What, we agree? Compatible issues in a disagreeable world

It sometimes seems that seething disagreements surround us. Crazy passengers punching out flight attendants, angry politicians launching invective, nasty comments following a nice news story about puppies and kittens.

At times like these, it’s easy to forget that we actually agree with each other quite often. In negotiation-speak, we can easily lose sight of the compatible issues—issues on which we completely agree with our counterparts—all around us. To help make life negotiable, let me illustrate through five examples:

  1. We all want to have a good flight/stay/meal. So does the airline/hotel/restaurant. What with the bad service we so often receive, it sometimes seems our interests are completely opposed to the interests of airlines/hotels/restaurants. And it’s true: they all want to save money where they can. More importantly, though, they all want you to come back and/or say nice things to your friends and acquaintances. Our interests are more aligned than unaligned.
  2. We all want to be at a job where we can thrive for the long term. So do our employers. It seems that many employers want to squeeze every ounce of effort from their employees, then spit them out. And some do. More often than not, and in spite of outward appearances, though, many employers would prefer to keep you around for the long-term, if only because it costs so much to replace you (anyone, really).
  3. We all want to minimize the amount of time a contractor spends at our house. So do our contractors. When plumbers dawdle, when electricians take a smoke-break, it seems that they must be padding their paycheck. Right? And maybe some are. But most of the contractors I’ve dealt with are so busy that they’d rather get the job done and move on—if only to make more money, an additional call-out fee often exceeding an additional hour of time.
  4. We all want our kids to be happy. So do our kids. Kids do strange things, some of which seem almost certain to undermine their long-term happiness. In such instances, it’s worth remembering that our kids probably aren’t trying to ruin their own lives. They just don’t understand the consequences or have the benefit of long-term thinking. So arguments that start from the assumption our kids want the same thing we do (and did) will probably work better.
  5. (Most controversially…) We all want as few car repairs as possible. So do our dealers. Does it sometimes seem that your car dealer wants to reconstruct your engine every time you need an oil change? Some dealers undoubtedly propose unnecessary repairs. But many—at least of the manufacturer-owned variety—would probably prefer to do fewer repairs. And the reason resembles the airlines/hotels/restaurants. They can make a lot more money if your first car functions so well it convinces you to buy another from them (or advise your friends to).

These are just a couple of the many common real-world situations when we tend to agree with our counterparts more than we think, if not completely. This list is not intended to cover every airline, employer, contractor, kid, or car dealer—certainly not! Nor is it comprehensive—far from it! It’s merely intended to reiterate that we all actually agree with other once in a while, if not routinely. In a world of deepening polarization, rumbling faultlines, and spiraling incivility, I think it’s a point worth remembering.

Mythical images of the negotiator

I recently attended the International Association of Conflict Management meeting in Berlin—an opportunity for negotiation researchers like myself to geek out. And in the process of geeking out, I had an interesting albeit especially geeky thought: the image of negotiation and negotiators that most of us hold in our brains is actually quite different than the portrait painted by negotiation research. Put simply, our images of negotiation and negotiators are more often mythical than evidence-based.

In the hope that evidence can make life negotiable (especially in the era of a self-identified Negotiator-in-Chief), I offer the following contrasts between mythical and evidence-based negotiation. In mythical negotiation…

  1. Negotiation is mostly about doing huge deals. When we hear the word negotiation, we think of multi-billion dollar mergers and business contracts—issues that grab the headlines and everyone’s attention. In actuality, most of the world’s negotiations focus on issues that are totally unimportant to anyone other than you. It’s a negotiation when your child won’t eat, your spouse won’t do the dishes, and your seatmate won’t cooperate on a flight. Most negotiations concern our own daily difficulties—issues that matter only to us.
  2. Negotiations focus on money. Relatedly, we tend to equate the word negotiation with the word money. And yes, many negotiations involve money. But many just don’t—consider the three right above. And in many that do, it’s the qualitative issues rather than the monetary issues that really make the difference. You’ll never get the car dealer to agree with your preferred price, but you just might get him to throw in some oil changes.
  3. The best negotiators are jerks. We tend to assume that the best negotiators must be people with whom we’d never want to share a flight or have a dinner (watch the beginning of this Facebook video where our Negotiator-in-Chief says just that)—people who aggressively demand concessions and accommodations from everyone around them. In fact, the best negotiators are the very people with whom we’d most want to dine or fly—people who listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, who trust and seem to understand us, and who ensure that we walk away feeling at least reasonably satisfied with the conversation.
  4. The best negotiators are easy to identify. Relatedly, we tend to think that we can spot a great negotiator when we see one. It’s the driver zipping around in the Mercedes and cutting everyone off. Or the CEO slamming their fist on the table and demanding that a poor subordinate come up with something better. In fact, the best negotiators are invisible—to us, yes, but often even to themselves. If I had a quarter for every time I taught a negotiation class and observed a self-proclaimed “bad negotiator” eventually get the “Best Negotiator” award…
  5. The key to negotiation success is tactics. We tend to think that the most effective negotiators use the most sophisticated tactics—the car dealer who slips in “one additional fee” after we’ve already signed the contract, or the politician who corners a colleague into supporting a pork-barrel amendment. Tactics are certainly important. Any claim to the contrary would be silly. But more important than tactics—and perhaps much more important—is preparation. If the best negotiators display the most sophisticated tactics, it’s only because they spent the most time and effort preparing, understanding everything there is to know about themselves, the people across the table, and the negotiation situation itself.

In sum, negotiations and negotiators are steeped in mythology, very little of which holds up to empirical investigation. So few of us should be surprised when our most prominent negotiators promulgate the mythology but experience much more difficulty in reality.

Our many everyday opportunities to negotiate

I might write about negotiation, but I’m still amazed at how often everyday negotiation opportunities present themselves. And identifying such opportunities is nothing short of critical, as finding chances to negotiate is often the only way to make life negotiable.

To see what I mean, consider three recent interactions with a single bike shop. The background: My wife had dropped off her bike in a moment of panic—when a blown tube left her incapable of getting home. I knew my own bike needed a tune-up but couldn’t drop it off at that particular time. The bike shop had called my wife on a Friday, indicating that her bike was ready for pickup:

  • Negotiation opportunity #1: My wife really wanted her bike. With two small kids and one small car, however, she had few real opportunities to pick it up. Identifying an opportunity to help her and potentially get my own bike serviced at the same time, I asked her to call the bike shop and authorize me to pick it up. She did, and they agreed. Many people wouldn’t see this as a negotiation, it was. By simply taking the initiative to ask for what she wanted rather than wait for a window of opportunity months later, she proactively achieved her interests (retrieved her wheels).
  • Negotiation opportunity #2: Showing up on my own bike, I indicated my desire to pick up hers. I also expressed my interest in having my own bike serviced, but only if: A) it could be done before Monday (when I needed it to get to work) and B) there was a volume discount available given the two sequential repairs. The bike shop indicated that they were open over the weekend and had just finished their other repairs, so A was no problem. And, although they usually only give discounts when two bikes are repaired together, they would offer me a volume discount just this once. Cheers to request B! Again, this might not seem like a negotiation. But insofar as I shared and achieved my interests (and also made the first offer), it certainly was.
  • Negotiation opportunity #3: Showing up to pick up my own bike, I paid and happily rode off. Unfortunately, the ride home revealed that the annoying clicking sound I had noted when I dropped it off was still there, clicking away. It would not be unusual for a biker in this situation to suck it up and ride home, assuming the shop did its best. But here was another opportunity to negotiate—namely to return to the shop and report, politely, that the underlying issue had not been resolved. Finding the shop skeptical, I offered the owner his very own opportunity to ride my bike. And, sure enough, there was the click. And the click. And the click. A little work with his reliable wrench, and voila! The clicking disappeared. I rode away happier, able to enjoy my bike without earplugs. And I probably left the owner, despite his initial skepticism, pleased that he had retained a customer.

Now, none of negotiations are high-stakes deals likely to reshape the global business or political landscape. Not even one would probably appear in a book like The Art of the Deal. But they indicate just how common negotiations can be, and how identifying everyday opportunities to negotiate can improve at least one small corner of the world—namely, your own.

Have you recently encountered any unexpected, everyday opportunities to negotiate?

Summer travel synopsis

If you’ve hit the roads or visited the airport recently, you know that the summer travel season is well underway. Thus, I thought this an opportune time to review some of the many ways negotiation research can make travels negotiable. To that end, here’s a brief synopsis of a few past posts on travel, along with links to the relevant articles (you can find more by clicking on “Travel” along the bottom right):

  1. Negotiating with hotels: Anytime we visit a hotel, we encounter many situations that would benefit from a negotiation. Some of these situations involve substandard accommodations and unacceptable living conditions, the negotiation serving to make your stay bearable. But others involve opportunities to make you and the hotel happier at the same time. This post considers the many aspects of a hotel stay rife for a negotiation.
  2. Negotiating with seatmates: Whenever we find ourselves on an airplane, sitting approximately 1 cm from someone we don’t know and often don’t want to, we have many opportunities to negotiate the terms of our ever-so-cozy adventure. From directing the overhead air to spilling into your seat, our fellow fliers give us oh-so-many opportunities to negotiate. This post points out a few of the most prominent.
  3. Airline complaints: Anytime we fly, we stand to have problems not just with our seatmates but with our carrier. Indeed, it often seems that every flight we take is slightly less pleasant. This post discusses how to negotiate the resolution of your grievances with the airline, recommending you show your cards carefully.
  4. Traffic jams as social dilemmas: Perhaps we drive to our destinations instead? If so, then we encounter a lot of other people driving there too. And everyone must be late, as everyone is cutting everyone else off, revealing their apparent disregard for the entire remainder of humanity. This post discusses driving as a social dilemma, considering some ways to solve the dilemma and thus make everyone’s drive more negotiable.
  5. Vacation preferences: Admittedly, this post is not about summer but about the winter holidays. It discusses what to do when you and your significant other want to spend the same holiday in different places. But the lesson is just as applicable to the summer months: don’t split a short period of time 50-50, leaving everyone mildly unhappy. Instead, seek out a creative way to allocate your time, leaving everyone happier in the long run.

I hope a brief review of these postings helps to remind you, while afoot on your summer adventures, that opportunities to negotiate surround around us. Indeed, they often follow us when we leave our abodes in favor of less familiar surroundings. Bon voyage!

Dissatisfactory service: Separating the person from the problem?

It happens too often: dissatisfactory service spoils an otherwise satisfactory experience. Given the ubiquity of such events, it probably makes sense to consider our reactions carefully, comparing them against the types of reactions that can make life negotiable. Let’s start by considering two real and recent experiences from my own life:

  1. Last Friday, we arrived in a pleasant and sedate local restaurant, sitting outside and awaiting our waiter’s arrival. Sadly, he didn’t show for ~20 minutes, which with kids might as well be ~20 years. And then, upon the arrival of his royal highness “Andy,” he had no particular comment on his tardiness and showed no more interest in our dinner order than the speck of dust on his shirt. Coupled with the other highlights of Andy’s service—his complete disappearance until well into the second half of the meal, the complete absence of our drink orders even at that point—it seemed pretty clear that this was a problem for which the person was largely if not wholly responsible.
  2. A few weeks back, a local painting company repainted our kitchen. The painter in charge, let’s call him Jose, had immigrated to this country and was obviously working hard to create a better life. And I’ve rarely if ever seen someone trying harder to do that. He focused intensely and exhaustively on his work, his brushwork rivaled the Impressionist masters, he even listened to music about Jesus while working. Was this guy form the same planet as the reprehensible Andy? Unfortunately, Jose made a rather pronounced mistake when moving the fridge. He didn’t lift it off the wood floor nor the staple apparently lying on top of the floor, creating a rather large gouge in the wood. Now here was a problem for which the person wasn’t particularly responsible—a simple mistake that could’ve befallen anyone, and has befallen me.

Faced with situations like these, many people respond in one of three ways:

  1. Ignore the poor service offered by either Andy or Jose, hoping the weekend will get better and the scratch will fade from conscious awareness.
  2. Chew out Andy and Jose to their respective employers if not to their faces, noting the inadequacy of both final products.
  3. Chew out Andy but ignore the scratch attributable to Jose.

Of the three, the third probably looks most appropriate. But the third is still problematic, isn’t it? Because the scratch is still there—the problem persists. So what to do? Situations like these call for a careful assessment of the relationship between the person and the problem. Are they one in the same? In Andy’s case, probably—in Jose’s, not so much. Armed with that insight, you can spend more time separating the person from the problem while dealing with the scratch. And that’s just what I did.

In Andy’s case, I lost no time in detailing his lackadaisical attitude to his manager, who lost no time in giving us a free bottle of wine and coupon, then probably lost no time in chewing out Andy. The person was the problem, so separating them was less necessary. In Jose’s case, however, I applied a very different strategy to the person—this utterly impeachable, even admirable individual who had nevertheless made a mistake. I lost no time in calling his superior, but the call started with a long-winded monologue on the many unimpeachable aspects of Jose and his work—a veritable ode to Jose. Only after establishing Jose’s credentials did I note the issue with the scratch, and only then by labeling it an honest mistake that all of us could easily make. I hope this approach protected Jose’s reputation. I know it corrected the problem, as the painting company offered to fix the floor free-of-charge.

None of this is rocket science, and I don’t pretend it is. I only raise these issues to point out that the relationship between the person and the problem deserves careful consideration when responding. Sometimes, there’s a nearly one-to-one correspondence; other times, there’s little correlation at all. The latter situations require a different strategy—actually two strategies, lest the person get confounded with the problem by your response. And you don’t want that to happen—no way, Jose!

Making hotels negotiable

The Memorial Day weekend saw me and many others staying in a hotel. And staying in a hotel reminded me just how many aspects of a hotel stay are negotiable—how many aspects of a hotel stay often require negotiation to make life negotiable.

Luckily, many hotel negotiations rely heavily on just one principle: the notion that you may not get it if you ask, but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t. A few basic topics we must all at least occasionally raise with our hotels:

  • Additional amenities: A two-year-old with afternoon naptimes is not conducive to housekeeping. Accordingly, on our recent trip, we found ourselves running out of towels daily. In situations like these, many people are inexplicably afraid to request more. What will they think if I ask? Will they snicker behind the counter that I must shower all day long? But then you have to think: who cares? Do I dislike snickering more than I dislike drying myself with a sopping wet towel?
  • Erroneous bills: It didn’t happen this time, but it did happen the last. Mysteriously, a fancy steak dinner from the fabulous Embassy Suites restaurant showed up on my bill. As much as I love steak dinners from the Embassy Suites, I was reasonably sure that this one wasn’t mine. In such situations, many people are afraid to confront the hotel, lest they get offended or combative. But unless you like to pay for someone else’s steak, you pretty much have to. And it’s not likely to result in offense or combat since the hotel desires your satisfaction almost as much as you do. In my case, they simply looked up the receipt in question, which revealed that someone had creatively remembered their room number, creatively footing me with their filet.
  • Extremely random items: Since a hotel is your home away from home, you may well have to borrow some extremely random items that you could easily access in your own home. On the recent trip, for example, my two-year-old inexplicably glued a rubber band in her hair: A problem only scissors can solve. But since the TSA pretty much guarantees that I don’t travel with scissors, the situation called for an extremely random request—one that many don’t make on account of its randomness. And while the lady at the front desk scrunched her brow slightly, she was very happy to lend her scissors nonetheless. And everyone was happy to have the gluey rubber band removed.
  • Idiosyncratic preferences: Everyone has an idiosyncratic preference about their hotel rooms. Some need an outside-facing window, lest they feel incarcerated. Others need separation from the sunlight, lest they stay permanently awake. Many care heartily about distancing themselves from the elevator or ice machine. Such preferences, while idiosyncratic, are completely fair game to mention while checking in or later. Indeed, you have to mention them if you want the preference honored—how else would they know? And the hotel hopes you do so they can immediately and rather easily boost your satisfaction (and their hotels.com rating).
  • Maintenance requests: Stay in enough hotel rooms, and you’re bound to encounter a rickety old air conditioner, constantly running toilet, or completely spent bulb. “I’ll just deal with it,” many of us think, not wanting to raise a ruckus or trouble the maintenance department. But why? I’m quite sure the hotel wants to know about the maintenance problem just as much as you want to tell them, so they can then head off a long line of dissatisfied occupants. There’s every reason to mention it and virtually no reason to stay mum.

These are just examples. Other opportunities to negotiate with hotels abound—from extra services, to late checkouts, to compensation for a generally crummy experience. The bottom line is that many hotel problems are quite easily solved by simply raising the issue. And raising the issue is exactly what a halfway decent hotel wants you to do.

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.