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.

The best-kept secrets of non-leader negotiators

My last post discussed how organizational leaders negotiate. But a nettlesome fact remains: Many of us are not leaders! We find ourselves farther down the food chain, sometimes much farther.

So a nettlesome question remains: How can non-leaders negotiate?

Since the practices of the most effective non-leader negotiators can make many people’s lives negotiable, let’s consider five of their best-kept secrets:

  1. Dropping subtle hints and popping subtle questions: Meetings to make important decisions are often populated by leaders and non-leaders alike. Sure, the non-leaders’ primary role may be to take notes or make sure the meeting ends on-time. But the most effective non-leader negotiators identify at least the occasional opportunity to drop a subtle hint or ask a subtle question about the subject matter—hints and questions that often redirect the conversation or surface a surprisingly glaring concern.
  2. Being polite: In a world of shockingly impolite people, unadulterated and unexpected politeness acquires immense value. Simply and consistently approaching leaders with a smile and an authentic interest in how they’re doing and what they’re worrying about goes an awfully long way when leaders need a sounding board—particularly a sounding board who has not been required to drink the Kool-Aid by virtue of their leadership position.
  3. Developing powerful allies: Contrary to popular perceptions of negotiation, there’s no rule requiring the best negotiators to fly solo, singlehandedly crushing a piteous counterpart into a pulp. The most effective non-leader negotiators know that all-too-well, and they don’t even try to fly solo. They identify powerful allies who have the organizational leverage to represent their point-of-view—and, more importantly, the willingness to.
  4. Maintaining strict neutrality: Ironically in light of the last point, the most effective non-leader negotiators also pull a Switzerland. Even as they develop allies to stick up for them when it counts, they don’t take a side among competing factions or become a pawn in somebody else’s game of thrones. Sitting at the bar after work, with everyone liquored up and gossiping about the people in the other faction, they chortle but resist the temptation to contribute another caustic comment. Sure, they won’t have nearly as much fun at the bar. But they’ll build a bedrock of trust with both factions, whichever one wins.
  5. Being more prepared: Non-leaders rarely have more organizational power than leaders. But they do tend to have more of another critical resource: time. Sure, no one has much time. But the average non-leader does have more of by comparison. And the most effective non-leader negotiators leverage their comparative advantage to the full, spending their additional time preparing for meetings and decisions in excruciating detail. Simply by commanding the facts, they tend to direct the conversation.

So how do the most effective non-leaders negotiate? As in the case of like leaders, little like we imagine. Subtly, quietly, and slowly counteracting their subordinate role, they accumulate the social capital needed to lead anyway.

What are some other best practices of non-leader negotiators? Join the conversation by leaving a comment!

How do leaders negotiate? Little like we imagine

When most people think of negotiations, they think of brief meetings in which two people angle toward an eventual decision. Which price? What features? How many days of vacation? Whatever the specifics, an intense discussion increasingly narrows the gap between the demands made by two parties, who ultimately make a decision.

But anyone who leads a team / department / organization knows that the bulk of their negotiations—or at least their most important negotiations—don’t look anything like that. Since recognizing the features of the negotiations leaders really face can make leading negotiable, let’s unpack what those negotiations look like.

First, many leaders’ real negotiations don’t involve a brief discussion or immediate decision. Instead, they involve glacial progress toward a distant and almost indiscernible goal. Rather than sitting down at one table and hammering out all the issues of concern, a leader who wants to change an important organizational procedure (for example) will probably sit down at dozens or hundreds or thousands of tables over the course of weeks or months or years. Rather than narrowing the gap with a single counterpart, the leader will have to slowly appease all the stakeholders wedded to the current procedure or simply incapable of imagining anything else. The common picture of negotiation is unhelpful because it prompts us to become incredibly impatient with a process that necessarily takes time.

Second, and relatedly, many leaders’ real negotiations don’t involve linear progress toward a goal—or anything remotely like it. Instead of steadily narrowing the gap between their preferences and someone else’s, a leader who wants to pursue a new strategy (for example) will probably win a key colleague’s support one day, then learn there’s absolutely no budget to support it the next. The common picture of negotiation is unhelpful because it leads us to misconstrue such setbacks as negotiation failures instead of necessary bumps on the road to negotiation prowess.

Third, many leaders’ real negotiations don’t really involve decisions at all. Rather than trumpeting the benefits of a new organizational culture and letting stakeholders decide whether to accept it (for example), a leader who seeks such a sweeping change will need to slowly and steadily nudge everyone toward their own conclusion that the new culture is a no-brainer. Indeed, a leader who makes the case then immediately invites everyone to veto it will almost assuredly fail. The common picture of negotiation is unhelpful because it leads us to seek conscious decisions rather than build collective (and often unconscious) consensus.

In sum, images can dramatically influence our behavior in many corners of life, and negotiations are no different. Our common image of negotiation is passable (though not optimal) for used car purchases and one-off salary negotiations. But it fails us dramatically for the negotiations that we as organizational leaders most often face—a critical consequence being that we won’t even recognize them as negotiations or tailor our behavior accordingly. It’s a recipe for making leadership far from negotiable.

What’s negotiable? The many negotiable components of a job offer

Shortly after receiving a job offer, many people’s primary impulse is to negotiate the salary. And thus they despair if the effort fails.

But why the despair? Typically because they haven’t read anything like my last post, which assured you of the approximately 43593457938 negotiable components of a job offer.

But that just begs the question: which components? In other words, which aspects of a job offer can typically be negotiated?

Now, no list of negotiable components can ever be complete, especially since there are 43593457938 of them. Nor can any list apply to every particular job. Summer support? Makes sense to an academic (sort of) but virtually no one else. Finally, a long list of negotiable issues certainly does not imply that you should negotiate everything. As always, the best negotiators push for their critical interests but also know when to call it a day.

Still, in the everlasting and never-ending quest to make life negotiable, perhaps a list of the commonly negotiable components of a job offer can help. So here goes an imperfect but hopefully helpful list of the top 10 categories of negotiable topics:

  1. Other monetary issues. Believe it or not, a failure to negotiate salary does not imply an inability to negotiate all monetary issues. Other money-oriented issues like bonuses, moving expenses, and stock options sometimes remain surprisingly negotiable.
  2. Work location. In today’s virtual world, the amount of time you spend in the office, a satellite office, or your home office is often on the table. And unless you live next to the office, it probably should be.
  3. Travel. A closely related issue is travel—namely how much of it you will do and how glamorous the location. For some people, the more the better and any whistle stop will do. For others, even the thought of another security check elicits nausea. It’s important to at least go in knowing which type you are.
  4. Physical conditions. Assuming you’ll have to spend a bunch of time in the office, many organizations have at least a few degrees of freedom with respect to what it will look and feel like. Will you sit in a cavernous corner, thereby withering away in the absence of natural light? Will you work right next to the copier, mishearing your critical phone calls due to the beep of the buttons? Better to surface those issues beforehand.
  5. Job specifics. For lack of a better title, many specifics of the job itself might remain in play after the job offer—in particular, some especially onerous tasks you might not want to complete, especially onerous times you might not want to be on call, or especially onerous committees you might not want to chair. If you think these types of issues are in fact flexible, you could do yourself a favor by mentioning them.
  6. Career progress and evaluation. Any organization worth working for wants you to make progress in your career and attain increasingly challenging goals. And some might be willing to customize your career trajectory and/or evaluation schedule to promote as much. Accelerating your career or evaluating you more frequently, in turn, might well get you to the desired salary faster.
  7. Education, enrichment, and growth. Any organization worth working for also wants you to learn, enrich yourself, and grow. And many may be willing to put their money behind it, particularly by reimbursing your tuition, supporting your conference attendance, and sending you to professional development courses (for example).
  8. Benefits. Despite the glossy and final-looking pamphlet from HR, at least some of the stuff therein (vacation time, leave, health insurance, retirement plan, housing subsidies, etc.) often remains negotiable. If a particular benefit is especially near and dear, it might not hurt to ask.
  9. Supplies. Will this job come with a stapler and that’s about it? Or could you negotiate to throw in a laptop, your own personal printer, and a particularly shiny set of paperclips (for example)? If it saves you from dealing with an unhelpful IT department, walking a half-marathon to the community printer, or buying paperclips yourself, you might just ask.
  10. Start date. The start date is the date on the job posting, right? Well, it could be. But you might also negotiate to start early (thereby earning back some of the salary shortfall) or start late (thereby earning yourself an extended vacation).

In closing, let me reiterate what I said at the beginning: a plethora of negotiable issues is not a license to demand the world on a silver platter, and then some. Doing so could easily get you branded a prima donna, or even someone with a revoked offer. But I do hope that knowing the 43593457938 negotiable components of a job offer at least calms your despair, boosts your confidence, and earns you a shiny set of paperclips.

Five responses to “equity concerns” in job negotiations

You’re lucky enough to receive a job offer. But it doesn’t meet your expectations, so you muster the courage to counter. And then you get the response that every applicant dreads—the one that immediately diffuses your counter with ‘equity concerns.’ In other words, a response indicating that the employer can’t meet your demands because they would create an inequity within the organization.

Sound familiar? We’ve all heard this phrase or something very much like it. Is there anything at all that you can do to make this nettlesome statement negotiable? It’s a nettlesome statement indeed, but the following five strategies might help:

  1. Mention your knowledge beforehand: Sometimes an employer really can’t meet your demands for equity reasons. But other times, you know full well that other employees in the organization are making exactly what you just requested. In that situation, I’d suggest mentioning your knowledge at the same time as your counteroffer (before their nettlesome response). A difficult admission perhaps, but better than trapping the employer in a lie (or making them feel that way).
  2. Negotiate something else: Salary is one of 14398349813274 things that can be negotiated in a job offer. And, believe it or not, the 14398349813274 things often do more for your satisfaction, at least in combination. And, luckily enough, many of the 14398349813274 things—especially the qualitative ones like access to natural light or virtual work—are somehow immune from ‘equity concerns.’ So even if the equity concerns surrounding salary are real, don’t give up.
  3. Restructure the monetary request: Ok, so they won’t pay $Y. They’ll only pay $X, which is $Z less. And it’s apparently because is $X is the going rate. But would they pay $X plus a performance-based bonus of $Z if you attain target ABC? Again, performance-based pay may somehow escape the grasp of ‘equity concerns.’
  4. Deconstruct the equity equation: Equity is defined as the ratio of inputs to outputs. Employers who cite ‘equity concerns’ don’t always acknowledge that. They focus only on outputs in the form of the standard salary, not on any notable skills, degrees, or certifications (for example) that make your inputs particularly high. Since the ratio between particularly high inputs and standard outputs immediately becomes inequitable, reminding yourself and the employer of the whole equation (uber-carefully and professionally) may help.
  5. Develop and allude to an alternative: The best defense against a meagre offer, albeit the hardest to execute, is to develop a viable plan B—an attractive alternative offer or option. Since you’ll have to exercise your alternatives anyway if the stingy employer demurs, you’d better at least know what they are. Better yet is to have an alternative that you’re actually eager to execute, and thus willing to mention if the ‘equity concerns’ persist despite your best efforts.

In sum, ‘equity concerns’ create a real challenge for any aspiring job negotiator. But a thoughtful strategy can make even this nettlesome tactic negotiable.

Curtailing the never-ending meeting: The deadline effect

Meetings: the great vortex that swallows most of our organizational lives. Is there anything – anything at all – we can do to make them negotiable?

Luckily there are several tactics available. But here let me focus on a particularly helpful nugget of wisdom from the negotiation literature: the deadline effect.

The deadline effect in negotiation essentially, and interestingly, shows that deadlines are not particularly detrimental to those who face them. But wait, don’t we all feel pressured when negotiating with our backs up against a hard stop? Yes, but so too does our counterpart. And that’s the essence of the deadline effect: deadlines focus everyone’s mind on business and can thus be quite beneficial to all negotiators concerned.

It’s not hard to see how the same principle might apply to meetings. We often have the latitude to schedule meetings at various points in the day. Should we schedule them in the middle of a big block of free time? Or should we schedule them right before another meeting? Should we schedule them for longer than needed, just in case, or even leave the timing open-ended? Or should we predetermine that they need to conclude by a specific time, and be quite specific with ourselves as well as the other parties involved about what the time is?

If you want to make meetings negotiable, leveraging the deadline effect is a good place to start: Consider scheduling your meetings right up against your other meetings, and be perfectly clear with yourself and your counterparts as to the existence of a firm deadline in the form of a subsequent meeting. Doing so might make you feel harried and could, potentially, make your long-winded colleagues feel rushed. But chances are it’ll make the bulk of your colleagues feel grateful, as they too will discover more minutes in the day.

In short, deadlines, in organizations, are your friend! Treat them that way, and even meetings can become negotiable.

Compromise: The bane of your next team presentation

I have often contended that—contrary to popular wisdom—compromise is bad. The fundamental problem? Compromise takes two people’s desires and cuts them in half, leaving nobody particularly happy. Sure, it’s better than an impasse (sometimes). But it’s often worse than a variety of more creative solutions.

Nowhere is the problem more apparent than in the creation of a team presentation. Indeed, if you’re tasked with creating such a presentation, avoiding a compromise is often the only way to make life negotiable.

Huh? A story to illustrate:

A colleague and I were recently asked to coteach a class that covers two related but distinct topics—let’s call them apples and oranges. Given that apples and oranges are two distinct fruits, and given that my colleague is naturally more familiar with the apples from his normal course while I’m more familiar with the oranges from mine, the easiest thing to do—and the thing most people do—is slap half the apples and half the oranges into a single presentation, in sequence. A compromise! It avoids disagreement, minimizes additional work, and appears to respect everyone’s thinking. Right?

Well, yes, but anyone who’s ever done that (or heard that presentation) knows the outcome: an incoherent mishmash of a presentation—a presentation where we learn all there is to know about apples from presenter 1 and all there is to know about oranges from presenter 2. But then we walk away scratching our heads about what in the world apples have to do with oranges, or even what the whole presentation was about. Compromise, in the context of a team presentation, fails us badly.

But luckily, there’s a better way. And luckily, my colleague and I knew enough about the pitfalls of compromise to adopt it. Instead of half a presentation about apples and a half a presentation about oranges, how about a whole presentation about a two-fruit salad? In other words, how about a presentation that takes the best parts of each person’s thinking, integrates them in a coherent way, and uses the resulting integration to extract new insights that would’ve occurred to neither alone.

Yes, of course, it takes more time. But, to smash the fruit metaphor into a pulp, I assure you that it almost always results in a tastier dish. And it usually takes less time than scrapping the incoherent two-fruit sequence, then mixing up an entirely new fruit salad, as you’ll probably have to do in response to the negative feedback generated by the initial presentation.

So the next time you’re tasked with compiling a team presentation—or tempted to compromise in general—consider the possibility that meeting in the middle is neither necessary nor necessarily desirable. Integrating the best of everyone’s thinking to produce a novel and intriguing whole often results in a far juicer final product.

Two is greater than one—especially in negotiation!

On the job, countless situations call for a proposal: A customer requests an estimate. A colleague calls for a counter-proposal about the subdivision of a project. A boss asks for a suggested reconfiguration of your time to accommodate a new responsibility.

In these situations, most people do exactly what was requested: make a proposal. And that’s logical! You’re just following directions. Still, there’s a better way to respond—a response that can make life more negotiable for you and the other person alike: making two proposals rather than one. Let me tell you what I’m talking about and explain why two, in negotiation, is substantially greater than one.

Imagine your boss asked you to assume a major new responsibility. Recognizing that this will totally upend your job and prevent you from accomplishing your current responsibilities, the boss further requested a proposal indicating how you’ll now allocate your time. The logical approach would be to think about it and simply provide a proposal.

But compare that to thinking about it and providing two proposals, each slightly different but both just about as attractive to you. One of the two indicates you can get the new thing done while accomplishing 25% of your previous job. The other indicates you can get the new thing done and manage to complete 40% of your previous job if only you were allowed to work from home twice a week and save a bunch of time super-commuting. Truth be told, you consider the two proposals equally attractive.

Now, compare the two-proposal approach to the single-proposal approach that just seemed logical. Which is better?

Surprisingly, negotiation research on “Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers” or “MESOs”—which is exactly what your two proposals are—would suggest the former. But why? Why are two more complicated proposals better than one that just follows directions? For at least five reasons:

  1. Flexibility: True, your two proposals didn’t exactly follow your boss’s instructions to the T. But negotiation research would suggest that the boss will prefer them nevertheless because they seem more flexible. You are conveying the willingness to solve the boss’s problem in multiple ways, not just one.
  2. Anchoring: Ironically, at the same time you demonstrate flexibility, you also focus your boss’s attention on your own preferred solutions to the problem. And you actually do that twice, not just once.
  3. Information sharing: Through your two proposals, you’ve communicated something important about your own preferences, namely that you want to work from home more often and could be more productive if you did. It would be harder to convey that quite so clearly with just the one proposal, whichever it was.
  4. Information receiving: By hearing which of the two proposals your boss prefers, you learn something vitally important about your boss’s preferences, namely how he or she feels about virtual work. Over and above any potential benefits of the actual ability to work from home, it might be nice to how your boss feels about this critical issue.
  5. Efficiency and satisfaction: The two-proposal approach tends to bring the two parties to a quicker and more satisfying resolution. Had you stuck slavishly to the boss’s directions, you might’ve battled it out over one issue, probably the exact percentage reduction in your current responsibilities. At a minimum, you or they might’ve walked away unhappy, never a good outcome in a hierarchical relationship.

So, am I telling you to flaunt your boss’s specific requests? Of course not. I’m simply saying that, whenever there’s room to respond to a request with two proposals rather than one, you’ll usually find two to be much greater than one.

Influencing by volunteering

In organizations, tasks often arise that no one really needs or wants to do. An agenda needs to be developed; a Google doc needs to be compiled; a memo needs to be written. If it doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s job description or fall squarely onto anyone’s plate, getting it done obviously requires someone to take the initiative.

Sometimes, someone volunteers—presumably out of goodwill or a desire to take this task rather than the next one. At least as often, though, a whole lot of people play musical chairs in hopes of quickly finding a seat. Even setting aside the goodwill or desire to avoid the next task, though, these opportunities offer an often overlooked opportunity to make life negotiable.

To see how, let’s take a brief walk through the world of negotiation research.

Taking such a walk, you’ll quickly encounter the first offer effect: the finding that the person who makes the first offer tends to better achieve their objectives. Dig deeper into the effect, and you’ll find that it’s grounded in one of the most robust findings in all of psychology: anchoring, or our tendency to make ambiguous judgments by focusing on whatever information happens to be before us at judgment-time. First offers matter because the second offerer uses them as a point-of-reference.

What in the world does this have to do with organizational tasks? Well, taking the initiative often amounts to making the first offer. In other words, avoiding the inclination to play musical chairs often allows you to put your own stamp on the agenda, the Google doc, the memo. Since somebody has to develop the agenda (which will inevitably influence the topics and their order), somebody has to compile the Google Doc (which will inevitably influence the facts considered and how), and somebody has to write the memo (which will inevitably influence its tone), it might as well be you. That way, you’ll claim at least some of the organizational influence so many people claim to eagerly covet.

Now, like any advice based on any decision-making bias (e.g., anchoring), you’ll have to use this one with extreme ethical caution. While it’s true that somebody has to do the stuff above, if you do it with devious intentions, you’ll not only curtail your influence—you’ll eliminate any semblance of goodwill. So don’t omit a key item from the agenda, key fact from the Google Doc, or key finding from the memo (for example).

And you’ll obviously have to be selective, volunteering for the tasks where you care rather than everything that crosses the transom.

Act ethically and choose selectively, though, and you may find your influence starting to wax. Because the fact remains that somebody has to do it. If you care about it and can find the time, it might as well be you.

When to part with your Plan B

I’ve often alluded to the need to develop a BATNA: a next-best option or plan B if the current negotiation fails. Any negotiation instructor worth their salt will give the same advice. But the advice also raises a critical conundrum that often goes unanswered: when to let your BATNA go. When’s the right time to exercise plan A and let your fallback option go their merry way?

Since knowing when to part with your BATNA can dictate both your economic outcomes and your long-term reputation, thereby making life more or less negotiable, let’s consider five questions that can inform a decision about letting your BATNA go. If you’d like, consider these questions in the context of two job offers, one of which you prefer (plan A) to the other (plan B):

  1. Am I certain about plan A? Plan B effectively offers insurance against the collapse of plan A. So if plan A is far from certain—if someone from plan A has mentioned but not confirmed you’ll get a job offer, for example—then it’s probably better to retain plan B.

But…

  1. Is plan B starting to feel that way? No one likes to feel like a fallback. If you’ve been stringing plan B along, stalling sketchily while they eagerly await an answer, chances are they will. Since the associated damage to your reputation may start to outweigh the benefits of a fallback, you should consider parting ways.
  2. Would I ever say yes to plan B? Maybe it’s the reluctance to say no, or the fear of cold decisiveness. Either way, people frequently retain BATNAs that they would never in a million years exercise. If you would never say yes to your best alternative—if it’s a job you couldn’t possibly envision yourself doing, for example—it’s only right to say no, and quickly.
  3. Are you preventing your plan B from exercising theirs? Oftentimes, your BATNA’s offer to you is preventing them from exercising their own BATNA, e.g., an offer to somebody else. If you are standing in the way of their doing so for no clear reason, it’s probably better to part ways.
  4. How small of a world is it? If you and your BATNA will never again cross paths—not even on the interweb—then you might consider retaining them a big longer. Are you dealing with a used car dealer in the middle of nowhere? But in the considerably more common situation where you and your BATNA both inhabit a small world, I’d suggest treading much more carefully. Will your stringing-alonging follow you around till the end of time? Will every future employer in your industry / city / profession know how fallbackish your current BATNA felt? If so, then treat them with extreme caution and respect, if only for this fairly self-focused reason.

In sum, good negotiators know to cultivate a BATNA. Great and responsible negotiators know to never string a BATNA along unnecessarily. Here’s hoping that these five questions help you navigate these ethically fraught waters.

Mythical images of negotiation

Picture a negotiation. What comes to mind? Two people, explicitly negotiating for a fixed period of time, over a fixed set of issues, from opposite sides of a table. Right?

Common and obvious as that image may be, I’m here to tell you that it represents precious few negotiations in the real world. Outside of our minds and negotiation classrooms, negotiations look a whole lot different—and a whole lot messier.

Since detecting a negotiation can prompt you to think and act more strategically, thereby making life more negotiable, let’s look at five features of many negotiations in the real world. Throughout, please imagine an omnipresent, real-world negotiation situation: your desire to convince your work colleagues to do something:

  1. Multiple (or many) people: Real-world negotiations rarely involve just two people. Convincing your work colleagues to do anything consequential, for example, will probably require you to talk to at least a few of them, possibly at a few levels of hierarchy and in a few departments. At a minimum, you’ll have to CC them on the emails.
  2. Nobody (or not everybody) detects a negotiation: In the real world, people don’t typically sit down and think, “let’s negotiate” or “we’re negotiating.” Rather, they have a problem or goal, which they bring to a variety of other people in a variety of subsequent situations. In the entire duration of your negotiation with work colleagues, for example, it’s doubtful that anybody (with the possible exception of you) will explicitly label your efforts a negotiation.
  3. Long and uncertain period of time: Real-world negotiations don’t usually fit neatly into a 30- or 45-minute boxes. They happen in fits and starts over long and uncertain periods of time, erupting in an explosion of activity at certain (seemingly random) times and languishing in long periods of inactivity. To convince your organizational colleagues, for example, you’ll probably solicit some informal feedback, meet with your boss, slowly socialize the idea among your colleagues, and withstand a long period of messy implementation discussions. That’s all negotiation.
  4. Fluid issues: Real-world negotiations don’t usually fit neatly into 1-4 discrete and mutually exclusive issues, easily quantified. They involve an uncertain set of issues at the outset, at best. Subsequently, some issues meander onto the table unexpectedly. And other issues fall by the wayside inexplicably. You probably won’t anticipate all of your colleagues’ concerns with your suggestion at the outset, for example, nor will all of those concerns necessarily have anything to do with the final solution.
  5. Fluid communications: In the real-world, precious few negotiations occur in formal meetings at physical tables. Sure, you’ll have a few formal meetings to promote your plan, but you’ll also have an array of phone calls, Skype calls, emails, water-cooler chats, and chance encounters in the elevator. The entire messy process is a negotiation.

From this discussion, it’s easy to see that the negotiations in our minds look very little like many of the negotiations in our real lives. It seems that we hold mythical images of negotiation in addition to mythical images of negotiators. In both cases, it’s important to recognize the differences, as we’ll otherwise fail to deploy our best negotiation skills (or succeed in deploying the wrong ones). So here’s hoping this post helps you identify the negotiations and negotiators you’ll most likely in the real world.

Don’t take no for an answer! (Ask a question)

One of the most common words any negotiator hears is “no.”

“Can you do X?” “No.”

“What if I offered you Y?” “No.”

“Would you consider Z?” “Sorry, no.”

Most negotiators, hearing the fateful word, conclude it’s time to concede. But negotiators who have read my previous posts know that the temptation to concede is actually the opportunity to ask a question, in disguise. Indeed, transforming a no into a question is often the only way to make the no negotiable.

Consider the following three questions, which are particularly pertinent after a no:

  1. Why? When counterparts say no, they’re typically saying no to your position. That is, they’re denying the specific request you just made. They’re not saying no to your underlying interests—not denying their willingness to meet your objectives in some other way. Asking why can often surface the third way. Consider an employee who asks for a salary bump, gets denied, asks why, and learns that such a bump would disrupt established salary bands. But do these salary bands have anything to say about bonuses, benefits, or non-pecuniary rewards? Perhaps not.
  2. What would you recommend? A denial is often a golden opportunity to enlist some help. So you won’t accept my specific request? Could you at least help me solve my underlying problem? Such is the point of this question. And here’s the wonderful thing: the other person, having just crushed your dreams, often feels at least somewhat compelled to lend a helping hand. I recently asked a repairman if his company could fix my jigsaw, received a flat-out no, asked what he would do in the face of a broken jigsaw, and suddenly found him asking 20 questions about my jigsaw and actually offering to take a look at it.
  3. [Same question, later]. Denials are often visceral responses—emotional reactions to a request initially seen as unfair, greedy, or inappropriate. With time, though, many people come to realize that the initial request was actually quite reasonable—that they should’ve actually said yes. Such was the situation when I asked a sofa salesperson about the possibility of free delivery, received a denial, let some time pass, then asked whether she was sure they couldn’t offer free delivery. Full disclosure: she still said no. But I’m pretty sure she left out some other wasteful and useless fees that she otherwise would’ve thrown in, thereby effectively saying yes.

So a “no” is often the start of a conversation, not the end. Treating it as such can turn a depressing denial into a negotiable opportunity.

“That’s not negotiable.” (Yes it is)

Many an aspiring negotiator has been stymied by three simple words: “That’s not negotiable.” How often do car dealers, retailers, and employers utter that tremendously painful phrase? And how directly does it strike at the heart of our grand negotiation strategy?

Well, I’m here to tell you that sometimes it’s not negotiable. But many times, it is. And recognizing as much can make life itself more negotiable.

To show you what I mean, let me decode three common meanings lurking behind the three simple words, none of which amount to it actually being non-negotiable:

  1. “I’m going to try this tactic on you.” Oftentimes, people say it’s not negotiable simply because they know you won’t question them. Car dealers will tell you that a particular discount cannot be negotiated, only to remember an even better discount if you happen to start walking out in pursuit of a better offer. But most people don’t, so the non-negotiability rarely gets questioned.
  2. “I’m referring to price, specifically.” Oftentimes, people really won’t haggle on price, but they’re more than happy to haggle on anything else. I recently visited a sofa store with their no-haggle guarantee plastered on the door, echoed by the salesman’s immediate assurance that prices there were non-negotiable. But then he immediately informed me that I could get free shipping if I bought during the sale. “And can I get free shipping if I buy after the sale?” I asked. “Well, I guess we could do that,” he responded. Price was not negotiable, but he was chomping at the bit to negotiate delivery.
  3. “It actually is negotiable.” Oftentimes, people will tell you something is not negotiable only to trade it off with something else, thereby making it negotiable. Employers will tell you that salary is not negotiable, only to agree to virtual work, a different location, or a different bonus plan if you accept the given salary. But by trading the “non-negotiable” issue with other negotiable issues, they’ve essentially made the non-negotiable issue negotiable.

In sum, it might not be negotiable. And if not, so be it. But I wouldn’t conclude as much from the three simple words. Instead, I’d try to probe whether it’s a tactic or a comment confined to single monetary issue like price or salary, setting off in search of more negotiable terrain.

What’s my alternative?

The road to regrettable yet avoidable workplace mistakes is littered with the absence of three small words: what’s my alternative? A failure to ask this simple question, I submit, can account for a major portion of our worst workplace decisions. To avoid such decisions and make our lives more negotiable, let’s look at a few of the perils associated with failing to consider our alternatives, along with some simple examples of each.

  1. Walking away from a good deal. Perhaps the most pernicious consequence of failing to consider our alternatives is the risk of walking away from a positive situation. Why would anyone do that? Often because of a flurry of emotions. Consider the many regrettable instances when people mouth off to their superiors or become embroiled in workplace conflicts, thinking they can easily find another job if they have to. But can they? Unfortunately, the labor market is rarely so obliging.
  2. Accepting a bad deal. Quite the opposite, failing to consider our alternatives can lead us to stick with an inferior option. Consider the huge proportion of Americans who consider themselves locked in a dead-end job. Many of them certainly are, given a host of economic and social challenges beyond their control. But at least some of them are not: At least some of the people who consider themselves trapped in a dead-end job could in fact pursue a less stressful or less demanding job, or even found a viable business, if only they entertained such alternatives seriously.
  3. Wasting time deliberating. Many people spend a great deal of time pondering what to do when there is realistically only one thing they can do. Should I accept my boss’s offer to lead that important project? If I really have the option to decline, it’s worth the careful thought. But if my career implicitly depends on my acceptance, then it’s better to confront a lack of alternatives than to pointlessly give myself an ulcer.
  4. Becoming complacent. People and firms often rest on their laurels—failing to innovate or experiment with new ways of working or doing—because they overestimate the costs of failed experiments or underestimate the costs of continuing down a well-trodden path. In other words, they fail to carefully consider the alternatives to doing nothing, so nothing is often what they do.
  5. Submitting to whatever someone says. Many individuals and firms have their favorite vendor or preferred service provider. Look to no one else for service X or product Y! While this approach might make everyone feel good, it’s not particularly likely to produce a favorable agreement. Think about it: even if the preferred vendor is benevolent, how motivated will they be to offer an amazing deal if they know that you’ll accept their terms regardless? Not very. So it’s good to have friends, but when you are bidding for business, it’s also good to have alternatives.

In sum, this negotiation professor believes that a major swathe of our most regrettable yet avoidable decisions can in fact be avoided by considering our alternatives carefully. The next time you make that major decision? Consider considering your alternatives first.

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.

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.

Proactive concessions: A secret weapon for making life negotiable

Peruse The Art of the Deal or a negotiation book like that, and you’re likely to encounter some advice like this: “Never concede unless you have to!” And that mindset sorta makes sense if you think that all negotiations consist of competitive battles with slimy car dealers.

But my posts have consistently sought to convince you that negotiations are a lot more common than that. We negotiate anytime we depend on someone else to achieve our objectives, meaning essentially all day long. And in many of our negotiations, the advice to avoid conceding is just wrong—so wrong that I’d actually advise you to do the opposite by racing to concede first. Proactive concessions, I submit, can make life more negotiable.

To see what I mean, consider the following negotiation that we rarely consider one: a work project in which you and a team member—let’s call her Judy—have much different visions about a collective project. By making a proactive concession…

  1. You get to choose the issue: If you wait for Judy to concede, you might find yourself reciprocally conceding on a really important issue. If she backs down from a January deadline to something later, for example, you’ll probably have to back down from a December deadline to something sooner, even if anything sooner seems impossible. But if you beat Judy to the concession, you might be able to avoid a concession on deadlines entirely, backing down on some other issue that you care about less—who’s responsible for what, perhaps.
  2. You generate felt reciprocity: If Judy concedes first, you’re on the psychological hook to concede something in return. And that’s not where you want to be in the midst of a contentious negotiation, particularly if you’ve already arrived at your bottom line. If you concede first, however, you’ve got a chip to cash in when it’s time to talk turkey.
  3. You generate trust: If Judy concedes first, she’s sitting there stewing over the need to work with a stubborn meany. If you concede first, she’s sitting there realizing that you’re surprisingly reasonable and potentially even worthy of trust.
  4. You dictate the size of your subsequent concessions: If Judy makes a big concession on the deadline issue—say January to May—and thus basically forces you to back down from December to August, you can bet both parties will be arriving at a June 15th compromise in no time. If you concede first and make a small concession on the deadline issue—say December to November—you set the tone that your subsequent concessions will be smaller (as concessions usually are). Thus, you’re less likely to lose your summer vacation.
  5. You get to send a signal: If Judy moves first, you may or may not learn anything about her preferences. If you move first, you get the chance to explain your preferences in a subtle but potent way: “Anything earlier than December is impossible, Judy, but I’m happy to take responsibility for writing the initial draft if it helps.” With that simple statement, you’ve not only conceded on who does what (with all of the associated benefits); you’ve also signaled to the formidable Judy that dates are more important.

In sum, concessions are routinely underappreciated and often flat-out denigrated. But smart negotiators know that proactive concessions offer a potent strategy for setting the tone and steering the conversation—a secret weapon for making life negotiable.

Research papers as negotiations

At first glance, the writing of a research paper might seem nothing like a negotiation. Negotiations necessarily involve conflict, and the collaborative production of a research paper involves nothing but cooperation—right? But a closer look at the paper construction process reveals many opportunities or even necessities for negotiation within a research team. Anticipating these situations and planning a prospective response can make scholarly life more negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations that commonly arise during the production of a research paper:

  1. Where to take a paper: The members of research teams often have very different views on a paper’s strategic direction. Are we trying to challenge the identification literature, the identity literature, or image literature? In the presence of such debates, I find the negotiation research on creative solutions particularly useful, in that it says that new ideas can often satisfy everyone at the same time. Does this paper actually present a previously unrecognized opportunity to clarify and integrate the three literature?
  2. Where to send a paper: Scholarly teams often disagree on the journal that should have the benefit of receiving their work. Some authors may advocate for a stretch journal—one that would be unbelievable if it worked, but probably it won’t. Others may advocate for a safe journal—a more realistic outlet that is also less likely to impress. In these instances, the negotiation literature’s focus on trust becomes particularly important, in that team members often have to trust in the judgment of colleagues who have published in places they haven’t. Could this paper ever get into that amazing journal where I’ve never had a prayer of publishing? Your five articles at that journal make you better qualified to say. If so, our debate is effectively resolved.
  3. What to expect from a coauthor: Authors often disagree on what it means to be a coauthor, and particularly the responsibilities implicit in various locations within the scholarly pecking order (e.g., first or last author). Sometimes this results from the authors’ differing disciplines. The last position in a long list of authors is tremendously coveted in medicine, for example, whereas the same position is best avoided in management. In other instances, these differing expectations come from differing experiences, in which team members have previously worked with assiduous or indolent colleagues. In these cases, I find the negotiation research on open information sharing especially important, in that openly surfacing expectations rather than implicitly assuming them heads off many an unpleasant encounter down the road.
  4. How to respond to reviews: In many cases, the best possible outcome of a scholarly paper submission is not an acceptance (impossible), but a revise and resubmit—an offer to alter the article in some minor or major ways and send it back. The problem arises when team members have very different reactions to a major request. Should we bend to the will of the reviewer asking us to rewrite the paper, or stick to our guns and try to convince the editor, if not the reviewer, of our original wisdom? (For some tips on how to negotiate with reviewers themselves, see here). In these cases, I find one word particularly useful: “why?” Why does your co-author feel so strongly about resisting the request to rewrite? Do they think it would derail the paper, require too much time, conflict with a favored theory or viewpoint? There are many reasons to prefer a particular response; figuring out which one it is can generate some new possibilities. If the problem is a coauthor’s time, for example, perhaps you’d be willing to take a crack at the rewrite?
  5. When to give up on a paper: Despite their best efforts, many papers find a home at none of the favored journals. Is it time to cut our losses or persist and shoot lower? The well-intentioned members of a scholarly team can disagree, perhaps because of their career stage (e.g., close to versus far from tenure review). In these instances, I find the negotiation principle of post-settlement settlements (PSS’s) particularly useful. PSS’s are attempts to improve a deal already reached, with each party having the ability to revert to the original deal if they wish. In this case, the initial list of authors represents the original deal; if one author wants to persist while the others prefer to cut their losses, could the persistent author assume more responsibility along with a higher position in authorship order?

In short, writing scholarly papers is a mostly cooperative endeavor, with smart and well-intentioned people all working to attain the same scientific goal. But the publishing process is complex and precarious, presenting many situations in which differences of opinion can easily crop up. By thinking about these situations as negotiations and applying some of the most well-known negotiation principles, perhaps we can all make the scientific endeavor a little more negotiable.

Negotiating your time back

Left to their own devices, people in organizations tend to take your time away. “Would you serve on the birthday committee?” “Would you contribute to our twice-weekly newsletter?” “Would you take our new hires out to lunch?” And who, with half a heart, could say no to such harmless extracurricular requests? The problem, of course, is that many harmless extracurriculars add up to one stressed out employee—someone who can’t get their job done.

In these moments, it’s time to get your time back. I would offer the following five negotiation principles as a framework for making the process more negotiable:

  1. Interests. Your interests are what you really want or need. In this case, they’re the tasks you really need to complete to satisfy your job. And perhaps the extracurriculars you really want to tack on because you like them. What do you really need and want to do, and how much time will it really require? Answering those questions provides a baseline for deciding how much time is left for the birthday committee.
  2. Alternatives. With respect to any particular extracurricular, what would you alternatively do with the time if you had it back? In other words, what’s the opportunity cost of being on the birthday committee? If they’re higher than inherent benefits of the birthday committee—to you, but particularly to the rest of the committee and whoever’s having a birthday—chances are it’s not worth your time.
  3. Bottom line: Given your interests, what is the absolute maximum amount of time you can spend on extracurriculars? That’s a rhetorical question for your consideration, not a question to answer in front of the birthday committee coordinator, lest they see your free time as an opening to ask you about the anniversary and holiday committees too.
  4. Perspective-taking: If you’re considering quitting a particular extracurricular, how’s the organizer likely to react, and why? The organizers of some extracurriculars will probably be more concerned than the organizers of others. And the very concerned organizers will probably be concerned for some particular reason, which you might be able to address by proposing a…
  5. Creative solution: Sure, the organizer of the birthday party may not do a happy dance when you resign from his or her committee. But could you bring back some semblance of a smile by understanding the underlying concern and doing something to address it? If the underlying issue is your refined knowledge of the birthday planning process, perhaps you could train someone else? If the concern is that no one else will volunteer as much time as you (providing further justification for your qualms), perhaps you could create a team of dedicated birthday planners, subdividing by month? If it’s that your absence will spell the end of the beloved birthday emails from the company, perhaps Microsoft can offer an automated solution?

In sum, we all, out of the goodness of our hearts, find ourselves agreeing to serve on something like the birthday committee from time to time. But when the scope of our goodness expands to include the anniversary committee, holiday committee, and everything else—and when we consequently find ourselves stretched too thin to even read our boss’s emails—it’s time to get our time back. In these instances, I’d suggest that considering some basic negotiation principles is well-worth your time.

“It’s not fair!”

Any guesses as to the most popular phrase in the toddler’s vocabulary? That’s right: “It’s not fair.” While we may be tempted to discount these three words as a manifestation of the toddler’s irrational mind, I’m here to suggest that they can actually teach us something important about disputes. In particular, I’d like to suggest that this phrase represents nearly everyone’s reaction in a dispute situation, and recognizing as much can make our own disputes more negotiable.

Any parent has experienced something like the following:

  • Toddler (7 AM): “I want chocolate!”
  • Parent: “No, not for breakfast.”
  • Toddler: “But it’s not fair!”
  • Parent: “Oh, yes it is.”

This is a classic dispute. The toddler made a claim, namely that chocolate was appropriate at 7 AM. And the parent rejected it, namely by saying no. Both sides found their own positions entirely fair.

While this dispute may seem silly or contrived, consider the following analogue: It’s January, and you wish to take your vacation a bit earlier this year than last. So you ask your boss: “Boss, can I take my vacation in February?” “No,” your boss says, “We’re pretty busy that time of year.” A completely different domain, but a very similar situation. You wanted to do something a little earlier than someone else expected, and they simply said no. Again, both sides probably found their own positions entirely fair.

Anytime one party makes a claim and another party rejects that claim, you have the basic outlines of a dispute. And anytime you have the basic outlines of the dispute, both parties think that their position is fair. The fact that we identify with our own vacation claim more than the toddler’s chocolate claim doesn’t change the basic situation: everyone in a dispute considers their own view the very epitome of fairness.

In this light, toddlers can teach us something important: in the context of a dispute, appeals to fairness are not likely to work. However fair your own claim seems, you can rest assured your counterpart sees things just the opposite. So how convinced will they be by the natural and oft-made argument, issued later and in a professional adult manner of course, that this particular decision is not particularly fair? Not very.

In this respect, I have to lodge a slight amendment to the book Getting to Yes. Despite the book’s many positive qualities, which I have often extolled in this blog, it advises the reader to resolve conflicts by focusing on objective standards. But the toddler’s behavior shows us that objectivity is subjective, at least when a negotiation becomes a dispute. Since everyone finds their own views the epitome of fairness, trying to be objective is unlikely to get you any closer to a resolution.

So what can you do? Well, you can probably turn to another insight from Getting to Yes: Focusing on underlying interests. The toddler wanted chocolate at 7 AM, but why? Perhaps they’re just hungry for something a little sweeter than the normal dose of plain oatmeal, in which case an apple may do? Your boss said no to the February vacation, but why? Are they concerned that you won’t finish the big report, which you’ve actually already drafted?

Bottom line: “It’s not fair” is everyone’s reaction to a dispute, not just the irrational toddler’s. And however professional and adult-like you put it, it’s not going to convince your counterpart. So the next time you find yourself in a dispute, resist the toddler’s temptation to highlight the unfairness of the situation and instead focus on unearthing whichever of your counterpart’s interests led them to reject your claim in the first place. It’s only by transcending the tendencies of a toddler—surprisingly hard for all of us in a dispute—that we can hope to resolve the disputes and achieve the interests in our own lives.