisted immediately, repeatedly, and with increasing levels of agitation. Now, I had no idea whose book was whose, but I leaned over to my six-year-old, winked at her, and asked her to be the “big girl” by accepting the (identical) book on the floor. And my six-year-old, to her great credit and with the benefit of three years, begrudgingly recognized that it really didn’t matter. So she gave the table-book to the three-year-old and accepted the floor-book as her own. A win for my three-year-old and a whatever for my six-year-old.

Now what would a win-win have looked like? Perhaps the three-year-old could’ve claimed the table-book today and the six-year-old could’ve claimed it tomorrow? Or the three-year-old could’ve gotten first dibs at the next Chick-pat-E giveaway? Or the six-year-old could’ve gotten the table-book but gifted one of her other books to the three-year-old? All interesting and innovative solutions but hard to execute in the presence of an increasingly agitated three-year-old. A win-win in this case would’ve been awfully difficult.

Reflecting on the story, is it possible that many of us find it hard to negotiate because we’re shooting just a bit too high? Are we ambitiously aiming for win-win when a win-whatever would really do? As great as win-wins can be—and I really believe it—I’d suggest that win-whatevers are often much easier to find and execute. And I do suggest, in my negotiation classes, that they’re just as important for getting to yes. So, the next time you’re struggling to identify a win-win way of divvying up housework, deciding on work responsibilities, or allocating giveaways from Chick-pat-E, consider setting your sights just a little bit lower—not way lower on conflict or avoidance or win-loss. Just a little bit lower on win-whatever. I think you’ll start to see indifference as a virtue.

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When the equality rule fails: The case of four shells

If I’ve learned one thing as a negotiation professor, it’s that the fairest and most obvious ways of dividing resources often seem unfair and non-obvious to the parties involved. Consider the equality rule. What could be fairer than a 50-50 split? Unfortunately, the parties embroiled in a negotiation don’t always see it that way. So we need an alternative approach to make life negotiable.

To illustrate the dilemma and a set of potential solutions, let me recount a story.

My family and I recently visited the beach. One morning, I took a long run and decided to pick up some cool shells for my five- and three-year-old daughters. At first, I found three shells, thinking that more than sufficient. But then I remembered that three shells allocated to two young ladies would elicit open warfare. So I searched high and low for a fourth, finding an amazing orange one that I expected to settle the matter. Two shells for each daughter. Equality rule!

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. And I should’ve seen it coming: Both daughters regarded the orange shell as way cooler than the others, so both daughters clamored for it.

The equality rule, so obvious in theory, completely failed in practice. And what to do then? I have to admit, I didn’t immediately know, as I was shell-shocked at this incomprehensible failure of the obvious. With reflection though, I came to see that the situation actually presented many different solutions:

  • Flip a coin: I could flip to determine the lucky recipient of the orange shell, give that daughter one more, and give the other daughter the remaining two. Problem is, someone would be incredibly dissatisfied with the fickle hand of fate.
  • Share the orange shell: If the equality rule didn’t work, maybe a quasi-communist rule would. We could all agree to share the orange shell, which is great but would bring all the baggage of common property, even while leaving three shells to divide among two people.
  • Search for another orange shell: Perhaps the ideal option, this one came with an obvious problem: I’ve never seen a shell quite like that. That’s why everyone liked it. So it wasn’t going to work.
  • Return the orange shell to its marine home and find a fourth: While this would’ve technically solved the problem, any parent can tell you that it would’ve elicited far bigger problems.
  • Let the daughters sort it out: They need to learn that life’s negotiable after all, so why not let them figure out a solution of their own? I have to admit that I considered this option carefully, but I thought it might be better to guide them toward a solution.
  • Three-for-one trade: I could give one daughter the orange shell and the other daughter all three of the more pedestrian shells. That seemed promising, but they flatly rejected it. Three pedestrian shells apparently did not compare to a glorious orange one.
  • Figure it out later: Having ruled out all the other obvious solutions, I could think of only one more at the time. Why not wait until the initial allure of the orange shell had worn off a bit? Then maybe everyone’s rationality would return, making the sort-it-out or three-for-one solutions more feasible. And that’s essentially what I did, hoping for a three-for-one. Turns out, the problem got a whole lot easier when someone mentioned the candy store, and everyone forgot the shells.

So what’s the point of all this? First, that even the simplest and least controversial of situations can generate unexpected conflicts and the need for negotiation. Second, that the equality rule can easily fall flat, and we have to be flexible enough to abandon it. Finally, that the key to any negotiation really comes down a combination of creativity and patience. Once the negotiator engages their creativity and indulges their patience long enough to generate some options, a workable solution usually presents itself. Combine a little creativity and patience, and life’s a beach!

Rules versus negotiations

We all know that “rules are meant to be broken.” But what does that mean? And is it more than a meaningless cliché? By considering the meaning of the phrase, I think you’ll see that it can actually make life more negotiable.

To start, consider what rules actually do: Fundamentally, they regulate everyone’s behavior. Consider some common rules:

  • “All sales final.”
  • “11 am checkout time.”
  • “Wire transfers incur a $15 fee.”

Rules like these keep our behavior in line, preventing gratuitous returns, over-extended stays and, frivolous wire transfers. And they do so remarkably well, sending crystal-clear signals about what we can do and not do, seemingly applying the same fair standard to everyone, and coordinating our actions efficiently, without a lot of wasted time discussing. To see for yourself, just imagine the chaos if everyone could request their own checkout time. The clarity, fairness, and efficiency of rules mean they often redound to the benefit of society.

But that doesn’t mean they redound to benefit of ourselves. On the contrary, I’d imagine you’ve at least occasionally found rules like the above inflexible, if not downright arbitrary and silly. Right? I mean, does an 11:10 departure really put hotel operations into crisis mode?

Put differently, society may benefit from a proliferation of rules, but we could often benefit ourselves by breaking them—i.e., by adopting an alternative and more flexible mode of behavioral regulation: negotiations. A quick story to illustrate:

My older daughter recently had a swim lesson at 9 am, and my younger daughter and I were hoping to do some family swim in the same pool at the same time. Unfortunately, the “ZMCA” informed us of a rule: the non-lesson lanes were reserved for lap-swimming until 10 (at which point the older daughter’s lesson would be over). “If no one is using the lap lanes,” I asked the lifeguard politely, “is there any chance my (cute little, swimsuit-clad 3-year-old) daughter and I might use them to splash around?” “No problem,” she said, much to her credit.

Now the rules were the rules: No family swim till 10. But that was an inflexible, arbitrary, and silly rule in light of the complete absence of lap swimmers. In contrast, negotiating allowed the lifeguard and me to collectively and flexibly adjust to the situation in a well-reasoned and reasonable way. I would argue that many of us, in many such situations, would be happier by becoming less beholden to the rules and more beholden to negotiations.

Of course, in the interest of fairness and balance, a society full of rule-breakers would be nothing short of unbearable. Nothing would ever get done and no one would ever know what was happening, as everyone would constantly try to get everything done their way. And inevitably, the savvy negotiators would benefit at the expense of less-savvy and more obedient. That would not be socially desirable at all.

So I’m certainly not saying we should do away with the rules. That too would be silly. I’m simply saying that most of us, faced with a stunning disappointment like the sudden inability to swim, could afford to take one step away from the rules and one step in the direction of negotiation. Give it a try, and I’ll bet your life becomes more negotiable!

Assurances from an adult: A stopgap strategy for negotiating with kids

I’ve written often about the importance of trust in negotiations. Unfortunately, little children don’t always display an abundance of it—for example, when a sibling or friend wants to play with their preferred toy. To make the lack of trust negotiable, we need something more. Luckily, there’s a device that can help at least on occasion: assurances from an adult.

Consider the following three examples from my own household:

  1. Whenever my younger daughter is playing with something and I ask her to do something else like brushing her teeth, she reliably responds: “But someone will take it!” And, with that prospect looming, good luck getting the teeth brushed. Indeed, the teeth might have remained forever coated in plaque had I not discovered a way of offering an assurance—and bear with me because it sounds stupid: “hawk eyes.” I offer to watch her toy with my very own “hawk eyes,” at which point I dramatically widen my eyes and focus them on the toy in the manner of a deadly serious hawk. Somehow, it seems to work.
  2. The same daughter, while dilly-dallying at the end of a restaurant meal that lasted 12 times longer than any dinner should, expressed disdain when we unilaterally decided to box up her food. “But someone else will eat it!” she insisted. I should’ve seen that coming. While the hawk eyes might have worked in this case too, I decided to try something new: borrow her crayon and write her initials on the to-go box, such that no one else would even dare to dip their paws in her mac ‘n cheese. It calmed her down, eventually.
  3. Finally, my older daughter sometimes worries when leaving for school or summer camp that the younger one will play with and proceed to lose or warp her puzzle pieces. It’s only when I personally promise to preside over the puzzle, placing responsibility for the pieces squarely on my own person, that she musters the will to leave.

And so, when trust is lacking, assurances can offer a powerful stopgap—in the case of toys and food and puzzles but really in any case when a kid distrusts someone else’s intentions. Of course, none of this is to undercut the importance of trust itself; assurances offer a supplement rather than a substitute. But it’s a supplement that may well prevent WWIII.

Many negotiations in a Mexican restaurant

It never fails to amaze me how many of our daily interactions involve negotiation. Such is the point of this blog! But a recent trip to a Mexican restaurant really drove home the point, so I thought I’d relay it in the spirit of making life negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations, all from a single Mexican dinner:

  1. With a busy host: On our way into the restaurant, I saw a sign offering free bowling coupons to patrons. But I saw no bowling coupons upon entry. So I had to negotiate with the host by asking where I could find the elusive coupons. And the harried host looked none too pleased to track them down. But eventually, we got them. And this illustrates the principle: if you want something, ask for it!
  2. With a busy waiter: In the process of scarfing down her chips, my younger daughter seemed to get a crumb stuck in her throat. It was nothing major, but she did feel uncomfortable. So I had to flag down the first waiter I saw for some water. Unfortunately, he was carrying seven margaritas at the time. And he looked none too pleased at my interruption. But he brought the water, and pronto, when I explained. This illustrates the principle: don’t back down from your most important needs.
  3. With my older daughter: My older daughter, during the chip incident, had gone to the bathroom with mommy. That left daddy to order the drink I thought she’d like – a delicious cup of apple juice. But inevitably, daddy was wrong. What she wanted was pink lemonade. Of course! So I decided to suggest a contingency contract: If you’re still thirsty after the ginormous apple juice, I’ll buy you a lemonade. (Inevitably, she wasn’t.)
  4. With both daughters: Both daughters like to put 12 shakes of salt on each chip. Unfortunately, that’s a ticket to the cardiologist. So I had to negotiate over the salt, specifically by promising to dispense a moderate amount of salt over the entire chip basket if they would promise to drop the salt shaker. This illustrates the topic of concessions: I was willing to make a small concession in service of a greater good (my daughters’ long-term health and wellbeing).
  5. With my wife: I wanted a second margarita, as I usually do. My wife didn’t want her first, as she usually doesn’t. But I forgot my wife’s preferences and started to order my second. Luckily, she interrupted my order by offering hers, thereby illustrating an integrative solution: she saved us $15, and I got entire margarita minus one sip.

Through these somewhat silly and mundane examples, I hope you see how common negotiations can be. While few of our meals involve five negotiations, most of our lives involve negotiation in some way or another. So here’s to making life negotiable!

Happier households through narrower choice sets

Parents frequently give their kids choices: “What do you want to eat for breakfast today?” “What do you want to wear to school today?” And choices are great for enrolling them in the decision-making process.

But often, to no one’s great surprise, kids choose an option that is not particularly attractive to their parents. “Definitely some Fruit Loops!” “Definitely my (ratty old) Frozen shirt!”

And then comes the inevitable negotiation: “Don’t you want to eat something a little healthier, Billy?” “Don’t you want to wear something a little nicer, Petunia?” And so on, and so forth.

Conversations like these play out in millions of households, multiple times a day, to everyone’s great frustration. But I’m here to tell you that there’s an easy way to make life negotiable: presenting a narrower choice set.

A recent story to illustrate: I was planning out a daddy-daughter Sunday and really wanted to attach a tasty restaurant visit to the typical outdoor activity. But I suspected that the typical open-ended question—“What do you want to do with daddy this morning?”—would probably elicit an answer wholly at odds with a restaurant: “Swimming!”

Now, I know from experience that two little girls shivering from wet hair are not particularly inclined to dine at restaurants—at least without a fight. So I didn’t present the question that way. I gave them a different choice set: “Girls, do you want to take a hike in the state park or go on a bike ride?” Either choice, I knew, would be just as enjoyable for the girls. And either choice would leave their desire to go to a restaurant in-tact—even enhanced by their desire for some air conditioning and a cold drink.

The lesson is clear: In this type of negotiation and many others (even with adults), we control the options we present. But often, from a lack of preparation or genuine inclination to be as flexible as possible, we put many options on the table—including more than a few that would leave us utterly dissatisfied. So next time you face a negotiation, with your kids or someone older, consider narrowing the choice set to the point at which you too would approve of all the remaining choices.

Negotiating while the iron’s hot

In many negotiation situations, you have no choice about when to act. If your car breaks down, you’d better negotiate with the dealer. If your teenager brings home a biker, you’d better negotiate now.

In more negotiations than you think, though, you can actually choose when to negotiate. Since picking the right moment—the moment when you find the wind at your back—can make life negotiable, let’s consider some common examples.

Timing matters tremendously, for example…

  1. When you want a kid to do something. So you need your little Shnookums to clean up the 6,793 stuffed animals coating the family room floor? Should you ask them to do it before or after their dessert? While it might seem more logical to wrap up their dinner and wash their little hands first, they’ll probably be more motivated by a future rather than a past dessert.
  2. When you want to buy a car. So you want to buy a new car later this year? Should you try to buy it in the summer, when your bonus rolls in and your workload slackens? Or the fall / early winter, when the sellers are stressing to clear their lots for the new cars? I’d consider celebrating your New Years Eve at the dealer.
  3. When you want to buy a house. So you want to buy a house in a hot market? Should you lowball the seller with an aggressive offer, knowing that they’ll get 12 better alternatives? Or make a reasonable offer now and ask for concessions later, as the inspection report and appraisal turn up the inevitable curveballs? You’ll probably get farther with the latter.
  4. When you want a coworker to support you. So you have an urgent idea and would love your coworker to support you? Should you ask them right now, before you forget? Or next week, after you’ve found yourself on the same side of a separate issue? The answer is pretty obvious, albeit overlooked often.
  5. When you want a customer service agent to help you. So you want a customer service agent to reverse that fee? Should you come out demanding it the moment she answers? Or wait until you’ve patiently provided your information and asked about her day? Since everyone else has probably tried the former, you might as well give the latter a go.

So timing matters tremendously, and here’s hoping that helps you the next time.