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.

Is my negotiation progressing nicely? What, why, and how

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

Negotiating the holidays: Five common negotiations in a magical time of year

With the holidays fully upon us, I thought it might be useful to recap some negotiations you’re likely to face amidst the festivities—along with some research-based suggestions for making them negotiable. I’m pretty sure you’ll face at least one of the following negotiations over the next few weeks:

  1. Deciding where to spend the holidays. Many of us will have a robust discussion with our better halves as to where to spend the holidays—and for how long. For some suggestions on avoiding a less-than-festive meltdown in the process, you might want to review this post.
  2. Dealing with annoying seatmates. Many of us will encounter fellow holiday fliers who…how shall we put this…have a slightly different take on in-flight decorum. For some suggestions on keeping the skies friendly, check out this post.
  3. Finding time for family. Many of us will need to physically pry ourselves away from our desks to spend the desired time with family and friends. For some tips on negotiating a reasonable work-life balance when it’s needed most, you might want to review this post.
  4. Counteracting predatory retailers. When purchasing our presents, many of us will encounter amazing deals. Others will encounter “amazing” deals—deals that retailers would love for you to misinterpret as such. To recognize and counteract a particularly pernicious version of this trap, consider the following post and paper.
  5. Giving appropriate and reacting appropriately to gifts. It’s the season of giving and receiving, but many people struggle to devise the appropriate gift or react appropriately when they receive the annual fruitcake. So consider reviewing the following posts on giving and receiving for some insights from the negotiations literature.

And now, here’s ho-ho-hoping your holiday becomes a bit more negotiable.

Did you have a “good negotiation?” Fatigue, not frustration

How do you know you’ve had a good negotiation—you’ve gotten the best deal possible without obliterating the relationship? In the real world, outside the confines of a negotiation class with everyone’s agreement posted for everyone else to see, the truth is: you won’t. You’ll never really know how well you did versus however well you could’ve done. Sure, if you happened to slam-dunk it or bankrupt your company, you’ll probably have a sense. But in most negotiations, whose outcomes lie somewhere in the mushy middle, you’ll always walk away wondering.

So should we all utterly abandon the effort to assess our own negotiations post hoc? Before we go quite so far, let me suggest a simple heuristic that can still offer some clues to your success, thereby making the post-negotiation process negotiable.

The heuristic, surprisingly, is this: Fatigued, not frustrated.

What in the world could I mean? Fundamentally, a “good negotiation” entails sticking to your aspirations, pushing for your interests, and creatively attacking a seemingly intractable set of positions. That’s tiring! If you’ve really done all that, you’ll probably feel quite fatigued—and you should.

But wait, does that mean that the best negotiations are the most unpleasant ones—that we should experience our most successful deal-making as a flurry of frustration? No! Fatigue is far from a synonym for frustration—we can all walk away from social situations feeling sleepy but willing to sleep it off and send a thank-you note. Instead, frustration is probably a sign somebody obliterated the relationship.

But wait #2, why shouldn’t we walk away from our best negotiations feeling happy, wanting to high-five our counterpart and buy them a beer? Because if you feel that way, chances are you folded too quickly and easily relative to your aspirations or interests—or didn’t define them well in the first place.

But wait #3, does all fatigue = a good negotiation and all happiness = a bad negotiation? Of course not. You might feel fatigued because your neighbor’s dog was howling all night or, more germanely, because you just got schooled by a counterpart who totally outsmarted and exhausted you at the same time. And you might feel happy because your neighbor’s dog finally shut up at 10 pm or, more germanely, because you somehow found a magical counterpart who was shockingly amenable to your wildest dreams.

So I’m not suggesting a 1:1 relationship between fatigue and successful negotiation. I’m simply suggesting a heuristic than can help you play Sherlock Holmes on your own post hoc feelings and reactions. So the next time you walk away from a negotiation feeling fatigued, relish the feeling! Or at least entertain the possibility that you performed quite well. But don’t confuse frustration for fatigue and somehow elevate relationship obliteration to a virtue. And don’t assume that overwhelming feelings of joy necessarily flow from the very best deals. They don’t.

Three cheers for fatigue!

Practicing for negotiations: Why not?

We practice meticulously for every important event in our lives. Whether it’s a presentation, a soccer game, or an interview, if we value the outcome, we typically spend some serious time practicing (e.g., by dry-running, scrimmaging, or mock-interviewing).

So it’s curious that most of us devote so little time—approximately none at all—to practicing for our most important negotiations. Perhaps we’ll give some passing thought to our strategy for the car dealer or even use the BRAIN acronym to structure our thinking. But mental preparation is not the same thing as active practicing, and precious few of us will ever consider the latter.

But why??? Do we all consider ourselves so much better at negotiating than presenting, shooting a soccer ball, or detailing our greatest strength? Do we all feel foolish enlisting the help of a make-believe car dealer? Do we not even know where to start?

I honestly don’t know.

Since practice is the only thing that can make negotiations perfect (or at least negotiable), however, I’ll assume it’s the last one and urge you to start here:

Pick a trustworthy friend, perhaps an aspiring thespian. Bring them up to speed on every last aspect of the negotiation and your likely counterpart. Then, actually pretend you’re negotiating, making sure to focus your role-playing on the following topics:

  1. Opening and setting the right tone. As in first dates, the first minute of a negotiation sets the tone for most of the subsequent relationship. Will this be a cooperative or combative discussion? A problem-solving exercise or a cage match? Whatever the tone you intend to set, you’d better practice setting it to follow through when the heat is on.
  2. What you’ll share and won’t. In every negotiation, you’ll have to share certain nuggets of information to get to yes. And you’ll have to avoid a discussion of other topics like the plague—your bottom line for example. You need to practice sharing the former and avoiding the latter tactfully.
  3. Responding to tough questions. Your counterpart may well ask you to share the information you really don’t want to. They may also ask questions that tempt you to lie. You need to hear yourself concocting an answer that doesn’t give away the farm or your ethical (and/or legal) compass.
  4. Rebooting the conversation. At some point, most tough negotiations get mired in a positional debate. “I want X!” “I want Y!” And X is typically the opposite of Y. If you hope to rise above such a debate in real-time, you need a practiced strategy for changing the conversation. A strategic suggestion to take a break or a blue-sky question about an entirely different topic?
  5. Walking away if you have to. It’s kind of like the safety demonstration on the airplane. You really don’t want to think about it and hope you never have to remember it, but you’d better make sure to understand it. If a negotiation disaster sets in and you can’t find a way to best your BATNA, you need a practiced plan for walking away gracefully rather than falling into a tailspin.

In sum, for all the same reasons you play a scrimmage rather than fielding a new soccer team just before the game, we should all practice negotiating rather that discovering our negotiation prowess (or lack thereof) in real-time. If nothing else, consider it an opportunity to indulge your inner thespian.

Win-win or win-whatever? Setting our sights just a little bit lower in negotiations

Why is it that most people—even those who take (or teach) negotiation classes—still find it hard to negotiate? I’m here to argue for one of many reasons: the possibility that in many situations, most of us set our sights just a little too high.

Anyone who’s taken (or taught) a negotiation class can summarize the course in a single phrase: “win-win.” But now let me convince you of a less ambitious but potentially more common and attainable goal that can still make life negotiable: win-whatever.

A story to explain:

My two daughters recently visited a fine-dining establishment—let’s call it Chick-pat-E—both receiving the same book as a giveaway with their kids meal. Arriving at home, one put their book on the table, and the other let theirs fall to the floor. Which is which, no one knows.

Later that day, my six-year-old arrived at the table, claimed the table-book as her own, and started to read it. My three-year-old, witnessing said events, developed uncontrollable fits of rage. “That’s my book!” she insisted immediately, repeatedly, and with increasing levels of agitation. Now, I had no idea whose book was whose, but I leaned over to my six-year-old, winked at her, and asked her to be the “big girl” by accepting the (identical) book on the floor. And my six-year-old, to her great credit and with the benefit of three years, begrudgingly recognized that it really didn’t matter. So she gave the table-book to the three-year-old and accepted the floor-book as her own. A win for my three-year-old and a whatever for my six-year-old.

Now what would a win-win have looked like? Perhaps the three-year-old could’ve claimed the table-book today and the six-year-old could’ve claimed it tomorrow? Or the three-year-old could’ve gotten first dibs at the next Chick-pat-E giveaway? Or the six-year-old could’ve gotten the table-book but gifted one of her other books to the three-year-old? All interesting and innovative solutions but hard to execute in the presence of an increasingly agitated three-year-old. A win-win in this case would’ve been awfully difficult.

Reflecting on the story, is it possible that many of us find it hard to negotiate because we’re shooting just a bit too high? Are we ambitiously aiming for win-win when a win-whatever would really do? As great as win-wins can be—and I really believe it—I’d suggest that win-whatevers are often much easier to find and execute. And I do suggest, in my negotiation classes, that they’re just as important for getting to yes. So, the next time you’re struggling to identify a win-win way of divvying up housework, deciding on work responsibilities, or allocating giveaways from Chick-pat-E, consider setting your sights just a little bit lower—not way lower on conflict or avoidance or win-loss. Just a little bit lower on win-whatever. I think you’ll start to see indifference as a virtue.

Negotiating Life’s Non-Negotiables

My posts routinely suggest that life becomes negotiable when we apply some simple scientific principles from negotiation research. But we all know that not everything’s negotiable. The weather (it’s been raining in Maryland for months), our own health (we all face the fickle hand of fate), the state of American politics (nuff said). Some things just can’t be negotiated.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not negotiable!

Indeed, non-negotiable issues often force us to negotiate with ourselves, and those same scientific principles can still make our own intra-individual negotiations more negotiable. To see what I mean, consider the following five principles as they relate to negotiations with ourselves:

  1. Interests: Negotiation research advises you to ascertain your counterpart’s interests (their underlying needs, desires, and priorities). But in the face of circumstances we can’t control—say the perpetual cloud hanging over my home state—we would all do well to examine our own. Is it in our own interests, long-term, to worry about the weather? Probably not. (See health point above.)
  2. Integrative solutions: Negotiation research emphasizes that outcomes don’t need to hurt one party to benefit the other. Likewise, we’ve all heard that every cloud has a silver lining. In the case of Maryland’s many clouds, the silver lining has been my ability to focus on writing rather than the many distractions associated with a sunny day. So Mother Nature’s perverse pleasure in raining on me meshes well with my very appropriate pleasure in being productive.
  3. BATNA: Negotiation research urges to consider your Plan B. In the case of uncontrollable events, that exercise could actually help you realize that the event is a teeny bit negotiable. What’s your alternative to complaining about the political state of our country? Finding a way to get involved and change whatever small corner of it you can, as many people have (recently).
  4. Ratification: Negotiation research teaches us, when we’re deep in the heart of a contentious negotiation, to step away and think about it before acting rashly. Similarly, people who happen to get all worked up about politicians or entire branches of government often find it useful to consider another topic before taking to Twitter.
  5. Negotiating in teams: Negotiation research teaches us that two heads are often better than one at the bargaining table. When it comes to life’s uncontrollable and sometimes insurmountable challenges, two heads are surely better than one. Indeed, finding a way to obtain some social support and tackle the non-negotiable together is probably the most productive way to make it negotiable after all.

These are just examples—and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek—about the relevance of negotiation research for the intra-individual negotiations that often attend non-negotiable events. But the serious point is that many of us are our own toughest negotiation counterparts. Life becomes negotiable when we realize we don’t have to be.

Five pernicious assumptions that your service providers make about you

If you’re like me, then virtually every week brings an unexpected fee hike. Take last week, when both my cable bill and cellular bill unexpectedly jumped $20 a month. “How in the world can our service providers have such gall?”, you might ask.

Well, let me tell you how: they make five common, negotiation-related assumptions about me and you and everyone else—assumptions that the average consumer consistently proves correct. But by understanding and disproving these assumptions, you, the non-average consumer, can make life negotiable.

Specifically, your service providers consistently assume that:

  1. You won’t notice the fee increase: Your service providers commonly believe they can slip one by you—that you are one of those people who doesn’t scrutinize their statements or e-bills or direct withdrawals. Prove them wrong by approaching your bills with the mindfulness of a novice operating a power tool.
  2. You won’t have the courage to call: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you do notice the fee increase, you’ll probably be too wimpy to pick up the phone and call them on it. Prove them wrong by putting their number into your speed dial.
  3. You won’t have the time to call: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice and muster the courage to call, you won’t have the time to. This, I must say, is probably where they get the most people, stretched as we all are. But prove them wrong by thinking not about whether it’s worth your time to dispute the $20, but whether it’s worth your time to dispute the $20 x 12 months. Then multiply that amount by the number of service providers likely to jack up your fees in the near future.
  4. If you do call, a simple no will suffice: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice the fee hike and assemble both the courage and the time to call, they’ll be able to dissuade you with a simple “no.” For example, “No, that pricing promotion has ended, so we can’t put you back on it.” Prove them wrong by asking a different question. For example: “Ok, is there a different active promotion that would bring me back to the same price?” (That exact question eliminated the two $20 fee hikes mentioned above.)
  5. You won’t be willing to walk away: Worst case, your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice and call and fight for your case, you won’t walk away and go with another provider if you have to. Prove them wrong by calling with a quote from another provider in-hand. Then ask to connect with the cancellation department, which almost always proves more pliable.

In sum, your service providers are banking on your being inattentive, wimpy, busy, gullible, and certain to surrender eventually. If you want to make life negotiable, you have no alternative to proving them wrong. Unlike your service providers, I assume that you can.

Three surprising advantages of negotiating with multiple people

Many of our negotiations feature several counterparts: It’s us on one side of the table and a couple of people across it. Faced with multiple counterparts, even the experienced negotiator quakes in their boots. How can we, our lone selves, contend with multiple opponents? But a recent multiparty negotiation at the dentist’s office reminded me that these types of negotiations do not necessarily redound to our disadvantage—they sometimes afford us, the lone negotiator, some interesting, information-related advantages.

Background for the story: One of my teeth is slightly chipped. On a recent trip to the dentist, I considered inquiring about the possibility of fixing it with a filling. Let’s review the rest of the story and thereby surface some benefits of negotiating against multiple parties, in the hopes of making life negotiable.

  1. You can compare the information offered by each party. Before inquiring with the dentist about the filling, I decided to inquire with the friendly hygienist. Specifically, I asked her whether, after sinking a boatload of load of money into an expensive filling, it would stay in for more than five minutes. “On that tooth, it’s hard to keep the filling in there for long,” she said. Then, after the hygienist had left the room and dentist had entered, I re-asked the same question. “Oh, that will definitely stay in for a long time,” the dentist assured me. Same question—two very different answers. Interesting.
  2. You can take action based on the information disparities. Hearing the discrepancy between the hygienist’s and dentist’s opinions, I started to experience some uncertainty as to its source. Did the discrepancy reflect the dentist’s advanced training or…eh hem…his other interests? So I asked him about the possibility of a contingency contract in which he would guarantee the filling for a certain period of time or give me my money back. He very begrudgingly agreed, suggesting the discrepancy reflected his advanced training, sort of.
  3. You can control the information you provide to each party. At this point, the hygienist reentered the room, and the dentist overoptimistically interpreted our conversation as indicating I was ready to schedule an appointment for the filling immediately. And before I could correct his overzealousness, he had shaken my hand and left. The hygienist, in turn, walked me upfront, repeated the dentist’s message to the scheduler, and wished me well. But before the scheduler had even opened her Outlook calendar, I seized the opportunity to tell her that I was actually only interested in learning more about the procedure—specifically, its price and whether my insurance would cover it. So I asked her whether she would call me with the price, at which point I would consider and call her back (a form of ratification). The introduction of this third counterpart, the scheduler, was all that saved me from an expensive and premature agreement.

In sum, the next time you find yourself on one side of a table and multiple people on the other, don’t panic. In many ways, you, the lone negotiator, have the informational advantage. Seize it!

When the equality rule fails: The case of four shells

If I’ve learned one thing as a negotiation professor, it’s that the fairest and most obvious ways of dividing resources often seem unfair and non-obvious to the parties involved. Consider the equality rule. What could be fairer than a 50-50 split? Unfortunately, the parties embroiled in a negotiation don’t always see it that way. So we need an alternative approach to make life negotiable.

To illustrate the dilemma and a set of potential solutions, let me recount a story.

My family and I recently visited the beach. One morning, I took a long run and decided to pick up some cool shells for my five- and three-year-old daughters. At first, I found three shells, thinking that more than sufficient. But then I remembered that three shells allocated to two young ladies would elicit open warfare. So I searched high and low for a fourth, finding an amazing orange one that I expected to settle the matter. Two shells for each daughter. Equality rule!

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. And I should’ve seen it coming: Both daughters regarded the orange shell as way cooler than the others, so both daughters clamored for it.

The equality rule, so obvious in theory, completely failed in practice. And what to do then? I have to admit, I didn’t immediately know, as I was shell-shocked at this incomprehensible failure of the obvious. With reflection though, I came to see that the situation actually presented many different solutions:

  • Flip a coin: I could flip to determine the lucky recipient of the orange shell, give that daughter one more, and give the other daughter the remaining two. Problem is, someone would be incredibly dissatisfied with the fickle hand of fate.
  • Share the orange shell: If the equality rule didn’t work, maybe a quasi-communist rule would. We could all agree to share the orange shell, which is great but would bring all the baggage of common property, even while leaving three shells to divide among two people.
  • Search for another orange shell: Perhaps the ideal option, this one came with an obvious problem: I’ve never seen a shell quite like that. That’s why everyone liked it. So it wasn’t going to work.
  • Return the orange shell to its marine home and find a fourth: While this would’ve technically solved the problem, any parent can tell you that it would’ve elicited far bigger problems.
  • Let the daughters sort it out: They need to learn that life’s negotiable after all, so why not let them figure out a solution of their own? I have to admit that I considered this option carefully, but I thought it might be better to guide them toward a solution.
  • Three-for-one trade: I could give one daughter the orange shell and the other daughter all three of the more pedestrian shells. That seemed promising, but they flatly rejected it. Three pedestrian shells apparently did not compare to a glorious orange one.
  • Figure it out later: Having ruled out all the other obvious solutions, I could think of only one more at the time. Why not wait until the initial allure of the orange shell had worn off a bit? Then maybe everyone’s rationality would return, making the sort-it-out or three-for-one solutions more feasible. And that’s essentially what I did, hoping for a three-for-one. Turns out, the problem got a whole lot easier when someone mentioned the candy store, and everyone forgot the shells.

So what’s the point of all this? First, that even the simplest and least controversial of situations can generate unexpected conflicts and the need for negotiation. Second, that the equality rule can easily fall flat, and we have to be flexible enough to abandon it. Finally, that the key to any negotiation really comes down a combination of creativity and patience. Once the negotiator engages their creativity and indulges their patience long enough to generate some options, a workable solution usually presents itself. Combine a little creativity and patience, and life’s a beach!

The benefits of impending impasses

Ever since Getting to Yes, negotiators everywhere have concluded—rightly based on the title—that getting to yes is the goal of every negotiation. And ever since I’ve been writing about negotiation, I’ve tried to convince negotiators otherwise. For example, I’ve said here and here that getting to no is an acceptable and even a preferable outcome in negotiations. But I’ve previously focused on the benefits of impasses themselves. Let me here expound on the benefits of impending impasses, arguing that even the threat of a stalemate can make life negotiable.

My 12 years of researching and teaching negotiation have often surfaced three benefits of impending impasses. They fundamentally change:

  1. How the negotiators talk to each other: Prior to an impending impasse, negotiators often talk to each other combatively, seeing who can push who off the precipice first. With an impasse impending, though, the negotiators commonly realize that this strategy hasn’t worked very well. More importantly, they realize that their next best alternative is becoming a lot more real—that they might just have to settle for a suboptimal plan B. This realization commonly motivates negotiators to strike a more congenial tone.
  2. What the negotiators are talking about: Prior to an impending impasse, negotiators are commonly fighting about quantitative issues like money. With an impasse impending, negotiators commonly realize that they need to talk about something else. In particular, they often realize they need to take up issues that less adversarial and potentially beneficial to both—which often amount to qualitative issues. I’ve seen it in my negotiation classes many times: Megotiators locked in a bitter debate on price arrive at a stalemate, only to realize that a consideration of the qualitative issues is the only way to avoid a complete meltdown.
  3. Who the negotiators are talking to: Though it’s less common in my negotiation classes, seeing as I assign my students to negotiate with specific partners, impending impasses in real life often inform negotiators that they need to talk to someone else. In real life, this often happens in conversations with front-line customer service representatives, who are not commonly empowered to do what you want, or maybe anything at all. An impending impasse is productive, as it convinces you and sometimes even them that another party is needed.

So here you see that even impending impasses are productive. Bottom line: Embrace rather than avoid disagreements! At least in negotiations, they are often the only thing that will eventually get you to yes.

Rules versus negotiations

We all know that “rules are meant to be broken.” But what does that mean? And is it more than a meaningless cliché? By considering the meaning of the phrase, I think you’ll see that it can actually make life more negotiable.

To start, consider what rules actually do: Fundamentally, they regulate everyone’s behavior. Consider some common rules:

  • “All sales final.”
  • “11 am checkout time.”
  • “Wire transfers incur a $15 fee.”

Rules like these keep our behavior in line, preventing gratuitous returns, over-extended stays and, frivolous wire transfers. And they do so remarkably well, sending crystal-clear signals about what we can do and not do, seemingly applying the same fair standard to everyone, and coordinating our actions efficiently, without a lot of wasted time discussing. To see for yourself, just imagine the chaos if everyone could request their own checkout time. The clarity, fairness, and efficiency of rules mean they often redound to the benefit of society.

But that doesn’t mean they redound to benefit of ourselves. On the contrary, I’d imagine you’ve at least occasionally found rules like the above inflexible, if not downright arbitrary and silly. Right? I mean, does an 11:10 departure really put hotel operations into crisis mode?

Put differently, society may benefit from a proliferation of rules, but we could often benefit ourselves by breaking them—i.e., by adopting an alternative and more flexible mode of behavioral regulation: negotiations. A quick story to illustrate:

My older daughter recently had a swim lesson at 9 am, and my younger daughter and I were hoping to do some family swim in the same pool at the same time. Unfortunately, the “ZMCA” informed us of a rule: the non-lesson lanes were reserved for lap-swimming until 10 (at which point the older daughter’s lesson would be over). “If no one is using the lap lanes,” I asked the lifeguard politely, “is there any chance my (cute little, swimsuit-clad 3-year-old) daughter and I might use them to splash around?” “No problem,” she said, much to her credit.

Now the rules were the rules: No family swim till 10. But that was an inflexible, arbitrary, and silly rule in light of the complete absence of lap swimmers. In contrast, negotiating allowed the lifeguard and me to collectively and flexibly adjust to the situation in a well-reasoned and reasonable way. I would argue that many of us, in many such situations, would be happier by becoming less beholden to the rules and more beholden to negotiations.

Of course, in the interest of fairness and balance, a society full of rule-breakers would be nothing short of unbearable. Nothing would ever get done and no one would ever know what was happening, as everyone would constantly try to get everything done their way. And inevitably, the savvy negotiators would benefit at the expense of less-savvy and more obedient. That would not be socially desirable at all.

So I’m certainly not saying we should do away with the rules. That too would be silly. I’m simply saying that most of us, faced with a stunning disappointment like the sudden inability to swim, could afford to take one step away from the rules and one step in the direction of negotiation. Give it a try, and I’ll bet your life becomes more negotiable!

Many negotiations in a Mexican restaurant

It never fails to amaze me how many of our daily interactions involve negotiation. Such is the point of this blog! But a recent trip to a Mexican restaurant really drove home the point, so I thought I’d relay it in the spirit of making life negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations, all from a single Mexican dinner:

  1. With a busy host: On our way into the restaurant, I saw a sign offering free bowling coupons to patrons. But I saw no bowling coupons upon entry. So I had to negotiate with the host by asking where I could find the elusive coupons. And the harried host looked none too pleased to track them down. But eventually, we got them. And this illustrates the principle: if you want something, ask for it!
  2. With a busy waiter: In the process of scarfing down her chips, my younger daughter seemed to get a crumb stuck in her throat. It was nothing major, but she did feel uncomfortable. So I had to flag down the first waiter I saw for some water. Unfortunately, he was carrying seven margaritas at the time. And he looked none too pleased at my interruption. But he brought the water, and pronto, when I explained. This illustrates the principle: don’t back down from your most important needs.
  3. With my older daughter: My older daughter, during the chip incident, had gone to the bathroom with mommy. That left daddy to order the drink I thought she’d like – a delicious cup of apple juice. But inevitably, daddy was wrong. What she wanted was pink lemonade. Of course! So I decided to suggest a contingency contract: If you’re still thirsty after the ginormous apple juice, I’ll buy you a lemonade. (Inevitably, she wasn’t.)
  4. With both daughters: Both daughters like to put 12 shakes of salt on each chip. Unfortunately, that’s a ticket to the cardiologist. So I had to negotiate over the salt, specifically by promising to dispense a moderate amount of salt over the entire chip basket if they would promise to drop the salt shaker. This illustrates the topic of concessions: I was willing to make a small concession in service of a greater good (my daughters’ long-term health and wellbeing).
  5. With my wife: I wanted a second margarita, as I usually do. My wife didn’t want her first, as she usually doesn’t. But I forgot my wife’s preferences and started to order my second. Luckily, she interrupted my order by offering hers, thereby illustrating an integrative solution: she saved us $15, and I got entire margarita minus one sip.

Through these somewhat silly and mundane examples, I hope you see how common negotiations can be. While few of our meals involve five negotiations, most of our lives involve negotiation in some way or another. So here’s to making life negotiable!

Still misunderstanding myself

Last week, I discussed a classic negotiation blunder made by none other than myself: misunderstanding my own preferences. Since the consequences of the initial mistake continue to accumulate, why not continue the story? I hope that this post, if not the last one, can make your own life more negotiable.

To review my previous post, I simplemindedly agreed to do some major landscaping work on behalf of my landscaping company and thereby save some money. Since the savings paled in comparison to the difficulty and painfulness of the task (“my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water”), this was a bad decision right from the start.

But then I returned from a work trip to find the landscaping company’s work completed and another whole segment of my own work left to be completed. In particular, I found piles of mulch, oodles of dirt, and a whole collection of mountain laurels—all needing to be installed now since Mother Nature had already graced us with the first half of an eight-day thunderstorm. So there I was, fresh off the plane, in mud up to my knees, waiting to spread my stuff and bury my laurels. And there I stood for time immemorial, dripping and resenting my stupid savings.

Now, to be fair, I had no way of knowing Baltimore’s forecast when I signed the contract in March. (Baltimore’s forecasters rarely know it a day in advance.) Still, when signing the contract, I failed to account for more than my preferences. I failed to account for the important contingency that the work would occur when I was gone. In retrospect, I should have at least found a way to ensure that they would do it when I was home and could ease into my own planting, preferably without a thunderstorm.

In sum, and this is the end of my self-flagellation, even negotiation professors make negotiation mistakes, and my failure to consider my own preferences was compounded by my failure to think through the contingencies. So let this be a lesson to you, and a lesson that makes your life much more negotiable and substantially less muddy.

Misunderstanding yourself: A classic negotiation blunder

Even negotiation instructors sometimes make negotiation mistakes. Since I recently made an exceedingly common mistake, perhaps it’s worth the public shaming that will necessarily come with sharing. At best, the story should make your own life more negotiable. At worst, it’ll offer me a form of catharsis.

Most of us tend to assume that we know ourselves completely—our every desire, need, and preference. It’s our wily counterparts—their needs, desires, and preferences—that we assume we don’t know and need to find out during a negotiation.

While we do know ourselves better than anyone else, I’m here to tell you that we don’t know ourselves well enough for a negotiation. Put differently, we can’t assume we don’t need to inquire into our own preferences carefully each time we negotiate. We always need to understand ourselves better.

To that point, my family recently decided to pay for a fairly involved and expensive landscaping project. Forever the negotiation professor, I tried to experiment with various methods of reducing the price. Voila! I could do so by performing a portion of the work myself. Sounds good, but the devil’s in the details—in this case, the work:  I would have to clear an exceedingly long, 20-foot wide strip of overgrown jungle that would challenge even the mightiest of bulldozers, pulling up fathoms of English ivy and removing decades of discarded yard waste.

“I’ll do it,” I foolishly declared, without asking myself whether my preference for savings outweighed my preference for health, happiness, and life satisfaction in general. And now, several days removed from an entire weekend of clearing, my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water. Oh, and I’m still sad that I had to miss my daughter’s T-ball game.

Now, was that really worth the savings? In retrospect, not really. Turns out that, although I do prefer savings to no savings, I don’t prefer savings to a totally lost, unproductive, and painful weekend of social isolation in the searing sauna of Maryland sun. In other words, I didn’t understand my own preferences particularly well—or if I did, I didn’t carefully compare them against each other.

I say this not just to poke fun at myself but because it’s a mistake that most of us make often. We assume, when negotiating, that we understand own preferences so well that we don’t need to consider them at all. I’m here to tell you that we always do.

So the next time you’re negotiating, don’t pull a Brian. I mean, do pull the Brians described in many of my posts, but don’t pull this one. Treat your own preferences as a question to be considered, a riddle to be solved, a topic rife for inquiry. Do that, and I think you’ll find your back less sore and your life more negotiable.

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.

Smash through the standoff! Introducing issues to unproductive negotiations

At some point, many negotiations spiral into an unproductive standoff over money—an issue over which the negotiators tend to utterly disagree. Most often, such standoffs end with an escalation of conflict or proliferation of concessions, neither of which is particularly productive. But, as I teach in my negotiation classes, there’s third way that can make life negotiable: adding another issue to the table.

“So what types of issues should we add?” asked a participant named Stuart Merkel in one of my recent executive education courses? “Is there a set of categories—a list of topics to consider adding to the table?” And I must admit that I was hard-pressed to provide a reasonable answer. I had no choice but to scratch my head and say no, to the best of my knowledge.

So why not take this post as an opportunity to detail the most common categories of issues that negotiators add to the table—new topics that can smash through the standoff and make everyone happier? Drawing from negotiation research and my observation of innumerable students negotiating, I’d propose the following top-ten list of issues to consider introducing, should you find yourself in a standoff:

  1. Time: How quickly will the agreement be executed?
  2. Quality: At what level of quality?
  3. Performance incentives: Will the seller get a bonus for completing the work / delivering the product early or excellently? Or a penalty for completing it tardily or poorly?
  4. Responsibilities: Which part of the agreement will each party be responsible for executing?
  5. Payment terms: How quickly, at what level of interest, and in what form will the buyer issue payments?
  6. Add-ons: What additional services or products will the seller bundle with the main commodity?
  7. Future business: After the current agreement, will either party consider or commit to engaging with the other?
  8. Future events and contingencies: How will the parties adjust for future events, foreseen or otherwise?
  9. Warranties: Will the seller guarantee the quality of the product or service, and for what period of time?
  10. Returns: Under what conditions will the buyer be able to change their mind?

So thanks, Stu, for the great idea—an idea that inspired a post that will hopefully help people break through the standoffs they’ll inevitably encounter eventually.

Success as a steadily improving BATNA

How can you know your life is broadly successful? The question is often asked, but rarely from the perspective of negotiation research. So let me share an answer implicit in that research, an understanding of which can make life negotiable: you can measure success, in part, by the trajectory of your BATNA.

Huh? Let me explain.

BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, is your next best alternative to any particular negotiation. Put simply, it’s your plan B. In general, successful people tend to see the number and quality of their BATNAs steadily increasing over time. Just a couple quick examples:

  • Multiple job offers: The most successful people tend to have employers fighting for their services rather than the reverse. In other words, they have many alternatives to any particular job. Thus, they have the luxury of choosing the best option.
  • Multiple life choices: The most successful people have many choices about how to live their life. They can choose to continue working, as most of us must But they can also choose to take some time off, sail the world in a small schooner, or simply take a mental relaxation break. In other words, they have many alternatives to their current way of living.
  • Multiple friends and colleagues: The most successful people have many people, both friends and colleagues, beating a path to their door—whether to have a beer or start a project. In other words, they have many alternatives to the relationships they find less than fully enriching.

Across several definitions of success, then, the common denominator is a consistently improving BATNA. So if you’re looking for a way to measure your success, you might consider the trajectory of your BATNA.