The five real meanings of “I can’t do that”

It’s your negotiation counterpart’s favorite phrase: “I can’t do that.” And it’s a discouraging phrase that most of us take at face-value, deeming our dreams as good as dashed. And sometimes we should, as it signifies the actual impossibility of our request.

But many times, we shouldn’t. Because, many times, it means something subtly but critically different. And here’s where we usually go wrong: We don’t recognize the many subtle meanings of the very same phrase, thereby rendering life less negotiable. So, the next time your negotiation counterpart says, “I can’t do that,” know that they might mean:

  1. I don’t want to do that. “Can’t” implies utter impossibility, total infeasibility, absolutely no way that could happen. Unfortunately, many of our negotiation counterparts actually mean “don’t.” As in, they don’t really feel like it. Since not really feeling like it is far less final than not being able, you’ve just discovered a golden opportunity to pry back the reasons for their reluctance. Are they concerned about the work required, precedents broken, approvals needed? Whatever it is, it’s possible you can address it (once you understand it).
  2. I can do that but don’t want you to know. It’s a sad fact of negotiation, and life more broadly. Sometimes people lie, or at least bluff. So saying they can’t is an exercise in flexible ethics meant to crush your dreams before they ever take flight. Luckily, a simple “Why?” is often enough to catch the underprepared bluffer red-handed and unable to answer convincingly.
  3. I won’t do that unless you do this. Sometimes, “I can’t” is less a lie than a gambit—an attempt to get something out of you before they comply. Luckily, a “What if I did X?” on your end can often turn the most non-negotiable issues negotiable.
  4. I can’t do that, but I can do this. Relatedly, negotiators sometimes say they can’t because they really can’t grant your super-specific request. But that particular can’t says nothing about their willingness to grant other, as-yet unmade requests. To see so for yourself, try an experiment the next time a wily HR negotiator tells you they “can’t” negotiate salary: Say ok, but ask whether they would give you something else you value for the given salary. Often, they will, which means they actually can negotiate salary—and have, by accepting your proposed tradeoff.
  5. I haven’t really thought about it. Sadly, some of our negotiation counterparts aren’t as astute or motivated as we are. We surface an idea, and it doesn’t sound much like the clunking of their mental machinery, so they reject us without really thinking it over. Here, your job as negotiator becomes to educate—to show them just how simple it would be for them to comply. Shown a simple way to say yes, many will, if only to be rid of you.

 The point is embarrassingly simple: “I can’t do that” is a popular phrase that you shouldn’t automatically accept at face-value. Maybe they really can’t—and so be it. But if it’s just that they “can’t,” then chances are you can find a way to eliminate the ‘t.

Negotiating the revision of academic articles

Anyone who writes research articles knows that responding to a revise and resubmit (R&R) decision is a negotiation between authors and reviewers. But it occurred to me recently, while working through a revision myself, that this is but when one of the many negotiations wrapped up in the revision process. Since an awareness of the other negotiations between and among the parties to a revision can make publishing negotiable, let’s consider five such negotiations:

  1. Editors with reviewers: Both action editors and reviewers generally read your paper. Since all are humans with unique perspectives, sometimes they disagree. When that happens, editors face an implicit negotiation with reviewers, born of the need to convey their own opinions to the authors without alienating the reviewers or minimizing their perspectives. Editors often resolve this negotiation through coded language, e.g., by suggesting that the authors focus on certain issues or by offering their own interpretation of a reviewer’s comment. Experienced authors learn to interpret their subtle signals.
  2. Authors among themselves: On the receiving end of a whole lot of requested revisions, the best-intentioned and most knowledgeable authors may still reach very different conclusions about the appropriate response. One author may see the need to follow the reviews to a T, collecting a boatload of data just to be sure, while others may wish to respond (more quickly) by arguing against the need for it. Thus, the authors face a negotiation amongst themselves—a negotiation that experienced authors expect and respect through its satisfactory conclusion.
  3. Authors with funders: To the extent that R&Rs request new data, they have a tendency to require more money. Thus, they also have a tendency to necessitate a negotiation between authors and funders—particularly their departments and external funding agencies. Experienced authors anticipate that and don’t hesitate to ask for more when they have to.
  4. Authors with theory and data: Whatever an R&R asks the authors to do, they cannot ethically disregard relevant theory or their own data. Sure, they can (and often should) challenge existing theory to make a contribution. Sure, they can (and often should) explore the review team’s hunches if their current or future data allow it (without pretending they hypothesized as much). But they cannot (and should not) disregard what is known or was predicted just to get published. Experienced authors know when to negotiate with theory or data and when to draw the line. Luckily, good editors respect and understand that.
  5. Editors with journals and managing editors: Least appreciated, perhaps, are the negotiations that action editors undertake with managing editors and editors-in-chief. Action editors with great articles that run long, challenge received wisdom, or miss the critical deadline, for example, may need to negotiate within the journal’s hierarchy for an exception. Experienced authors know that and try to minimize the amount of internal negotiating required to publish their article—or at least to give the action editor a strong case.

So revising an article is certainly a negotiation between authors and reviewers, as any reader of this or my previous post on this topic knows. But it’s a lot more negotiating than that, and experienced authors understand the complex web of negotiations involved in publishing their work. To the extent you wish to publish journal articles too, here’s hoping this post helps you wend your way through the web.

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.

What’s so hard about negotiating in organizations?

Negotiations in organizations have a tendency to go wrong. Requests for an exception get denied, proposals for the future get rejected, solutions to a problem get parked in the perpetual parking lot.

But why do so many of us find intra-organizational negotiating so hard? Put differently, is there something special about organizations that makes negotiations inside of them so difficult, or do difficulties like these simply reflect the difficulty of negotiating in general—the same types of challenges you’d face at the car dealer?

Having studied negotiation for 13 years and worked in organizations for longer, I’d suggest it’s the former. That is, I’d highlight a few special features of organizations that make negotiating within them a unique challenge. But luckily, knowing what they are can make organizational life more negotiable.

Consider five of the presumably most common reasons why negotiations in organizations fall flat. Specifically, imagine yourself making a particular request of your superiors. The request is likely to get rejected if it:

  1. Creates a perceived inequity: I recently noted how bosses who adopt a win-win mindset with their employees (e.g., by granting a special exception) sometimes create a win-lose inequity for the employees who don’t receive the exception. Well, the flip-side is that your win-win suggestion may do just that. To mitigate the issue, perhaps take the boss’s perspective before making the request?
  2. Doesn’t garner enough attention: It’s hard to redirect senior executives’ limited attention to anything outside the never-ending press of daily emergencies—especially unusual requests requiring less-than-immediate action. Add their limited attention to the risks of the telephone game, and you’ve got a recipe for inaction or outright rejection. To mitigate the issue, perhaps find a way to make your request especially vivid or enlist the help of someone who can call it to the executives’ repeated attention?
  3. Sets a bad precedent: One way for a boss to avoid creating inequity is to grant your request and then grant the same to everyone else. But what would the organization look like if everyone enjoyed the same privilege—the same three days of virtual work, personally crafted benefits plan, or personally reimagined expense policy? If mass chaos would ensue, a wise boss is unlikely to grant your request. To mitigate the issue, perhaps imagine what the organization would look like beforehand (applying something like the categorical imperative)?
  4. Calls a bad parallel to mind: Any experienced boss has heard every manner of request from employees. And inevitably, some of the granted requests have subsequently turned sour. Someone abused their virtual work, someone extracted crazy benefits and quickly quit, someone tried to get reimbursed for something you wouldn’t even purchase. If you’re unlucky enough to surface a request that calls such experiences to mind, you’ve got a tough slog ahead. The best I can suggest is stepping away to regroup, then reframing your request in starkly different terms than anyone’s ever requested before.
  5. Gets stuck in organizational inertia: Organizations show massive inertia—marching methodically down well-trodden paths oriented around well-established policies and procedures. If your request somehow cuts against the inertia or, worse yet, threatens to disrupt it, good luck! But perhaps your fundamental need could be accommodated within the confines of the existing policies and procedures?

In sum, on the basis of issues like these, I think it’s fair to say that negotiators face particular challenges in organizations. But hopefully an awareness of these challenges, coupled with the tentative suggestions above, provides at least the contours of a roadmap for diffusing intra-organizational challenges. Good luck!

Small wins: Or motivating kids to eat

High-stakes negotiations often go south when the parties perceive a lack of progress. Think trade-related brinksmanship, abandoned mergers, and athletes who walk away from failed contract extensions. In such situations, the absence of progress is decisive. For the same reason, though, the presence of small wins—tiny victories offering at least a glimmer of hope—can help avert disaster.

More immediately relevant to most of us, though, are negotiations that happen closer to home: negotiations, for example, with children who refuse to eat their darn food.

Here too, the lack of progress can lead to negotiation breakdown. And here too, the presence of small wins can make life negotiable. An anecdote to illustrate:

Suppose that I had two daughters and the younger of the two—let’s call her Penelope—was taking forever to eat her food and typically leaving most of it uneaten, day after day. Not that I do or she is. What would a despairing parent do?

Well, an increasingly insistent set of demands wouldn’t work: Penelope would just dig in her heels in the face of escalating parental frustration, trust me.

But what about creating some opportunities for small wins? What if Penelope, on a nightly basis, was actually failing to eat because she saw so little chance of finishing her entire meal and thereby getting the coveted cookie for dessert? Would small doses of dessert scattered throughout the meal serve as a stronger motivator than one big dose at the end?

And such I would decide to do with Penelope, if she was real and really resisting her meals. Specifically, I’d say that for every five bites of real food, she gets one small bite of the coveted cookie. And, lo and behold, it mostly worked…eh hem, would work.

Importantly, the strategy doesn’t involve any change in the reward structure—Penelope gets a whole cookie for a whole meal, regardless. So the strategy is less about upping the ante and more about instilling confidence in Penelope—specifically, the confidence that she can in fact make it to the next bite of cookie, seeing as it only lies three bites of pasta away, rather than a whole bowl.

Just as a president’s subtly positive statement can get a trade deal back on track, a subtly subdivided cookie can help avoid disaster at the dinner table—at least until the little negotiator requests the cookie after two rather than three more bites of pasta.

 

Our own worst enemy in negotiations II: Rushing to do a deal

I recently discussed a common way we defeat ourselves in negotiations: by rejecting our own proposals before we ever present them. But there’s another, potentially more common way that most of us undermine our negotiating prowess: By letting the great press of daily to dos rush us into negotiations without adequate contemplation or preparation. Since rushing into negotiations is sure to make life non-negotiable, let me highlight five of the biggest risks you’ll run by rushing to negotiate at the world’s dizzying pace:

  1. You’ll act out of passion: We all know never to email when emotional. Well, you should never negotiate either! Negotiations fundamentally arise when people’s interests misalign. By commenting on that misalignment without adequate thought, you’ll probably drive an even larger wedge between the parties.
  2. You’ll seem desperate: The best negotiators are fully comfortable with waiting the other side out. They never lose their cool if other person takes their sweet time, requesting some progress and thereby signaling their acute desire for a deal. Rush into a negotiation, and you’ll send the unhelpful signal you need an agreement more than they do.
  3. You’ll prevent your situation from improving: Real-world negotiations are dynamic phenomena unfolding in the context of shifting alternatives. Rush into a deal, and you’ll inherently prevent yourself from watching a better alternative roll in—an even better job offer, a more attractive price from another dealer, a nicer yet cheaper house.
  4. You’ll get a suboptimal deal done: Most of us rush into negotiations because we feel an irresistible pressure to get something done. The risk is that we will. That is, we risk prioritizing action over reasoned action, settling for a deal that is worse than our alternative or worse than not acting at all.
  5. You’ll spend a long time regretting what you’ve done: If any of the above happen as a result of your haste, you’re likely to spend a great deal of time, post-negotiation, regretting said haste. And if the goal was to get a deal done and move on with the great press of daily to dos, you’ll find your rumination accomplishing just the opposite.

In sum, most of us face unending pressure from the unyielding world to get things done. What the unyielding world doesn’t realize is this unending pressure makes us unsuccessful at the bargaining table. Resist the pull of immediate deal-making, and you might get some grumbles over your pace, but you won’t get any quibbles over your results.

Are kids better negotiators?

Does older mean wiser and better? In negotiations, the answer is far from clear. Indeed, as most parents can attest, kids are often surprisingly adept negotiators, displaying a plethora of negotiation skills their elders have long since forgotten. So in hopes of making parenthood and adulthood more negotiable, let’s unpack some of the long-forgotten secrets of our precious little negotiators:

  1. Sticking to their guns: Most kids have shockingly firm aspirations. Come hell or high water, they are going to get that toy, eat that junk food, or watch that particular show. In other words, they know how to fixate on their aspirations until they win! Since fixating on firm aspirations is a foundational negotiation skill that most adults have long since suppressed for social harmony, kids often succeed where adults fall short.
  2. Asking open-ended questions: My six-year-old Petunia’s favorite word is “why,” and she often utters it immediately after a nonnegotiable decree: Clean that mess, put your PJs on, eat that cereal—now! But here’s the interesting part: I don’t always have a good reason why that mess, those PJs, or that cereal really requires immediate attention. And my Petunia’s “why” quickly surfaces as much, which she quickly exploits. Long conditioned to comply with authority, most adults quash their curiosity and suppress their open-ended questioning, thereby settling for a plethora of suboptimal situations.
  3. Bartering: There’s nothing more natural to a kid than trading their candy, swapping their chores, or bartering their Christmas presents. To their own tremendous benefit, kids innately barter. For some odd reason—probably the prominence of monetary thinking in our own adult lives—most adults have long lost touch with bartering, as well as the creativity it requires (as described in my new book). So, most adults ignore or never really perceive the possibility of many trades that would improve everyone’s lot.
  4. Understanding alternatives: Kids innately understand everyone’s alternatives, and particularly their relative strength. For example, they know that if they cause a ruckus in a restaurant, the parents’ alternative of paying for an uneaten dinner and settling for rotten leftovers is worse than their own alternative of going home for free and enjoying some Kraft. Put differently, kids inherently understand their leverage. Perhaps chastened for their overly aggressive maneuvers in the past, most adults don’t see or don’t act on the leverage they have.
  5. Developing alliances: Kids don’t see the existence of two parents as a hindrance; they see their dual counterparts as an opportunity to divide-and-conquer. They know which parent is more inclined to give them soda, less inclined to mind their sloppy homework, or more inclined to forgive their misdeeds. So they naturally build an alliance with the more conciliatory parent in a given situation, entreating that parent to convince the other. Adults, perhaps aware of the social and political risks of alliances, seem less comfortable in building them.

In my opinion as a parent and professor, these are just a few of the many ways that kids tend to outperform adults in negotiations. Of course, adults generally have a good reason for their behavior: If they acted like a kid indiscriminately and across situations, they’d be kicked out of every social circle and organization. So the message is not to become a kid completely and at all times. It’s to recognize the true negotiations we face and use our cultivated wisdom to consider whether a small dose of childhood audacity might help.