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.

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!

Renovating a room? Three more reasons to get multiple quotes

I’ve previously advised you, when hiring a contractor, to obtain several quotes. And I’ve so-advised for a specific reason—a reason that most negotiation instructors would fully endorse: because you’ll then have an alternative, providing leverage over the preferred contractor’s price. But I’m here to suggest some less recognized but no less important reasons to engage with multiple parties—reasons that can easily make your contracting more negotiable.

Consider just three:

  1. You learn about the issue: We’re currently pondering a bathroom renovation and have invited several contractors over to offer their ideas. And simply by talking to several independent parties, I’ve learned all kinds of interesting and esoteric things about bathrooms—from the building codes about medicine cabinets to the standard height of a toe kick (in addition to what a toe kick is). Had I talked to just one party, I would’ve amassed few such nuggets of information—nuggets that will inevitably inform the final decision.
  2. You hear lots of ideas: You’d think: one bathroom, one set of possibilities. But then you’d be wrong. Each contractor has offered an entirely different vision for the same space, multiple layouts with markedly different advantages and disadvantages. Had I talked to just one party, I might’ve been showering in some awfully strange places or paying to move some awfully expensive pipes.
  3. You learn about your own preferences: Talk to a neoclassical economist, and they’ll probably tell you that you understand your own preferences. Talk to me, and I can tell you that, if I had any a priori preferences about a bathroom renovation, I had no idea what they were. But in the process of conversing with multiple contractors, I’ve come to develop some rather refined renovation preferences. Slate floor? Only if it’s smoothed. Oval mirror? Looks awfully nice between some rectangular cabinets. Only by talking to multiple parties did I come to understand myself.

So, talking to multiple parties is not just about driving the price down. It’s also about understanding whatever it is you’re negotiating about—as well as yourself. Without that, no discount will make your bathroom negotiable.

Still misunderstanding myself

Last week, I discussed a classic negotiation blunder made by none other than myself: misunderstanding my own preferences. Since the consequences of the initial mistake continue to accumulate, why not continue the story? I hope that this post, if not the last one, can make your own life more negotiable.

To review my previous post, I simplemindedly agreed to do some major landscaping work on behalf of my landscaping company and thereby save some money. Since the savings paled in comparison to the difficulty and painfulness of the task (“my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water”), this was a bad decision right from the start.

But then I returned from a work trip to find the landscaping company’s work completed and another whole segment of my own work left to be completed. In particular, I found piles of mulch, oodles of dirt, and a whole collection of mountain laurels—all needing to be installed now since Mother Nature had already graced us with the first half of an eight-day thunderstorm. So there I was, fresh off the plane, in mud up to my knees, waiting to spread my stuff and bury my laurels. And there I stood for time immemorial, dripping and resenting my stupid savings.

Now, to be fair, I had no way of knowing Baltimore’s forecast when I signed the contract in March. (Baltimore’s forecasters rarely know it a day in advance.) Still, when signing the contract, I failed to account for more than my preferences. I failed to account for the important contingency that the work would occur when I was gone. In retrospect, I should have at least found a way to ensure that they would do it when I was home and could ease into my own planting, preferably without a thunderstorm.

In sum, and this is the end of my self-flagellation, even negotiation professors make negotiation mistakes, and my failure to consider my own preferences was compounded by my failure to think through the contingencies. So let this be a lesson to you, and a lesson that makes your life much more negotiable and substantially less muddy.

Misunderstanding yourself: A classic negotiation blunder

Even negotiation instructors sometimes make negotiation mistakes. Since I recently made an exceedingly common mistake, perhaps it’s worth the public shaming that will necessarily come with sharing. At best, the story should make your own life more negotiable. At worst, it’ll offer me a form of catharsis.

Most of us tend to assume that we know ourselves completely—our every desire, need, and preference. It’s our wily counterparts—their needs, desires, and preferences—that we assume we don’t know and need to find out during a negotiation.

While we do know ourselves better than anyone else, I’m here to tell you that we don’t know ourselves well enough for a negotiation. Put differently, we can’t assume we don’t need to inquire into our own preferences carefully each time we negotiate. We always need to understand ourselves better.

To that point, my family recently decided to pay for a fairly involved and expensive landscaping project. Forever the negotiation professor, I tried to experiment with various methods of reducing the price. Voila! I could do so by performing a portion of the work myself. Sounds good, but the devil’s in the details—in this case, the work:  I would have to clear an exceedingly long, 20-foot wide strip of overgrown jungle that would challenge even the mightiest of bulldozers, pulling up fathoms of English ivy and removing decades of discarded yard waste.

“I’ll do it,” I foolishly declared, without asking myself whether my preference for savings outweighed my preference for health, happiness, and life satisfaction in general. And now, several days removed from an entire weekend of clearing, my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water. Oh, and I’m still sad that I had to miss my daughter’s T-ball game.

Now, was that really worth the savings? In retrospect, not really. Turns out that, although I do prefer savings to no savings, I don’t prefer savings to a totally lost, unproductive, and painful weekend of social isolation in the searing sauna of Maryland sun. In other words, I didn’t understand my own preferences particularly well—or if I did, I didn’t carefully compare them against each other.

I say this not just to poke fun at myself but because it’s a mistake that most of us make often. We assume, when negotiating, that we understand own preferences so well that we don’t need to consider them at all. I’m here to tell you that we always do.

So the next time you’re negotiating, don’t pull a Brian. I mean, do pull the Brians described in many of my posts, but don’t pull this one. Treat your own preferences as a question to be considered, a riddle to be solved, a topic rife for inquiry. Do that, and I think you’ll find your back less sore and your life more negotiable.

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.

Declaring yourself a negotiation superhero—By considering your plan B

Worried about an upcoming negotiation? Dreading the back-and-forth? The fast ones your counterpart is sure to pull when you’re not looking? Well, don’t fear: here’s a research-based suggestion that can make negotiations negotiable: actively thinking about your BATNA.

I’ve repeatedly discussed the importance of BATNA: your Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement, or simply your Plan B. As noted by me and countless other negotiation researchers, having and knowing and improving your BATNA lets you walk away from an unproductive negotiation. Less appreciated, I think, is the way that actively thinking about your BATNA before a negotiation can steel you for some upcoming bargaining—at least when your BATNA is decently attractive.

To see what I mean, imagine you’re about to talk to a flooring contractor who is likely to quote you an unattractive price. Imagine further that you have another decent quote in-hand, and you’d like to get your flooring upgraded but really don’t need to. You detest negotiation in general—and especially with pushy salespeople. Accordingly, you’re dreading the upcoming interaction and secretly hoping he calls to cancel.

In this situation, most people are so consumed with worry that they simply forget about their BATNA. Somewhere in the back of their brains, they know that they can always walk away from an overly pushy contractor, but they don’t actively focus on the fact that this guy is just one minor blip in a long list of potential next steps.

But why not?

Why not stop, forget about the pushy contractor, and refocus on the fact that you don’t really need this guy’s flooring, or really any flooring at all? Thinking like that, you’ll realize that it’s the pushy contractor who should be nervous: It’s he who stands to lose a large chunk of change if you don’t like his proposal—he who’d better fear the formidable you and your ability to bolt. Thinking like that, you can confidently place your hands on your hips, puff out your chest, and declare yourself a negotiation superhero.

So the next time you’re fearing an upcoming negotiation, stop thinking about it! And refocus on the fact that you don’t really need it, that you have a plan B.

It’s a powerful strategy but comes with two obvious caveats: First, it obviously falls flat if your BATNA is bad. If your foot is falling through to the basement and all alternative quotes are unbearably expensive, it clearly won’t really help to consider them (though we often vastly overestimate the unattractiveness of our alternatives). Second, it’s not a great idea to keep thinking about your BATNA when the guy actually appears at your doorstep. Instead, as noted elsewhere, you should shift your attention toward your target when negotiating and only return to your BATNA at the end.

So let this be the beginning of the end of your negotiation fears! Our alternatives are often far better than we think, if we really think about them—and we should.

Contracts as conversation starters

If you’ve ever hired a contractor, you know there’s something about a contract that makes it seem final. Maybe it’s the careful calculations, detailed specifications, or numerous terms and conditions. Regardless, there’s something about most contracts that make them seem like the end of the discussion. But I’m here to tell you that a contract is often only the beginning, and that assuming as much can make life much more negotiable.

A quick story to illustrate:

My sisters and I wanted to buy a snowplowing service for my parents for Christmas (don’t worry—they already know about the contract). Having contacted several companies for quotes, I received a contract that included a charge for each visit—and an increasingly large charge depending on the snowfall amount. That would be fine for a snowplowing service in Florida, but my parents live in a much snowier location, and my sisters and I only had a fixed amount of money to spend. So I requested protection against a huge bill in the form of another contract that charged a fixed amount. The snowplowing company obliged, but the fixed amount was high enough to make me worry about the possibility of a Florida-like year, in which case we would be vastly overpaying. So I requested one more revision to the contract—a rebate if the company did not have to visit much at all. The company again obliged, offering to waive a third of the cost if it didn’t happen to snow much. Overall, we got a great service that will take care of the lion’s share of the snow, but will also protect us against vastly over- or under-paying.

I relate this long and winding tale not because I think you’re particularly interested in snowplowing. I relate it because it illustrates how treating a contract as a conversation starter can often be the only way to get the kind of contract you need. And getting the contract you need is often the only way to make life negotiable. So the takeaway is simple: don’t take a contract’s calculations, specifications, or terms and conditions as an indication of finality. Take the contract as an opening gambit, in an ongoing discussion, about an agreement that makes everyone happy.

What, we agree? Compatible issues in a disagreeable world

It sometimes seems that seething disagreements surround us. Crazy passengers punching out flight attendants, angry politicians launching invective, nasty comments following a nice news story about puppies and kittens.

At times like these, it’s easy to forget that we actually agree with each other quite often. In negotiation-speak, we can easily lose sight of the compatible issues—issues on which we completely agree with our counterparts—all around us. To help make life negotiable, let me illustrate through five examples:

  1. We all want to have a good flight/stay/meal. So does the airline/hotel/restaurant. What with the bad service we so often receive, it sometimes seems our interests are completely opposed to the interests of airlines/hotels/restaurants. And it’s true: they all want to save money where they can. More importantly, though, they all want you to come back and/or say nice things to your friends and acquaintances. Our interests are more aligned than unaligned.
  2. We all want to be at a job where we can thrive for the long term. So do our employers. It seems that many employers want to squeeze every ounce of effort from their employees, then spit them out. And some do. More often than not, and in spite of outward appearances, though, many employers would prefer to keep you around for the long-term, if only because it costs so much to replace you (anyone, really).
  3. We all want to minimize the amount of time a contractor spends at our house. So do our contractors. When plumbers dawdle, when electricians take a smoke-break, it seems that they must be padding their paycheck. Right? And maybe some are. But most of the contractors I’ve dealt with are so busy that they’d rather get the job done and move on—if only to make more money, an additional call-out fee often exceeding an additional hour of time.
  4. We all want our kids to be happy. So do our kids. Kids do strange things, some of which seem almost certain to undermine their long-term happiness. In such instances, it’s worth remembering that our kids probably aren’t trying to ruin their own lives. They just don’t understand the consequences or have the benefit of long-term thinking. So arguments that start from the assumption our kids want the same thing we do (and did) will probably work better.
  5. (Most controversially…) We all want as few car repairs as possible. So do our dealers. Does it sometimes seem that your car dealer wants to reconstruct your engine every time you need an oil change? Some dealers undoubtedly propose unnecessary repairs. But many—at least of the manufacturer-owned variety—would probably prefer to do fewer repairs. And the reason resembles the airlines/hotels/restaurants. They can make a lot more money if your first car functions so well it convinces you to buy another from them (or advise your friends to).

These are just a couple of the many common real-world situations when we tend to agree with our counterparts more than we think, if not completely. This list is not intended to cover every airline, employer, contractor, kid, or car dealer—certainly not! Nor is it comprehensive—far from it! It’s merely intended to reiterate that we all actually agree with other once in a while, if not routinely. In a world of deepening polarization, rumbling faultlines, and spiraling incivility, I think it’s a point worth remembering.

Delayed response: Replying to emails sluggishly but strategically

I have to admit it: I am a compulsive email replier. I feel the acute need to reply almost immediately to every email I receive. Unfortunately, this tendency is not always helpful, particularly in the context of an email negotiation. Indeed, sending a delayed reply, uncomfortable as it may be, can help negotiators in many situations claim value, thereby making life more negotiable.

So let’s examine what those situations might be. Consider the following five moments in an email negotiation that might call for a delayed reply:

  1. When they act inappropriately. It’s a hard fact of life: Negotiators sometimes act inappropriately. They make demands that are not just aggressive but uncalled for. They try to intimidate you. They break social conventions if not overt rules or laws. In these cases, a delayed response (perhaps a permanent delay) may be best, as it signals your reaction without drawing you into the downward spiral likely to ensue if you take the bait.
  2. When you want them to concede. More commonly, negotiators make requests that are not necessarily inappropriate but are also nowhere near the terms you deserve or need to reach a deal. You ask a service provider to match a $1000 discount offered by another provider and they offer a $25 gift card to the jelly-of-the-month club. In these cases, your silence may make them just uncomfortable enough to prompt an unsolicited additional concession.
  3. When you want someone else to weigh in. The email negotiations we all face in the workplace often involve multiple people. You are just one of the 12 people CC’ed on a message and eventually expected to reply. But wouldn’t it be helpful if someone else weighed in first—an ally, perhaps, or even your boss? A delayed reply can often create the space for someone else to speak first, which can often bolster your case.
  4. When you want to signal your alternatives. Particularly when you’re buying something big (e.g., a new kitchen, car, or landscaping service), you need to get multiple bids. In part, these bids help you learn and compare. In part, they help you gain leverage and convince each seller to put their best price forward. But the latter only happens if a seller suspects you’ll compare their price. Hence the need to signal that you’re obtaining multiple bids. Many sellers who send quotes and then receive delayed replies are sophisticated enough to intuit the reason.
  5. When you want to signal you’re in no particular rush. Alternatively, you might want to signal you’re in no particular rush to purchase a particular good or service. This approach is particularly useful for goods and services that most people buy in a moment of desperation—roofs, basement waterproofing solutions, and air conditioners, for example. Unlike most customers, who probably reply to such sellers within seconds, your delayed reply can convince them to cut the common sales tactics and focus on offering something competitive.

In sum, silence is aversive for many of us, in email or in person But temporary silence in the form of a delayed reply can also be wise in the context of an email negotiation, particularly for the purpose of claiming value. With that, let me silence myself…

Negotiating with neighbors by planting the seeds of trust

If you’ve ever owned a house, you know that much of your happiness inside the house is attributable to people who live outside the house: namely, your neighbors. The fate of every homeowner is at least partially in the hands of their neighbors. Good neighbors—nice people who will work with you to resolve any neighborly issues—make you never want to leave a place. Bad neighbors? They make you want to call the moving company today.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to place all of your happiness in the fickle hands of fate? If you could exert at least some control over this particular corner of your life, thereby making it more negotiable? There is: by building a trusting relationship before you ever meet your neighbor at the negotiating table.

We all tend to think that negotiations start when you sit at a long mahogany table, casting a steely glare at your wily counterpart, sitting all the way at the other side. They don’t. First of all, and as I hope you’ve gathered from my posts, most negotiations don’t involve long mahogany tables; they happen every day whenever we depend on someone else. Second, and more relevant to the current post, negotiations start long before you start “negotiating,” or at least they should. Indeed, negotiations start when you become aware of someone who will eventually become your negotiation counterpart. Consequently, the best negotiators don’t wait for chairs or mahogany tables; they start building a trusting relationship as soon as they possibly can.

What does this have to do with your neighbors? Well, every homeowner eventually has to negotiate with their neighbors. Have you? From constructing new fences, to felling old trees, to mitigating noisy teenagers, to driving a piece of construction equipment across their yard, to borrowing a tool—opportunities or even necessities to negotiate abound. Your negotiation will go a lot better if you’ve planted the seeds of trust beforehand. And, by the way, getting along with your neighbors is the right thing to do.

For the purpose of this post, though, let’s focus on the initial, instrumental goal of planting the seeds of trust, in the interest of promoting a successful negotiation. Supposing that was your primary goal, how would you do it? Here are five tips for building trust before you even start negotiating, based on a paper Jeanne Brett, Amit Nandkeolyar, and I published in Harvard Business Review:

  1. Assume they’re trustworthy from the start. Even before you meet people, you can assume the best, the worst, or somewhere in between. If you immediately assume that best, that tends to start a reciprocal cycle of trust, as I’ve said before. I’d encourage everyone to at least give that assumption a try.
  2. Take their perspective. There is a lot you can glean about a person before you know anything about them. If they’ve been living next to a bunch of renters who didn’t take care of the house you now own, wouldn’t they be interested in hearing about your intentions to overhaul the place (not that this has happened to me)? Take a guess at what’s important to them, and frame the conversation with those interests in mind.
  3. Act consistently and reliably. People trust others whose behavior they can reliably anticipate. It’s amazing how much trust you can build by consistently taking in the trash can and never letting your lawn reach the length of the African savannah.
  4. Signal your trustworthiness. People also glean your trustworthiness from the signals you send—particularly any similarities you might choose to highlight or signs that you lead an upstanding life. So if you share a common (passionate to the point of obsessive) interest in the Baltimore Orioles, for example, make sure to mention that. If you have a respectable career, there’s no need to brag, but it wouldn’t hurt to signal your occupation as a sign of trustworthiness.
  5. Show a genuine interest. It’s amazing and sad at the same time, but the number of people who show a genuine interest in each other seems to plummet all the time. So even if you came in with the initial, instrumental goal of priming them for your major construction announcement, ditch that goal once you get to know them, and try to show a genuine interest in who they are what they’re all about.

As I suggested before making this list, it would be good to treat your neighbors well even if you never had to negotiate with them. But since you do, you might as well kill two birds with one stone.

How have you built trust with neighbors?

Getting the most out of your contractor

With the advent of the do-it-yourself revolution in home improvement, we are all tempted to look it up on the internet and then, well, do it ourselves. Tiling, painting, plumbing—internet as guide, house as palette. And when we can’t—when the task is too complicated or the time is too short—the temptation is to once again look it up, then pay somebody to do exactly what we would’ve done if we could’ve done it. Right?

Right, but wrong approach. Useful as the look-it-up-and-shoot approach may be for DIY, it’s usually not the best way to engage with a contractor. So if you need to hire such a person anytime soon, here’s a tip that can immediately make life more negotiable: tell them what you’re trying to accomplish, not what you want them to do.

The difference is subtle but significant. And it’s well-established in negotiation research, which consistently advises negotiators to focus on interests rather than positions. In negotiations, that means telling your counterpart your underlying needs and motivations as opposed to your overt demands and offers. In working with a contractor, it means telling them your overall objectives rather than the exact piece of equipment (down to SKU and aisle number at Lowes) that you’d like them to install (bin number available on request).

A quick real-life story that might clarify: we once wanted to redo some wood floors that looked as if they hadn’t been redone since the advent of wood itself. After obtaining multiple bids, as advised, we settled on a contractor who offered high quality for a reasonable price and also came highly recommended. Rather than telling him exactly what stain we wanted and exactly which rooms to stain, we told him what we wanted to accomplish: to lend the house a light, airy feel; to do everything in a cost-effective manner; and to avoid doing anything that would ultimately interfere or look bad with an eventual kitchen renovation. Telling him what we wanted highlighted several possibilities we hadn’t envisioned or found in aisle 27 (bin 6) at Lowes: not staining the floors at all but letting the natural wood shine through and not yet redoing the floors in the kitchen, seeing as they might get damaged by the renovation or at least might clash with the cabinets. Brilliant! The solution looked great, saved a bunch of money, and paved the way for a beautiful kitchen renovation, complete with future flooring update.

With the benefit of a story, it’s easy to see the benefits of telling a contractor what you want to accomplish rather than exactly what you want. In general, here they are:

  1. You might find a cheaper solution. For example: not staining the floors.
  2. You might find a solution that better fits your needs. For example: not redoing the floors in the kitchen.
  3. You might discover you have a different problem. If you tell a contractor to install something from aisle 27, they probably will. If you tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and ask them how to get there, you have a fighting chance of leveraging their expertise. Hearing you put your trust in their expertise, they’ll probably put said expertise to work and give you their opinion as to whether you’ve accurately diagnosed the problem. If not, then wouldn’t it be great to solve the real problem?
  4. You might find that you don’t really have a problem. Again, contractors usually do what you tell them when you pay them to. But if you tell them the perceived problem and what you’re hoping to do about, they just might point you down a much easier path—at least if they’re honest. And if they’re not, well then you can always go with someone else or go back to aisle 27. Which leads to the next point…
  5. You might discover how competent or honest your contractor is. Again, you’re advised to get multiple bids. If you do that and tell each person exactly what to do, each will probably give you a price for doing just that. If you tell multiple people what you’re trying to accomplish, however, their responses will—if nothing else—tell you something about their level of knowledge. Or, if someone suggests something way out of left field (not that this has happened to me several times recently), you might even learn about their honesty.

So, the next time you have a problem with your home, I’d advise you to resist the siren’s call of Lowes.com. Instead, figure out what you’re really trying to accomplish and tell your multiple potential contractors your overall objectives. Wonderful and reliable as Lowes.com always is, leaving room for your contractor’s judgment can leave you much better off.

Have you ever told a contractor your overall objectives and been surprised by their response?

Three traps to avoid in every home repair negotiation

We’ve all been there: We’ve seen something BIG—and I mean BIG—start to break in the house. A roof, a furnace, a major piece of plumbing: the feeling of dread is the same. So is the need to get several bids, lest you expose yourself to outrageous bids from unscrupulous repairmen.

But what to do with the multiple bids as they arrive? It’s not obvious, but it’s negotiable. This post will discuss three traps to avoid when soliciting multiple bids for a major repair. Since you should really entertain multiple offers in any negotiation, though, these traps are truly universal.

So imagine the dreaded day has arrived: your ailing roof now needs replacement. You’ve set a budget ($30,000 or less), solicited three bids, and just begun to receive them (gulp). Here are three traps to avoid as the bids roll in, each grounded in a particular psychological state and each likely to produce a particular type of poor agreement:

  1. Satisficing: Grounded in laziness, satisficing involves accepting the first offer that satisfies your minimum requirements. Supposing that the initial bid was $31,000 and the next was $28,000, satisficing would involve accepting the second bid before waiting for the third or continuing the discussion with the first two companies. Why would anyone do that? Because it’s easy (and easy to justify). Instead, wait for all three bids, then continue the discussion with the best two (at least), in order to see which can fulfill your fundamental interests best. Note that those interests might have nothing to do with price (e.g., the timeline for the work).
  2. Hubris: Grounded in anger, hubris involves walking away from a negotiation even though it serves your interests better than the alternatives. Suppose that the third bid came in at $27,000, which made you so angry at the initial $31,000 bid that you tore up their offer and shot off an email chastising their greediness. But oops! Reading the fine print on the remaining two offers, you now see that both are offering to complete the work in six weeks. You seem to recall that the first bid promised immediate repairs, which sounds a lot better in light of the impending rainstorm. So hubris involves rejecting a better offer. Why would anyone do that? Because it feels good to voice our irritation. Instead, try to retain and compare all offers against your fundamental interests (e.g., preventing the drowning of your daughter’s stuffed animals), staying at the table with the parties that meet them best—even if certain aspects of their offer, well, make you displeased.
  3. Agreement Bias: Grounded in fear, agreement bias is pretty much the opposite of hubris. It involves staying in a negotiation and actually reaching an agreement that serves your interests less well than the alternatives. Having ripped up the first bid, imagine you’re now negotiating with the second company ($28,000 bid). You’ve since learned that their offer is essentially identical to the third, except for the additional $1,000, which they refuse to remove. But there is the salesman from the second company—sitting across the table, smiling sweetly, and pushing the contract in your direction. Agreement bias involves signing it even though you know the third offer is better. Why would anyone do that? Because it feels uncomfortable to say no to somebody’s face—many of us are actually afraid of it. Instead, and again, try to stay focused on your interests, one of which must be saving $1,000. If that’s too hard, now would be a good time to try ratification.

Bottom line: When comparing multiple bids, it’s all about staying focused on what you really want and need. That sounds unbelievably obvious, but decades of research show people falling into these traps, then struggling to climb out solvent and satisfied.

Have you or someone you know ever fallen for one of the traps?