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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
We’re afraid of uncomfortable interpersonal situations.
We want other people to like us.
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:
As mentioned above and before, if we don’t ask for it, we won’t get it.
Humans being human beings, we really have no idea how they’ll react until we ask.
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.
For some reason, we’re much more scared of a mildly unpleasant, short-term “no” than a highly unpleasant, permanently dissatisfying agreement.
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:
Start calling yourself out the next time you hear the inner negotiator.
Starting telling your inner negotiator to knock it off.
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.
“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:
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.
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.
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…
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:
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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?
“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.
How can you know if your negotiation is heading in the right direction? Few complicated questions have simple answers, but let me try to make this one as simple as possible in hopes of making life negotiable.
If your negotiation is progressing nicely, the discussion should generally answer the following three questions, in the following order:
What? Most productive negotiations start with an examination of the basic situation, the facts (actual, not alternative). As in, what are we actually discussing here, and what’s the context? Seems obvious to get the facts out of the way first, but surprisingly many negotiators don’t, preferring to launch into overt conflict before clarifying the premises. (Ask our friends in Washington.) If your negotiation doesn’t surface the facts first, chances are it won’t produce much of anything useful later.
Why? Most productive negotiations eventually progress from a discussion of what we’re talking about to a discussion of why those issues matter to each side. Don’t get to the reasons for the facts as we see them—and surprisingly many don’t—and chances are you’ll get mired in a pointless debate over each side’s positions and their utter irreconcilability. We’ll get stuck at me wanting a raise and you giving me zilch without ever exploring creative ways to reduce my commuting costs, reimburse my education, or obtain a bonus when I bring in the promised business.
How? Most productive negotiations eventually move on from each party’s priorities to a discussion of prospective solutions. Having understood what’s important to each side, the negotiators obviously need to consider how to reconcile those priorities. If your negotiation never gets there—and surprisingly many don’t—and you’ll have a great and deep understanding of the situation and each other. But that’s it. You’ll leave the room scratching your head about what in the world was just decided and what to do next. Ever leave a meeting with just that feeling?
Now, before taking this what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness too far, a clarification is in order: Negotiation, like any form of problem-solving, is an iterative process. You may move on to the why questions and then discover you didn’t understand the what well enough. That’s fine! As long as you eventually get back to why, your negotiation is still progressing nicely.
What’s not fine is skipping steps. Since understanding underlying priorities (why) is hard and often a bit awkward, for example, many people prefer to skip right from what to how. Do that, and you’re likely to surface a solution that seems to fix the situation but doesn’t really solve anyone’s underlying problem. Other people—the go-getters, solution-seekers, extreme Type-A’s—may try to jump right to solutions. Do that, and your solutions won’t even fit the surface-level situation, let alone the underlying problem.
With those clarifications in mind, I would humbly offer the what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness. Answer those questions in that general order, and you’ll probably find your negotiation progressing nicely. Skip some of those questions or don’t answer any of them, and you’re likely to get the personal equivalent of a shutdown.
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:
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.
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.
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.