Assurances from an adult: A stopgap strategy for negotiating with kids

I’ve written often about the importance of trust in negotiations. Unfortunately, little children don’t always display an abundance of it—for example, when a sibling or friend wants to play with their preferred toy. To make the lack of trust negotiable, we need something more. Luckily, there’s a device that can help at least on occasion: assurances from an adult.

Consider the following three examples from my own household:

  1. Whenever my younger daughter is playing with something and I ask her to do something else like brushing her teeth, she reliably responds: “But someone will take it!” And, with that prospect looming, good luck getting the teeth brushed. Indeed, the teeth might have remained forever coated in plaque had I not discovered a way of offering an assurance—and bear with me because it sounds stupid: “hawk eyes.” I offer to watch her toy with my very own “hawk eyes,” at which point I dramatically widen my eyes and focus them on the toy in the manner of a deadly serious hawk. Somehow, it seems to work.
  2. The same daughter, while dilly-dallying at the end of a restaurant meal that lasted 12 times longer than any dinner should, expressed disdain when we unilaterally decided to box up her food. “But someone else will eat it!” she insisted. I should’ve seen that coming. While the hawk eyes might have worked in this case too, I decided to try something new: borrow her crayon and write her initials on the to-go box, such that no one else would even dare to dip their paws in her mac ‘n cheese. It calmed her down, eventually.
  3. Finally, my older daughter sometimes worries when leaving for school or summer camp that the younger one will play with and proceed to lose or warp her puzzle pieces. It’s only when I personally promise to preside over the puzzle, placing responsibility for the pieces squarely on my own person, that she musters the will to leave.

And so, when trust is lacking, assurances can offer a powerful stopgap—in the case of toys and food and puzzles but really in any case when a kid distrusts someone else’s intentions. Of course, none of this is to undercut the importance of trust itself; assurances offer a supplement rather than a substitute. But it’s a supplement that may well prevent WWIII.

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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.

Many negotiations in a Mexican restaurant

It never fails to amaze me how many of our daily interactions involve negotiation. Such is the point of this blog! But a recent trip to a Mexican restaurant really drove home the point, so I thought I’d relay it in the spirit of making life negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations, all from a single Mexican dinner:

  1. With a busy host: On our way into the restaurant, I saw a sign offering free bowling coupons to patrons. But I saw no bowling coupons upon entry. So I had to negotiate with the host by asking where I could find the elusive coupons. And the harried host looked none too pleased to track them down. But eventually, we got them. And this illustrates the principle: if you want something, ask for it!
  2. With a busy waiter: In the process of scarfing down her chips, my younger daughter seemed to get a crumb stuck in her throat. It was nothing major, but she did feel uncomfortable. So I had to flag down the first waiter I saw for some water. Unfortunately, he was carrying seven margaritas at the time. And he looked none too pleased at my interruption. But he brought the water, and pronto, when I explained. This illustrates the principle: don’t back down from your most important needs.
  3. With my older daughter: My older daughter, during the chip incident, had gone to the bathroom with mommy. That left daddy to order the drink I thought she’d like – a delicious cup of apple juice. But inevitably, daddy was wrong. What she wanted was pink lemonade. Of course! So I decided to suggest a contingency contract: If you’re still thirsty after the ginormous apple juice, I’ll buy you a lemonade. (Inevitably, she wasn’t.)
  4. With both daughters: Both daughters like to put 12 shakes of salt on each chip. Unfortunately, that’s a ticket to the cardiologist. So I had to negotiate over the salt, specifically by promising to dispense a moderate amount of salt over the entire chip basket if they would promise to drop the salt shaker. This illustrates the topic of concessions: I was willing to make a small concession in service of a greater good (my daughters’ long-term health and wellbeing).
  5. With my wife: I wanted a second margarita, as I usually do. My wife didn’t want her first, as she usually doesn’t. But I forgot my wife’s preferences and started to order my second. Luckily, she interrupted my order by offering hers, thereby illustrating an integrative solution: she saved us $15, and I got entire margarita minus one sip.

Through these somewhat silly and mundane examples, I hope you see how common negotiations can be. While few of our meals involve five negotiations, most of our lives involve negotiation in some way or another. So here’s to making life negotiable!

Happier households through narrower choice sets

Parents frequently give their kids choices: “What do you want to eat for breakfast today?” “What do you want to wear to school today?” And choices are great for enrolling them in the decision-making process.

But often, to no one’s great surprise, kids choose an option that is not particularly attractive to their parents. “Definitely some Fruit Loops!” “Definitely my (ratty old) Frozen shirt!”

And then comes the inevitable negotiation: “Don’t you want to eat something a little healthier, Billy?” “Don’t you want to wear something a little nicer, Petunia?” And so on, and so forth.

Conversations like these play out in millions of households, multiple times a day, to everyone’s great frustration. But I’m here to tell you that there’s an easy way to make life negotiable: presenting a narrower choice set.

A recent story to illustrate: I was planning out a daddy-daughter Sunday and really wanted to attach a tasty restaurant visit to the typical outdoor activity. But I suspected that the typical open-ended question—“What do you want to do with daddy this morning?”—would probably elicit an answer wholly at odds with a restaurant: “Swimming!”

Now, I know from experience that two little girls shivering from wet hair are not particularly inclined to dine at restaurants—at least without a fight. So I didn’t present the question that way. I gave them a different choice set: “Girls, do you want to take a hike in the state park or go on a bike ride?” Either choice, I knew, would be just as enjoyable for the girls. And either choice would leave their desire to go to a restaurant in-tact—even enhanced by their desire for some air conditioning and a cold drink.

The lesson is clear: In this type of negotiation and many others (even with adults), we control the options we present. But often, from a lack of preparation or genuine inclination to be as flexible as possible, we put many options on the table—including more than a few that would leave us utterly dissatisfied. So next time you face a negotiation, with your kids or someone older, consider narrowing the choice set to the point at which you too would approve of all the remaining choices.

Still misunderstanding myself

Last week, I discussed a classic negotiation blunder made by none other than myself: misunderstanding my own preferences. Since the consequences of the initial mistake continue to accumulate, why not continue the story? I hope that this post, if not the last one, can make your own life more negotiable.

To review my previous post, I simplemindedly agreed to do some major landscaping work on behalf of my landscaping company and thereby save some money. Since the savings paled in comparison to the difficulty and painfulness of the task (“my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water”), this was a bad decision right from the start.

But then I returned from a work trip to find the landscaping company’s work completed and another whole segment of my own work left to be completed. In particular, I found piles of mulch, oodles of dirt, and a whole collection of mountain laurels—all needing to be installed now since Mother Nature had already graced us with the first half of an eight-day thunderstorm. So there I was, fresh off the plane, in mud up to my knees, waiting to spread my stuff and bury my laurels. And there I stood for time immemorial, dripping and resenting my stupid savings.

Now, to be fair, I had no way of knowing Baltimore’s forecast when I signed the contract in March. (Baltimore’s forecasters rarely know it a day in advance.) Still, when signing the contract, I failed to account for more than my preferences. I failed to account for the important contingency that the work would occur when I was gone. In retrospect, I should have at least found a way to ensure that they would do it when I was home and could ease into my own planting, preferably without a thunderstorm.

In sum, and this is the end of my self-flagellation, even negotiation professors make negotiation mistakes, and my failure to consider my own preferences was compounded by my failure to think through the contingencies. So let this be a lesson to you, and a lesson that makes your life much more negotiable and substantially less muddy.

Misunderstanding yourself: A classic negotiation blunder

Even negotiation instructors sometimes make negotiation mistakes. Since I recently made an exceedingly common mistake, perhaps it’s worth the public shaming that will necessarily come with sharing. At best, the story should make your own life more negotiable. At worst, it’ll offer me a form of catharsis.

Most of us tend to assume that we know ourselves completely—our every desire, need, and preference. It’s our wily counterparts—their needs, desires, and preferences—that we assume we don’t know and need to find out during a negotiation.

While we do know ourselves better than anyone else, I’m here to tell you that we don’t know ourselves well enough for a negotiation. Put differently, we can’t assume we don’t need to inquire into our own preferences carefully each time we negotiate. We always need to understand ourselves better.

To that point, my family recently decided to pay for a fairly involved and expensive landscaping project. Forever the negotiation professor, I tried to experiment with various methods of reducing the price. Voila! I could do so by performing a portion of the work myself. Sounds good, but the devil’s in the details—in this case, the work:  I would have to clear an exceedingly long, 20-foot wide strip of overgrown jungle that would challenge even the mightiest of bulldozers, pulling up fathoms of English ivy and removing decades of discarded yard waste.

“I’ll do it,” I foolishly declared, without asking myself whether my preference for savings outweighed my preference for health, happiness, and life satisfaction in general. And now, several days removed from an entire weekend of clearing, my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water. Oh, and I’m still sad that I had to miss my daughter’s T-ball game.

Now, was that really worth the savings? In retrospect, not really. Turns out that, although I do prefer savings to no savings, I don’t prefer savings to a totally lost, unproductive, and painful weekend of social isolation in the searing sauna of Maryland sun. In other words, I didn’t understand my own preferences particularly well—or if I did, I didn’t carefully compare them against each other.

I say this not just to poke fun at myself but because it’s a mistake that most of us make often. We assume, when negotiating, that we understand own preferences so well that we don’t need to consider them at all. I’m here to tell you that we always do.

So the next time you’re negotiating, don’t pull a Brian. I mean, do pull the Brians described in many of my posts, but don’t pull this one. Treat your own preferences as a question to be considered, a riddle to be solved, a topic rife for inquiry. Do that, and I think you’ll find your back less sore and your life more negotiable.

Two is greater than one—especially in negotiation!

On the job, countless situations call for a proposal: A customer requests an estimate. A colleague calls for a counter-proposal about the subdivision of a project. A boss asks for a suggested reconfiguration of your time to accommodate a new responsibility.

In these situations, most people do exactly what was requested: make a proposal. And that’s logical! You’re just following directions. Still, there’s a better way to respond—a response that can make life more negotiable for you and the other person alike: making two proposals rather than one. Let me tell you what I’m talking about and explain why two, in negotiation, is substantially greater than one.

Imagine your boss asked you to assume a major new responsibility. Recognizing that this will totally upend your job and prevent you from accomplishing your current responsibilities, the boss further requested a proposal indicating how you’ll now allocate your time. The logical approach would be to think about it and simply provide a proposal.

But compare that to thinking about it and providing two proposals, each slightly different but both just about as attractive to you. One of the two indicates you can get the new thing done while accomplishing 25% of your previous job. The other indicates you can get the new thing done and manage to complete 40% of your previous job if only you were allowed to work from home twice a week and save a bunch of time super-commuting. Truth be told, you consider the two proposals equally attractive.

Now, compare the two-proposal approach to the single-proposal approach that just seemed logical. Which is better?

Surprisingly, negotiation research on “Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers” or “MESOs”—which is exactly what your two proposals are—would suggest the former. But why? Why are two more complicated proposals better than one that just follows directions? For at least five reasons:

  1. Flexibility: True, your two proposals didn’t exactly follow your boss’s instructions to the T. But negotiation research would suggest that the boss will prefer them nevertheless because they seem more flexible. You are conveying the willingness to solve the boss’s problem in multiple ways, not just one.
  2. Anchoring: Ironically, at the same time you demonstrate flexibility, you also focus your boss’s attention on your own preferred solutions to the problem. And you actually do that twice, not just once.
  3. Information sharing: Through your two proposals, you’ve communicated something important about your own preferences, namely that you want to work from home more often and could be more productive if you did. It would be harder to convey that quite so clearly with just the one proposal, whichever it was.
  4. Information receiving: By hearing which of the two proposals your boss prefers, you learn something vitally important about your boss’s preferences, namely how he or she feels about virtual work. Over and above any potential benefits of the actual ability to work from home, it might be nice to how your boss feels about this critical issue.
  5. Efficiency and satisfaction: The two-proposal approach tends to bring the two parties to a quicker and more satisfying resolution. Had you stuck slavishly to the boss’s directions, you might’ve battled it out over one issue, probably the exact percentage reduction in your current responsibilities. At a minimum, you or they might’ve walked away unhappy, never a good outcome in a hierarchical relationship.

So, am I telling you to flaunt your boss’s specific requests? Of course not. I’m simply saying that, whenever there’s room to respond to a request with two proposals rather than one, you’ll usually find two to be much greater than one.