College as negotiation

People don’t typically think of college as a negotiation. Just like other aspects of life, though, it is—actually a bunch of them. And just like other aspects of life, thinking of it that way can make life negotiable.

With the back-to-school season approaching, let’s unpack what in the world I’m talking about and why it matters. In particular, let’s consider the following five situations commonly faced by a college student and why it might help to think of them as negotiations, defined here as discussions with interdependent parties to resolve partially conflicting goals:

  1. Dividing the labor: The seemingly omnipresent group project almost automatically necessitates a discussion about who will do what. Though students might think of such discussions as purely collaborative—and hopefully they are!—they’re negotiations insofar as anyone’s preferences don’t perfectly align—and typically they don’t! Thinking of these discussions as negotiations should help you, the college student, build on points of disagreement, particularly by finding ways to ensure everyone’s at least sharing the load through tasks they find manageable or worthy of learning.
  2. Setting the rules. Anyone who’s ever live with a roommate—or several—knows that a common room or house does not guarantee a common set of assumptions about appropriate behavior. An open discussion of the obvious flashpoints before they flash, however, should help to prevent any flashing from happening—or at least provide a common reference point when it does.
  3. Negotiating work-life balance. College students are notoriously stressed by the competing demands of work and life. But as I’ve mentioned before, achieving work-life balance really involves negotiating thoughtfully with yourself. Thinking of it that way can prevent you from driving yourself crazy.
  4. Negotiating fair terms. Fellow professors, please forgive me. But you, the student, should consider yourself entitled to certain basic benefits from all of us (or at least our TAs). A non-exhaustive list might include an accurate syllabus, clear teaching, assistance with tough concepts, explanations of grading decisions, and referrals to additional resources if needed. (Please note the conspicuous absence of “the grade you want”.) If you’re not getting what you reasonably deserve, though, you might consider the situation a negotiation, though you also might also omit that term from the conversation with your professor.
  5. Requesting course assistance. The bad thing about college is that some courses seem impossible. The good thing about college is that different students consider different courses impossible. If you need some help from a particular course guru, don’t miss the opportunity to ask. By the same token, if you happen to be the course guru yourself, don’t hesitate to help. In the first case, they’ll surely make a reciprocal request later. In the second, you’ll make the request—or at least you’ll make yourself a friend or earn yourself a root beer. You might not think of such requests as negotiations. But trades like these actually lie at the heart of negotiation, as described in my negotiation book, The Bartering Mindset.

To conclude, it’s probably reasonable to think about college as a big bundle of negotiations. Since you go to college to educate yourself anyway, why not treat your college years as one big opportunity to learn negotiation too?

Using your BRAIN to negotiate with the doctor

Two of my most common refrains on negotiation are these: Much of life is a negotiation, and a negotiator’s success depends on what they do before negotiating. These two conclusions come together in a common negotiation we all face routinely: a trip to the doctor’s office. Simply put, understanding a doctor’s visit as a negotiation and preparing for it accordingly can make life negotiable.

But wait—why’s a doctor’s visit a negotiation? Because anytime we depend on others to achieve our goals, we’re negotiating. Since we surely depend on the doctor to achieve one of our most important goals—our own health—it’s a negotiation. And if a doctor’s visit is a negotiation, then you need to prepare for it for the same reason you’d prepare for any negotiation: because much of the outcome is predetermined by how well you understand the situation beforehand. But here’s the good news: the same acronym you’d use to prepare for any negotiation—BRAIN—applies to a doctor’s visit in spades. To see why, let’s consider each of the five letters in turn:

  • B=BATNA (best alternative): What’s your alternative to this particular doctor if you don’t get a satisfactory diagnosis or treatment? Seek another doctor, thereby spending more money, taking more time, and generating more incomprehensible bills in your mailbox? Unless you’re seeking to solve a serious medical issue, that doesn’t sound like a very attractive BATNA. So you’d better do what you can to achieve your objectives in this visit.
  • R=Reservation price (bottom line): What’s the least satisfactory outcome you’d accept from this doctor before seeking out another? If he or she suggests watchful waiting instead of active treatment, will you consent? If he or she is too busy to offer an adequate answer to your most important question, is that gonna work for you? Either way, you’d better ask beforehand to avoid walking out in a state of severe dissatisfaction.
  • A=Aspiration (goal): What’s the best possible outcome you could hope to obtain from this visit? Are you shooting for a particular medication, referral, or treatment plan? You need to know beforehand because the doctor may not think of it or be motivated to offer it unless you ask.
  • I=Interests (underlying motivations): What do you fundamentally need to achieve from this visit? Is it really the specific medication, referral, or treatment plan, or are you ultimately seeking to fix the aching shoulder, wobbly ankle, or elevated blood pressure? It’s important to keep your focus on the underlying problem rather than the surface-level solutions, as the doctor may well offer an even better solution. If so, you should probably listen rather than sticking slavishly to a suboptimal solution.
  • N=Negotiation counterpart (the doctor): How’s the doctor likely to answer the preceding questions? In particular, what’s their alternative to you? Probably to see the next patient. And what’s their bottom line in response to your requests? They’d probably refuse to offer you something risky, ineffective, or likely to require undue effort on your part or theirs. And what does the doctor hope to achieve in your visit? Probably to reach a quick diagnosis and make a simple recommendation that helps you our immensely. And finally, what’s the doctor’s underlying interest? For good doctors, hopefully to make you as healthy as possible. So you see, by putting these answers together, that the doctor surely wants to help but probably prefers to do so not just effectively but efficiently. And that should you immensely in framing your requests.

So visiting a doctor is not so different from buying a car or negotiating a raise. In all cases, you need something important from someone else. And in all cases, using your BRAIN beforehand is critical to achieving your objectives, be it fancy wheels, a fat salary, or a healthy you.

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.

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.

Do I have to? Convincing yourself to do things

A significant portion of life consists of convincing yourself to do things—things you know you should do but really don’t want to. From watching your diet, to organizing your garage, to seeing the doctor, unappealing but critical tasks abound.

What can negotiations research teach us about such situations? Quite a lot if we treat them as negotiations between two tiny versions of ourselves—one motivated by wants and the other by needs. Indeed, by construing such situations as negotiations between our want selves and should selves, we can start to make life negotiable.

In particular, when you see your should self imploring you to do something that your want self detests, it can often help to:

  1. Consider their underlying intentions. Neither your want self nor your should self has ulterior motives. The should self doesn’t want to eliminate all your fun by imploring you to diet; that self is only trying to watch your waistline. Conversely, the want self doesn’t want to prematurely clog your arteries; that self simply wants you to enjoy the burger. Acknowledging the positive intentions of both selves can help you to take both seriously.
  2. Make mutually beneficial tradeoffs. If your two selves are fighting over just one issue, one of them is likely to leave unhappy. If they’re debating whether to eat that cake, for example, the should self will be none-too-pleased when you do. But each self probably has additional concerns. For example, perhaps your should self has been nagging you to see the doctor. Would that self let you eat the cake if you agreed to see the doctor?
  3. Get creative to satisfy both selves’ interests. Alternatively, can you identify a creative solution that satisfies both sides at the same time—often called a bridging solution? Imagine your two selves are fighting over whether to clean the garage, for example. Could you satisfy both by paying somebody else to do so?

The nice part about negotiations with yourself is that you always tend to win. But perhaps these tips can help you to identify a win-win.

Saving time by learning to trust yourself

In a world where work-life balance seems like a quaint anachronism, most of us have to find every possible efficiency just to get our jobs done—especially when working on difficult tasks that require multiple rounds of revision: detailed reports, complicated analyses, complex pieces of software code. Though efficiencies on such tasks are often hard to come by, I’ve gradually learned to appreciate the relevance of an important lesson from negotiation research: the importance of trust.

Whereas negotiation research urges people to trust their counterparts, though, I’ve learned that complicated tasks make it equally important to trust myself! Indeed, I’ve come to realize that trusting myself—and especially the work I’ve already completed—can make even the hardest tasks more negotiable. Here’s hoping a short blog post can convince you too.

So imagine yourself working on a long and difficult task requiring multiple rounds of revision. A few lessons from the research on trust in negotiations that transfer to the inherent negotiations with yourself:

  • Assume trustworthiness: Negotiators are advised to assume their counterpart is trustworthy, and thus give themselves at least a fighting chance of starting a virtuous cycle. Likewise, when you have to work and rework the same difficult document, you might want to assume that the you who typed the prior version was just as trustworthy as the you who’s reading it now. In other words, make the necessary corrections when you reread, but don’t spend an inordinate amount of time second-guessing yourself over minor judgment calls.
  • Build trust over time: Even if they start with low levels of trust, negotiators are advised to intentionally build trust with their counterparts over time. Likewise, as you labor through numerous difficult professional tasks over the course of a career, try to give yourself increasing amounts of latitude each time. That is, cultivate an increasing appreciation for your own level of trustworthiness (see #1), trusting your initial intuitions more and more through time.
  • Don’t do anything untrustworthy: Negotiators are advised to avoid doing anything that would destroy the trust of their counterparts. Likewise, as you build your trust with yourself (see #2), take care to avoid any actions that would undermine your subsequent self-trust—by typing an important document while sleepy or suffering the influence of strong emotions, for example. Trust only builds when people are consistently trustworthy.
  • Incorporate any priors: Negotiators are always advised to incorporate any prior knowledge about their counterparts into their trust decisions. If a counterpart has lied before, chances are he hasn’t suddenly decided to reorganize his entire life around the categorical imperative. Likewise, if you increasingly trust yourself but start to identify some situations in which you yourself are not very trustworthy—sections of a document you know you struggle with, for example—distrust yourself enough to know that you’re going to have to focus your revision efforts there.

Over time, I’ve learned that trusting myself not only helps me complete high-quality tasks much more efficiently. It also feels a lot better than doubting myself constantly and redoing my own work for a negligible benefit and a considerable time cost.

How do you decide whether to trust your prior work?

In praise of work-life conflict

Many of us find it nearly impossible to balance work and life. And most of us who struggle with work-life conflict, including me, loudly decry it.

But in this post, let me sing one particular praise of work-life conflict: a busy home life gives you a substantially stronger negotiating hand at work. How? By allowing or even requiring you to credibly refuse those annoying, unnecessary, and time-consuming organizational requests that you really shouldn’t even be hearing—but that someone is always making. Whatever its other drawbacks, work-life conflict can help make this particular aspect of work life negotiable.

Let’s make this a little more concrete and then a little more formal. Imagine Tim and Tom. Tim faces a daily struggle balancing work and life; he and his wife both work, and it’s all they can do to get their jobs done while also ensuring that their four young kids grow up healthy and wholesome. Tom, despite working in the same organization, lives a dramatically different life. Single, he rolls out of bed around 8:30 am, sips a cappuccino or three while sifting through the news, then meanders into the office an hour later. Right around 5 pm, he meanders back home and settles in for the nightly Law and Order marathon. Nor are their very different lives any secret around the office: everyone sees Tim’s pictures of his family, hanging over his mountain of paperwork, and wonders how he does it. Anyone who needs a Law and Order update heads over to Tom.

And then there’s Tammy, HR generalist. Her project of the month? “This office needs a weekly newsletter! I think we need to feel more connected to each other, as real human beings—and what better way than sharing our experiences on a weekly basis?”

Now, imagine that she approaches both Tim and Tom one morning, in hopes of recruiting a newsletter editor. “It won’t take much time,” she says, “only about three or four hours a week.” Put on the spot by an effusive Tammy, what will Tim and Tom say?

Tim will really have no choice. Much as he might love the idea of editing a weekly newsletter, there are literally no minutes left in the day. If he did, he’d have to sacrifice his “real” work and/or miss some portion of his children’s lives. “Sorry, I just don’t have enough time,” he’ll say, gesturing to his desk full of papers and wall full of pictures. But how about Tom? Well, maybe he’ll try that same line of argumentation, but where will he gesture? His “no” will be a lot less credible, and the crafty Tammy will probably know it and press him about his other commitments. With no particular answer other than Law and Order, chances are that she’s found her first newsletter editor.

So here’s the point: having a busy home life gives you a credible BATNA at work. In case you don’t feel like clicking that link or haven’t read that post, BATNA stands for “best alternative to negotiated agreement.” It’s your next-best alternative to the current negotiation, and it’s your greatest source of power in any negotiation. With a life replete with work-life conflict, your BATNA is giving up something truly important. So you can easily, confidently, and believably make like Tim and kindly refuse. With a life free of any conflict, you may have to make like Tom and succumb to the wily Tammy.

So am I encouraging everyone to develop work-life conflict (or have four kids)? No, conflicts between work and home obviously come with some major costs. But I am suggesting that the busiest among us, even while decrying their busyness, may wish to recognize and leverage that busyness to good effect in the workplace. And the most leisurely among us may wish to develop and communicate a credible hobby, or at least keep their leisure private.

Does your busyness help you to focus in the workplace?