Picking the right (and wrong) time to negotiate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Negotiating to protect our time

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

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

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

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

Five non-deceptive reasons that negotiators don’t tell the full truth

One of the biggest challenges any negotiator faces is getting the full truth from their counterpart—in particular, learning the real interests lurking behind their positions. Why’s my coworker really pushing that proposal? Why’s the homeowner really delaying that inspection?

Facing a less-than-fully forthcoming counterpart, most of us draw a simple conclusion: They must be concealing something. Or, taking it a step further—they must be a liar.

I’m here to tell you, however, that negotiators fail to disclose their full interests for many reasons that have nothing to do with deception. Since understanding those reasons can make life negotiable, let me outline five of the most common:

  1. They don’t understand their interests: It’s much less intriguing that than the hypothesis you’re facing an ethically-craven knave, but it’s probably more likely: Your counterpart simply doesn’t understand themself. Be it time pressure, an overabundance of issues, or a shortage of self-awareness, a plethora of factors conspire to place many negotiators at the table without a full understanding of their own interests. If so, then the best recourse is not to suspect them but to stimulate some introspection.
  2. They’re too close to the problem: Conversely, some negotiators understand their situation quite well—so well they’ve got a set of blinders glued to their faces. They’ve been in the organization so long, know the business so well, etc. that they’re just sure their position is right. Only problem is they can’t tell you why—and don’t see the need to. If so, the best recourse may be to ask a series of open-ended questions that progressively unglue their blinders.
  3. It’s too sensitive: Sometimes, negotiators hesitate to disclose their interests—or at least write them in an initial email or state them in an initial phone call—because those interests are simply too sensitive. Maybe they’re pushing that proposal because the boss has threatened them if they don’t. Maybe they’re delaying that inspection because they’re too busy grieving for the person who lived there. In these situations, the best recourse may be to win their trust over an extended period of time, then ask.
  4. Telephone game: Sometimes, the person across the table is not the person with the problem under consideration. They’re just representing the person with the problem, in which case they could’ve easily fallen victim to the telephone game. Maybe the problem owner didn’t reveal their own interests, or maybe they did and something got lost in translation. Either way, your counterpart’s reticence may amount to garden variety communication breakdown. If so, the best recourse may be to send some questions back to the problem owner or request their presence at the next meeting.
  5. High-context communication: Sometimes, the person across the table thinks they’re sharing their interests, plain as day, but you’re not hearing them. This may or may not happen in married couples, but excellent research suggests it’s quite common in cross-cultural negotiations. Whatever the setting, here’s the issue: One negotiator is using high-context communication—embedding the message in facial expressions, tone of voice, and other subtle hints—whereas the other is receiving low-context signals—looking largely to the words. If so, the best recourse may be for the low-context negotiator to play back what they’re hearing and ask the high-context negotiator to elaborate.

What’s the point? It’s really simple actually: When you encounter a negotiator who seems less-than-fully forthcoming, resist the temptation to diagnosis their behavior as deception or their demeanor as deceptive. Instead, consider that something about the situation may be prompting their seeming evasiveness, and focus your attention on discovering what it is.

Five reasons to love ambiguity in negotiation

One of the least-liked features of negotiations is their ambiguity. In many negotiations, we say some things, our counterpart says some things, and then it’s totally ambiguous what anyone should say or do. But I’m here to tell you that ambiguity is one of the very greatest features of negotiation; indeed, a negotiation particularly mired in ambiguity is often a negotiation going well. In a word, ambiguity makes negotiations negotiable.

If that seems paradoxical, let me outline five unambiguous reasons to love the ambiguity of negotiations in general—and to particularly appreciate our most ambiguous negotiations. Ambiguity in negotiations allows you to:

  1. Make the first offer: In most any negotiation, both negotiators face major ambiguity as to the appropriate terms: what price to offer, what raise to request, which division of labor to propose. But that’s fantastic, as it allows the negotiator with slightly more courage and preparation to make the first offer and thereby set the tenor of the conversation.
  2. Move from positions to interests: The worst negotiations feature no ambiguity at all. Instead, the parties’ positions are crystal-clear, opposed, and set in stone. What could be clearer than that—and less productive? But if you’re experiencing ambiguity instead, chances are the parties haven’t yet locked themselves into intractable positions, meaning you still have hope of moving from positions to interests.
  3. Ask a lot of questions: If the options on the table seem clear, many people typically feel foolish asking a lot of questions. If it’s your way or my way, what else does anyone need to know? A pervasive sense of ambiguity about the viable options, in contrast, provides a beautiful justification for a multitude of questions. Blame it on your slow cognition or apologize for your embarrassing need to clarify, but query away! Since open-ended questions are one of the most powerful tools for ferreting out those critical interests, chances are your queries will help immensely.
  4. Explore creative solutions: Relatedly, people who seem to face clear agreement options tend to resist muddying the waters by proposing something entirely new and possibly a bit wacky. When nobody at the bargaining table knows what constitutes a viable solution, however, there’s no yardstick for judging what’s wacky and what’s not. And wackiness in the form of creative and unanticipated solutions is often all that stands between you and an impasse. Ambiguity lets you go there.
  5. Use ratification: In non-ambiguous negotiations, it’s kinda uncomfortable to ask for some time to think it over or check with someone else. If the possibilities are so straightforward, why would anyone need to? But the presence of lingering ambiguity, even as the deal seems done, affords ample reason to contemplate, crunch the numbers, or consult the various stakeholders. In a word, ambiguity provides cover for a strategy, ratification, that can dramatically improve your leverage.

In sum, as much as we might dread it, the ambiguity of negotiations is typically our friend, and particularly ambiguous negotiations tend to be particularly productive. To those points, let me hasten to add one thing: not all ambiguity. It’s obviously unhelpful if you or your counterpart has no idea what you’re trying to get from a deal, or has ambiguous authority to decide. More generally, ambiguity that obscures the negotiators’ own interests or authority probably won’t help. Still, I hope this post helps to highlight how many of the ambiguous moments in negotiation we should really appreciate or even stimulate in hopes of keeping the possibilities open—and our chances of satisfaction intact.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” A simple question to make life negotiable

The situation’s more complicated, but I’ll first state it simply:

If I had to pick just one way that people go wrong in negotiations, it’s that they don’t negotiate. Facing a dissatisfactory situation, they just live with it. And if I had to pick just one reason that people live with it, it’s that they don’t ask a simple but immensely powerful question of themselves: “What’s the worst that can happen?” By asking that one simple question routinely, I think you’ll find your life becoming more negotiable.

Now the more complicated version: When we encounter crummy situations, we can’t always negotiate our way out of them. In particular, we’re sometimes stuck with a situation no one else can control—a difficult past, a chronic disease, weeks of icy rain in Maryland. But other times, we’re stuck with a situation another person could resolve: A crummy schedule the boss could resolve with flexible hours, a ridiculous price the dealer could resolve with a discount, a relative’s annoying habit they could resolve by just stopping it (!).

In the former situations, negotiation’s not going to get us far (though this post might help). But in the latter, the question we need to—and often don’t—ask ourselves is this: “What’s the worst that can happen?” For example, will the request of our boss really lead her to fire us, will the ask of the car dealer really cause him to kick us out of the dealer, will the huddle with the relative really drive her to the eggnog, never to utter our name again?

If the answer to such questions is yes, then kudos to us for living with it. The costs of negotiation are just too high.

But here’s the problem: Many of us don’t know the answer since we never ask the question. Instead, we implicitly equate the worst that can happen with the worst outcome in the world. But how accurate is that assumption? Will our boss really fire us for requesting some flexibility? Will the car dealer really forgo our business entirely? Will our family member really slosh away our entire relationship past and present in the eggnog? If we never ask the question, we never know the answer.

In sum, by never asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”, we often vastly overestimate the costs of negotiation, which makes any benefits pale in comparison—which makes us suffer through a wide array of solvable situations. It’s an exceedingly common situation, and thus an exceedingly common mistake. Consider some other common examples:

  • Fees from service providers: What’s the worst that could happen if we ask the bank or the airline or the cable company to waive the fee? They won’t, in which case we’re right back where we began. But they’re not going to send us to a different bank or different airline or different cable company unless they’re exceedingly irrational (no comment). And they might just make a “one-time exception.”
  • Creative ideas in meetings: What’s the worst that could happen if we raise a new and creative and slightly oddball idea in a meeting? Generally, people will ignore it and move on. But unless we’ve developed a thorough reputation for irrelevance or insanity, they won’t immediately put our career on the slow-tack. And they might just consider what we said.
  • Family preferences: What’s the worst that could happen if we suggest a different restaurant or alternative family vacation? They’ll decide against us, and then we’re stuck with the same Applebee’s or Disney getaway we were. But hey—maybe they’ll at least consider our dislike of overcooked burgers or overpriced opportunities to wait in line next time.

These are just a few of the innumerable situations where failing to ask what’s the worst that can happen leaves us with the worst that’s already happened. I’m certainly not saying that you always have the ability to ask, nor that you always should. But I’m certainly saying that when you do have the ability, you should always at least consider the worst-case.

An underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations

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

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

Allow me to explain.

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

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

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

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

Setting your sights in a negotiation: The stars or the floor?

In any given negotiation, a negotiator must at least implicitly answer two questions.

The first comes at the beginning: What’s my goal?

The second arises near the end: Am I satisfied?

Answering each question requires a metric—a standard of comparison. But I’m here to tell you that many negotiators adopt the wrong metrics—indeed, precisely the opposite of the metrics they should. Since adopting the right metrics and answering the questions appropriately can make life negotiable, let me explain what I mean, with thanks to the research that has examined these issues.

  1. Question 1: “What’s my goal?” In debriefing in-class negotiations, I often ask my students what their goal was. The resounding answer is clear: I set out to do better than my bottom line. For example, I sought pay less than the maximum I could afford, or earn more than the minimum I could stomach. Negotiators who offer such answers—and it’s far from just students—are essentially saying that they shot for the floor. While reasonable, the serious and semi-obvious problem is that doing so almost inevitably lands them just above the floor. Floor-shooting negotiators actually pay pretty much their maximum or earn pretty much their minimum. Research is unequivocal: Negotiators who shoot for the stars instead of the floor perform far better. That is, negotiators who set an ambitious and optimistic target far-removed from their bottom line, knowing that reality will probably make them back away from it, almost inevitably achieve better outcomes—primarily because they try harder but also because they sometimes motivate their counterparts to do so.
  2. Question 2: “Am I satisfied?” When considering whether they’re satisfied with an emerging or sealed deal, negotiators go back to their goal (i.e., the floor) and evaluate the outcome accordingly—right? Well, some do, but many surprisingly don’t: The grass being greener, many negotiators late in a negotiation or shortly thereafter suddenly set sight on a star and get remorseful that their rockets didn’t carry them there. What if I could’ve gotten the product for $X (low number) or negotiated a salary of $Y (high number). Unfortunately, having such thoughts retrospectively is counterproductive as everyone’s rocket fuel is spent—it’s just too late. Additionally, by fixating on a newfound star, negotiators stand to make themselves abjectly unhappy, or even to reject emerging deals they shouldn’t. Instead of retrospectively wishing upon a star, negotiators are advised to retrospectively evaluate against the floor. That is, when reflecting on an outcome as opposed to bringing it about, it’s time for negotiators to consider whether a deal clears their bottom line, and thus whether they should probably accept it. By doing so, they’ll probably walk away happier and resist the gnawing temptation to reject good deals in a flurry of frustration.

In sum, many negotiators shoot for the floor at the outset and evaluate against the stars at the end. But that’s exactly the opposite of what a productive and healthy negotiator should probably do, which is to shoot for the stars at the outset (particularly by setting their sights on an aggressive goal), then evaluate against the floor at the end (particularly by comparing a deal against their bottom line). Do that, and I think you’ll find yourself approaching the stars without ever losing sight of the earth.