COVID-19: Life’s still negotiable

In moments like these, when the world’s out of control, little seems negotiable. But I’m here to tell you that negotiation is needed now more than ever. Indeed, if we don’t at least try to negotiate a new path through uncertain and frightening times, we’re sure to make an already bad situation worse.

To see what I mean, consider just a few of the many situations that now require many of us to negotiate:

  1. Cancelling a non-refundable reservation: Yes, it says the travel reservation is non-refundable, no exceptions. But actually, it SAID the reservation was non-refundable before the whole world changed. There’s literally no risk in calling up our favorite travel website, explaining the newfound need for a cancellation, and seeing what they say—though there might be some lost time. Indeed, some airlines have already said yes preemptively. Don’t negotiate, however, and you’re setting yourself up for a sure loss.
  2. Setting the new terms with your kids: Things were going swimmingly with the kids. They’d go to school, you’d go to work, and you’d reconvene in the evening. But now, they’re not going to school, you’re not going to work, and you’re about to interact continuously for a solid two weeks (at least). In situations like these, it’s important to make the first offer as to the new rules: That is, proactively and preemptively inform them what learning activities (for example) they’ll be doing before watching cartoons each day. Don’t do that, and the cartoons will automatically appear immediately.
  3. Upgrading your service: Maybe that modem was working for emails. Maybe that cord-cutting was working for the evening news. But chances are, they’re not working for your new needs now. When negotiating a new deal with your service provider, don’t get desperate! Don’t go to the provider, hat in hand, and ask what you’ll have to pay for an upgrade. Go to them with a viable fallback option in hand—another internet or cable company—and only when you’ve researched it thoroughly and would actually be willing to exercise it. Don’t do that, and you’re sure to pay through the nose.
  4. Whether to attend the meeting in-person: Hopefully everyone’s gotten the memo. Just in case someone hasn’t (or it’s ambiguous whether you can), though, you may have to negotiate virtual attendance at a meeting. In these moments, it may be helpful to remind them that social distancing is ultimately a win-win—in the final analysis and the long-term, your interests aren’t opposed. Couple that with a demonstration of the ways you can still accomplish the meeting’s objectives, and you’ll hopefully convince them. Don’t, and we all experience community spread.
  5. Speaking to someone who won’t work virtually: And then there’s (sort of) the opposite. To illustrate, I entered a parking garage the other day, only to hear the parking attendant coughing violently for what seemed like minutes. Maybe it was only those few minutes. Maybe her water went down the wrong pipe. Maybe her employer wouldn’t let her leave, or she couldn’t afford it. But if it was actually COVID-19 and she chose to stay there, think of all the parking tickets touched! If you have to talk someone into leaving the workplace, it might be helpful, rather than urging or ordering them to leave, to probe their underlying reasons for staying–their interests. Do they need a social connection? Not have the necessary technology? Need the money to make it? All problems that can, at least in theory, be solved by an employer without contributing to community spread.

In sum, notwithstanding all the bad news about COVID-19, we’d all do well to remember that life’s still negotiable. Indeed, challenging times call on all of us to negotiate life ever more vigorously than before.

Picking the right (and wrong) time to negotiate

As I’ve noted repeatedly before, one of our biggest challenges as negotiators is overcoming misguided mythology about negotiation. The way we imagine negotiations is simply not the way many real-world negotiations happen. A prominent aspect of that mythology, in turn, is the idea that negotiations happen at pre-appointed places and times—two people staring at each other across a large oaken table at the time indicated by their Outlook calendars.

Some negotiations happen that way, but many of the most important ones we face in organizations—particularly discussions of goals, proposals, and plans with key constituents—just don’t. They happen at unanticipated times and places—unexpectedly opportune moments when a fortuitous opening arises.

Since learning to identify the most opportune (and inopportune) moments for an intra-organizational negotiation can make life negotiable, let’s identify three prominent examples of each.

It might be opportune to initiate an intra-organizational negotiation when:

  • An important decision or change is imminent: In normal organizational times, decision-makers may see your attempt to disrupt the status quo as distracting or annoying. In unsettled times, on the cusp of critical decisions or changes, your proposal may help them make sense of ambiguity and forge a clearer path forward.
  • You discover you can fulfill a key need: Most of us need and want a lot of things from our organizations. But, as articulated in my book, we’re more likely to get them—indeed, more likely to get anything from any counterpart—when they need something from us too. The best negotiators are highly attuned to situations when they can unexpectedly solve someone’s problem.
  • You or the issue gets unexpected airtime: Sometimes we unexpectedly encounter an important person in the elevator. Other times, we unexpectedly hear an important issue mentioned in a meeting. Assuming a long enough elevator ride or flexible enough meeting (coupled with a pressing enough issue), the best negotiators seize the opportunity.

To this list of opportune moments, however, I would hasten to add three caveats in the form of factors that make a situation—and sometimes the same situation—inopportune for negotiation. It might be inopportune to negotiate, for example, when:

  • You’ve been asking for a lot: Don’t ask the person on the elevator or the people in the meeting for anything if you’ve recently been asking for a lot. Do that, and they’ll likely take the stairs or exclude you from the meeting the next time—not to mention ignore your current request.
  • The other party is flustered or annoyed: If they come back from a meeting about the unsettled times in a state of distress—as is common in a state of unsettlement—now’s not the time for a negotiation.
  • You don’t yet understand the situation: Simply detecting you can meet an unmet need doesn’t justify a negotiation on its own—not until you really understand the need and its context. Seemingly opportune moments can still be extremely premature.

Reflecting on the examples above, it becomes apparent how wrong our mythical image of negotiation really is. Many of the most important negotiations happen in the absence of any Outlook invites, in locations more likely to feature floor buttons than oaken tables. I sincerely hope that recognizing the happenstance, ad hoc, scattershot nature of negotiations makes your life more negotiable.

Negotiating to protect our time

One of the primary reasons people negotiate is to allocate scarce resources. And one of the scarcest of all resources is time. So it should come as no surprise that protecting our time—much as it seems little like a negotiation—is. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that our success in preserving certain amounts or periods of time strongly shapes the negotiability of our lives.

With that in mind, let’s consider some lessons from negotiation research with direct relevance for protecting our time:

  1. Define your positions and interests: You can’t protect your time unless you know exactly what you want to protect—how much or what period? And you won’t have much success in protecting it unless you deeply understand why you need to. A few extra minutes at the office doesn’t seem like much unless you link it to your inability to coach your kid’s soccer team. And your interest in coaching soccer highlights new (and somewhat obvious but surprisingly underexplored) solutions like coming in earlier instead of staying later.
  2. Establish a reputation: After deciding how much time to protect, establish a reputation for protecting it! As in any negotiation, a true bottom line—a latest possible hour in the office, unavoidable family commitment—shouldn’t slip. And bolster your reputation for protecting your own time by showing an unwavering respect for other people’s right to protect theirs.
  3. Propose solutions: It’s easier to protect your time if you replace a “no” with a “no but.” That is, when someone tries to encroach on your time—as someone always will—don’t just reject them in a flurry of frustration. Reject their specific request but seek to satisfy their underlying interest. “No, I can’t come in on Saturday because I’m coaching my kid’s soccer team. But what if I hustled and got everything done on Thursday? Or stayed late on Friday? Or took the Saturday call from home?” It’s not rocket science, but it’ll elicit a substantially warmer response.
  4. Highlight the win-win: It won’t work with everyone, but certain time-encroachers may be convinced by appeals to their enlightened self-interest. “It’s good for both of us if I set a regular schedule—that way, we’ll both know what to expect, I’ll always avoid the traffic and have more time to work from home, I’ll do a better job in the long-run, etc.”
  5. Find complementarities: Maybe you want to leave early for soccer practice and a coworker wants to come in late to get their kids to school. Or you feel dead-tired in the morning and productive at night, whereas a coworker feels the opposite. Reaching an arrangement with complementary parties like these might just allow everyone to protect their preferred periods of time while providing continuous coverage of the workload.

As with so much of life, then, protecting our time is a negotiation, and the lessons from negotiation research can make life negotiable. With that, I’ll take no more of your time.

“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.

An underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations

I have previously argued that treating the important issues in life as negotiations rather than rules can make life negotiable. But of course, if you do that, the person on the other end and will have to decide whether to accept your attempt at negotiation or refer back to the rules. And herein lies, in my experience, a vastly underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations: Jerks are likely to see their negotiation attempts rejected in favor of the rulebook, making life distinctly non-negotiable.

Now, no one reading this post is probably “a jerk.” But since we all have to work hard to suppress our moderately-quasi-jerk-like impulses at times (or at least deal with others who seem to be working distinctly less hard), it’s worth anyone’s time to consider this underappreciated cost of jerkiness.

Allow me to explain.

When people interact in organizations, they obviously make a variety of judgments about each other. One of the most important judgments, however, is simple and dichotomous: jerk or non-jerk? And at a later point in time, when the person deemed a jerk or non-jerk comes back to the person who did the deeming—the perceiver—to try and negotiate around the rules—an exception to the approval process, a benefit not conferred to others, a faster-than-normal turnaround time—chances are the perceiver will revert back to their initial judgment. Jerk or non-jerk?

If the former, then the requester has a problem. But it’s not the problem you might think—it’s not that the perceiver will negotiate vociferously against them. It’s that the perceiver won’t even entertain the idea of a negotiation. They’ll refer back to the rules—the approval process as described in the handbook, the benefits as listed in the offer letter, the turnaround time listed on the intranet.

But what if the same request comes from a person previously deemed a non-jerk? No guarantees on the easiness or success of the ensuing negotiation for the requester, but the point is that they’re more likely to get one. The perceiver may at least consider the possibility of bending the approval process, extending an extra benefit in the interest of non-jerk retention, lighting some fires to get the critical document turned around early.

And herein lies a vastly underappreciated reason to avoid even moderately-quasi-jerk-like impulses in organizations. Only by doing so can one preserve even the possibility of solving problems through negotiations rather than rules—the former of which can make life negotiable, the latter of which won’t. It’s a simple point but one worth considering in the most trying workplace moments, or at least when the jerks seem to be outpacing the non-jerks. In the end, they’ll probably run into the rulebook.

Meetings devouring your life? Contingency contracts to the rescue

It’s a common organizational problem—probably one of the MOST common: the proliferation of long meetings and inability to get anything else done. Here as in other areas, however, negotiation research can help. Indeed, I suspect a negotiation concept called contingency contracts might actually make many meetings—and thus much of organizational life—more negotiable.

There are really two interrelated problems with meetings: their number and their length. Let’s deal with the second, and specifically with the fact that it seems like many meetings should really last about half as long. The problem, of course, is convincing our colleagues: WE know our meetings don’t need to last that long, but the people around us are just as sure they do. For example, we’re certain a discussion of the company’s new widget strategy requires no more than 30 minutes, but the widget strategizer thinks we’ll certainly need an hour.

How do many people respond? By scheduling an hour-long meeting in the interest of avoiding unnecessary conflict and wishing on their lucky stars that it takes less. But of course, it never does.

So consider an alternate strategy: What if you said to the widget strategizer, “Widget strategizer, you think we need an hour, and I suspect we need a half-hour. I don’t know which one of us is right, but what if we scheduled a half-hour right now and then regrouped for an additional 30 minutes later if necessary?”

And then, what about scheduling the initial meeting such that you and—even better—the widget strategizer have a hard stop after a half-hour?

Assuming your initial estimate was accurate, I think you’ll miraculously see the widget strategy requiring no more than 30 minutes of discussion.

What does this example have to do with negotiation? The basic situation is all too common in negotiations: Two negotiators are deadlocked on their differing expectations of the future. A wholesaler thinks a holiday sweater is going to sell like hotcakes—a retailer’s not so sure. A used car dealer is sure the aging transmission is just fine—the buyer’s dubious.

When negotiators get stuck on differing expectations of the future, they usually fight and quite often impasse. But negotiation research and theory urges them to sign what’s called a contingency contract—a bet about the future—instead. They agree that if the retailer doesn’t sell 15,000 sweaters by December 31st or the transmission dies within a year, for example, the wholesaler or car dealer pay a rebate. If the sweaters sell like hotcakes or the transmission runs just fine, the retailer or car buyer pay a surcharge. The nice thing about such agreements is that, assuming no one’s bluffing, everyone thinks they’re right at the outset. They’re not, and the winner will eventually shine through, but their universal confidence makes a deal possible now.

Although your meeting proposal doesn’t involve rebates or surcharges—it’s more about time than money—time IS money in organizations, and the structure of the deal is quite similar. As in negotiations, contingencies contracts can make our organizational meetings more negotiable.

Of course, contingencies contracts aren’t a cure-all. In negotiations, for example, you wouldn’t want to reach such an agreement with a used car dealer who will move his entire operation to an undisclosed location after selling you a clunker. And in an organizational setting, you wouldn’t want to make such an arrangement with someone who has the supervisory right to tell you how long to sit in a room, or someone who knows a great deal more than you do about widget strategizing.

Still, bets about the future are not always seedy arrangements confined to the Las Vegas Strip. Sometimes, they can make your negotiations and meetings more negotiable. Give it a try—I bet you’ll agree!

Five reputations no negotiator wants

Many of our most important negotiations happen at work. We negotiate job offers, reconcile competing strategies, allocate limited funds. So it would really behoove us to understand the drivers of our success in such situations—the factors that will determine whether we walk away happy or sad.

If I asked you to name just one such factor, what would you say?

Chances are, you’d name a negotiation strategy. Aggressively insist on your demands! Persuasively plead your case! Creatively seek a solution! Or some other behavior to display in the negotiation itself.

While none of these answers is inherently wrong, I’d suggest that your success in a critical organizational negotiation is often determined long before the negotiation itself—in the many less-critical negotiations and non-negotiation situations that crystallize your reputation. Critical negotiations become substantially more negotiable, in other words, when you’ve developed the right reputation beforehand.

It’s easier to see what the right reputation is if you first consider the opposite—the type of reputation you really don’t want to bring into a critical organizational negotiation. At that point, you really don’t want to be known as the:

  1. Constant negotiator: We all know someone who negotiates every flipping, last thing. Why do I only get 10 pencils? I need at least 12! Do we really have to go Applebee’s? I’m really hankering for the Olive Garden. Constant negotiator is not the type of reputation you want to carry into your critical organizational negotiations, as everyone will think this important negotiations is just another in your never-ending string of demands.
  2. Selfish negotiator: We all know someone who, though they don’t necessarily negotiate everything, they approach every negotiation (and non-negotiation) with exactly one objective: themself. Would it cost three jobs to guarantee my 12-pencil minimum at all times? No matter, as long as I get my pencils. You obviously don’t want to develop this reputation either, as everyone will come into the critical negotiation ready for battle.
  3. Pushover negotiator: Conversely, kind of, we all know someone who never ever sticks up for themself. Want to reduce my pencil allocation by two pencils a month, ultimately leaving me with pens alone? No matter, I’ll just buy some pencils myself. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as everyone will approach the critical negotiation with the demeanor of Jaws in the presence of a bleeding beluga.
  4. Reactive negotiator: We all know someone who, despite the “manager” in their title, sits around and lets the world conquer them. They seem utterly incapable of steering the course of events, and they often respond bitterly when the world steers them. Oftentimes, they just fade into the background. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as someone else in the critical negotiation will steer the negotiation in their own direction before you have the chance to, well, react.
  5. Incoherent negotiator: We all know someone who can never seem to collect their thoughts. Their statements are jumbled, and their requests tend toward the internally inconsistent. Thought 1: We should all get more pencils! Thought 2: Management should really cut costs! Developing such a reputation may well keep the other party on their toes. But you’re unlikely to get what you want from a critical organizational negotiation, for the simple reason that neither you nor they has a clue what that is.

So if you shouldn’t cultivate any of these reputations before a critical negotiation, what type of reputation should you to develop? A reputation as someone who confidently negotiates when they have to, but only when they have to. And when they do, as someone who confidently or even insistently sticks up for their true needs but also gives in on their non-needs, particularly when the other side truly needs the opposite. And someone who doesn’t react to negotiations as they happen but leads the way, typically by initiating and coherently guiding the discussion.

Do all of that in the small situations before your critical organizational negotiation and, dollars to donuts, you’ll walk away with the critical outcome.