The five real meanings of “I can’t do that”

It’s your negotiation counterpart’s favorite phrase: “I can’t do that.” And it’s a discouraging phrase that most of us take at face-value, deeming our dreams as good as dashed. And sometimes we should, as it signifies the actual impossibility of our request.

But many times, we shouldn’t. Because, many times, it means something subtly but critically different. And here’s where we usually go wrong: We don’t recognize the many subtle meanings of the very same phrase, thereby rendering life less negotiable. So, the next time your negotiation counterpart says, “I can’t do that,” know that they might mean:

  1. I don’t want to do that. “Can’t” implies utter impossibility, total infeasibility, absolutely no way that could happen. Unfortunately, many of our negotiation counterparts actually mean “don’t.” As in, they don’t really feel like it. Since not really feeling like it is far less final than not being able, you’ve just discovered a golden opportunity to pry back the reasons for their reluctance. Are they concerned about the work required, precedents broken, approvals needed? Whatever it is, it’s possible you can address it (once you understand it).
  2. I can do that but don’t want you to know. It’s a sad fact of negotiation, and life more broadly. Sometimes people lie, or at least bluff. So saying they can’t is an exercise in flexible ethics meant to crush your dreams before they ever take flight. Luckily, a simple “Why?” is often enough to catch the underprepared bluffer red-handed and unable to answer convincingly.
  3. I won’t do that unless you do this. Sometimes, “I can’t” is less a lie than a gambit—an attempt to get something out of you before they comply. Luckily, a “What if I did X?” on your end can often turn the most non-negotiable issues negotiable.
  4. I can’t do that, but I can do this. Relatedly, negotiators sometimes say they can’t because they really can’t grant your super-specific request. But that particular can’t says nothing about their willingness to grant other, as-yet unmade requests. To see so for yourself, try an experiment the next time a wily HR negotiator tells you they “can’t” negotiate salary: Say ok, but ask whether they would give you something else you value for the given salary. Often, they will, which means they actually can negotiate salary—and have, by accepting your proposed tradeoff.
  5. I haven’t really thought about it. Sadly, some of our negotiation counterparts aren’t as astute or motivated as we are. We surface an idea, and it doesn’t sound much like the clunking of their mental machinery, so they reject us without really thinking it over. Here, your job as negotiator becomes to educate—to show them just how simple it would be for them to comply. Shown a simple way to say yes, many will, if only to be rid of you.

 The point is embarrassingly simple: “I can’t do that” is a popular phrase that you shouldn’t automatically accept at face-value. Maybe they really can’t—and so be it. But if it’s just that they “can’t,” then chances are you can find a way to eliminate the ‘t.

What’s so hard about negotiating in organizations?

Negotiations in organizations have a tendency to go wrong. Requests for an exception get denied, proposals for the future get rejected, solutions to a problem get parked in the perpetual parking lot.

But why do so many of us find intra-organizational negotiating so hard? Put differently, is there something special about organizations that makes negotiations inside of them so difficult, or do difficulties like these simply reflect the difficulty of negotiating in general—the same types of challenges you’d face at the car dealer?

Having studied negotiation for 13 years and worked in organizations for longer, I’d suggest it’s the former. That is, I’d highlight a few special features of organizations that make negotiating within them a unique challenge. But luckily, knowing what they are can make organizational life more negotiable.

Consider five of the presumably most common reasons why negotiations in organizations fall flat. Specifically, imagine yourself making a particular request of your superiors. The request is likely to get rejected if it:

  1. Creates a perceived inequity: I recently noted how bosses who adopt a win-win mindset with their employees (e.g., by granting a special exception) sometimes create a win-lose inequity for the employees who don’t receive the exception. Well, the flip-side is that your win-win suggestion may do just that. To mitigate the issue, perhaps take the boss’s perspective before making the request?
  2. Doesn’t garner enough attention: It’s hard to redirect senior executives’ limited attention to anything outside the never-ending press of daily emergencies—especially unusual requests requiring less-than-immediate action. Add their limited attention to the risks of the telephone game, and you’ve got a recipe for inaction or outright rejection. To mitigate the issue, perhaps find a way to make your request especially vivid or enlist the help of someone who can call it to the executives’ repeated attention?
  3. Sets a bad precedent: One way for a boss to avoid creating inequity is to grant your request and then grant the same to everyone else. But what would the organization look like if everyone enjoyed the same privilege—the same three days of virtual work, personally crafted benefits plan, or personally reimagined expense policy? If mass chaos would ensue, a wise boss is unlikely to grant your request. To mitigate the issue, perhaps imagine what the organization would look like beforehand (applying something like the categorical imperative)?
  4. Calls a bad parallel to mind: Any experienced boss has heard every manner of request from employees. And inevitably, some of the granted requests have subsequently turned sour. Someone abused their virtual work, someone extracted crazy benefits and quickly quit, someone tried to get reimbursed for something you wouldn’t even purchase. If you’re unlucky enough to surface a request that calls such experiences to mind, you’ve got a tough slog ahead. The best I can suggest is stepping away to regroup, then reframing your request in starkly different terms than anyone’s ever requested before.
  5. Gets stuck in organizational inertia: Organizations show massive inertia—marching methodically down well-trodden paths oriented around well-established policies and procedures. If your request somehow cuts against the inertia or, worse yet, threatens to disrupt it, good luck! But perhaps your fundamental need could be accommodated within the confines of the existing policies and procedures?

In sum, on the basis of issues like these, I think it’s fair to say that negotiators face particular challenges in organizations. But hopefully an awareness of these challenges, coupled with the tentative suggestions above, provides at least the contours of a roadmap for diffusing intra-organizational challenges. Good luck!

Our own worst enemy in negotiations II: Rushing to do a deal

I recently discussed a common way we defeat ourselves in negotiations: by rejecting our own proposals before we ever present them. But there’s another, potentially more common way that most of us undermine our negotiating prowess: By letting the great press of daily to dos rush us into negotiations without adequate contemplation or preparation. Since rushing into negotiations is sure to make life non-negotiable, let me highlight five of the biggest risks you’ll run by rushing to negotiate at the world’s dizzying pace:

  1. You’ll act out of passion: We all know never to email when emotional. Well, you should never negotiate either! Negotiations fundamentally arise when people’s interests misalign. By commenting on that misalignment without adequate thought, you’ll probably drive an even larger wedge between the parties.
  2. You’ll seem desperate: The best negotiators are fully comfortable with waiting the other side out. They never lose their cool if other person takes their sweet time, requesting some progress and thereby signaling their acute desire for a deal. Rush into a negotiation, and you’ll send the unhelpful signal you need an agreement more than they do.
  3. You’ll prevent your situation from improving: Real-world negotiations are dynamic phenomena unfolding in the context of shifting alternatives. Rush into a deal, and you’ll inherently prevent yourself from watching a better alternative roll in—an even better job offer, a more attractive price from another dealer, a nicer yet cheaper house.
  4. You’ll get a suboptimal deal done: Most of us rush into negotiations because we feel an irresistible pressure to get something done. The risk is that we will. That is, we risk prioritizing action over reasoned action, settling for a deal that is worse than our alternative or worse than not acting at all.
  5. You’ll spend a long time regretting what you’ve done: If any of the above happen as a result of your haste, you’re likely to spend a great deal of time, post-negotiation, regretting said haste. And if the goal was to get a deal done and move on with the great press of daily to dos, you’ll find your rumination accomplishing just the opposite.

In sum, most of us face unending pressure from the unyielding world to get things done. What the unyielding world doesn’t realize is this unending pressure makes us unsuccessful at the bargaining table. Resist the pull of immediate deal-making, and you might get some grumbles over your pace, but you won’t get any quibbles over your results.

Can negotiation research make you a better presenter?

Making presentations is a major part of many people’s jobs. So wouldn’t it be nice to somehow make presentations more negotiable?

Here, as in many areas, negotiation research can help. In particular, a broad reading of the negotiation literature’s distinction between distributive and integrative approaches can help to manage the many types of difficult audience members you might encounter when presenting.

First, let’s unpack the distinction. Negotiators can approach their task using a distributive or integrative approach. A distributive approach involves competitively and aggressively seeking to achieve your own interests at the expense of the counterpart’s. An integrative approach involves cooperatively and creatively seeking solutions to satisfy both parties at the same time. Negotiators can adopt either approach (or both) in nearly any context (for example, consider this application to intra-family negotiations).

And now, let’s see how the two approaches can help us deal with some prototypically nettlesome audience members—people in the audience of our presentations who…

  1. Say they have a question but really have a comment: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “What’s the question?” in an attempt to call them out. Under the integrative approach, you’d acknowledge the comment and transform it into a question you can answer, thereby validating their point but repositioning the ball in your own court.
  2. Love to hear themselves talk: The distributive approach would involve cutting them off. An integrative approach would involve asking them to pause while you answer the first twelve parts of their 434238497234-part question, then asking them if it’s ok to take the rest offline (most will oblige).
  3. Are saying something dumb: The distributive approach would involve dismissing their comments on the basis of dumbness. The integrative approach involves finding the kernel of wisdom buried in every dumb comment, then rephrasing it in smarter terms. (Making others look smarter than they are is often a good idea.)
  4. Ask about something you’re planning mention shortly: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “I’ll get to that.” Under the integrative approach, you’d complement them for acutely anticipating your line of thinking, then ask whether it’s ok to address it in X slides. Again, most are happy to oblige.
  5. Are frowning and crossing their arms: The distributive approach would involve fixating on them and trying to convince them. As described in my book, the integrative approach would involve finding more amenable negotiation partners, namely the others in the audience who are smiling and supportive.

And so, there’s a distributive and an integrative way to interact with the many difficult members of our audiences. Although I’m sure we’ve never been difficult audience members ourselves, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a distributive presenter. On that basis, I hope we can all commit to following the integrative approach ourselves.

When win-win negotiation = win-lose negotiation

Many have commented on the risks managers face by not assuming a win-win approach in negotiation—and I am one. Obstinately reject all your employees’ requests, suppliers’ inquiries, and peers’ pleas for help, and you’ll quickly find yourself on the other side of a pink slip.

But, as my friend Georg Berkel is discussing in his upcoming book on learning to negotiate, pursuing a win-win with one party can often carry a less appreciated risk of its own: creating a win-lose for someone else. Since understanding the second risk is just as critical for making management negotiable, let’s unpack this cryptic possibility.

Consider the following examples: Managers sometimes receive requests from employees hoping to be exempted from an organizational policy. Or inquiries from suppliers hoping for preferential treatment in an RFP. Or pleas from peers trying to redirect resources toward their pet projects. What’s interesting about these situations is this: A simplistic reading of the voluminous writing on win-win negotiation would essentially encourage the manager to get creative in accommodating such requests. At least when it fulfills their own managerial interests in winning friends and allies, go ahead and waive the policy, wink at the preferred supplier, speak out in favor of the pet project.

But here’s what’s even more interesting: Do each of those things, thereby securing a win-win with the requestor, and the manager is bound to create a win-lose for someone else. What about the other employees who still have to follow the policy (and thus face greater constraints)? Or the other suppliers who don’t get preferential treatment (and thus have a lesser chance of winning the deal despite a potentially better product)? Or the colleagues in other departments who find their funding cut to accommodate the peer’s expensive project (and may thus underperform)? In each case, pursuing a win-win with a requestor present at the table tends to create a win-lose for someone absent from the table. And that win-lose will likely become a lose-lose when the victim retaliates.

So what’s a poor manager to do—pursue a win-win or avoid it? I would forget this false dichotomy and instead suggest the following:

  1. Try to identify anyone markedly impacted by a prospective deal but absent from the table
  2. If appropriate and feasible, invite them to the table
  3. If not, at least try to anticipate what they would say if they were there
  4. And, better yet, incorporate whatever it is into the deal
  5. Ultimately, stand up for the win-win of the collective and not just the win-win of a cozy dyadic relationship

And so, in contrast to an overly simplistic reading of the voluminous writing on negotiation, win-win is not always an unalloyed good. Perhaps it is for the parties present, but not necessarily for the parties absent (and, for many organizational decisions, many are absent). But hopefully a mere awareness of their phantom presence can nudge the manager toward a win-win for the broader collective.

Who does what? Navigating our continuous negotiations at work

When most people hear “negotiation,” they think of buying a car, buying a house, or demanding a raise. But those negotiations only happen occasionally. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that other, more mundane negotiations are far more common—and potentially far more important.

Indeed, there’s one such negotiation that most employed individuals face daily, if not hourly, potentially making it their most common negotiation: Any guesses what it is?

Yep: Determining exactly who will do what in organizations. Many of us negotiate the specific terms of our employment continuously—with our coworkers , employees, superiors, and others. Sure, our employment contract specifies the overall contours of our job. But does it specify who will write what proportion of a report, who will take responsibility for a task that spans several people’s jobs, or who will go the extra mile when everyone else has gone the bare minimum? Since working our way through such situations can make our working lives more negotiable, let’s consider how to handle them.

But first, let’s consider why they’re negotiations at all: Negotiations are simply situations in which interdependent people with differing interests work through their interdependence. Considering that definition, it’s clear as day why our discussions about who does what are negotiations: The members of organizations are highly interdependent, especially when they find themselves on the same team. But everyone brings a personal agenda or at least a departmental or subgroup agenda to any particular task. So discussions about who does what are negotiations through-and-through.

So how to deal with them? As a first cut, I would offer the following three, research-based suggestions:

  1. Lay your interests bare. Despite the above comments about divergent agendas, most people unwittingly assume the agendas of people who work for the same organization are more-or-less aligned. But we all know the phrase about assuming, and here it applies in spades. It’s exceedingly rare for everyone’s agenda to totally align, so the first and most basic suggestion is ensuring that each individual is as aboveboard as possible as to their personal and or subgroup objectives—in hopes of identifying a way to align them.
  2. Pay it forward. Most negotiations over who does what are not one-time occurrences. They’re small nodes in long-term relationships replete with repeated negotiations. Unless you’re working with a real rogue—someone who will take advantage of your every smidgeon of generosity—I’d recommend erring on the side of taking more responsibility now in expectation of goodwill and long-term reciprocity.
  3. Negotiate roles, not tasks: A common but misguided approach to negotiations over who does what is to divide the task equally. Three-person team writing a report? Why not have each person write 1/3 of it? Because that will produce an utterly incoherent report. A far better approach is to define the roles needed to produce a compelling report (e.g., researcher, writer, editor) and negotiate their assignment.

In sum, negotiations are not just the pivotal, occasional moment when we make a big purchase or receive a big job offer. They’re the mundane and nearly continuous moments when we work out the terms of our interdependence in the workplace. Treating these situations as negotiations and managing them strategically goes a long way towards making work 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.