Mythical images of the negotiator

I recently attended the International Association of Conflict Management meeting in Berlin—an opportunity for negotiation researchers like myself to geek out. And in the process of geeking out, I had an interesting albeit especially geeky thought: the image of negotiation and negotiators that most of us hold in our brains is actually quite different than the portrait painted by negotiation research. Put simply, our images of negotiation and negotiators are more often mythical than evidence-based.

In the hope that evidence can make life negotiable (especially in the era of a self-identified Negotiator-in-Chief), I offer the following contrasts between mythical and evidence-based negotiation. In mythical negotiation…

  1. Negotiation is mostly about doing huge deals. When we hear the word negotiation, we think of multi-billion dollar mergers and business contracts—issues that grab the headlines and everyone’s attention. In actuality, most of the world’s negotiations focus on issues that are totally unimportant to anyone other than you. It’s a negotiation when your child won’t eat, your spouse won’t do the dishes, and your seatmate won’t cooperate on a flight. Most negotiations concern our own daily difficulties—issues that matter only to us.
  2. Negotiations focus on money. Relatedly, we tend to equate the word negotiation with the word money. And yes, many negotiations involve money. But many just don’t—consider the three right above. And in many that do, it’s the qualitative issues rather than the monetary issues that really make the difference. You’ll never get the car dealer to agree with your preferred price, but you just might get him to throw in some oil changes.
  3. The best negotiators are jerks. We tend to assume that the best negotiators must be people with whom we’d never want to share a flight or have a dinner (watch the beginning of this Facebook video where our Negotiator-in-Chief says just that)—people who aggressively demand concessions and accommodations from everyone around them. In fact, the best negotiators are the very people with whom we’d most want to dine or fly—people who listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, who trust and seem to understand us, and who ensure that we walk away feeling at least reasonably satisfied with the conversation.
  4. The best negotiators are easy to identify. Relatedly, we tend to think that we can spot a great negotiator when we see one. It’s the driver zipping around in the Mercedes and cutting everyone off. Or the CEO slamming their fist on the table and demanding that a poor subordinate come up with something better. In fact, the best negotiators are invisible—to us, yes, but often even to themselves. If I had a quarter for every time I taught a negotiation class and observed a self-proclaimed “bad negotiator” eventually get the “Best Negotiator” award…
  5. The key to negotiation success is tactics. We tend to think that the most effective negotiators use the most sophisticated tactics—the car dealer who slips in “one additional fee” after we’ve already signed the contract, or the politician who corners a colleague into supporting a pork-barrel amendment. Tactics are certainly important. Any claim to the contrary would be silly. But more important than tactics—and perhaps much more important—is preparation. If the best negotiators display the most sophisticated tactics, it’s only because they spent the most time and effort preparing, understanding everything there is to know about themselves, the people across the table, and the negotiation situation itself.

In sum, negotiations and negotiators are steeped in mythology, very little of which holds up to empirical investigation. So few of us should be surprised when our most prominent negotiators promulgate the mythology but experience much more difficulty in reality.

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Will Trump be a good president? Wrong question.

Everyone who hasn’t already made up their mind is currently wondering whether Trump would make a good president. Despite the collective interest in this question, I submit that the election has raised another, equally fundamental question—and one that Trump himself should be even more concerned about: Is Trump a good businessman?

On the one hand, the answer is obvious. He has made billions and billions of dollars, which is billions and billions more than me or most other people. So, from a financial standpoint, the answer is an obvious and resounding yes.

And yet, I submit that the events of this election cycle have made it an important question to ask, if only because presidents have to do more than develop brilliant policies. They have to run what amounts to one of the biggest and most powerful organizations in the world.

So let’s ask the question. Let me simply present the following ten competencies, all of which any business school professor would say everyone who runs any organization must have. Have Trump’s behaviors on the campaign trail suggested he has them? You be the judge:

  1. Negotiating effectively. The best businesspeople find ways to not only claim value from others but create value that benefits their counterparts as well as themselves. Trump has certainly done the former, but has he done the latter? You be the judge.
  2. Listening to advisors. The best businesspeople know how to close their mouths and open their ears when trusted advisers speak. Has Trump shown a propensity to listen? Your call.
  3. Establishing clear roles and responsibilities. The best businesspeople make it crystal-clear what everyone in their organization is supposed to be doing, and how everyone’s role is distinguished from everyone else’s. What, if anything, do the well-documented turf battles in Trump’s organization say about his ability to draw up roles and responsibilities?
  4. Understanding and growing the customer base. The best businesspeople appeal to the largest and most diverse set group of customers, in this case voters. Has Trump?
  5. Building a strong financial base. The best businesspeople establish the strongest possible financial foundation for their organization, in this case the most extensive fundraising operation they can. Has Trump done that? You decide.
  6. Communicating clearly and consistently with the market. The best businesspeople develop a message and stick to it, whatever direction the wind blows or spirit moves. Has Trump been clear and/or consistent in his policy prescriptions?
  7. Communicating clearly and consistently within the organization. The best businesspeople also deploy their excellent communication skills within their organizations, e.g. by making sure that their employees always know exactly what they’re about to say and do. Has Trump?
  8. Forming mutually-beneficial partnerships. The best businesspeople identify people who could helpfully support one another, in this case people like Paul Ryan and John McCain. Has Trump effectively partnered with such parties? You be the judge.
  9. Promoting based on talent. The best businesspeople promote the best people as their closest advisors. They avoid the temptation of nepotism, trusting the people with the best ideas rather than the best name. Has Trump?
  10. Responding to market data. The best businesspeople make a course correction when the market indicates that things aren’t working. How responsive has Trump been to his poll numbers?

I put these questions to you because it’s important for each of us to answer for ourselves. And I put #10 last because it’s the one about which I personally feel most equivocal, the last few weeks having provided some indication that Trump is charting a course correction.

So what do you think? Is Trump a good businessman? Can he run a big organization, be it a business organization or a big public organization? If he becomes the president of our country, let us all hope so.

James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and offers in negotiation

Last week, many of us watched as FBI director James Comey detailed the FBI’s investigation into Hilary Clinton’s email practices, then recommended against criminal charges. Many of us continued to watch as he was criticized from both sides of the aisle—in an unusually intense grilling by the House, for example. Although such a politically-fraught statement was sure to make one side angry, this statement seemed to make everyone angry—the left for its critique of Clinton’s behavior and the right for its recommendation not to charge.

Why would that be? Well, I’m not the FBI director, and I do understand why the person who is felt compelled to give an especially detailed statement. But I am a negotiation professor. As such, I believe that three negotiation principles can help to explain the universal sigh following Comey’s statement. They all originate in the idea that his explanation resembles a negotiator’s attempt to engage in persuasion, and his recommendation about criminal charges resembles a first offer (albeit one that everyone had to accept). If you buy that analogy, then negotiation research would suggest three problems with this approach:

  1. The arguments didn’t clearly support the conclusion: Perhaps the most basic principle of persuasion and offers in negotiation is that that the persuasion has to logically support the offer. The most consistent criticism of Comey’s statement was that the explanation implied that charges were coming. But then they didn’t. This created an uncomfortable inconsistency between the two—a “gap,” as Democratic Representative Elijiah Cummings put it.
  2. It was easy to generate counterarguments. Negotiation research has suggested that attempts to couple persuasion and offers backfire when the person who receives them can easily generate counterarguments. In that case, the research suggests that an offer without much persuasion may work better. I think it’s fair to say that Republicans didn’t have a hard time generating counterarguments, meaning that the simple, traditional, “here’s our recommendation” approach may have worked proven more compelling.
  3. The persuasion preceded the offer: Some intriguing and emerging research by negotiation scholars Nazli Bhatia and Robin Pinkley suggests that an offer followed by persuasion has a stronger influence on the listener than persuasion followed by an offer. The reason? The former approach leads the listener to start justifying the offer in their own minds. Unfortunately, Comey’s statement followed the latter pattern, the bulk of the presentation focusing on persuasion and the “offer” coming only at the end.

Again, who am I to second-guess the FBI director? No one, but I do believe that these three negotiation principles may help to explain the reaction he received. The lesson for the rest of us? If we’re going to make an offer and persuade someone to accept it, we’d better make sure to do it in that order, with the persuasion supporting the offer, and only when we’re confident that obvious counterarguments won’t pop to mind.

In praise of disagreement

It wasn’t always this way. Anyone old enough to remember the world before cable news knows that, although we’ve always had our political disagreements, we used to disagree with each other. That is, our politicians and pundits used to vehemently dispute each other’s premises in hopes of knocking down each other’s conclusions. But even a casual follower of politics can see that we don’t really do that anymore. Neither party nor their cable news correlates cares as much about the other side’s conclusions as they do about their own. As a result, they don’t really worry about knocking down or even acknowledging the other side’s premises.

In a word, today’s political environment involves disagreeing past each other more often than disagreeing with each other. To offer an analogy, our political subcultures were once like the Cubs and White Sox grinding out the World Series (this is the year!). They’re now like the Cubs and Bears, grinding out the Series and Super Bowl in parallel—and alone.

In the political domain, these observations are not new. But, in the spirit of making life more negotiable, I do think it’s worth considering what we can learn about our own negotiations from this dynamic.

The two parties in a negotiation are much like the two parties in politics. Their interests often conflict, generating a disagreement they can choose to acknowledge, explore, and unpack. Alternatively, they can choose to justify and reiterate their own interests ad nauseam even while ignoring their counterpart’s interests, disagreeing past each other and effectively denying the existence of a disagreement. In negotiations, if not in politics, I would strongly advise the former approach, as a frank acknowledgment of the disagreement often paves the way for an innovative solution. A refusal to face down the disagreement, in contrast, often paves the way for disaster. Indeed, that approach is not even negotiation, but persuasion.

So why do negotiators so often disagree past each other? The same reason the politicians do: it’s a whole lot easier to ignore the disagreement than tackle it directly. And it’s a surefire way to please a constituency, since the missed opportunity is typically invisible. And it requires a lot less listening, creativity, and maturity—among other critical attributes that few people possess. For negotiators as for politicians, disagreeing past each other is a whole lot simpler. But its simplicity comes at the price of unresolved problems and simmering conflicts.

In short, whether or not our political environment works this way, I would advise all of us as negotiators to try and disagree with each other rather than disagree past each other. Only by doing that can we hope to avoid the fate that so often befalls politicians: promising much and delivering little. In short, I offer this rare ode to disagreement, in hopes that it ultimately paves the way to agreement.

To tell the truth? Three Republicans, three approaches

Against my better judgment, I’ve now written several posts about the current presidential election. For example, here’s the latest. The references to negotiation are just too good and too frequent to ignore! So why not keep going?

The three remaining candidates for the Republication nomination—Kasich, Cruz, and Trump—embody three distinct ways of dealing with the truth. Since most of us encounter ethical quandaries daily—and since the way we approach them can easily make life more negotiable—we might as well take this opportunity to talk honesty. So, we’ll use the three Republican candidates to explore three distinct ways of dealing with the truth.

Before tackling this treacherous topic, let me just say that I’m not personally labeling anyone a sinner or a saint (nor trying to impose my own moral view). I’m just using the public image of all three candidates—as constructed by popular news outlets and the politicians themselves—to highlight three particular approaches to the truth. So, if you don’t agree with my characterizations, I would have to refer you back to the popular news outlets and political maneuvers from whence they came. And with that, gulp, here goes…

  1. Kasich: John Kasich portrays himself—and is often portrayed as—the morally-upstanding guy in the room. As an example of his ethical image, he recently told Wisconsin voters that the GOP’s promise to repeal Obamacare was “stupid.” Anyone who understands the probability of repealing Obamacare under Obama can diagnose this statement for what it is: the truth. And yet, anyone who understands how primary elections work can diagnose it for what it’s likely to do: irritate Republican voters. Thus, with this statement at least, Kasich embodies the morally “pure” way of dealing with a tradeoff between truth and expediency: simply telling the truth.
  2. Cruz: Ted Cruz doesn’t portray himself this way, but Donald Trump has often called him “Lyin’ Ted.” Though one can never be sure, there are various suggestions that the moniker may have a kernel of truth—a questionable Facebook post about Rubio, the questionable circumstances surrounding scantily-clad photos of Ms. Trump, or the questionable phone call to Iowa voters about Ben Carson. To elaborate on the last, Cruz staffers apparently called Carson supporters to tell them—falsely—that Carson was planning to quit the race. If Cruz was behind for any of these choices—and again, we can never be sure—then he would embody the opposite, anti-Kasich way of dealing with the tradeoff: stretching the truth in service of political expediency.
  3. Trump: Trump embodies the most interesting approach to the truth: taking one side of an issue and then the other side so rapidly and seamlessly that no one knows which one he believes. Thus, no one can definitively say whether he was telling the truth. Supporters can claim that he was and opponents that he wasn’t—everyone’s right! In this way, Trump has found an innovative way of transcending the tradeoff faced by Kasich and Cruz, insisting on neither a disadvantageous truth like Kasich nor a potentially advantageous lie like Cruz. I think it’s fair to say that his dexterity with the truth is one of the many factors contributing to his ongoing appeal.

Do these approaches matter to our own lives, despite our lack of presidential intentions? Well, I’m assuming we don’t often face the specific tradeoff between truth and votes. But we often face the general tradeoff between truth and self-interest, or at least expediency. Each of us must come to our own conclusions about how to handle these situations, but the three Republicans offer three distinct models for dealing with the truth—honesty, deception, or some ways of transcending the tradeoff. Here’s hoping their approaches can help us forge a path through our own moral minefields.

Trump’s curious opening offers

As anyone following politics is well-aware, Donald Trump has made a habit of staking out aggressive negotiating positions. Whether it’s insisting that Mexico will foot the entire cost of a wall or suggesting that he might entertain nuclear retaliation against ISIS, Trump seems unafraid of making the first offer, and making it aggressively.

In that sense, he’s following the advice in one of my earlier posts, as aggressive first offers can often make life more negotiable. And I’m sure it’s because he carefully studied that post.

Yet, Trump has also made a habit of coupling his first offers with other, more curious and less comprehensible tactics. In this post, I’d like to highlight what they are, advising you to stay away from them if you’re using the first offer to make life negotiable:

  1. Calling it a tactic. Aggressive anchors work, in part, because they convince the other side you mean business—that you might actually have a plan to strong-arm the Mexicans or nuke the Islamic State. But that’s only when you avoid suggesting you don’t. Shortly after making each of the first offers above, Trump labeled them negotiating tactics, implying that he didn’t really mean what he said. For example, he followed the nuclear comment by saying: “at a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would.” If you’re going to make a first offer, say it like you mean it and don’t call it a tactic. Otherwise, you look weaker than if you hadn’t made the first offer in the first place.
  2. Waffling. Trump has the habit of staking out an aggressive position on one talk show, saying the opposite on the next talk show, then going back to the initial position on the third talk show. For some humorous examples, see this Washington Post article. As I’ve said in a previous post, there’s nothing inherently wrong with changing your mind when the situation demands. But reversing most of the aggressive positions you take when nothing has changed suggests confusion, at best. If you’re going to make a first offer, don’t make the second offer; and if you do, don’t make it the opposite of the first offer.
  3. Overshooting. As I’ve said before, the best first offers are aggressive but realistic; they are not outrageous, as outrageous offers just drive the other side away. So when you offer to simultaneously deport 11 million illegal immigrants, that probably doesn’t convince your potential negotiating partners in Congress you’re serious. It makes them laugh (or cry). If you’re going to make a first offer, try to make one that the other side finds just slightly unacceptable, not completely unbelievable.

I’m not a billionaire, nor on the cusp of becoming president. So, let me be measured in my critique and admit that there may be a method to his maneuvers, insofar as they make him look unpredictable. But if you’re planning to make the first offer, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you adopt his approach. Instead, make a confident, consistent, realistic first offer that the other side will probably take seriously.

Is flexibility only for yoga masters?

Does flexibility help or hurt in dealing with others? Last week’s Republican debate featured a vigorous discussion of the issue. Trump sang the praises of flexibility, saying, “I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible and who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility.” Rubio noted the drawbacks, suggesting that Trump was so flexible he should do some yoga moves. Who’s right?

Sorry to say that negotiation research indicates it’s much more complicated than the politicians make it out to be. In particular, research suggests that flexibility is helpful in some circumstances and harmful in others. Thus, although this is not a blog about politics, I thought this might be another appropriate time to wade into the national discussion. So what does research have to say on when to be flexible?

  1. When you’re talking about means rather than ends. You go into a negotiation to achieve specific ends, often called your interests. The tactics you use to achieve those interests are your means. Rubio is right that flip-flopping on your core interests amounts to wimpiness. But Trump is right that flexibility on how you get there—the kinds of means you consider—is often the only way to find any way there at all. The best negotiators are rigid on their interests but flexible on the possible pathways that lead them there.
  2. When you’re talking about a relatively unimportant tissue. In any negotiation, some issues matter a great deal. You just have to find a house with better schools. Other issues are less essential. A fireplace would be nice but you could probably live without it. Rubio is right that flexibility on the critical issues is foolish. But Trump is right that rigidity on the unimportant issues is too. The best negotiators know how to flexibly trade their less important issues in order to stubbornly insist on their most important issues.
  3. When the facts change. Sometimes, the world frustratingly changes its mind in the middle of the negotiation. Your salary bump isn’t quite as big as expected—and as needed to afford that big house. In a stable and unchanging world, Rubio is right that shifting positions is the mark of a wobbly leader. In the changing world we often encounter, however, Trump is right that leaders have to adapt. The best negotiators know how to hold firm in stable times but adapt as instability arises.
  4. When your tastes change. Sometimes the world stays the same, but it’s you that changes your mind. Perhaps you thought you could deal with that split-level floorplan, but you’re now thinking it would make you nauseous each time you open the door. Rubio is right that the leader of the free world shouldn’t let their tastes shift whimsically with the wind. But Trump is right that real people do change their minds. The best negotiators know how to establish firm preferences but change their positions if their preferences happen to meander.
  5. When you realize you’ve made a mistake. Sometimes, you realize you made a big flippin’ error. Your initial decision was just downright wrong. You didn’t look hard enough at the school data; now that you do, you know you can’t buy this house. Rubio was right that the president can’t afford too many judgment errors. But Trump was right that holding firm in the face of an error is foolhardy. (In fact, it’s a documented decision bias called escalation of commitment.) The best negotiators know how to make and stick to the best decisions but also admit their errors and flexibly move on.

I wish that the truth about flexibility was as simple as a soundbite about small hands. But the world doesn’t care what I wish, and we’ve heard more than enough about hand size anyway. So the best leaders can only use their best judgment about the situations they face, trying to determine whether those situations call for enlightened flexibility or firm intransigence.