“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.

Using your BRAIN to negotiate with the doctor

Two of my most common refrains on negotiation are these: Much of life is a negotiation, and a negotiator’s success depends on what they do before negotiating. These two conclusions come together in a common negotiation we all face routinely: a trip to the doctor’s office. Simply put, understanding a doctor’s visit as a negotiation and preparing for it accordingly can make life negotiable.

But wait—why’s a doctor’s visit a negotiation? Because anytime we depend on others to achieve our goals, we’re negotiating. Since we surely depend on the doctor to achieve one of our most important goals—our own health—it’s a negotiation. And if a doctor’s visit is a negotiation, then you need to prepare for it for the same reason you’d prepare for any negotiation: because much of the outcome is predetermined by how well you understand the situation beforehand. But here’s the good news: the same acronym you’d use to prepare for any negotiation—BRAIN—applies to a doctor’s visit in spades. To see why, let’s consider each of the five letters in turn:

  • B=BATNA (best alternative): What’s your alternative to this particular doctor if you don’t get a satisfactory diagnosis or treatment? Seek another doctor, thereby spending more money, taking more time, and generating more incomprehensible bills in your mailbox? Unless you’re seeking to solve a serious medical issue, that doesn’t sound like a very attractive BATNA. So you’d better do what you can to achieve your objectives in this visit.
  • R=Reservation price (bottom line): What’s the least satisfactory outcome you’d accept from this doctor before seeking out another? If he or she suggests watchful waiting instead of active treatment, will you consent? If he or she is too busy to offer an adequate answer to your most important question, is that gonna work for you? Either way, you’d better ask beforehand to avoid walking out in a state of severe dissatisfaction.
  • A=Aspiration (goal): What’s the best possible outcome you could hope to obtain from this visit? Are you shooting for a particular medication, referral, or treatment plan? You need to know beforehand because the doctor may not think of it or be motivated to offer it unless you ask.
  • I=Interests (underlying motivations): What do you fundamentally need to achieve from this visit? Is it really the specific medication, referral, or treatment plan, or are you ultimately seeking to fix the aching shoulder, wobbly ankle, or elevated blood pressure? It’s important to keep your focus on the underlying problem rather than the surface-level solutions, as the doctor may well offer an even better solution. If so, you should probably listen rather than sticking slavishly to a suboptimal solution.
  • N=Negotiation counterpart (the doctor): How’s the doctor likely to answer the preceding questions? In particular, what’s their alternative to you? Probably to see the next patient. And what’s their bottom line in response to your requests? They’d probably refuse to offer you something risky, ineffective, or likely to require undue effort on your part or theirs. And what does the doctor hope to achieve in your visit? Probably to reach a quick diagnosis and make a simple recommendation that helps you our immensely. And finally, what’s the doctor’s underlying interest? For good doctors, hopefully to make you as healthy as possible. So you see, by putting these answers together, that the doctor surely wants to help but probably prefers to do so not just effectively but efficiently. And that should you immensely in framing your requests.

So visiting a doctor is not so different from buying a car or negotiating a raise. In all cases, you need something important from someone else. And in all cases, using your BRAIN beforehand is critical to achieving your objectives, be it fancy wheels, a fat salary, or a healthy you.

What they’re asking for vs. what they want

Businesspeople commonly assume that customers’ requests correspond closely to their underlying needs. If he asks for the S version, he must want a sportier (yet costlier) ride. If she asks for a specific species of tree, she must want something beautiful (yet eventually ginormous). The customer is always right! But I’m here to tell you that the correlation between whatever people ask for and whatever they’re actually trying to accomplish—in business and many other arenas of life—is not statistically significant. And appreciating as much can make business (and life) more negotiable.

To see what I mean, imagine a customer in the process of renovating their kitchen—not that I’ve been there. The friendly contractor asks the dutiful customer: Can you please go to this website, take a look, and let me know what type of countertop material you want? Then, the customer dutifully examines the website and comes back to the contractor with a specific request. Quartzite!

Now what will the typical contractor assume? This customer wants something beautiful and durable and doesn’t mind an exorbitant price, not to mention continuous maintenance . But why might that conclusion be mistaken? Consider three reasons:

  1. The customer doesn’t know what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s a fact. Many people just don’t know what they’re really trying to accomplish, especially when considering a complex, multifaceted, and multidimensional problem like the countertop that will best suit their needs in the long run. So they dutifully examine the website and pick a countertop they think will meet their needs, but it won’t because they haven’t identified those needs very accurately in the first place.
  2. The customer knows what they’re trying to accomplish but doesn’t know how to accomplish it. Many customers, confronted with a website detailing thousands of countertop options, each with several thousand attributes, simply go into cognitive arrest. They simply can’t fathom the overwhelming volume of information, much less the time involved in considering it all carefully. So they simply select the first one that seems, at first glance, to minimally satisfy whatever bar they’re trying to clear. This tendency, commonly known as satisficing, can easily lead to a suboptimal request even if the customer knows exactly what they’re trying to accomplish.
  3. The customer knows what they’re trying to accomplish and how to accomplish it but is too afraid to ask. Many customers, facing a busy contractor booked out months in advance, know they would be best served by something cheap. Formica’s what I need! But they’re afraid the contractor will laugh at them, make a haughty snorting noise, or decide the project’s not worth their time. So the customer asks for something better than what they really need. But wait—isn’t that good for the contractor? Any contractor worth their salt knows it won’t be in the long run, when the bills come in or the customer starts talking to friends who really need a contractor to install some quartzite.

So never assume that requests correspond with needs! And don’t think selling is the only context when that assumption falls flat! Spouses, children, and work colleagues have all been known, on occasion, to make requests that correspond loosely with their underlying needs. Anticipating as much can make life negotiable!

Five pernicious assumptions that your service providers make about you

If you’re like me, then virtually every week brings an unexpected fee hike. Take last week, when both my cable bill and cellular bill unexpectedly jumped $20 a month. “How in the world can our service providers have such gall?”, you might ask.

Well, let me tell you how: they make five common, negotiation-related assumptions about me and you and everyone else—assumptions that the average consumer consistently proves correct. But by understanding and disproving these assumptions, you, the non-average consumer, can make life negotiable.

Specifically, your service providers consistently assume that:

  1. You won’t notice the fee increase: Your service providers commonly believe they can slip one by you—that you are one of those people who doesn’t scrutinize their statements or e-bills or direct withdrawals. Prove them wrong by approaching your bills with the mindfulness of a novice operating a power tool.
  2. You won’t have the courage to call: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you do notice the fee increase, you’ll probably be too wimpy to pick up the phone and call them on it. Prove them wrong by putting their number into your speed dial.
  3. You won’t have the time to call: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice and muster the courage to call, you won’t have the time to. This, I must say, is probably where they get the most people, stretched as we all are. But prove them wrong by thinking not about whether it’s worth your time to dispute the $20, but whether it’s worth your time to dispute the $20 x 12 months. Then multiply that amount by the number of service providers likely to jack up your fees in the near future.
  4. If you do call, a simple no will suffice: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice the fee hike and assemble both the courage and the time to call, they’ll be able to dissuade you with a simple “no.” For example, “No, that pricing promotion has ended, so we can’t put you back on it.” Prove them wrong by asking a different question. For example: “Ok, is there a different active promotion that would bring me back to the same price?” (That exact question eliminated the two $20 fee hikes mentioned above.)
  5. You won’t be willing to walk away: Worst case, your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice and call and fight for your case, you won’t walk away and go with another provider if you have to. Prove them wrong by calling with a quote from another provider in-hand. Then ask to connect with the cancellation department, which almost always proves more pliable.

In sum, your service providers are banking on your being inattentive, wimpy, busy, gullible, and certain to surrender eventually. If you want to make life negotiable, you have no alternative to proving them wrong. Unlike your service providers, I assume that you can.

Three surprising advantages of negotiating with multiple people

Many of our negotiations feature several counterparts: It’s us on one side of the table and a couple of people across it. Faced with multiple counterparts, even the experienced negotiator quakes in their boots. How can we, our lone selves, contend with multiple opponents? But a recent multiparty negotiation at the dentist’s office reminded me that these types of negotiations do not necessarily redound to our disadvantage—they sometimes afford us, the lone negotiator, some interesting, information-related advantages.

Background for the story: One of my teeth is slightly chipped. On a recent trip to the dentist, I considered inquiring about the possibility of fixing it with a filling. Let’s review the rest of the story and thereby surface some benefits of negotiating against multiple parties, in the hopes of making life negotiable.

  1. You can compare the information offered by each party. Before inquiring with the dentist about the filling, I decided to inquire with the friendly hygienist. Specifically, I asked her whether, after sinking a boatload of load of money into an expensive filling, it would stay in for more than five minutes. “On that tooth, it’s hard to keep the filling in there for long,” she said. Then, after the hygienist had left the room and dentist had entered, I re-asked the same question. “Oh, that will definitely stay in for a long time,” the dentist assured me. Same question—two very different answers. Interesting.
  2. You can take action based on the information disparities. Hearing the discrepancy between the hygienist’s and dentist’s opinions, I started to experience some uncertainty as to its source. Did the discrepancy reflect the dentist’s advanced training or…eh hem…his other interests? So I asked him about the possibility of a contingency contract in which he would guarantee the filling for a certain period of time or give me my money back. He very begrudgingly agreed, suggesting the discrepancy reflected his advanced training, sort of.
  3. You can control the information you provide to each party. At this point, the hygienist reentered the room, and the dentist overoptimistically interpreted our conversation as indicating I was ready to schedule an appointment for the filling immediately. And before I could correct his overzealousness, he had shaken my hand and left. The hygienist, in turn, walked me upfront, repeated the dentist’s message to the scheduler, and wished me well. But before the scheduler had even opened her Outlook calendar, I seized the opportunity to tell her that I was actually only interested in learning more about the procedure—specifically, its price and whether my insurance would cover it. So I asked her whether she would call me with the price, at which point I would consider and call her back (a form of ratification). The introduction of this third counterpart, the scheduler, was all that saved me from an expensive and premature agreement.

In sum, the next time you find yourself on one side of a table and multiple people on the other, don’t panic. In many ways, you, the lone negotiator, have the informational advantage. Seize it!

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.

Don’t let ‘em get you down! Getting past the barriers to customer service negotiations

In many of our negotiations with companies—the fee-charging bank, formidable cable company, irascible airline—our toughest challenge is not the negotiation itself. It’s getting to a negotiation in the first place. The fact is, many companies just don’t want to negotiate with you—the formidable you—because they know they just might lose if they do. So many companies have devised elaborate methods of preventing a negotiation from ever happening. Since overcoming the most common of these barriers is the only way to make customer service negotiable, let’s consider a rundown:

  1. Bottomless email pits: A favorite tactic of the irascible airlines, particularly my old friend “Reunited,” many companies set up elaborate online forms to email them, then seemingly send your email right to the recycling bin. At least it appears that way, since you never get a reply (other than the obligatory “We promise to reply”). Still, getting to a negotiation often requires you to try, perhaps repeatedly.
  2. Buried phone numbers: Another favorite of the irascible airlines relates to the phone number. Put simply, many companies make finding the relevant number just slightly easier than finding the Holy Grail. Getting to a negotiation requires you to look doggedly hard, often clicking down some extremely esoteric paths.
  3. Labyrinthine menus. Once you finally find the phone number, it’s nearly unthinkable to connect with a person directly. The formidable cable company, for example, often sends you into an overwhelming thicket of menu prompts, none of which relate to your need (ever). Getting to a negotiation may require you to hit zero incessantly, shout “representative!” repeatedly, or just wait a very long time. To that point…
  4. Endless wait times: Have you ever called a customer service line and found the call volume to be unusually low? A favorite of the fee-charging bank, I would surmise it’s a tactic to cool your negotiation jets, the hope being that a sizable number of customers will give up and hang up. But you can’t!
  5. Hapless front-line representatives: I’m quite certain I’m not the only person who usually finds the representative who eventually answers the phone either unable or unwilling to negotiate. It could be a coincidence or a lack of training. Or it could be a subtle way of curtailing your negotiable hopes and dreams. Getting to a real negotiation often requires you to get to someone who knows what they’re talking about and/or can do what you’re talking about.

So don’t let them get you down! Chances are you’ll be feeling quite up once you eventually surmount the barriers and find yourself negotiating.