Smash through the standoff! Introducing issues to unproductive negotiations

At some point, many negotiations spiral into an unproductive standoff over money—an issue over which the negotiators tend to utterly disagree. Most often, such standoffs end with an escalation of conflict or proliferation of concessions, neither of which is particularly productive. But, as I teach in my negotiation classes, there’s third way that can make life negotiable: adding another issue to the table.

“So what types of issues should we add?” asked a participant named Stuart Merkel in one of my recent executive education courses? “Is there a set of categories—a list of topics to consider adding to the table?” And I must admit that I was hard-pressed to provide a reasonable answer. I had no choice but to scratch my head and say no, to the best of my knowledge.

So why not take this post as an opportunity to detail the most common categories of issues that negotiators add to the table—new topics that can smash through the standoff and make everyone happier? Drawing from negotiation research and my observation of innumerable students negotiating, I’d propose the following top-ten list of issues to consider introducing, should you find yourself in a standoff:

  1. Time: How quickly will the agreement be executed?
  2. Quality: At what level of quality?
  3. Performance incentives: Will the seller get a bonus for completing the work / delivering the product early or excellently? Or a penalty for completing it tardily or poorly?
  4. Responsibilities: Which part of the agreement will each party be responsible for executing?
  5. Payment terms: How quickly, at what level of interest, and in what form will the buyer issue payments?
  6. Add-ons: What additional services or products will the seller bundle with the main commodity?
  7. Future business: After the current agreement, will either party consider or commit to engaging with the other?
  8. Future events and contingencies: How will the parties adjust for future events, foreseen or otherwise?
  9. Warranties: Will the seller guarantee the quality of the product or service, and for what period of time?
  10. Returns: Under what conditions will the buyer be able to change their mind?

So thanks, Stu, for the great idea—an idea that inspired a post that will hopefully help people break through the standoffs they’ll inevitably encounter eventually.

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Success as a steadily improving BATNA

How can you know your life is broadly successful? The question is often asked, but rarely from the perspective of negotiation research. So let me share an answer implicit in that research, an understanding of which can make life negotiable: you can measure success, in part, by the trajectory of your BATNA.

Huh? Let me explain.

BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, is your next best alternative to any particular negotiation. Put simply, it’s your plan B. In general, successful people tend to see the number and quality of their BATNAs steadily increasing over time. Just a couple quick examples:

  • Multiple job offers: The most successful people tend to have employers fighting for their services rather than the reverse. In other words, they have many alternatives to any particular job. Thus, they have the luxury of choosing the best option.
  • Multiple life choices: The most successful people have many choices about how to live their life. They can choose to continue working, as most of us must But they can also choose to take some time off, sail the world in a small schooner, or simply take a mental relaxation break. In other words, they have many alternatives to their current way of living.
  • Multiple friends and colleagues: The most successful people have many people, both friends and colleagues, beating a path to their door—whether to have a beer or start a project. In other words, they have many alternatives to the relationships they find less than fully enriching.

Across several definitions of success, then, the common denominator is a consistently improving BATNA. So if you’re looking for a way to measure your success, you might consider the trajectory of your BATNA.

Negotiating while the iron’s hot

In many negotiation situations, you have no choice about when to act. If your car breaks down, you’d better negotiate with the dealer. If your teenager brings home a biker, you’d better negotiate now.

In more negotiations than you think, though, you can actually choose when to negotiate. Since picking the right moment—the moment when you find the wind at your back—can make life negotiable, let’s consider some common examples.

Timing matters tremendously, for example…

  1. When you want a kid to do something. So you need your little Shnookums to clean up the 6,793 stuffed animals coating the family room floor? Should you ask them to do it before or after their dessert? While it might seem more logical to wrap up their dinner and wash their little hands first, they’ll probably be more motivated by a future rather than a past dessert.
  2. When you want to buy a car. So you want to buy a new car later this year? Should you try to buy it in the summer, when your bonus rolls in and your workload slackens? Or the fall / early winter, when the sellers are stressing to clear their lots for the new cars? I’d consider celebrating your New Years Eve at the dealer.
  3. When you want to buy a house. So you want to buy a house in a hot market? Should you lowball the seller with an aggressive offer, knowing that they’ll get 12 better alternatives? Or make a reasonable offer now and ask for concessions later, as the inspection report and appraisal turn up the inevitable curveballs? You’ll probably get farther with the latter.
  4. When you want a coworker to support you. So you have an urgent idea and would love your coworker to support you? Should you ask them right now, before you forget? Or next week, after you’ve found yourself on the same side of a separate issue? The answer is pretty obvious, albeit overlooked often.
  5. When you want a customer service agent to help you. So you want a customer service agent to reverse that fee? Should you come out demanding it the moment she answers? Or wait until you’ve patiently provided your information and asked about her day? Since everyone else has probably tried the former, you might as well give the latter a go.

So timing matters tremendously, and here’s hoping that helps you the next time.

Influencing by volunteering

In organizations, tasks often arise that no one really needs or wants to do. An agenda needs to be developed; a Google doc needs to be compiled; a memo needs to be written. If it doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s job description or fall squarely onto anyone’s plate, getting it done obviously requires someone to take the initiative.

Sometimes, someone volunteers—presumably out of goodwill or a desire to take this task rather than the next one. At least as often, though, a whole lot of people play musical chairs in hopes of quickly finding a seat. Even setting aside the goodwill or desire to avoid the next task, though, these opportunities offer an often overlooked opportunity to make life negotiable.

To see how, let’s take a brief walk through the world of negotiation research.

Taking such a walk, you’ll quickly encounter the first offer effect: the finding that the person who makes the first offer tends to better achieve their objectives. Dig deeper into the effect, and you’ll find that it’s grounded in one of the most robust findings in all of psychology: anchoring, or our tendency to make ambiguous judgments by focusing on whatever information happens to be before us at judgment-time. First offers matter because the second offerer uses them as a point-of-reference.

What in the world does this have to do with organizational tasks? Well, taking the initiative often amounts to making the first offer. In other words, avoiding the inclination to play musical chairs often allows you to put your own stamp on the agenda, the Google doc, the memo. Since somebody has to develop the agenda (which will inevitably influence the topics and their order), somebody has to compile the Google Doc (which will inevitably influence the facts considered and how), and somebody has to write the memo (which will inevitably influence its tone), it might as well be you. That way, you’ll claim at least some of the organizational influence so many people claim to eagerly covet.

Now, like any advice based on any decision-making bias (e.g., anchoring), you’ll have to use this one with extreme ethical caution. While it’s true that somebody has to do the stuff above, if you do it with devious intentions, you’ll not only curtail your influence—you’ll eliminate any semblance of goodwill. So don’t omit a key item from the agenda, key fact from the Google Doc, or key finding from the memo (for example).

And you’ll obviously have to be selective, volunteering for the tasks where you care rather than everything that crosses the transom.

Act ethically and choose selectively, though, and you may find your influence starting to wax. Because the fact remains that somebody has to do it. If you care about it and can find the time, it might as well be you.

Declaring yourself a negotiation superhero—By considering your plan B

Worried about an upcoming negotiation? Dreading the back-and-forth? The fast ones your counterpart is sure to pull when you’re not looking? Well, don’t fear: here’s a research-based suggestion that can make negotiations negotiable: actively thinking about your BATNA.

I’ve repeatedly discussed the importance of BATNA: your Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement, or simply your Plan B. As noted by me and countless other negotiation researchers, having and knowing and improving your BATNA lets you walk away from an unproductive negotiation. Less appreciated, I think, is the way that actively thinking about your BATNA before a negotiation can steel you for some upcoming bargaining—at least when your BATNA is decently attractive.

To see what I mean, imagine you’re about to talk to a flooring contractor who is likely to quote you an unattractive price. Imagine further that you have another decent quote in-hand, and you’d like to get your flooring upgraded but really don’t need to. You detest negotiation in general—and especially with pushy salespeople. Accordingly, you’re dreading the upcoming interaction and secretly hoping he calls to cancel.

In this situation, most people are so consumed with worry that they simply forget about their BATNA. Somewhere in the back of their brains, they know that they can always walk away from an overly pushy contractor, but they don’t actively focus on the fact that this guy is just one minor blip in a long list of potential next steps.

But why not?

Why not stop, forget about the pushy contractor, and refocus on the fact that you don’t really need this guy’s flooring, or really any flooring at all? Thinking like that, you’ll realize that it’s the pushy contractor who should be nervous: It’s he who stands to lose a large chunk of change if you don’t like his proposal—he who’d better fear the formidable you and your ability to bolt. Thinking like that, you can confidently place your hands on your hips, puff out your chest, and declare yourself a negotiation superhero.

So the next time you’re fearing an upcoming negotiation, stop thinking about it! And refocus on the fact that you don’t really need it, that you have a plan B.

It’s a powerful strategy but comes with two obvious caveats: First, it obviously falls flat if your BATNA is bad. If your foot is falling through to the basement and all alternative quotes are unbearably expensive, it clearly won’t really help to consider them (though we often vastly overestimate the unattractiveness of our alternatives). Second, it’s not a great idea to keep thinking about your BATNA when the guy actually appears at your doorstep. Instead, as noted elsewhere, you should shift your attention toward your target when negotiating and only return to your BATNA at the end.

So let this be the beginning of the end of your negotiation fears! Our alternatives are often far better than we think, if we really think about them—and we should.

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.

Don’t let ‘em get you down! Getting past the barriers to customer service negotiations

In many of our negotiations with companies—the fee-charging bank, formidable cable company, irascible airline—our toughest challenge is not the negotiation itself. It’s getting to a negotiation in the first place. The fact is, many companies just don’t want to negotiate with you—the formidable you—because they know they just might lose if they do. So many companies have devised elaborate methods of preventing a negotiation from ever happening. Since overcoming the most common of these barriers is the only way to make customer service negotiable, let’s consider a rundown:

  1. Bottomless email pits: A favorite tactic of the irascible airlines, particularly my old friend “Reunited,” many companies set up elaborate online forms to email them, then seemingly send your email right to the recycling bin. At least it appears that way, since you never get a reply (other than the obligatory “We promise to reply”). Still, getting to a negotiation often requires you to try, perhaps repeatedly.
  2. Buried phone numbers: Another favorite of the irascible airlines relates to the phone number. Put simply, many companies make finding the relevant number just slightly easier than finding the Holy Grail. Getting to a negotiation requires you to look doggedly hard, often clicking down some extremely esoteric paths.
  3. Labyrinthine menus. Once you finally find the phone number, it’s nearly unthinkable to connect with a person directly. The formidable cable company, for example, often sends you into an overwhelming thicket of menu prompts, none of which relate to your need (ever). Getting to a negotiation may require you to hit zero incessantly, shout “representative!” repeatedly, or just wait a very long time. To that point…
  4. Endless wait times: Have you ever called a customer service line and found the call volume to be unusually low? A favorite of the fee-charging bank, I would surmise it’s a tactic to cool your negotiation jets, the hope being that a sizable number of customers will give up and hang up. But you can’t!
  5. Hapless front-line representatives: I’m quite certain I’m not the only person who usually finds the representative who eventually answers the phone either unable or unwilling to negotiate. It could be a coincidence or a lack of training. Or it could be a subtle way of curtailing your negotiable hopes and dreams. Getting to a real negotiation often requires you to get to someone who knows what they’re talking about and/or can do what you’re talking about.

So don’t let them get you down! Chances are you’ll be feeling quite up once you eventually surmount the barriers and find yourself negotiating.