Better meetings now: Agendas as first offers

As I and many other negotiation researchers have observed, it often makes sense to make the first offer in negotiations—more sense than most of us suppose or most of the random websites on negotiation suggest.

As I’ve argued throughout my writings on negotiation, however, the lessons of negotiation research are far from confined to formal negotiations. Instead, much of life becomes more negotiable when we construe it as a negotiation and apply the appropriate lessons. Here, let me tackle one particularly nettlesome aspect of organizational life—the meeting—suggesting that we can reasonably construe meetings as negotiations and apply the research on first offers to make them more negotiable.

If you define negotiation simply, as strategically managing situations in which you depend on others to achieve your goals, it’s easy to see why many meetings are negotiations. We go into many meetings with a purpose (if not, we might want to find a way out). And we presumably approach that purpose through a meeting because we depend on the other attendees to achieve it (if not, we might want to spend our time meeting with someone else). So at least when we go to meetings to solicit other people’s cooperation or participation, our meetings are negotiations.

Likewise, if you conceive of first offers simply, as opening gambits and not necessarily dollar amounts nor wild and aggressive demands, it’s easy to see meeting agendas as first offers. An agenda is simply the gambit that attendees use to understand the topics under discussion and plan their reactions. And that’s exactly what first offers do in negotiations—inform the other side what’s being negotiated and anchor their responses.

With that background in mind, could the features of effective first offers help us devise more effective agendas? I’d venture they could. Consider the following five features of an effective first offer in negotiations, all of which apply analogically to agendas:

  • Ambitious: The best first offers are not outrageous, but they’re ambitious. They map out the best-case scenario from your perspective. Likewise, the most effective agendas map out the full set of topics you’d like to cover, in the right order, and none of the topics you don’t. The meeting will go where it goes, but your agenda should anchor how much it covers and how far it strays.
  • Precise: The best first offers are not round numbers but precise figures (with some important caveats). That way, the offerer looks smart and the offer justified. Likewise, the most effective agendas don’t list vague topics like “status update.” They list precise topics to be covered by specific people.
  • The product of careful preparation: The best first offers don’t fly off the lips of the offerer in a flurry of over-exuberance. Rather, they reflect the output of a very deliberate plan born of very careful preparation. Likewise, effective agendas are devised slowly, through a process of careful deliberation and often preliminary consultation.
  • Firm then flexible: The best first offers are not wishy-washy nor presented in the form of a range (again, with some important caveats). In particular, they’re firm during the offering and flexible later, as the need for concessions or conversations about other issues becomes apparent. Likewise, the most effective agendas are very specific as to the intended topics, but their creators harbor no illusions that the meeting will go exactly as listed, nor do they want to. Rather, they appreciate and anticipate the importance of flexibility and improvisation as the discussion evolves.
  • Offered first: As implied by the name, first offers come before anyone else’s offer (though not necessarily “first thing,” as people sometimes suppose). That’s why they anchor the discussion that follows. Likewise, the most effective agendas aren’t whipped up and sent out in the minutes before the meeting. They’re distributed far enough in advance to preclude the possibility that anyone co-opts the discussion or proposes a counterproductive agenda instead.

Meetings are undoubtedly among the hardest features of organizational life to negotiate. So no guarantees that treating meetings as negotiations and agendas as first offers will suddenly make them negotiable. But I hope that conceiving of meetings as negotiations and agendas as first offers starts to anchor your meetings around productive conversations rather than unproductive status updates.

In defense of the quid pro quo

There have been better historical moments to advocate for the quid pro quo. And I’m certainly not supporting its usage in the circumstances being considered by Congress (see below). But the recent, public demise of the quid pro quo is all the more reason it deserves a public defender. Since seeing and approaching negotiations through the lens of a quid pro quo can make life negotiable, let me try my hand.

The essence of the argument is this: Understood appropriately, as giving something in exchange for getting something, the quid pro quo is a far better way of approaching negotiations than the way we usually do. Consider three of the quid pro quo’s finest features:

  1. Balance: Implicit in the quid pro quo is the idea that both parties to a negotiation must benefit, ideally in equal measure. That’s exactly what we spend most of a negotiation class teaching the students to appreciate, as opposed to nearly everyone else’s assumption that the goal of a negotiation is to trounce the other side royally. And once the students appreciate that one simple fact, they suddenly find negotiation substantially more fruitful and substantially less hostile.
  2. Difference in kind: The literal meaning of quid pro quo is “something for something.” The beauty of the double somethings is that they allow for the two sides’ benefits to differ in kind. In other words, quid pro quo’s inherently allow for tradeoffs in which each party gets something different from a deal—ideally, whatever they want the most. This is yet another foundational lesson we seek to impart to aspiring negotiators, as opposed to nearly everyone else’s assumption that the goal of a negotiation is to focus on just one issue—typically money. Understood as the opportunity for mutually-beneficial tradeoffs across multiple issues, negotiations suddenly start spitting out many intriguing and unexpected possibilities. (More on this in my book, The Bartering Mindset, if you’re in the mood for a quid pro quo).
  3. Separation in time: As we’ve all learned from our TVs or streaming devices of late, the two parts of a quid pro quo do not necessarily happen at the same time. When that becomes possible—when negotiators entertain solutions in which each delivers when they’re ready or best equipped as opposed to right now—the range of potential agreements expands exponentially. The parties can agree, for example, to pay up when one side has the money, to update an agreement in response to a future event, or to reciprocate at a specific and crucial moment in the future. Those possibilities pretty obviously expand the solution set.

These are just a few of the quid pro quo’s finest features. Appreciate and implement them, and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll negotiate far better. But if quid pro quos are so fantastic, why have they suffered such a precipitous public demise? Let me play the part of Switzerland on the specifics but simply observe that the debate has revolved around the way the quid pro quo was used. In particular, some have argued that the specific quid pro quo in question:

  1. Was unethical or illegal: Some would claim that one or more of the somethings in question violate widely shared societal norms, ethical principles, or laws.
  2. Involved a power imbalance: Some would claim that the quid pro quo in question didn’t meet the balance criterion above because one of the parties was vastly more powerful than the other, crowding out the other’s ability to reject an imbalanced deal (and possibly any deal at all).
  3. Created unacceptable collateral damage: Some would claim that the potentially win-win quid pro quo at the bargaining table created an unacceptable win-lose for parties away from the table—parties like ambassadors and citizens of small Eastern European (or large North American) nations.

So here’s the key point: The problem with a quid pro quo is not the quid pro quo per se. The quid pro quo, in veritas, is actually a commendable negotiation philosophy, de facto. The problem with the quid pro quo, as with most philosophies in life, is when it’s applied in the wrong circumstances. Ergo, say what you will about recent public events, but please don’t knock the quid pro quo.

The five silent strategies of highly successful negotiators

When most of us think of negotiating, we think of talking. So most of us might be surprised to learn that five critical negotiating tactics do not involve talking at all—they involve complete silence. Since understanding the five silent strategies of highly successful negotiators can make life negotiable, let’s consider what they are:

  1. Preparing: One of the most important negotiation strategies involves the silent use of a pen. Few tactics predict negotiation success better than the adequacy of a negotiator’s preparation—particularly the extent to which they quietly document and internalize the elements of the BRAIN acronym.
  2. Waiting: The worst negotiators get antsy when their counterpart or an organizational decision-making process hasn’t yet produced a reply to their proposal. So they all-too-eagerly follow up with the other side or, worse yet, make an immediate and unprompted concession. The best negotiators don’t do that: They silently and patiently await a reply, thereby signaling how little they need one.
  3. Listening: It might not surprise you to learn that the best negotiators listen, silently closing their one mouth to open their two ears. Or that doing so holds multiple benefits like letting the other side vent, share their interests, or offer tacit ideas on how to meet them. Unfortunately, it surprises most negotiators themselves, who spend the majority of their time with their one mouth open and two ears closed.
  4. Walking: Sure, this strategy doesn’t involve complete silence. The other side might hear your feet receding or the door latching. But the quasi-silent strategy of leaving the table is crucial, as it offers several invaluable opportunities: particularly the opportunity to check with someone else, compare a potential deal against your best alternative, or execute your best alternative if it’s better.
  5. Holding back: The best negotiators have a far richer inner monologue than their spoken words reveal. They mentally ponder whether a particular deal is better than their bottom-line, whether to share a sensitive piece of information, or whether their counterpart has a screw or two loose. But they silently suppress such thoughts, lest their negotiations go seriously off-track.

Sure, these silent strategies comport little with our image of the mythical negotiator. Still, I can tell you that negotiation research and the repeated observations of a humble negotiation professor fully support their effectiveness. So here’s to you, the silent but highly-successful negotiators among us.

Negotiating Better by Negotiating like a Barterer

On a recent wintry weekend, for the lack of a better option, my daughters and I visited “Ridley’s Accept it or Else.” Our excitement over this museum of the odd must’ve been obvious, as the receptionist immediately offered a three-attraction combo ticket.

“And what does that include?” I inquired.

“All our weird and wacky attractions,” she said, “along with the marvelous house of mirrors and the exhilarating 4-D motion theater.”

“Are all those appropriate for a six- and three-year-old?” I probed.

“Oh yes, there’s nothing scary here.”

I should’ve known better. But on this, our first visit to Ridley’s, I wanted to show my ragamuffins a good time. So I bought it.

And I’ll admit it: We lapped up their weird and wacky attractions. From locks of Lincoln’s hair, to a shrunken head, to a T-Rex made of pop tart wrappers, we relished some of the world’s oddest oddities.

But then came the marvelous house of mirrors. A pitch-black maze of mirrors from which several world-renowned explorers have never escaped, it wasn’t so marvelous for my three-year-old. It propelled her into a state of abject fear.

And so, when we somehow escaped and approached the exhilarating 4-D motion theater, she wouldn’t even consider it. Nor could I blame her given the signs about sudden movements and sharp drops.

Appropriate for a six- and a three-year-old? The former maybe, the latter absolutely not.

In sum, none of us really enjoyed the mirrors, and none of us even tried the theater. So I was irritated and wanted money back. And my daughters’ impending hunger and extreme fatigue made me want it now.

Operating under the visceral influences of irritation, hunger, and fatigue, I must admit I adopted a negotiation style that my book explicitly criticizes: the monetary mindset. Specifically, I marched up to the receptionist, told her what I thought of her sales tactics, and demanded some money back. In so doing, I was treating this negotiation like a monetary transaction, making the unproductive assumptions that:

  • I wanted just one thing (a big rebate)
  • I was negotiating with just one person (the receptionist)
  • She wanted just the opposite (no rebate)
  • For me to win, she’d have to lose
  • Or else we’d have to compromise

“Let me call my supervisor,” said the receptionist, followed shortly after the call by, “We can’t give you any money back.”

Most people’s story stops right there. They adopt the monetary mindset, fight over a fixed pie, and march out of Ridley’s with little or nothing but frustration to show for it.

To the receptionist’s extreme credit, though, she attached another statement to the last: “But we can offer you our latest book on Ridley’s oddest oddities.”

Now, I doubt the receptionist was thinking quite so strategically, but this statement epitomizes the approach my own book actually recommends: the bartering mindset. In offering the Ridley’s book, she was treating this negotiation like bartering trade, making the much more productive assumptions that:

  • She wanted and could offer several things (e.g., my future business and the book, respectively)
  • She was negotiating with several people (my souvenir-hungry daughters in addition to myself)
  • I wanted and could offer several things too (e.g., to satisfy my daughters and visit Ridley’s again, respectively)
  • For her to succeed, I’d have to feel like a winner too
  • Which we could achieve by exchanging the book for no hard feelings about the initial scam

In sum, the receptionist compensated for her earlier sketchiness by adopting a highly productive negotiation strategy that treated the situation like bartering trade, i.e., by assuming the bartering mindset. Awakened from the visceral influences of irritation, hunger, and fatigue by her sophisticated response, I shed my own unproductive monetary mindset, accepted the book gratefully, and publicly promised my daughters to return to Ridley’s soon. And don’t think they’ll forget it.

Just a funny story to introduce my new book, The Bartering Mindset, which will help you grapple with many of life’s challenges—including the substantially more serious. I hope you’ll join me in learning to negotiate like a barterer.

Should I negotiate despite a certain no?

As my last post suggested, the first clue you might want to negotiate instead of settling for a suboptimal outcome is dissatisfaction with the status quo. But what if that dissatisfaction is accompanied by absolute certainty that the other party will reject any alternative proposal? Surely you shouldn’t negotiate when you’re certain the other party will say no. Or should you?

You should at least consider it. Indeed, for reasons like the following five, negotiating in the face of a certain no is one of the least appreciated and most powerful ways to make life negotiable:

  1. You make a deposit in the no bank: Most people don’t like being disagreeable all the time—even stubborn people and your organization’s biggest bureaucrats. So every no they give you creates a liability in their psychological no bank—an increasingly acute sense that they should probably repay your persistence with a yes at some point. Put simply, the more no’s a particular person gives you, the higher the probability they’ll give you a yes the next time.
  2. You learn about the other side: In the process of saying no, some naysayers will grace you with a why not. That is, they’ll tell you why it’s so difficult to agree to this particular proposal. And the why not often contains some of the most critical information you’ll ever receive in an organization. Knowing that requests framed a particular way or lacking a particular individual’s blessing don’t succeed in this firm will surely make you savvier the next time.
  3. You might get a no on that but a yes on something else: In the process of saying no, other naysayers may grace you with a but. That is, they’ll say no to your main request but spontaneously offer to do something else that still solves your problem. And at the end of the day, who cares how they solve your problem!?! As long as they do, you’re golden.
  4. You communicate the importance of the issue: Negotiation is not just a process for attaining your goals. It’s a form of communication by which you inform the people around you what you really care about. Ask your superiors about a particular issue enough times and the good ones among them are likely to process your passion for the issue and find a way to work with you the next time it matters.
  5. You’re never actually certain. Sure, you might feel certain about an impending no. But humans being human beings, they often utterly surprise us—particularly by gracing us with an unexpected yes. Maybe they’re feeling unusually cheery today, trying to honor their New Year’s resolution to act agreeably, or hoping to lower the liabilities in their favor bank. Or maybe they just chickened out with the no on the tip of their tongue. Whatever the cause of their shocking amenability, you can be certain that you’re never as certain as you think.

But wait—am I encouraging you, via these points, to negotiate everything all the time? No, as my previous post makes clear, I’m not. All I’m saying in the current post is that the expectation of a no is not a sufficient reason to abandon the possibility of a negotiation. Sometimes a no is just a way-station on the long and winding road to yes.

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.

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.