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.

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.