COVID-19: Life’s still negotiable

In moments like these, when the world’s out of control, little seems negotiable. But I’m here to tell you that negotiation is needed now more than ever. Indeed, if we don’t at least try to negotiate a new path through uncertain and frightening times, we’re sure to make an already bad situation worse.

To see what I mean, consider just a few of the many situations that now require many of us to negotiate:

  1. Cancelling a non-refundable reservation: Yes, it says the travel reservation is non-refundable, no exceptions. But actually, it SAID the reservation was non-refundable before the whole world changed. There’s literally no risk in calling up our favorite travel website, explaining the newfound need for a cancellation, and seeing what they say—though there might be some lost time. Indeed, some airlines have already said yes preemptively. Don’t negotiate, however, and you’re setting yourself up for a sure loss.
  2. Setting the new terms with your kids: Things were going swimmingly with the kids. They’d go to school, you’d go to work, and you’d reconvene in the evening. But now, they’re not going to school, you’re not going to work, and you’re about to interact continuously for a solid two weeks (at least). In situations like these, it’s important to make the first offer as to the new rules: That is, proactively and preemptively inform them what learning activities (for example) they’ll be doing before watching cartoons each day. Don’t do that, and the cartoons will automatically appear immediately.
  3. Upgrading your service: Maybe that modem was working for emails. Maybe that cord-cutting was working for the evening news. But chances are, they’re not working for your new needs now. When negotiating a new deal with your service provider, don’t get desperate! Don’t go to the provider, hat in hand, and ask what you’ll have to pay for an upgrade. Go to them with a viable fallback option in hand—another internet or cable company—and only when you’ve researched it thoroughly and would actually be willing to exercise it. Don’t do that, and you’re sure to pay through the nose.
  4. Whether to attend the meeting in-person: Hopefully everyone’s gotten the memo. Just in case someone hasn’t (or it’s ambiguous whether you can), though, you may have to negotiate virtual attendance at a meeting. In these moments, it may be helpful to remind them that social distancing is ultimately a win-win—in the final analysis and the long-term, your interests aren’t opposed. Couple that with a demonstration of the ways you can still accomplish the meeting’s objectives, and you’ll hopefully convince them. Don’t, and we all experience community spread.
  5. Speaking to someone who won’t work virtually: And then there’s (sort of) the opposite. To illustrate, I entered a parking garage the other day, only to hear the parking attendant coughing violently for what seemed like minutes. Maybe it was only those few minutes. Maybe her water went down the wrong pipe. Maybe her employer wouldn’t let her leave, or she couldn’t afford it. But if it was actually COVID-19 and she chose to stay there, think of all the parking tickets touched! If you have to talk someone into leaving the workplace, it might be helpful, rather than urging or ordering them to leave, to probe their underlying reasons for staying–their interests. Do they need a social connection? Not have the necessary technology? Need the money to make it? All problems that can, at least in theory, be solved by an employer without contributing to community spread.

In sum, notwithstanding all the bad news about COVID-19, we’d all do well to remember that life’s still negotiable. Indeed, challenging times call on all of us to negotiate life ever more vigorously than before.

Negotiating the open middle seat

If you’ve flown in the past, it might seem impossible. But if you’re flying in the present (age of the virus), it’s actually becoming probable: an open middle seat. Indeed, I’m looking at one as I type this.

Find yourself and your row-mate with an open middle seat, and you find yourself with a negotiation. Since effectively hammering out the division of this and many other resources can make life negotiable, consider the following alternatives to winging it:

  1. Define your primary interest: An open middle seat is not just one but a bundle of resources, among them its tray table, under-seat storage space, floor space, seat space, seat-back pocket space, and entertainment system (if it happens to have one). Before this (and any other) negotiation, the first and most important step is defining which resources are most valuable to you. Doing so prepares you to…
  2. Make the first offer: Say it’s the under-seat storage space you covet, so as to free up your own under-seat space for your feet (or legs, or, on “Reunited Airlines,” your elbows). If so, say so! More specifically, ask your row-mate, “Do you mind if I put my bag under here?” How many times I’ve asked! And how many times I’ve received! As many negotiation researchers have noted, first offers powerfully anchor the conversation.
  3. Don’t ask for everything: Even as you request whatever you really want, however, be prepared to offer whatever you don’t. If you demand and receive the under-seat space, for example, it’s only fair to offer the seat surface itself for their bulky coat. And offering it explicitly is actually a win-win, as the unprompted concession should facilitate far friendlier skies during subsequent negotiations (e.g., over where to put the drinks and snacks).
  4. Explore a seat switch: Thanks to the nickel-and-diming instincts of the U.S. airline industry, the middle seat doesn’t always start off free. You start out sitting in it, your row-mate next to you in the aisle (for example). What to do if the window fortuitously remains free when the door closes? If you like the window, you could obviously move there, and your row-mate would probably appreciate it. But what if you like the aisle? The absence of a third passenger offers an unmistakable opportunity to reimagine the possibilities: “Looks like we have an empty seat here. Would you like the window, or do you prefer the aisle?” The worst they can say is the latter, even while appreciating your generosity.
  5. Adjust as contingencies arise: Any flight introduces innumerable contingencies. Your row-mate becomes incapable of using their laptop thanks to someone else’s severe recline. You find yourself with a towering collection of trash in the aftermath of the snacks. Or, personal story from my last flight, your headphone jack literally snaps off in your own headphone hole, and you can either use the middle seat’s hole (while sitting at the window) or be supremely bored. Perceptive negotiators, in-flight or on-ground, adjust to changing circumstances rather than slavishly sticking to outdated agreements. For example, in the case of the headphones, I simply inquired: “You mind if I plug my new Reunited Airlines headphones in over here?” It’s not rocket science, but many people don’t for fear of disrupting the status quo.

The point is incredibly simple: Open middle seats are invaluable resources that we would do well to treat as such—by negotiating. Do that, and you might actually experience some friendly skies.

Can we all merge later?

If you’re traumatized by traffic, the following claim may strike you as controversial if not downright sacrilegious. So let me apologize in advance for any offense. But then let me direct you to the common situation in which one of two lanes on your side of the roadway ends, necessitating a merge into the other. And finally, let me claim that waiting a bit longer to merge is a win-win driving strategy that can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Much like the drivers currently taking offense, I’m generally of the mind that merging as soon as possible is the best and most courteous thing to do. If you saw me on a road in a lane about to end, you’d quickly see me merging. And then, looking a little closer inside my window, you’d see me taking a very dim view of the guy in the huge pickup truck—and it’s always a guy in a huge pickup truck—who waits till the very last minute to merge and inevitably cuts everyone off. So rest assured that the views expressed here do not reflect some odd idiosyncratic opposition to merging—or some secret life as the guy in the pickup truck.

Instead they reflect a realization borne of a recent construction project. You see, there’s a road in my area in which the right lane gradually comes to an end, necessitating an eventual merge into the left. Until recently, this merge has been unremarkable, with courteous drivers weaving together naturally and continuing on their merry way. But then came construction on another area road that forced everybody and their brother onto this one. And then I observed the tendency of approximately 90% of drivers to do what I do—to get into the left lane as soon as humanly possible, leaving the left lane totally jammed and the right lane free of all traffic except the occasional pickup truck.

And then I got to thinking: Is this really the best outcome for all of us do-gooders on the left? Here we are, just twiddling our thumbs in frustration. And there we are, watching the pickup guy whizz by on the right, now boiling mad. Wouldn’t it be better for some of us to loosen up our do-gooding by staying in the right lane a little bit longer, thereby reducing our own wait time? And here’s the critical part: Wouldn’t that also be better for the people who were in the left lane already or are dead-set on remaining do-gooders and merging right away? With our departure, their wait time would certainly go down too. And here’s the best part of all: If enough do-gooders were to merge a bit later, wouldn’t that gleefully stymie the devious designs of the pickup guy, who planned to leave all us do-gooders in the dust? In short, isn’t it a win-win (and possibly a win-win-win) for some of us to merge later?

Turns out, my realization is reasonable in the eyes of the construction company, which subsequently installed a sign urging people to “use both lanes” (including the one that ends). So, much as it pains my do-gooder inclinations to say so, I suspect that a few of us merging a bit later—not dangerously late and not just the guy in the pickup truck—would produce a win-win outcome for all of us. A better use of all available roadway, just like a better use of all available resources in any negotiation, typically leads to a better outcome for everyone.

Five negotiations in one short trip

I recently took a business trip up the east coast, and it amazed me how many negotiations I faced in a short day of transit. Since it never hurts (and often makes life negotiable) to remember how many daily situations qualify as negotiations, let me recount the five negotiations I faced in one short trip:

  1. Large cups: At my home airport, early in the morning and desperate for a cup of coffee, I ordered and paid for the largest cup possible. Only then, after collecting my money, did the employee notice they ran out of large cups. And believe it or not, she was prepared to offer me a small coffee for the large price! Despite my fatigue, you can bet I wasn’t willing to accept that. The interesting thing was what to do about it: Should I ask for the difference back in change (thereby getting less coffee and a whole lot of heavy change), or should I ask for a bottomless small cup? I did the latter and therefore got about two or three larges for the price of one.
  2. Shared space: My good luck continued through boarding, when I discovered that the flight wasn’t busy at all, meaning an empty middle seat. The fickle hand of fate struck back after buckling into the aisle seat, though, as I discovered that the passenger in the window seat was intent on claiming the middle seat and all its under-seat storage as her own. But then my luck swung back, as she got an important phone call that allowed me to covertly reclaim my own 50%.
  3. Seatbelt sign: Let me see if I can put this delicately: As a result of the 2-3 coffees in negotiation #1, I found myself with a visceral need shortly after takeoff. Unfortunately, I also found myself with one of those pilots who forgets to turn the seatbelt sign off. After about 25 minutes of blue skies and the notable lack of turbulence, I politely asked the flight attendant if I could use the bathroom anyway. “At your own risk,” she said. And believe me, I was ready to risk it.
  4. Engine trouble: The airport at which I landed was about 90 minutes from my destination, necessitating a car service through a rather isolated set of mountains. Unfortunately, halfway through said mountains, a loud clanking sound emerged from the engine. The driver dutifully got out, checked the engine, and somehow determined that he could keep driving up the mountain despite the clanking by reducing his speed to 30 mph. “I’m glad I’m going to get there (maybe),” I thought, “but now I’ll get there late (if at all).” So, I had to take the opportunity to ask my host for a schedule adjustment, which he generously granted.
  5. Wet weather: Ok, this negotiation wasn’t my own. But since it impacted me directly, I think it’s fair to include it: Several of us were visiting to give concurrent research presentations, but none had thought to check the Weather Channel before packing. Turns out we should have, as Mother Nature decided to drop a deluge. Luckily, one of my colleagues asked the hotel for an umbrella, then asked for an even larger one capable of shielding about four of us on the way to dinner.

These simple examples qualify as negotiations because, in all cases, I would’ve been patently displeased if I (or my colleague in the case of the umbrella) had failed to request someone else’s cooperation. The point is not to say that you should march around asking for everything in the world you want, nor would I expect every trip you take to necessitate quite so many negotiations. Still, let these stories offer a reminder that opportunities to negotiate are all around us—and seizing them is often the only way to avoid patent displeasure.

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.

Initiating the right relationship with seatmates

There comes a critical moment at the start of each flight—the moment you encounter your seatmate. At that moment, your actions can easily dictate how negotiable the next 2, 5, or 7 hours are going to be. Initiate a positive relationship, and you just might make it to Michigan. Initiate a bad one, and you’re bound for a fight over Phoenix.

That being the case, what can you do to set up the right relationship with your seatmate? Consider the following five research-based suggestions for happy flying:

  1. Be cordial to build trust: It’s the nice and human thing to do. In addition, smiling and saying hello can start a cycle of trust. Flights are long and arduous encounters, and numerous contingencies are likely to arise. Maybe their air will blow right on your face. Maybe their gargantuan bag will encroach on your under-seat space. With the benefit of some pent-up trust, you can probably figure out a solution. Without it, good luck.
  2. Help with their bags: In addition to being the nice and human thing to do, helping to put up their bags (or fetch their pen from an overhead jacket, as I recently did) generates a cycle of reciprocity, whereby they will later feel motivated to help you too. What if you need to get up and use the bathroom four times? Or get the Wi-Fi signal to work just once? A seatmate who you previously helped will probably be eager to reciprocate.
  3. Claim your territory: In addition to these cooperative and integrative overtures, it’s important to start claiming some value in the form of the armrest. We’ve all flown next to the guy—and it usually is—who thinks he owns all three seats in the row. If that norm leaves the ground, all three fliers are in for an extended squishing.
  4. Signal your intentions: Similarly, it’s important to set some expectations as to how you intend to spend the next 2, 5, or 7 hours. If you’d love to the chat the trip away, then start chatting even before the safety demonstration. But if you’d prefer to work, read, or sleep, you’d better set those expectations even earlier. An ambiguous signal—some idle but unenthusiastic chatter, for example—won’t serve anyone well. You’ll both end up chatting the flight away even though both preferred to sleep (something akin to the Abilene Paradox).
  5. Don’t be weird or annoying: If I had a quarter for every time my seatmates acted weird or annoying long before takeoff, thereby generating angst that lasts the whole flight, I’d be able to a buy a plane and avoid the whole situation. From continuously messing with the air vent, to standing up and sitting down ala ants-in-the-pants, to taking a cell phone call loud enough to render the phone superfluous, to pulling out reams upon reams of paper, to shooting visual daggers into the seatback, crazy or annoying maneuvers in the early stages of a flight abound. Other people aren’t going to stop acting weirdly, so you might have to lead by example.

In sum, flights are gliding laboratories for making life negotiable. But they’re applied rather than basic research laboratories, in that your efforts will directly dictate your happiness. Here’s to this amazing opportunity to make life negotiable!

Doing their job for them

Achieving your own objectives often requires the assistance of customer service representatives whose job is to help you. Just one problem: At times, the representatives on whom you depend seem to have no intention of doing their jobs. Accordingly, making life negotiable can require you to do at least a portion of somebody else’s job for them, in hopes of motivating them to do at least the remaining portion for you.

To see what I mean, consider the following story:

A few weeks back, I booked a car using an online booking service—let’s call them “Coldwire”—for a guy’s trip to Alaska. Weeks later, with the benefit of flight confirmations, I learned that my flight arrived nearly eight hours after my friends’ flights, meaning that I was the wrong person to retrieve the car from the agency—and let’s call them “Mavis.” Easy peasy: just call Coldwire or Mavis and ask them to add a driver, right? Wrong!

I first called Mavis, having learned from prior experiences that the rental agency can often do more than the booking service. “You’ll have to call Coldwire, sir,” they informed me. And what do you think Coldwire told me? That’s right: “You’ll have to call Mavis, sir.”

Frustrated at having lost a good 15 minutes of my life to this tail-chasing exercise, I then tried to enlist the help of the Coldwire representative. Explaining how Mavis had told me just the opposite, I described the predicament and tried to engage the agent in a little problem-solving, Getting to Yes style. Her unhelpful refrain: “The booking is final.” This refrain made little sense, as adding a driver would cost neither Coldwire nor Mavis a red cent. “The booking is final,” she repeated again, apparently hoping I hadn’t heard her the first 24 times.

“Ok, so what can I do here?” I asked, leaving an Alaskan-sized pause after my question to encourage a productive response. “The only thing you can do is rebook,” she said, “and the rate will probably be much higher now. Would you like me to look it up?” Seeing few options, I said I did, only to learn that a rebooking would cost us at least $200 more. So I said thanks but no thanks, and we cordially parted ways.

Luckily, I knew about this new technology called the internet and did a Coldwire search myself, only to find the same car, same dates, same agency going for $50 less! Now, I’m not sure how my internet differed from hers, but here I was—doing most of her job for her. And with that, I did most of the rest, calling her back and telling her—this same representative—that I had found a lower rate and rebooked with my friend as the driver. Could she kindly cancel my other reservation? She would be happy to complete that 5% of her job, she told me.

What’s the point, other than the humorous and all-too-common storyline? The point is that you sometimes depend on people who aren’t opposed to helping you—they just can’t be bothered to do so. In those cases, it’s worth trying to motivate them, supplementing their salary and benefits package with a little old-fashion persuasion. But when that doesn’t work, you might just have to do at least a portion of their job for them, asking them to do the rest as a matter of kindness or generosity. It’s annoying, and it requires time—too much time in our harried world. But it’s better than flying off the handle at unhelpful people, or simply giving up and making your friend sit around the Anchorage Airport for eight hours. Plus, it hones your résumé should you ever seek a job in customer service.