Proactive concessions: A secret weapon for making life negotiable

Peruse The Art of the Deal or a negotiation book like that, and you’re likely to encounter some advice like this: “Never concede unless you have to!” And that mindset sorta makes sense if you think that all negotiations consist of competitive battles with slimy car dealers.

But my posts have consistently sought to convince you that negotiations are a lot more common than that. We negotiate anytime we depend on someone else to achieve our objectives, meaning essentially all day long. And in many of our negotiations, the advice to avoid conceding is just wrong—so wrong that I’d actually advise you to do the opposite by racing to concede first. Proactive concessions, I submit, can make life more negotiable.

To see what I mean, consider the following negotiation that we rarely consider one: a work project in which you and a team member—let’s call her Judy—have much different visions about a collective project. By making a proactive concession…

  1. You get to choose the issue: If you wait for Judy to concede, you might find yourself reciprocally conceding on a really important issue. If she backs down from a January deadline to something later, for example, you’ll probably have to back down from a December deadline to something sooner, even if anything sooner seems impossible. But if you beat Judy to the concession, you might be able to avoid a concession on deadlines entirely, backing down on some other issue that you care about less—who’s responsible for what, perhaps.
  2. You generate felt reciprocity: If Judy concedes first, you’re on the psychological hook to concede something in return. And that’s not where you want to be in the midst of a contentious negotiation, particularly if you’ve already arrived at your bottom line. If you concede first, however, you’ve got a chip to cash in when it’s time to talk turkey.
  3. You generate trust: If Judy concedes first, she’s sitting there stewing over the need to work with a stubborn meany. If you concede first, she’s sitting there realizing that you’re surprisingly reasonable and potentially even worthy of trust.
  4. You dictate the size of your subsequent concessions: If Judy makes a big concession on the deadline issue—say January to May—and thus basically forces you to back down from December to August, you can bet both parties will be arriving at a June 15th compromise in no time. If you concede first and make a small concession on the deadline issue—say December to November—you set the tone that your subsequent concessions will be smaller (as concessions usually are). Thus, you’re less likely to lose your summer vacation.
  5. You get to send a signal: If Judy moves first, you may or may not learn anything about her preferences. If you move first, you get the chance to explain your preferences in a subtle but potent way: “Anything earlier than December is impossible, Judy, but I’m happy to take responsibility for writing the initial draft if it helps.” With that simple statement, you’ve not only conceded on who does what (with all of the associated benefits); you’ve also signaled to the formidable Judy that dates are more important.

In sum, concessions are routinely underappreciated and often flat-out denigrated. But smart negotiators know that proactive concessions offer a potent strategy for setting the tone and steering the conversation—a secret weapon for making life negotiable.

What can moms teach us about negotiation?

Today being devoted to mothers, we might consider what our mothers can teach us about negotiation. Everyone’s mom being different, it’s far from an easy task. But I’d venture that many of our moms display a few simple attributes that, should we choose to emulate them, can serve us well at the bargaining table and beyond. In short, I’d like to suggest that emulating the following five features of many of our moms can make life more negotiable:

  1. Patient: Moms endure a never-ending stream of challenges from their kids. But many seem to do so with patient resolve, quietly awaiting the day when we stop dropping food and start using our $^%^*^& plate. As I’ve said before, patience is one of the best negotiators’ least appreciated virtues.
  2. Calm: Even while we drop our spaghetti, then our meatballs, then our milk, many moms remain remarkably calm. Sure, the milk tests their nerves more than the meatballs, and the meatballs more than the spaghetti. Sure, we can even detect a slight edge on the fifth straight night of food-dropping. But somehow, many moms remain strangely serene, even while we push all of their buttons, and then some. Negotiators would do well to do the same, never letting their counterparts’ emotions or maneuvers dictate their own reactions.
  3. Caring: If many moms are just one thing, it must be caring. Many moms’ wellspring of caring for their own kids runs deep, so deep that it usually even endures the teenage years. Put in their position, I’d bet that few of us could do the same. But most of us must do the same when we negotiate, as we pretty much have to show some concern for our teenager of a counterpart to find a mutually-satisfactory solution.
  4. Prepared: Most of us need an app to stay on top of our own schedules and to-do lists. Somehow, many moms are intuitively prepared to manage the schedules and to-dos of an entire family unit with the precision of a military commander. Somehow, they keep the exact time it takes to get to soccer, the exact amount of peanut better our sister prefers, and the exact dosage of children’s Tylenol in their head at the same time. In a word, they’re always prepared—as are the best negotiators.
  5. Firm: Many moms are soft and sweet, but not entirely so. They also know how to draw a bright red line in the sand. Should we dare to cross it? Hell hath no fury. Put simply, many moms have a firm bottom line, and they know what to do if and when we foolishly decide to cross it. Likewise, the best negotiators remain forever cognizant of their bottom line, never failing to exercise plan B if they have to.

In short, many moms can teach us a great deal about negotiation, should we choose to reflect on their positive attributes and link them to our own lives, personal and professional. For this and so many other reasons, happy Mother’s Day.

The classroom as a negotiation

Being a good teacher is no easy task, never easily reduced to a soundbite. And I’m far from the authority on pedagogy. Nevertheless, I think I’ve discovered a reasonably important practice that most decent teachers use at least implicitly: negotiating some aspects of a class and never negotiating others. So, in this post, let me try to make teaching slightly more negotiable by offering some observations on the aspects of a class that good teachers treat versus don’t treat as negotiations.

Good teachers, in my view, consider negotiating:

  1. Explanation of concepts: Excellent instructors know what they want to say and how they want to say it. But they’re also flexible on the means by which they convey their message if the students aren’t getting it. In other words, they show the willingness or even eagerness to explain themselves differently or at least repeatedly.
  2. Exploration of concepts: Sometimes, students wish to take a discussion in a totally different direction. And sometimes, that direction is counterproductive, so I don’t take the bait. But oftentimes, the direction they wish to go is constructive and interesting. Examples of potentially productive diversions might include: “How does principle A apply in other cultures?” “Does principle B still apply if C happens?” “I’ve experienced principle D in way E at work.” If the students want to stretch or test their understanding in a thoughtful and productive way, I’m usually more than happy to go there.
  3. Midcourse corrections: I’ve found that the best instructors not only ask the students halfway through a course how it’s going. They also actually act on whatever the students say. Indeed, it never fails to amaze me when the students say they’ve never seen an instructor make a midcourse correction. This resistance is somewhat understandable, as it’s not realistic or even productive to overhaul a whole course right in the middle. But I’ve found that students often have some very simple midcourse requests, which I can often satisfy rather easily. For example, they often ask for a little more information on X, and, lo and behold, I often have a little more information X handy. They really appreciate it.

But good teachers, in my view, don’t usually negotiate:

  1. Grades: I start my negotiation class by telling the students that nearly everything in life is negotiable except for their grades in this class. And I mean it, because one step down the path of negotiating grades with one student means an endless stream of students, all of whom want to apply their newfound negotiation skills in my office. It’s not sustainable nor equitable to the students who actually heeded my message.
  2. Core methodologies or course objectives: Instructors know best what they need to teach and how they need to teach it to ensure student learning. And it’s their job to teach it that way even if a few students gripe. Thus, while I always remain open to ways of refining the methodology or material, I never consider deviating from the core learning objectives or central methodology. If a student wishes to learn negotiation without actively negotiating on a weekly basis, for example, they won’t do well in my negotiation class.
  3. Experience versus evidence: Many of the evidence-based lessons taught in a negotiation class (and other classes) are counterintuitive. “What, it’s better to make the first offer?” And it’s good thing they’re counterintuitive, because what’s the point of the class otherwise? But some students just can’t stomach any evidence that doesn’t fit with their experiences. “But what about my random experience Y?” While it’s certainly true that every piece of evidence will not fit every experience that every individual has had—and more research to broaden the reach of the evidence is always welcome—I don’t let myself negotiate on the value of evidence versus random experiences. In other words, I don’t respond by saying “Well, maybe the evidence is wrong then.” Doing so, in my view, undermines my purpose as a conveyor of science. And I’ve discovered that the other students—everyone except the person with the random experience—don’t much like it either. “Who cares about that guy’s experience? I’m here to learn something new!”

In sum, good instruction is a complex and multifaceted matter. But thinking critically about which aspects of the classroom to treat as a negotiation and which to never negotiate can make teaching significantly more negotiable. A gold star to any of my students who read this and either validate my points or put me to the test!



What’s up, doc? Negotiating in healthcare

Most of us spend more on healthcare than we’d like to—more, in some cases, than our annual car or mortgage payments. That being the case, why do we spend so much time negotiating the terms of our cars and houses, and so little the terms of our healthcare?

Frankly, the negotiation professor in me just doesn’t know. From my perspective, a few simple principles from the research literature on negotiation can make our healthcare much more negotiable. Just a few illustrative examples:

  1. Setting high aspirations. Negotiation research consistently shows that those who set and stick to aggressive goals tend to achieve better outcomes. With respect to our own bodies, though, I suspect many of us are dissuaded from our goal of ideal health when a well-intentioned doctor tell us “there’s nothing wrong,” or “you’re just fine,” even when we know there is and we’re not.
  2. Reiterating our core interests. Negotiation research shows that the most effective negotiators are those who hew to a consistent script—reiterating their core problem or motivation as consistently and repeatedly as possible. This seems particularly important in healthcare, when we often have to answer the very similar questions of a seemingly endless series of people. On a visit to the ER, for example, we might have to state our symptoms to the front desk, triage nurse, attending nurse, doctor, radiologist, and so it goes. The more consistent our message to each person, even in response to slightly different turns-of-phrase, the better our chances of proper treatment.
  3. Cultivating an alternative: The best negotiators always develop an alternative possibility—another car or house they’d be willing to buy, for example. Negotiating the terms of an alternative affords them power in their primary negotiation but also, importantly, helps them learn about whatever they’re negotiating. What price should I really offer for my preferred Corvette? Some of us cultivate an alternative in healthcare by obtaining a second opinion. But I suspect that some of us don’t because we think the doctor will get offended. Assuming we’re at least as motivated to learn about our health as our cars, I’d suggest we should.
  4. Asking questions: The best negotiators ask a lot of questions. Indeed, they probably use their listening ears more than their speaking lips. Well, few contexts are quite as rife for questions as the cryptic explanation of benefits. $392.54 for an octowhatgraphy with Dr. Whosehisname? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that calling the insurance company and asking about it not only helps me mitigate confusion. It also turns up quite a few clerical errors that end up saving me money.
  5. Just asking: Asking a lot of questions is great, but even more basic is asking in the first place. The best negotiators are those who simply ask for whatever they need or want rather than expecting their counterpart to guess. But I suspect that few of us really ask for what we want in healthcare, mainly because we think we can’t—especially with a high-status doctor across the table. Lower prices, less invasive procedures, fewer unnecessary appointments: it’s all worth an ask if it matters.

In short, few aspects of our own lives are more important than our health. So why not do what we can to negotiate a healthier deal?

Research papers as negotiations

At first glance, the writing of a research paper might seem nothing like a negotiation. Negotiations necessarily involve conflict, and the collaborative production of a research paper involves nothing but cooperation—right? But a closer look at the paper construction process reveals many opportunities or even necessities for negotiation within a research team. Anticipating these situations and planning a prospective response can make scholarly life more negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations that commonly arise during the production of a research paper:

  1. Where to take a paper: The members of research teams often have very different views on a paper’s strategic direction. Are we trying to challenge the identification literature, the identity literature, or image literature? In the presence of such debates, I find the negotiation research on creative solutions particularly useful, in that it says that new ideas can often satisfy everyone at the same time. Does this paper actually present a previously unrecognized opportunity to clarify and integrate the three literature?
  2. Where to send a paper: Scholarly teams often disagree on the journal that should have the benefit of receiving their work. Some authors may advocate for a stretch journal—one that would be unbelievable if it worked, but probably it won’t. Others may advocate for a safe journal—a more realistic outlet that is also less likely to impress. In these instances, the negotiation literature’s focus on trust becomes particularly important, in that team members often have to trust in the judgment of colleagues who have published in places they haven’t. Could this paper ever get into that amazing journal where I’ve never had a prayer of publishing? Your five articles at that journal make you better qualified to say. If so, our debate is effectively resolved.
  3. What to expect from a coauthor: Authors often disagree on what it means to be a coauthor, and particularly the responsibilities implicit in various locations within the scholarly pecking order (e.g., first or last author). Sometimes this results from the authors’ differing disciplines. The last position in a long list of authors is tremendously coveted in medicine, for example, whereas the same position is best avoided in management. In other instances, these differing expectations come from differing experiences, in which team members have previously worked with assiduous or indolent colleagues. In these cases, I find the negotiation research on open information sharing especially important, in that openly surfacing expectations rather than implicitly assuming them heads off many an unpleasant encounter down the road.
  4. How to respond to reviews: In many cases, the best possible outcome of a scholarly paper submission is not an acceptance (impossible), but a revise and resubmit—an offer to alter the article in some minor or major ways and send it back. The problem arises when team members have very different reactions to a major request. Should we bend to the will of the reviewer asking us to rewrite the paper, or stick to our guns and try to convince the editor, if not the reviewer, of our original wisdom? (For some tips on how to negotiate with reviewers themselves, see here). In these cases, I find one word particularly useful: “why?” Why does your co-author feel so strongly about resisting the request to rewrite? Do they think it would derail the paper, require too much time, conflict with a favored theory or viewpoint? There are many reasons to prefer a particular response; figuring out which one it is can generate some new possibilities. If the problem is a coauthor’s time, for example, perhaps you’d be willing to take a crack at the rewrite?
  5. When to give up on a paper: Despite their best efforts, many papers find a home at none of the favored journals. Is it time to cut our losses or persist and shoot lower? The well-intentioned members of a scholarly team can disagree, perhaps because of their career stage (e.g., close to versus far from tenure review). In these instances, I find the negotiation principle of post-settlement settlements (PSS’s) particularly useful. PSS’s are attempts to improve a deal already reached, with each party having the ability to revert to the original deal if they wish. In this case, the initial list of authors represents the original deal; if one author wants to persist while the others prefer to cut their losses, could the persistent author assume more responsibility along with a higher position in authorship order?

In short, writing scholarly papers is a mostly cooperative endeavor, with smart and well-intentioned people all working to attain the same scientific goal. But the publishing process is complex and precarious, presenting many situations in which differences of opinion can easily crop up. By thinking about these situations as negotiations and applying some of the most well-known negotiation principles, perhaps we can all make the scientific endeavor a little more negotiable.

“My computer is slow today”

I don’t know about you, but every time I call customer service, there seems to be something wrong with their computer. “My apologies, sir—my computer seems to be slow today.” Now, if it happened just once in a blue moon, I wouldn’t think twice. But since it happens nearly every time I call, I’m starting to draw one of two conclusions:

  1. Everybody has a crummy computer
  2. Everybody is trained to say their computer is slow to buy themselves some time

Now, I’m not sure which one it is, but let’s assume for a moment it’s the second, asking ourselves whether we might learn something from this tactic, thereby making our own lives more negotiable.

I have argued here and there for the benefits of procrastination, suggesting that we’d all do well to take a little more time when negotiating. The benefits of pausing and taking our time during critical moments in negotiation are manifold: with the benefit of a pause, we can think, calculate, check with others, catch our breath, or simply let your nerves settle. Is it possible that our friendly customer service representatives are more sophisticated than they seem? Is it possible they’ve been trained to report a sluggish computer anytime they need to ponder our requests further, check our customer records more carefully, or even call their superior over to take a look? I think it’s at least possible, and I think we can learn from it.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should all start lying about the performance of our computers. What I am suggesting is that there are numerous ways to buy yourself some time in a negotiation, and when we face a difficult moment in any negotiation, we should all make the effort to find one that is honest and authentic for us. If your computer really is running sluggishly, by all means, tell that story. But if your computer is running just fine, I’d strongly suggest finding some other credible way to slow things down. Is it possible you drank a little too much coffee and need to visit the facilities, really need to run the proposal by your spouse / boss / pet before deciding, or simply want to sleep on it?

In sum, our friendly customer service representatives either have really unreliable computer systems or a keen sense of how to negotiate. I’ve given both them and their computers the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they’re actually canny negotiators with excellent computers. While I would never advise you to lie about anything in a negotiation (and explicitly advise my students not to), I would advise every negotiator to find an honest way to put on the brakes when they have to. If you happen to own a crummy computer and can lay the blame accordingly, so much the better.

Negotiating your time back

Left to their own devices, people in organizations tend to take your time away. “Would you serve on the birthday committee?” “Would you contribute to our twice-weekly newsletter?” “Would you take our new hires out to lunch?” And who, with half a heart, could say no to such harmless extracurricular requests? The problem, of course, is that many harmless extracurriculars add up to one stressed out employee—someone who can’t get their job done.

In these moments, it’s time to get your time back. I would offer the following five negotiation principles as a framework for making the process more negotiable:

  1. Interests. Your interests are what you really want or need. In this case, they’re the tasks you really need to complete to satisfy your job. And perhaps the extracurriculars you really want to tack on because you like them. What do you really need and want to do, and how much time will it really require? Answering those questions provides a baseline for deciding how much time is left for the birthday committee.
  2. Alternatives. With respect to any particular extracurricular, what would you alternatively do with the time if you had it back? In other words, what’s the opportunity cost of being on the birthday committee? If they’re higher than inherent benefits of the birthday committee—to you, but particularly to the rest of the committee and whoever’s having a birthday—chances are it’s not worth your time.
  3. Bottom line: Given your interests, what is the absolute maximum amount of time you can spend on extracurriculars? That’s a rhetorical question for your consideration, not a question to answer in front of the birthday committee coordinator, lest they see your free time as an opening to ask you about the anniversary and holiday committees too.
  4. Perspective-taking: If you’re considering quitting a particular extracurricular, how’s the organizer likely to react, and why? The organizers of some extracurriculars will probably be more concerned than the organizers of others. And the very concerned organizers will probably be concerned for some particular reason, which you might be able to address by proposing a…
  5. Creative solution: Sure, the organizer of the birthday party may not do a happy dance when you resign from his or her committee. But could you bring back some semblance of a smile by understanding the underlying concern and doing something to address it? If the underlying issue is your refined knowledge of the birthday planning process, perhaps you could train someone else? If the concern is that no one else will volunteer as much time as you (providing further justification for your qualms), perhaps you could create a team of dedicated birthday planners, subdividing by month? If it’s that your absence will spell the end of the beloved birthday emails from the company, perhaps Microsoft can offer an automated solution?

In sum, we all, out of the goodness of our hearts, find ourselves agreeing to serve on something like the birthday committee from time to time. But when the scope of our goodness expands to include the anniversary committee, holiday committee, and everything else—and when we consequently find ourselves stretched too thin to even read our boss’s emails—it’s time to get our time back. In these instances, I’d suggest that considering some basic negotiation principles is well-worth your time.