Ask three times!

How often do you find yourself asking organizations for favors—discounted prices, waived policies, or extended promotional rates? Quite often, I’d suppose. And how often do the organizations say yes on the very first try? Hardly ever, if your experience is anything like mine.

But don’t hang up in a flurry of despair! Because the best negotiators know that asking multiple times—sometimes of multiple people—is often the only way to achieve their objectives. Indeed, in the domain of organizational favors, I’d say that asking at least three times is the only way to make life negotiable.

Consider five reasons:

  1. You might get a different answer. Many organizations are not known for the consistency or impeccable training of their customer service representatives. Perhaps the first representative declined your discount request simply because they yet haven’t received the discount training? And perhaps the second or third just received it yesterday?
  2. You might get a better answer. Anyone who’s ever dealt with an organization knows that “talking to a supervisor” often produces a better answer than talking to whomever answers the phone. It’s not the supervisor and the answerer are operating off a different set of policy waiver policies. Indeed, the second person is probably not even a supervisor. It’s just that they reserve the policy waivers for the people persistent enough to ask for the supervisor.
  3. You might get a more helpful person. Everyone has a bad day now and again, and customer service representatives are far from the exception. Indeed, it’s just possible that today’s the lucky day for the first representative you encounter, in which case your chances automatically increase by talking to someone less crabby.
  4. You might get experience asking the question. In addition to surfacing different people and answers, asking several times increases your own understanding of the issues. For example, a comment during your first conversation might reveal that the organization doesn’t offer “discounts” for the current bundle of services, but it might be willing to unbundle the services and reduce the price accordingly. Can you ask like that on the third try?
  5. You might learn something about the organization. Even if you don’t get a better answer or representative, and even if you don’t come up with a better way to phrase the request, you might learn something useful about the organization. At a minimum, you might learn that the organization is not delivering the level of customer service you expect, prompting a useful consideration of your alternatives. Better yet, you might gain a general appreciation for the types of policies the organization cannot waive and the types they might—an insight that will probably come in handy the next time you need a favor.

In sum, you should not take organizational denials as the end of the story—at least not until you’ve encountered a few of them. Instead, you should try to see a few organizational denials as a natural part of the process—a series of no’s on the eventual road to yes.

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Make it easy for them!

Scarcely a day passes when we don’t need a coworker to do something—respond to an email, review a report, run an analysis, take a web survey, or offer a status update. So deep is our dependence that we’ve developed a sophisticated repertoire of strategies for eliciting others’ responses. Some of the most popular:

  1. Persuading them: Reviewing the 12 critical reasons why they really need to respond to that email.
  2. Exhorting them: Underlining, emboldening, italicizing, CAPITALIZING, or ALL OF THE ABOVE-ING to drive home the urgency of reviewing that report.
  3. Scaring them: Painting a subtle or not so subtle picture of the dire consequences associated with the absence of that analysis.
  4. Burying them: Reminding them about the web survey so unbelievably often that they take it just to stop the emails.
  5. Going above them: Taking your request for the status update directly to their boss.

These strategies all share the same goal: they seek to highlight the costs of non-compliance. As a result, they often produce the very same outcome: non-compliance.

So here’s a simple but frequently-overlooked alternative: Make it easy for them! In other words, try to make compliance so simple that they almost can’t help themselves. I’m here to tell you that it can make life negotiable. Some examples:

  1. Instead of reviewing the 12 critical reasons they need to respond to the email, copy and paste the email they’re supposed to respond to right below yours, preventing them from having to scroll for the next 5 minutes.
  2. Instead of EXHORTING them to review the report and referring them to the long-deleted message from 3 months ago, reattach it when you remind them.
  3. Instead of scaring them into completing the analysis, ask whether you can answer any questions about it or help clean up the data.
  4. Instead of burying them with reminders about the web survey, move the link they’re supposed to click to the subject line.
  5. Instead of going over their head to get a status update, complete the status update form yourself and ask them to verify whether you got it right.

In addition to coming across as substantially more pleasant, such strategies create channel factors: powerful catalysts of behavior. So the next time you’re thinking of making it harder for another person to say no, consider making it easier for them to say yes.

Three subtle strategies for correcting others’ screw-ups

Life presents many difficult situations, but few more difficult than the need to highlight someone else’s screw-up—actual or potential. Although identifying another person’s error is often the only way to correct it, many of us are so conflict avoidant as to ignore the issue completely. Unsuccessful car repair? Memo riddled with mistakes? Wrong color iPhone? Oh well…

Why so conflict avoidant? In part, because we think we have to mention the issue explicitly and fear the other side’s angry response. But the savviest among us know many subtle ways to highlight a screw-up without angering anyone at all. Just three such strategies that have made three accompanying situations in my own life more negotiable:

  1. Play dumb: We recently bought a fixer-upper and have had to do substantial fixing-upping, including a replacement of the heating unit. The company that did the replacement did good work, but we noticed one nettlesome issue: the master bedroom got a whole lot warmer than any other bedroom. No one was particularly eager to confront the owner of HVAC company, seeing as we liked him and otherwise appreciated his work. So we played dumb: “This is our first time replacing a heating unit; is it supposed to emit a lot more heat in the master than the other bedrooms?” Anyone could see that it wasn’t. But this innocent question offered an easier way of broaching the topic, and he responded by apologizing and adjusting a simple setting. So playing dumb can help, but only in cases like these when you trust the other party to offer an honest answer.
  2. Ask a related question: I recently took a work trip to Houston followed by a personal visit to my grandparents, who live in a suburb called The Woodlands. Having visited them before, I know the way to The Woodlands. Hence my alarm when the car service seemed to go in the opposite direction, as confirmed by the little blue dot on my iPad. It’s gonna be pretty uncomfortable for a visitor to ask a professional driver if he knows his way around his own town, I thought. So I asked a related question: “How long will it take us to get to The Woodlands from here?” “45 minutes,” he answered, “since this way isn’t as jammed as I-45.” Phew. Asking a related question certainly helped, though it did carry the risk of leaving the main question unanswered. What if he thought I was asking about The Woodlands out of idle curiosity, answering the question even while transporting me to Louisiana?
  3. Ask someone else: We have a favorite gastropub, which we visit as often as little ones allow. And we love the free biscuits dispensed before the meal. The only problem is that the biscuits don’t always arrive, sometimes because the server forgot. And it’s kind of uncomfortable to raise the possibility, particularly when interacting with the same server who’s served us a hundred times. So sometimes, while ordering in the presence of the server and the absence of the biscuits, I turn to my daughters and ask: “Do you want any biscuits today?” The answer, of course, is a resounding yes—and the server generally gets it. But there’s always the possibility that he won’t pay attention, the question being directed to someone else.

Bottom line: life occasionally requires us to address someone else’s goofs, actual or potential. But the prospect of implying that they goofed can petrify us into a state of frozen inaction. But it really doesn’t have to! Life also affords a variety of strategies for conveying our point implicitly. So don’t remain “frozen”—“let it go!”

Responding to reviewers: Lessons from negotiation research

Those of us who write academic papers often describe the process of responding to reviewers as a negotiation, and a tough one at that. But is that just a handy metaphor or does the process of responding to reviewers really look anything like buying a car or requesting a raise? The answer matters because the latter possibility implies that the negotiation literature could actually teach us something useful about the review process.

I’m here to argue that responding to reviewers is, in essence, a negotiation. Thus, the negotiation literature does have something to teach us and can, in fact, make the review process more negotiable. I could write a book on the topic, and maybe someday I will. But now let me lay out five basic principles from negotiation research that can readily improve how we respond to reviewers:

  1. Concessions: When young scholars receive their first review, they often react in one of two ways. They either: a) fire offer a vitriolic response letter indicating how few of the reviewers’ brain cells are operable, or b) tear up the first draft of their own paper and start afresh. In other words, they tend to make no concessions or a ginormous concession. The research on concessions in negotiation suggests that neither response is optimal. Instead, the best concessions are real and meaningful but also not so huge as to undermine a person’s own interests. Better than either of the above responses, then, is to consider the reviewer’s comments carefully and make meaningful changes that reflect them, but never lose sight of your vision for the paper and thus lose control.
    2. Interests versus positions: Oftentimes, reviewers ask us to do things to our manuscripts that seemingly make no sense. In other words, they take positions that seem irreconcilable with our own. In these situations, we can take a cue from Getting to Yes, which advises us to focus on interests rather than positions. Much as the specific request a reviewer is making (“I’d like to see you do X”) might make little sense, the concern underlying the suggestion (the interest) is often substantially more valid. Moreover, once you understand it, you can often address it quite readily, albeit in a potentially different way—and your different way can often satisfy the reviewer even better.
    3. Listening and building trust: Acting as a reviewer, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is a response letter indicating that an author has not really read or considered my comments. They might’ve read and responded to the first half of a particularly important comment, for example, but neither said nor done anything about the second—hoping, perhaps, that I somehow miss the omission. Or they might’ve referred me to their answers somewhere else in the response letter—answers that I either can’t find or that don’t address the comment in question. As a reviewer, this has the effect of destroying my trust. I spent my own time trying to help an author, and here they are, the hot shot, signaling: “I’m not listening—I don’t care.” The research on trust in negotiation suggests that there is no better way to destroy a negotiation. As authors, we can do better, if only by always responding to every point every reviewer makes, even if we have to disagree or repeat some sentiments expressed elsewhere in a response letter.
    4. Asking questions: Oftentimes, a reviewer asks us to do something. We do something and say “here’s what I did.” There’s no dialogue: we assume we did what was requested, thank you very much, and we assume that the reviewer will obviously agree. Barring the obvious “drop the extra line break” or “make this heading italic” type comment, which don’t require much dialogue, why not at least occasionally ask the reviewer whether our response actually addressed his or her concern? Something like: “Here’s what I did. Did I address your comment sufficiently? If not, can you please let me know how to address it better?” Perhaps we think that avoiding such questions will prevent us from having to endure another round of reviews. (There’s gonna be one anyway.) Or perhaps we really don’t care whether the reviewer is pleased. (But if we’d better if want to see our ideas published.) Either way, asking questions seems like a worthwhile strategy (in moderation).
    5. Separating the people from the problem: Unfortunately, some reviewers are just downright nasty. Notwithstanding any of our own overtures to build trust or ask questions, they appear to despise not only our work but our entire selves. Or at least that’s what we gather from the tone of their reviews. Even more unfortunately, we often see such reviews as an excuse to respond in kind. We lose sight of the underlying goal and instead launch our own personal tirade. Or perhaps we even go behind the reviewer’s back and complain to the editor. Inappropriate as the reviewer’s behavior may be—and is—we just can’t respond in kind. Once again, Getting to Yes provides some guidance: “separating the people from the problem.” Despite the reviewer’s problem with us as people—and thus our problem with them—we have to find a way to detect the substance buried deep in their pile of poison, responding per points #3 and 4 regardless.

I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on responding to reviews. If I had a penny for every rejection…

Still, I do think these basic lessons from the negotiation literature can help us navigate the choppy waters of the review process, emerging at some port somewhere instead of sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Dealing with the dense: Implicit negotiation

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of taking my daughters to one of those fall farm thingies—you know, the combination hayride / pumpkin patch / opportunity to pet some animals? At one point, my four-year old expressed a desire to climb up and drive a pretend wooden tractor, only to be pushed aside by a boy at least twice her age.

Apparently he needed to drive that tractor to Tahiti, as he was up in the saddle for at least five minutes. And apparently his father was heading to Tahiti too (or left his brain there), as he showed no particular concern for my eagerly awaiting daughter or the line of increasingly anxious toddlers behind her. “Daddy, I wanna get UP there!” mine insisted.

Now here’s an approach that can make life negotiable, I thought. Speaking loudly enough to be heard over the engine of a tractor, even though this particular tractor didn’t have one, I replied: “You’ll have to wait your turn, honey. It’s important for EVERYONE to take turns on this tractor.” Apparently that reply loosened a few lug nuts in the dense guy’s head, as he rapidly summoned his progeny down from the tractor. And up went my four-year old.

Fall farm thingies aren’t the only venues in which we face the prospect of confrontations with potentially dense people. If they were, this story would be little more than a funny diversion. But I’d guess that most of us, at some point in our professional lives, have had to deal with a coworker who wasn’t pulling their weight. Right? 

In these situations, like the tractor showdown, emotions build while conflicts brew. In these situations, like the tractor showdown, we might eventually have to confront the problematic person head-on. But in these situations, like the tractor showdown, we might save everyone a few headaches by trying another strategy first: implicit negotiation, in which we signal our concerns by saying something to someone else.

Suppose that Jim wasn’t pulling his weight on a three-person team also consisting of you and Jane. You could potentially confront Jim, and you may yet have to do that. But first, why not strike up a conversation with Jane when Jim happens to be sitting in the next cube (and probably surfing the net)? “Jane,” you might say loudly, I’m concerned that you had to assume too much responsibility for the last report. It’s important that we all do our fair share. How can we make sure that none of us has to do too much on the next report?” You might even coordinate her reply in a little pre-meeting huddle.

Now, Jim, head buried in the Daily Mail, may not hear you, in which case you’ll have to deal with him directly. Then again, it’s always possible Jim, like the dense dad with the tractor kid, will actually hear you and densely process the implications.

It’s not a foolproof strategy, but what strategies are? Nevertheless, I’ve found implicit negotiation better than direct confrontation, if it just so happens to penetrate some grey matter.

Have you ever used implicit negotiation?

 

Contagious conflicts: The case of the brawling boaters

My home state of Maryland is famous for all things water: crabs, the Bay, the Naval Academy, devastating floods, and now this viral video. In case you don’t care to watch, let me summarize in a sentence: a bunch of…less sophisticated folk…are boating on the Choptank River, and two of them get in a massive and unrestrained brawl, which sends the boat flying and threatens the safety of their fellow passengers and many nearby sailors.

This amazing video illustrates an important feature of conflict, an awareness of which can make life negotiable: blind spots. In general, blind spots are important factors or consequences that we overlook when making decisions. In negotiations and other conflict situations, blind spots are common. In the case of the brawling boaters, the obvious blind spot was this: an insufficient appreciation for the impact of their conflict on the many people around them. With the possible assistance of their friend James Beam, they showed no apparent concern for the many innocent people imperiled by their uninhibited violence.

While these brawlers may seem very little like ourselves—and let’s hope that they are—I’m sorry to say that this particular blind spot probably afflicts us all. Even if we don’t brawl on the Choptank, most of us are insufficiently cognizant of the ways our conflicts afflict others. When we fight with our coworkers, we often overlook the effects on our families. When we fight with our families, we often overlook the effects on our coworkers. And understanding this particular blind spot after the fact is not enough if we can’t process it in the heat of the moment.

So here’s the point: conflicts are almost never confined to the people at the table. At a minimum, our conflicts afflict other people through our sour demeanors. Quite possibly, those sour demeanors help to fuel further conflicts with the people afflicted. While blind spots are inherently hard to spot (hence the name), an awareness of this particular blind spot is a good place to start. Knowing that our conflicts afflict others might at least motivate us to define all of the relevant “others” in our own lives. Having consciously defined who we care about, we’re in a better position to erect a Chinese wall between our conflicts with one group and our interactions with another.

As usual, not rocket science, but hopefully food for thought—especially if you happen to find yourself on the Choptank with an angry and intoxicated fellow.