Making negotiations fun: Five lessons from the outliers who actually like them

Ask a person their favorite activities, and they’re not likely to say “negotiation.” Most of us dislike negotiation, and some utterly despise it.

But does it really have to be that way? Isn’t it at least conceivable to enjoy negotiation?

In my role as negotiation professor, I’ve had the pleasure of observing at least a few students who seem to genuinely enjoy negotiating, in the classroom and beyond. In hopes of helping the rest of us make our negotiation-filled lives more fun and negotiable at the same time, let me recount a few of their common characteristics.

People who enjoy negotiation tend to:

  1. Understand the worst they can do is the same. Many of us dread negotiation because we fear a phantom calamitous outcome. We imagine ourselves getting a salary reduction or a higher price on the car. People who enjoy negotiation know that’s not likely to happen. In the face of a respectful and reasonable request for something that genuinely matters, some counterparts will say no but few will retract their offers. And assuming your request is in fact respectful and reasonable, few will fault you for trying—some may even respect you that much more. People who enjoy negotiation know that the worst possible downside is often the status quo.
  2. Understand the other side needs them too. Many of us dread negotiation because we assume we’re the only one who needs something. But if we’re in a negotiation rather than a command-and-control relationship, we’re not! The car dealer needs our purchase and trade-in. The employer doesn’t want to interview additional candidates after choosing you. Even the cable company needs our business, sort of. Those who enjoy negotiation know that dependence runs both ways.
  3. Treat the negotiation more like a puzzle than a problem. Many of us dread negotiation because we hate dealing with interpersonal problems, and negotiations seem like yet more of those. People who enjoy negotiations don’t see them that way at all. They see negotiations as puzzles to be solved by two smart and motivated people. Sure, they recognize that those two people may not be entirely aligned, but they don’t confuse partial misalignment with total opposition.
  4. Think beyond money. Many people hate negotiation because they fixate on money—and specifically on the risk of losing it, e.g., by paying too much for that car. As suggested in my book, The Bartering Mindset, those who enjoy negotiation know that money is typically one of several issues to be negotiated—and often the least negotiable. So they don’t shy away from the ever-important monetary issues, but they also don’t hesitate to consider the many non-monetary issues that are often substantially more malleable. With the car dealer, for example, they’re talking not just about price, but financing, floor mats, servicing, the value of their trade in, etc., etc., etc.
  5. Don’t knock themselves for trying. Many of us hate negotiation because we’re mortified at the prospect of failure. We can’t stomach the prospect of asking for something, getting denied, and walking sheepishly out the door. The best negotiators know they won’t always succeed—and they don’t expect to. If they try their best to no avail, they learn from whatever might have happened and congratulate themselves for trying, knowing they won’t have to wake up at 4 am questioning the salary they “could have had” if they’d asked. And sometimes they even high-five themselves vigorously for the failure, knowing as they do that “no” was actually the right answer in light of the better deal they just got elsewhere.

So consistent are these assumptions that I can usually identify the people who verbalize them as the outliers who enjoy negotiation. Here’s hoping the rest of us can learn a few lessons from the outliers that make negotiations—if not fun—at least negotiable.

Can we all merge later?

If you’re traumatized by traffic, the following claim may strike you as controversial if not downright sacrilegious. So let me apologize in advance for any offense. But then let me direct you to the common situation in which one of two lanes on your side of the roadway ends, necessitating a merge into the other. And finally, let me claim that waiting a bit longer to merge is a win-win driving strategy that can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Much like the drivers currently taking offense, I’m generally of the mind that merging as soon as possible is the best and most courteous thing to do. If you saw me on a road in a lane about to end, you’d quickly see me merging. And then, looking a little closer inside my window, you’d see me taking a very dim view of the guy in the huge pickup truck—and it’s always a guy in a huge pickup truck—who waits till the very last minute to merge and inevitably cuts everyone off. So rest assured that the views expressed here do not reflect some odd idiosyncratic opposition to merging—or some secret life as the guy in the pickup truck.

Instead they reflect a realization borne of a recent construction project. You see, there’s a road in my area in which the right lane gradually comes to an end, necessitating an eventual merge into the left. Until recently, this merge has been unremarkable, with courteous drivers weaving together naturally and continuing on their merry way. But then came construction on another area road that forced everybody and their brother onto this one. And then I observed the tendency of approximately 90% of drivers to do what I do—to get into the left lane as soon as humanly possible, leaving the left lane totally jammed and the right lane free of all traffic except the occasional pickup truck.

And then I got to thinking: Is this really the best outcome for all of us do-gooders on the left? Here we are, just twiddling our thumbs in frustration. And there we are, watching the pickup guy whizz by on the right, now boiling mad. Wouldn’t it be better for some of us to loosen up our do-gooding by staying in the right lane a little bit longer, thereby reducing our own wait time? And here’s the critical part: Wouldn’t that also be better for the people who were in the left lane already or are dead-set on remaining do-gooders and merging right away? With our departure, their wait time would certainly go down too. And here’s the best part of all: If enough do-gooders were to merge a bit later, wouldn’t that gleefully stymie the devious designs of the pickup guy, who planned to leave all us do-gooders in the dust? In short, isn’t it a win-win (and possibly a win-win-win) for some of us to merge later?

Turns out, my realization is reasonable in the eyes of the construction company, which subsequently installed a sign urging people to “use both lanes” (including the one that ends). So, much as it pains my do-gooder inclinations to say so, I suspect that a few of us merging a bit later—not dangerously late and not just the guy in the pickup truck—would produce a win-win outcome for all of us. A better use of all available roadway, just like a better use of all available resources in any negotiation, typically leads to a better outcome for everyone.

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.

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.

Negotiating against ourselves: Stop it!

In preparing to negotiate, most of us spend so much time worrying about our counterpart’s likely behavior that we forget to face down a far tougher counterpart: ourselves. That is, we out-negotiate ourselves even before we meet our real counterparts. We tell ourselves not to request that, not to think that, not to mention that idiosyncratic issue—so we don’t. But why? Since systematically shutting off our inner negotiator can make life negotiable, let’s unpack the issue.

In the moments before a negotiation, most of us implicitly engage in an inner conversation something like this:

  • “Should I ask for that? No, I don’t want to seem greedy.”
  • “What will she think if I raise that idea? That it’s crazy.”
  • “Should I say anything about that important but potentially weird issue? No, I don’t want to seem weird.”

Through inner conversations like these, most of us routinely convince ourselves to suppress what we really want and need before we ever ask for it. As a result, most of us just don’t get it—no critical adjustment to our work schedule, no support for our innovative but potentially wacky idea, no idiosyncratic but necessary amendment to our benefits.

But why? Why would we ever negotiate so hard against ourselves before the negotiation even starts? I’ve observed three, interrelated reasons:

  1. We’re afraid of uncomfortable interpersonal situations.
  2. We want other people to like us.
  3. We conclude that if we ask for what we really need, an uncomfortable interpersonal situation will ensue, and other people won’t like us.

But consider five, interrelated problems with these assumptions:

  1. As mentioned above and before, if we don’t ask for it, we won’t get it.
  2. Humans being human beings, we really have no idea how they’ll react until we ask.
  3. On average and over the long-term, other people will probably respect us more if we ask for what we need rather than acting as a human doormat.
  4. For some reason, we’re much more scared of a mildly unpleasant, short-term “no” than a highly unpleasant, permanently dissatisfying agreement.
  5. We don’t realize that a rejected request is often the gateway to additional creativity from both sides.

So what can we do about our dubious inner negotiator? I’d suggest a three-step response:

  1. Start calling yourself out the next time you hear the inner negotiator.
  2. Starting telling your inner negotiator to knock it off.
  3. Try a couple experiments in which you actually ask for what you really want and need. If it’s really so risky, the risks will appear quickly, and you can backtrack. But, in my experience as a negotiation researcher and teacher, you’re much more likely to find yourself finally getting what you need.

So should you just go out and ask for everything in the world? No. To be clear, I’m not telling anyone to get greedy or follow every frivolous desire under the sun. But I am telling those of us who routinely talk ourselves out of pursuing our true needs—most of us—to stop counting ourselves out before the match ever begins.

Just be quiet! Three beautiful benefits of silence in negotiation

“Negotiation” naturally connotes talking—and lots of it.

But if I’ve learned anything as a negotiation professor, it’s that the students who shine in our simulated negotiations are not the ones who do the most talking. They’re the ones who approach negotiations in comparable silence. Not an intense, brooding silence precipitating a calamitous impasse. But a pensive, respectful silence that lets their counterparts sound off.

Since a quiet approach can make even the toughest negotiations negotiable, let’s consider a few of the many benefits of keeping our collective traps shut at the bargaining table:

  1. They’ll start talking. What do most of us do when a conversation partner falls unexpectedly and utterly silent? Squirm in our chair, searching for something—anything—to say. I can easily demonstrate it in class by stopping smack-dab in the middle of a thought and looking sweetly at the students. They hate it! Someone always giggles, then someone coughs, then someone comments. The same is true in negotiation. If you can summon the courage to bite your tongue unexpectedly, chances are that your counterpart won’t bite theirs. Instead, they’ll probably launch into a monologue on their own situation, which just might reveal some interesting tidbits that you could fold into a deal.
  2. They’ll vent. Sometimes, in negotiations and especially in disputes, we find ourselves sitting across the table from someone angry. Maybe they’re peeved by our last offer, seething over a perceived slight, or simply having a bad hair day. Regardless, an angry counterpart should cue us to say nothing at all. Why? Because even the angriest angry negotiator can’t keep it up for long. They’ll vent, and eventually they’ll just run out of steam. Then you can finally return to the task of talking like adults.
  3. You’ll cool down. I hate to admit it after the last point, but sometimes we’re the angry negotiators. Sometimes we’re peeved about an offer, a slight, or uncooperative hair. In these cases, most of us like nothing more than to talk—to vent, just like our counterparts in the last point. But since our counterparts probably haven’t had the benefit of the last point, they’re unlikely to follow its guidance. Instead, they’ll let your anger feed into theirs, which may eventually trigger a radioactive explosion. So, on the off-chance you feel angry, that too is a wonderful time to summon your better angels and stay utterly silent. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, count to 10 if you’re angry and 100 if you’re very angry. Hard to do. But dig down deep for the willpower, and I think you’ll be amazed at how quick your jets cool (and how cool you can keep theirs).

So next time you hear “negotiation,” don’t hear talking, hear…

[Silence].

How to say no in negotiation

Despite the title of negotiation’s seminal text—Getting to Yes—the best negotiators often find themselves saying no. That’s because the goal of negotiation is not agreement—it’s achieving your interests wherever you best can, which is often somewhere else.

But this begs a big “how”: how to say no the right way. Sadly, it’s not as simple as those two letters, which typically convey an unnecessary and unproductive finality.

Since saying no the right way can make life more negotiable, let me offer five suggestions for saying no the right way:

  1. “Not Now”: “No” implies the discussion is over, now and forever. So the other party would be fully justified in deleting your emails and tearing your card from their Rolodex in a flurry of frustration. “Not now” leaves the door open for the future, suggesting that the real problem is not the deal but the timing. So the other party might decide you’re still worth a slot in their inbox and Rolodex.
  2. “I need to think about it / talk to X”: “No” leaves no room for further ideas or realizations, which you just might have when thinking about it or talking to X. Thinking about it or talking to X affords you both the time and the flexibility to change your mind.
  3. “Here’s what concerns me”: “No” provides no information about the underlying reason for the rejection. The other party really has no idea what went wrong. “Here’s what concerns me” provides just that information and keeps the discussion at least temporarily afloat. If they’re smart, they’ll at least consider your concerns before permanently sinking the ship.
  4. “Here’s what I could agree to”: “No” implies you can’t agree to anything about the current proposal—its very mention makes you nauseous. Even more directly than the last response, “Here’s what I could agree to” highlights the contours of a possible agreement. Sure, the other party might not give a hoot. But what’s the risk in giving them one last chance to hoot away?
  5. “I liked when you said…”: During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy famously received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev, one much more acceptable than the other. He deliberately focused on the one he liked better and downplayed the other. Likewise, the next time you’re tempted to meet an ultimatum with a “no,” you can ignore the other party’s ultimatum and focus back on something better they said earlier. Sure, they might still leave. But they might not, and they would have anyway.

In sum, getting to no is just as important as getting to yes, and getting to no the right way is just as important as getting there at all.