Which is worse: Negotiation failure or failing to negotiate?

I recently traveled to Australia for work, visiting an open-air market for some family souvenirs. Now, an Australian market is not an Indian or Turkish market—not a place where haggling is necessary or necessarily expected. So I suspected going in that any attempts at negotiation would not be particularly fruitful. And I could’ve decided to abandon negotiation accordingly.

But being the author of Life’s Negotiable, I decided to try it anyway. As expected, my attempts to negotiate were met with limited success. Ironically and perhaps confusingly, though, they also highlighted three reasons why the greater failure would’ve been a failure to negotiate at all. And herein is a lesson that can make life negotiable: The biggest negotiation failure is a failure to negotiate.

What in the world could I mean? Consider the rest of the story. I set out in pursuit of three souvenirs: two stuffed animals and a wine holder. Along the road to the negotiation failure described in the third point below, I jotted down three reasons why failing to negotiate would’ve been the greater failure. If you don’t negotiate, you don’t:

  1. Learn about the market. My first and most important negotiation strategy was to walk around the market and compare the various vendors’ prices and selection. Having done so, I learned that certain vendors were selling the items in the question for an attractive price but also selling…how shall we put this…junk. And, looking closer at these vendors’ stuffed animals and wine holders, I learned that they too were…how shall we put this…junk. Design flaws and manufacturing errors galore—and not even from Australia. At least for these products, the rock-bottom prices were too good to be true, I learned.
  2. Learn about the item in question: In the process of walking around the marketplace, I also learned some interesting things about the products under consideration. For example, I learned that the wine holders in this market (at least the ones from the non-junk vendors) are each hand-painted with a unique pattern and color palette signifying a specific set of thoughts and emotions—nice sentiments like serenity, peace, and courage. Since I knew I wanted one with olive green and maroonish-brown, I made sure to note and convey the meaning of those colors upon delivery, which definitely increased the impact of the gift.
  3. Find opportunities to sweeten the deal: Having eliminated the junk vendors and understood the colors, I ultimately identified a vendor with no junk and some reasonably good deals. In fact, this vendor’s signs indicated that I could get two stuffed animals for a special bulk price of X Australian Dollars. But there was no obvious deal on wine holders, prompting me to ask for an even special-er bulk price for one wine holder and two stuffed animals. “No,” he said, which is why I labeled the whole thing a negotiation failure. But the vendor did inform me that I could get an unadvertised volume discount if I purchased two wine holders. Now, we don’t drink that much wine or have that much room on the kitchen counter, but if we did, this offer could’ve sweetened the deal considerably. So, in combination with the avoidance of poor products and the accumulation of information, I consider this failure productive.

What’s the point? That, at least when it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to negotiate—and often it doesn’t—the only real failure in negotiation is a failure to negotiate. A little lesson from down-under.

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Bluffs versus lies: The line between persuasion and deception in negotiation

Where’s the line between bluffing and lying, persuasion and deception, salesmanship and unethical behavior? Negotiation scholars (myself included) have not often answered that question, largely because we focus on what negotiators do instead of what they should do. So far be it from me to answer conclusively here.

Nevertheless, a recent experience got me thinking about the topic and gave me some ideas about the factors that might at least enter into a discussion of where the line falls. So let me recount the experience and associated factors in hopes of making the broader discussion negotiable.

Some college friends and I recently took an annual guys trip, this year to Banff. Somewhere up in the Rockies, far from civilization and farther from cell phone service, we noticed the service engine light illuminated. Then, somewhere farther into the Rockies, we noticed that the fuel gauge hadn’t budged from full despite several hundred miles of driving. “Uh oh.” we thought. “What if the car’s broken or about to run out of gas up in the mountains?” And those thoughts caused some distress, interfering with our full enjoyment of Mother Nature’s majesty.

Long story short, the car didn’t break, and we didn’t run out of gas. We filled it up eventually, then monitored the engine sounds and gas gauge judiciously for the remainder of the trip. Finally, on our way to the airport, we decided to ask the rental car company (and let’s call them Nifty) for a discount. The question was how, and the discussion surfaced various tactics that may bring the line between persuasion and deception into sharper relief:

  1. Objective facts versus subjective reactions: There was a discussion about claiming that we broke down in the Rockies and had to somehow summon a tow truck. There was also a discussion about saying nothing of the sort but focusing on the distress caused by the fact we might have had to do so. The latter is probably more defensible.
  2. Breaks with reality versus extensions of reality: There was a discussion about claiming that we hadn’t had cell service ever since the event (which we did a couple hours later). There was also a discussion about claiming that we hadn’t had cell service until getting closer to the airport (which we were, a couple hours later). The latter is probably more defensible.
  3. Concrete versus ambiguous claims: There was a discussion about claiming that we often travel to Alberta and consider renting from that particular Nifty (a concrete and untrue claim). There was also a discussion about claiming that each of is a “road warrior” who travels to various locations with Nifty branches often (an ambiguous and broadly accurate statement). The latter is probably more defensible.
  4. Verbs versus adjectives: There was a discussion about saying that we ran out of gas in the mountains, the operative verb being “ran out.” There was also a discussion about describing the event with colorful adjectives (my friend ultimately chose “horrific”). The latter is probably more defensible.
  5. Commission versus omission: There was a discussion about arguing strenuously that the service engine light and fuel gauge were related, when we suspected the former reflected an overdue oil change. There was also a discussion about describing both symptoms and letting Nifty draw their own conclusions, none of us being auto mechanics. The latter is probably more defensible.

Again, I’m not here to offer concrete answers to tough ethical quandaries, and maybe you disagree with my assessments. But I hope this story and my thoughts at least help to bring some structure to your own thinking, as you grapple with the ethical quandaries in your own lives and negotiations.

The unreliability of our gut: Intuitions in negotiation

The recent summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un has brought the issue of intuition in negotiation to the fore. The North Korean dictator reportedly spent years planning for such a meeting, trusting little to his gut and everything to his analysis and preparation. President Trump, in contrast, is widely known to rely on his gut, for example by saying that he would simply intuit whether a deal with Kim was possible within the first minute.

Given these two divergent approaches, each with its own appeal, it’s probably worth considering the reliability of our intuitions in negotiations. Unfortunately, I’m here to suggest that they are not very reliable at all.

In the spirit of making life (if not world events) negotiable, consider the following five ways that our intuitions can fail us. Our intuitions often tell us…

  1. To avoid making the first offer. Seems intuitive to let the other party move first. That way, we can learn about their preferences and maybe get a great deal. Right? Well, often wrong. As I’ve suggested often before, if we do that, we miss the golden opportunity to focus the other party’s attention on our own goals and desires, making us counteroffers very much in line with our own thinking. Instead, we end up making offers very much in line with theirs.
  2. To deal with one issue at a time. Seems intuitive to agree on each issue in turn, and probably the easiest first. Right? Typically wrong again. If we do that, we treat each each issue as a competitive fight, losing the opportunity to link and trade issues. Accordingly, we leave ourselves with a tremendous problem when we come to the truly contentious issues, typically at the end.
  3. That if I want something, you don’t. Seems intuitive that two negotiators want two opposite things. Right? Wrong more often than you’d think. People do want the opposite of some things, typically money or other quantitative issues. But, as I’ve suggested often before, they often want the same thing on qualitative issues—or at least care less about some qualitative issues than others, paving the way for tradeoffs. Intuition fails us again, precluding the possibility of a win-win.
  4. To focus on our bottom line. Seems intuitive to focus on our bottom line, and especially whether the deal under discussion is better than said line. Right? Wrong or at least woefully incomplete. If we focus exclusively on our bottom line, chances are that we’ll settle for something just better than that line, which is often not very good at all. Instead, we need to focus on our target, only coming back to our bottom line when we need to, at the end.
  5. That everyone negotiates pretty in much the same way. Seems intuitive that everybody around the world pretty much thinks about and approaches negotiations the same that way we do. Right? No, totally wrong. Mountains of evidence now indicate that negotiators from different cultures very markedly in their strategies, interests, and the ethical or legal standards they bring to the table. Intuition fails us again, and this time with a bang.

So you see that, appealing as our gut may be, it’s not particularly reliable in negotiations. And now that we all understand as much, maybe we can collectively convince our political leaders.

The sound of silence—or successful negotiation

What does a successful negotiator sound like? Maybe you never asked. But if you ask now, I know the answer. Someone loud, aggressive, and potentially angry—right?

Well, I just finished teaching an executive education course on cross-cultural negotiation, and it struck me that the most effective negotiators sounded nothing like that.

Since understanding what a successful negotiator sounds like can afford some insight into successful negotiation, thereby making life more negotiable, let me share some observations. In particular, let me tell you why the most successful negotiators sound surprisingly silent throughout the negotiation process:

  1. Before a negotiation, the successful negotiator is quiet because they are wholly immersed in the preparation process. You might hear their pages turning or their keyboard clicking, but you won’t hear them clearing their throat and cracking their knuckles.
  2. At the start of a negotiation, the successful negotiator is quiet because they are listening rather than talking—processing all the overt and implicit messages their counterpart is sending rather than overwhelming them with rhetoric.
  3. In the middle of a negotiation, when the parties are exchanging offers, a successful negotiator is certainly making offers. But they are still surprisingly silent because they are trying to read the implicit messages buried in their counterpart’s concessions. If the counterpart concedes on issue A but not on issue B, does that mean B is more important? Only a silent negotiator would know.
  4. Toward the end of a negotiation, a successful negotiator is quiet because they are being patient. They know they haven’t quite achieved their goals. They’ve put the pressure on their counterpart and made an aggressive yet mutually beneficial offer, and they have the gall to wait out their counterpart rather than fold in a crumple of weakness.
  5. At the end of a negotiation, a successful negotiator is quiet because they’re not there. They’ve stepped away to use ratification on their counterpart’s supposedly final offer, thereby amassing leverage. Or to negotiate a concurrent deal, thereby amassing power. Or to sleep on it, thereby amassing wisdom.

In honor of the recent Oscars, then, let me tell you that the best negotiators in real life sound nothing like the best negotiators in the movies—at least the talkies. The best negotiators fade into the background, silently analyzing their way to a fantastic deal.

Negotiation lessons from the safety patrol

I recently volunteered to serve as safety patrolman for my neighborhood. In essence, this involved trolling around the neighborhood at night, making sure no one (i.e., no teenager) was breaking community rules (e.g., loitering at the community beach) or even breaking the law (e.g., defacing said beach).

Since my duties tended to bring the community’s interests (and my own) into conflict with the interests of others (i.e., teenagers), these duties introduced several opportunities to negotiate. Accordingly, the experience reminded me of several important negotiation principles, which I thought I’d share in the hope of making life more negotiable.

  1. Interrupting other peoples’ interests is not particularly pleasant. Who wants to act as the killjoy that spoils some lovestruck teenagers’ lovely evening on the pier, shining a flashlight right in the face of affection? Not me, nor many others I know. In general, I remembered that interests consisting of interrupting other people’s interests are not particularly pleasant to pursue. With that said…
  2. It’s easier when you’re representing others. While less than lovely to give some young lovers (or young tokers) the boot, it was made much easier by the underlying motive: I wasn’t being a killjoy of my own accord. I was doing the community’s bidding, essentially representing the will of several hundred people. In general, I remembered that representing other people often strengthens your resolve. What’s more…
  3. Symbols help. The job of patrolman does have some benefits. I got to drive around with a flashing orange light on my car and wear a flashy orange vest apparently stolen from the Village People. Ridiculous to me and anyone who knew me, these symbols were quite intimidating to teenagers, for whom they legitimized my annoying requests. Perhaps for this reason, the experience also reminded me that…
  4. Most people comply. Thankfully, precious few teenagers protested. Sure, there were the aspiring few negotiators who tried to convince me that they were, for example, “just enjoying the lighting show.” But even these enterprising young negotiators agreed to clear the beach, as per community rules, after a further request. Perhaps they realized that…
  5. It’s good to have an obvious and powerful alternative. Any lip from these teenagers and I had the community and county’s approval to reel in the long arm of the law (i.e., call the police). A strong alternative for me, albeit not one I was particularly eager to engage. A weak alternative for the teenagers, who would find themselves with a rap sheet before even completing their FAFSA.

These examples are probably a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the lessons are real. They highlight, once again, that negotiations truly surround us. And they reminded me—and can remind us all—that negotiating power comes from the surrounding situation at least as much as your prowess.

Responding to reviewers: Lessons from negotiation research

Those of us who write academic papers often describe the process of responding to reviewers as a negotiation, and a tough one at that. But is that just a handy metaphor or does the process of responding to reviewers really look anything like buying a car or requesting a raise? The answer matters because the latter possibility implies that the negotiation literature could actually teach us something useful about the review process.

I’m here to argue that responding to reviewers is, in essence, a negotiation. Thus, the negotiation literature does have something to teach us and can, in fact, make the review process more negotiable. I could write a book on the topic, and maybe someday I will. But now let me lay out five basic principles from negotiation research that can readily improve how we respond to reviewers:

  1. Concessions: When young scholars receive their first review, they often react in one of two ways. They either: a) fire offer a vitriolic response letter indicating how few of the reviewers’ brain cells are operable, or b) tear up the first draft of their own paper and start afresh. In other words, they tend to make no concessions or a ginormous concession. The research on concessions in negotiation suggests that neither response is optimal. Instead, the best concessions are real and meaningful but also not so huge as to undermine a person’s own interests. Better than either of the above responses, then, is to consider the reviewer’s comments carefully and make meaningful changes that reflect them, but never lose sight of your vision for the paper and thus lose control.
    2. Interests versus positions: Oftentimes, reviewers ask us to do things to our manuscripts that seemingly make no sense. In other words, they take positions that seem irreconcilable with our own. In these situations, we can take a cue from Getting to Yes, which advises us to focus on interests rather than positions. Much as the specific request a reviewer is making (“I’d like to see you do X”) might make little sense, the concern underlying the suggestion (the interest) is often substantially more valid. Moreover, once you understand it, you can often address it quite readily, albeit in a potentially different way—and your different way can often satisfy the reviewer even better.
    3. Listening and building trust: Acting as a reviewer, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is a response letter indicating that an author has not really read or considered my comments. They might’ve read and responded to the first half of a particularly important comment, for example, but neither said nor done anything about the second—hoping, perhaps, that I somehow miss the omission. Or they might’ve referred me to their answers somewhere else in the response letter—answers that I either can’t find or that don’t address the comment in question. As a reviewer, this has the effect of destroying my trust. I spent my own time trying to help an author, and here they are, the hot shot, signaling: “I’m not listening—I don’t care.” The research on trust in negotiation suggests that there is no better way to destroy a negotiation. As authors, we can do better, if only by always responding to every point every reviewer makes, even if we have to disagree or repeat some sentiments expressed elsewhere in a response letter.
    4. Asking questions: Oftentimes, a reviewer asks us to do something. We do something and say “here’s what I did.” There’s no dialogue: we assume we did what was requested, thank you very much, and we assume that the reviewer will obviously agree. Barring the obvious “drop the extra line break” or “make this heading italic” type comment, which don’t require much dialogue, why not at least occasionally ask the reviewer whether our response actually addressed his or her concern? Something like: “Here’s what I did. Did I address your comment sufficiently? If not, can you please let me know how to address it better?” Perhaps we think that avoiding such questions will prevent us from having to endure another round of reviews. (There’s gonna be one anyway.) Or perhaps we really don’t care whether the reviewer is pleased. (But if we’d better if want to see our ideas published.) Either way, asking questions seems like a worthwhile strategy (in moderation).
    5. Separating the people from the problem: Unfortunately, some reviewers are just downright nasty. Notwithstanding any of our own overtures to build trust or ask questions, they appear to despise not only our work but our entire selves. Or at least that’s what we gather from the tone of their reviews. Even more unfortunately, we often see such reviews as an excuse to respond in kind. We lose sight of the underlying goal and instead launch our own personal tirade. Or perhaps we even go behind the reviewer’s back and complain to the editor. Inappropriate as the reviewer’s behavior may be—and is—we just can’t respond in kind. Once again, Getting to Yes provides some guidance: “separating the people from the problem.” Despite the reviewer’s problem with us as people—and thus our problem with them—we have to find a way to detect the substance buried deep in their pile of poison, responding per points #3 and 4 regardless.

I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on responding to reviews. If I had a penny for every rejection…

Still, I do think these basic lessons from the negotiation literature can help us navigate the choppy waters of the review process, emerging at some port somewhere instead of sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Stop wasting food! Kids and contingency contracts

The world sometimes seems populated with two types of children: those who refuse to eat anything you put in front of them, and those who want to eat everything in the fridge—or at least say so. Previous posts have considered the former type, but I haven’t yet considered the latter. In the interest of getting 2017 off on a negotiable foot, I thought I’d consider the overeager eater now.

Consider the following, common pattern—not that I’ve experienced it recently or repeatedly. A young child, say four going on five, is offered an array of dinner options. She responds by saying: “I want pizza, apples, and a hotdog.” Now, the child speaks with such confidence that you can see she’s certain she will consume all of these foods. But you know—based on many or even innumerable prior experiences—that she will not. She’ll get halfway through the apples, freshly heated hotdog steaming on her plate, and say, “I’m full.”

Faced with this situation, the common impulse is to argue. “You won’t eat all that, little Petunia.” To which little Petunia will surely retort: “Yes I will!” And thus begins a pattern of disagreement and dissension that will carry all the way through dinner, spoiling everyone’s meal.

Luckily, negotiation research offers a better way: the contingency contract. In plain English, contingency contracts are bets about future events—agreements to be settled when the fickle hand of fate eventually casts its die. Negotiators use them when they disagree about an uncertain future event—next quarter’s sales figures, perhaps, or the performance of a particular piece of technology being purchased.

But can’t you, the frustrated parent, also use a contingency contract to deal with little Petunia’s obstinate insistence on the three dishes? Can’t you say something like: “Little Petunia dearest, I’ll heat up the pizza and cut up the apples for you, as requested. And I’ll take the hotdogs out of the fridge and place them right here next to the microwave. If I see you gobble up the pizza and apples and hear that you’re still hungry, why, then I’ll happily heat the dogs. It’ll take just a minute. But if you start feeling full sometime before the dogs, then I’ll return them to the fridge for future consumption.”

Voila! Based on Petunia’s sheer certainty that she will eat all three items, she should be more than happy to oblige, sure as she is that this solution will result in her eating the coveted hotdogs. And, given your comparable certainty that the apples will fully satiate her, you should be more than happy with this solution too, sure as you are that the dogs will go right back in the fridge, unspoiled and unwasted. That’s the great part about contingency contracts: both sides think they’ll get exactly what they want.

Of course, they won’t: the fickle hand of fate will cast the die. Petunia will either have room for the dogs or she won’t, and she’ll get what she initially wanted or you will. So one of you will eventually have to admit you were wrong. Seeing as the consequences of that admission are either a comfortably settled stomach or a fully satiated child, though, neither of you should be particularly unhappy with that admission. And both of you should be happy that you avoided pre-dinner warfare.

In short, contingency contracts offer useful end-runs around debates about the future. Faced with differing predictions, don’t waste time and energy arguing—no one ever wins. Instead, let the fickle hand of fate cast a die, then agree to settle up later.

Have you ever used a contingency contract, with a child or otherwise?