Negotiating your way through upheaval

We live in an age of upheaval—political, social, and viral. So, I thought it might be useful to ponder the possibility that times of great upheaval call for great negotiation skills. Indeed, in unsettling times like these, negotiation is often the only way to make life negotiable.

Consider the following five reasons why upheaval and negotiation often go hand-in-hand, along with some COVID-related examples:

  1. The old rules don’t apply: When the world changes, the old rules rarely change with it. Indeed, that’s kinda the point of rules—to prescribe boundaries impervious to external changes. As just one example, consider the fact that well-worn rules about the hours you’re expected to work and availability you’re expected to maintain don’t apply when everyone knows you’re inches from your computer all the time. Negotiating a new norm may offer the only way forward.
  2. New problems arise: When to work and how available to make yourself is an old problem with worn-out rules as the solution. But upheaval also tends to create entirely new and unanticipated problems—like the need to work out the terms of interaction with individuals who have very different social distancing preferences, needs, or political stances. Since new problems don’t even have worn-out rules, they place even more emphasis on negotiation.
  3. New opportunities arise: Times of upheaval don’t just create problems—they create opportunities. Perhaps Winston Churchill was recognizing as much when he said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” To consider an example close to home, many of us have recently discovered how our idiosyncratic talents—mask-sewing, sourdough-baking, podcast-recording—might represent new business opportunities. But capitalizing on new business opportunities—like most opportunities—requires negotiation with a plethora of people (e.g., partners, suppliers, customers, funders, etc.).
  4. Circumstances change fast: Even when the rules do change with a changing world, they rarely change fast enough. For example, many of us work for organizations that have already had to bin their business strategies for the next decade even though the new rules of engagement are not yet clear. Without a clear roadmap for the future, people will naturally use their individual preferences and viewpoints to chart a path forward. And whenever those preferences and viewpoints clash without a clear and relevant standard of adjudication, negotiation is often the only way of averting a conflict.
  5. New relationships emerge: Times of upheaval have a way of forcing us into new patterns of interpersonal interaction. For example, many of us now find ourselves spending less time with coworkers and more time with extended family and community members. Insofar as extended family and community members have different preferences and viewpoints on issues like mask-wearing, hobbies, and personal space—not that they ever do—negotiation becomes essential.

So, upheavals have a way of thrusting negotiation to the forefront—of forcing us to negotiate our way through the new and evolving muddle of everyday life. Here’s hoping that some careful attention to negotiation can make these unsettling times at least a little more negotiable.

Ok, so you want to barter—but how?

My last post sought convince you that now—in the midst of the COVID crisis—is precisely the time to barter. In brief, the point was that many people now have little choice but to barter, that barter is a better way of negotiating with family and friends, and that barter can help us both deal with short-term shortages and become better negotiators in the long-term. In short, bartering can make life negotiable.

But this all begs an obvious question: How? That is, how to barter effectively? So in this post, let me introduce a critical feature of bartering—the double coincidence of wants—along with three critical implications for bartering better.

As noted in my last post, bartering involves trading whatever you have for whatever you want. For a direct trade to happen, however, you have to meet one very specific condition: You have to want exactly what another person has and have exactly what another person wants—a condition known as the double coincidence of wants. As implied by the name, it can be challenging to the point of utterly coincidental to find a person and trade that satisfy that condition.

But a little reflection on the double coincidence reveals at least three ways to make it less coincidental and more attainable—principles that anyone who barters routinely knows well (and anyone who seeks to negotiate effectively should too, as described below):

  1. Understand yourself holistically: The first step in satisfying the double coincidence is understanding your own side of the coincidence holistically—that is, identifying not just what you want from a bartering trade but also what you’re offering. Say you desperately need some flour for bread: That’s great, but no one’s going to give it to you if you can’t clearly articulate what you’re offering in return. And, while you’re at it, you might as well identify some other things you need—just in case they’re short on flour but happen to have some coveted toilet paper, for example.
  2. Discuss multiple issues: It’s little use identifying your need for flour and TP—or your willingness to offer papier-mâché dolls and mow their lawn—if you’re not willing to raise all these issues in the discussion. And even if you do, it’s little use unless you prompt them to do the same, to talk about whatever it is they need and can offer. Talking about all kinds of things might seem random and scattered; at first, maybe they’ll look at you funny when you mention TP and papier-mâché in the same sentence. But a seemingly random discussion of multiple needs and offerings is often the only way of satisfying the double coincidence.
  3. Seek out multiple partners: Sadly, the first person you approach may not have any flour or TP on-hand; or maybe they do but have no interest in your papier-mâché or lawn-mowing. But by approaching several people, time-consuming as it is, the double coincidence becomes substantially less coincidental. Surely someone with some flour needs some beautiful papier-mâché! Barterers know that theirs is a multiparty endeavor.

These principles, among others, will help you barter better. As described in my book, however, that’s not all! They’ll also help you negotiate better—even when you’re negotiating over money. Indeed, no negotiator can truly excel without understanding themselves holistically, discussing multiple issues, and talking to multiple counterparts. So now’s the time to barter, both for its own sake and for the benefit of your future negotiations. Hopefully these tricks of the “trade” can help you.

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.

Should I ask for more? Three clues you might want to negotiate

One of the toughest negotiation challenges is deciding whether to negotiate at all—whether to settle for a particular portion of our own lot or launch into a negotiation to obtain more. Should I press the car dealer for a bigger discount, my colleague for an alternate meeting time, or my kids to try harder on their math homework?

In my never-ending quest to make life negotiable, though, let me offer three simple clues that, at least in combination, suggest it might be worth negotiating rather than settling.

You might want to consider negotiating if:

  1. The current outcome stinks: Most obviously, a negotiation might be warranted if you’re exasperated with the current situation. You’re peeved at the car dealer’s exorbitant offer. Your colleague’s refusal to do their job sends smoke out your ears. If the current arrangement stinks, you might consider negotiating. Importantly, though, this rule should not prompt you to negotiate everything. If you’re just a little bit inconvenienced by the current situation, you should at least check the remaining criteria before negotiating, lest you turn into one of those people who negotiates everything and thus alienates everyone.
  2. You don’t know the other side’s preferences: Assuming you’re dissatisfied with the current arrangement and have an alternative arrangement in mind, you should consider whether you have any idea how your counterpart would react to the alternative. Sometimes, we know well enough: We all know the car dealer would resist a further discount and our coworker would resist any task requiring even a modicum of effort. But in many of life’s negotiable situations, we actually have no clue: We’d really prefer to meet tomorrow but don’t know the other person’s availability. We’d really prefer our favorite restaurant to another night of meatloaf, but we haven’t assessed our spouse’s thoughts on dining out. If you’re dissatisfied with the status quo and don’t know your counterpart’s feelings about the alternative, you might consider negotiating.
  3. The costs of negotiation are low: Sometimes, the costs of further negotiations are extraordinary. As a totally random and made-up example, another day of pointlessly stonewalling will cost 800,000 employees and legions of contractors another round of paychecks and possibly send the U.S economy to the brink of recession. But in many of our more mundane situations, a bit more negotiating costs us nothing in money and a negligible amount of time. Is it really so costly to give the other contractor one more day to reply to our email, or visit the other Chevy dealer down the road? In comparison to the price of whatever we’re buying, probably not.

Ultimately, deciding whether to negotiate versus sit on our laurels requires a great deal of judgment. But hopefully these three clues help you home in on the situations most rife for a deal.

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.

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.

“No conditions on hugs!” Three situations that don’t call for concessions

Let me introduce you to one of the world’s best negotiators: she’s five and sleeps across the hall. Why does she qualify as one of the world’s best? Because she always knows exactly what she wants and takes every—I mean every—opportunity to ask for it. In particular, she sees all of my requests as opportunities to extract concessions.

“Can you please eat the rest of your dinner?” “Only if I get an extra piece of candy.”

“Can you please brush your teeth?” “Only if I get an extra story.”

In the interest of supporting her budding aspirations as a negotiator, I sometimes play along, adjusting the initial offer accordingly. Knowing she’ll request an extra piece of candy to wrap up dinner, for example, I initially offer one rather than the allowable two.

But more often than not, I don’t play along. And this aspiring negotiator would do well to learn why. Indeed, every aspiring negotiator would do well to understand the underlying lesson: that many situations offer opportunities to extract concessions, but some just don’t. And understanding which is which is crucial for making life negotiable.

Three situations in which it’s probably not appropriate to request a concession:

  1. When a concession would devalue the discussion: In keeping with her strategy, my aspiring negotiator often seizes on the request for a bedtime hug by saying, “Only if you sing another song!” Setting aside the potential merits of another song, a father-daughter hug is sacred rather than transactional—sanctified rather than commoditized. And treating it as a commodity to be bought and sold only serves to devalue the discussion. “No conditions on hugs,” I say.
  2. When you already owe a concession. My little starling—hard as it is to believe—doesn’t spend every last moment having stellar behavior. What five-year old does? And when I observe the non-stellar behavior, it’s incumbent on me to communicate as much. “We don’t throw markers on the floor,” I might say, “and now we need to have a timeout.” “Ok, but only if you let me watch a movie,” she might respond. But wait—it’s me who deserves a concession in the form of time served out—not she who deserves a concession in the form of cinematic magic.
  3. When the same concession request has been denied a hundred times before. Typically, at the end of a school day, I ask my starling to tell me anything interesting or important that happened that day. “Ok, I’ll only tell you two things,” she might say. “No, I’d like you to tell me anything interesting or important,” I always say, after which about ten things spontaneously pop out. But my aspiring negotiator, not to be deterred, requests the same concession the very next day. Now, the best negotiators are certainly persistent in the face of adversity, and they certainly try again when their first attempt is denied. But after the hundredth denial, they also conclude that they need to focus their concession requests on a more negotiable issue.

In sum, my five-year old is a master negotiator in many senses of the word. But she has yet to learn one of the most important lessons, as have many people who rank themselves among the world’s best negotiators: there’s a time and place to request concessions, as well as a time and place to accede to other people’s wishes. Identifying and accepting the latter situations can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Convincing kids to do things, part II

Last week, we considered convincing multiple kids to do things, characterizing the whole process as a multiparty negotiation. This week, let’s consider convincing one kid to do one type of thing: something good for them but not particularly appealing. For example: eating their veggies, getting their flu shot, or making some form of physical contact with the ocean during an expensive and time-consuming beach trip (not that the last holds direct personal relevance).

In my experience, a few simple, research-based tips can make these beneficial but fear-eliciting requests a bit more negotiable. For example, you might try to:

  1. Make an aggressive but justifiable first offer: Do you actually hope they ultimately eat but one veggie? I’d suggest starting by asking them to eat all their carrots, broccoli, and spinach. Then, when you eventually back down to carrots, you’ve become a reasonable and accommodating parent rather than an intransigent and annoying one.
  2. Plan for judicious concessions: I wouldn’t recommend jumping right from all of all three veggies down to the carrots alone. If you do, they’re likely to try and nix the carrots too. Instead, I’d suggest an initial concession of half the spinach, most of the broccoli, and all the carrots (or something like that). Then, make smaller and smaller concessions as you approach all the carrots, thereby signaling to your aspiring negotiator that you’ll go no further.
  3. Ask why: The most powerful word in the negotiator’s dictionary is “why.” Why? Because it often paves the way toward a creative solution. Perhaps it’s patently obvious they’re afraid of the ocean because of its immense waves. But then you ask why and hear something about its probably chilliness or sharp shells—problems you could solve by asking them to submerge a finger or wear their water shoes.
  4. Treat it as a multi-round negotiation: Supposing your aggressive first offer doesn’t work, you could always try the reverse: a multi-round negotiation in which you ask for a little and then progressively request more. Will your nervous daughter perhaps dip her toes today, wade to her waist tomorrow, and catch some crazy surf the third day? (For more on #1 versus 4, here’s a good reference.)
  5. Introduce new issues: Let’s be honest: there’s very little to like about a flu shot (other than avoiding the flu). Even you don’t even like it, so your kid won’t either—and you won’t get far by touting its benefits. In that case, you might consider adding an issue—namely, an issue that your kid will find more appealing than the shot, like stickers or lollipops. Introducing one of these possibilities upon the successful completion of the flu shot could spell the difference between a meltdown and mature acceptance.

In sum, adults know they have to do things they don’t much like. But kids often don’t, necessitating a creative and thoughtful strategy on behalf of their parents. Here’s hoping some simple tips can make these fearsome situations a bit more manageable.

Convincing kids to do things: On multiparty negotiation

Convincing multiple children to do something—anything—is a multiparty negotiation. Coming out of the bath, putting on their shoes, going to bed, you name it: it’s a multiparty negotiation (I’m told.)

Given the complexity of such situations, wouldn’t it be nice if negotiation research could help? It would, and it can. Negotiation scholars have surfaced several important principles that can make this and many other quasi-conflicts with multiple people more negotiable. Particularly relevant to parenting:

  1. Set the agenda: In any multiparty setting, research emphasizes the importance of setting the agenda—that is, dictating what will be discussed and when. So if you want your multiple kids to get out of the bath, and they also want to discuss the possibility of a nighttime snack, make sure you dictate the order of the topics. For example: “I can only discuss snacks with dry people.”
  2. Clarify the decision rule: In any multiparty setting, research also emphasizes the importance of setting the right decision rule and conveying it clearly. If it’s you and two small kids, will we decide whether we’re going to bed by majority rule or consensus? Either way, no one will ever sleep. Difficult and cold-hearted as it might seem, parents at least occasionally must remind their aspiring negotiators that the parent gets the final say.
  3. Form an early coalition: Research emphasizes the importance of forming and managing coalitions carefully. With experience, parents typically develop a refined understanding of their potential coalition partners. They know that when they want their two kids to get their shoes on, one will probably comply more readily. If so, then they might consider convincing that kid to act before making the broader appeal, thereby creating a sense of momentum moving in the direction of the front door.
  4. Break unhelpful coalitions: Perhaps you weren’t quick enough to form a stable coalition. Perhaps your two kids have conspired against you to never leave the bathtub, come low or high water. In that case, you might have to break the coalition, often by offering an inducement. “Whoever gets out of the bath first gets the monkey towel!” Just watch the coalitions shift.
  5. Emphasize ties that bind: Lest all this coalition building and breaking threaten to isolate one of the kids, it’s important to frequently reaffirm the broader identity and goals that bind the whole family together. “We all want to have fun at the amusement park tomorrow, Suzie-Q and Billy-Boy. So let’s all work together to get enough sleep.”

None of these strategies is rocket science, and anyone with kids can tell you that none will always work. In combination and with repetition, though, these strategies should start to make the multiparty negotiation of parenting at least a bit more negotiable. Good luck!