Many an aspiring negotiator has been stymied by three simple words: “That’s not negotiable.” How often do car dealers, retailers, and employers utter that tremendously painful phrase? And how directly does it strike at the heart of our grand negotiation strategy?
Well, I’m here to tell you that sometimes it’s not negotiable. But many times, it is. And recognizing as much can make life itself more negotiable.
To show you what I mean, let me decode three common meanings lurking behind the three simple words, none of which amount to it actually being non-negotiable:
“I’m going to try this tactic on you.” Oftentimes, people say it’s not negotiable simply because they know you won’t question them. Car dealers will tell you that a particular discount cannot be negotiated, only to remember an even better discount if you happen to start walking out in pursuit of a better offer. But most people don’t, so the non-negotiability rarely gets questioned.
“I’m referring to price, specifically.” Oftentimes, people really won’t haggle on price, but they’re more than happy to haggle on anything else. I recently visited a sofa store with their no-haggle guarantee plastered on the door, echoed by the salesman’s immediate assurance that prices there were non-negotiable. But then he immediately informed me that I could get free shipping if I bought during the sale. “And can I get free shipping if I buy after the sale?” I asked. “Well, I guess we could do that,” he responded. Price was not negotiable, but he was chomping at the bit to negotiate delivery.
“It actually is negotiable.” Oftentimes, people will tell you something is not negotiable only to trade it off with something else, thereby making it negotiable. Employers will tell you that salary is not negotiable, only to agree to virtual work, a different location, or a different bonus plan if you accept the given salary. But by trading the “non-negotiable” issue with other negotiable issues, they’ve essentially made the non-negotiable issue negotiable.
In sum, it might not be negotiable. And if not, so be it. But I wouldn’t conclude as much from the three simple words. Instead, I’d try to probe whether it’s a tactic or a comment confined to single monetary issue like price or salary, setting off in search of more negotiable terrain.
Let me introduce you to one of the world’s best negotiators: she’s five and sleeps across the hall. Why does she qualify as one of the world’s best? Because she always knows exactly what she wants and takes every—I mean every—opportunity to ask for it. In particular, she sees all of my requests as opportunities to extract concessions.
“Can you please eat the rest of your dinner?” “Only if I get an extra piece of candy.”
“Can you please brush your teeth?” “Only if I get an extra story.”
In the interest of supporting her budding aspirations as a negotiator, I sometimes play along, adjusting the initial offer accordingly. Knowing she’ll request an extra piece of candy to wrap up dinner, for example, I initially offer one rather than the allowable two.
But more often than not, I don’t play along. And this aspiring negotiator would do well to learn why. Indeed, every aspiring negotiator would do well to understand the underlying lesson: that many situations offer opportunities to extract concessions, but some just don’t. And understanding which is which is crucial for making life negotiable.
Three situations in which it’s probably not appropriate to request a concession:
When a concession would devalue the discussion: In keeping with her strategy, my aspiring negotiator often seizes on the request for a bedtime hug by saying, “Only if you sing another song!” Setting aside the potential merits of another song, a father-daughter hug is sacred rather than transactional—sanctified rather than commoditized. And treating it as a commodity to be bought and sold only serves to devalue the discussion. “No conditions on hugs,” I say.
When you already owe a concession. My little starling—hard as it is to believe—doesn’t spend every last moment having stellar behavior. What five-year old does? And when I observe the non-stellar behavior, it’s incumbent on me to communicate as much. “We don’t throw markers on the floor,” I might say, “and now we need to have a timeout.” “Ok, but only if you let me watch a movie,” she might respond. But wait—it’s me who deserves a concession in the form of time served out—not she who deserves a concession in the form of cinematic magic.
When the same concession request has been denied a hundred times before. Typically, at the end of a school day, I ask my starling to tell me anything interesting or important that happened that day. “Ok, I’ll only tell you two things,” she might say. “No, I’d like you to tell me anything interesting or important,” I always say, after which about ten things spontaneously pop out. But my aspiring negotiator, not to be deterred, requests the same concession the very next day. Now, the best negotiators are certainly persistent in the face of adversity, and they certainly try again when their first attempt is denied. But after the hundredth denial, they also conclude that they need to focus their concession requests on a more negotiable issue.
In sum, my five-year old is a master negotiator in many senses of the word. But she has yet to learn one of the most important lessons, as have many people who rank themselves among the world’s best negotiators: there’s a time and place to request concessions, as well as a time and place to accede to other people’s wishes. Identifying and accepting the latter situations can make everyone’s life more negotiable.
How often do you find yourself asking organizations for favors—discounted prices, waived policies, or extended promotional rates? Quite often, I’d suppose. And how often do the organizations say yes on the very first try? Hardly ever, if your experience is anything like mine.
But don’t hang up in a flurry of despair! Because the best negotiators know that asking multiple times—sometimes of multiple people—is often the only way to achieve their objectives. Indeed, in the domain of organizational favors, I’d say that asking at least three times is the only way to make life negotiable.
Consider five reasons:
You might get a different answer. Many organizations are not known for the consistency or impeccable training of their customer service representatives. Perhaps the first representative declined your discount request simply because they yet haven’t received the discount training? And perhaps the second or third just received it yesterday?
You might get a better answer. Anyone who’s ever dealt with an organization knows that “talking to a supervisor” often produces a better answer than talking to whomever answers the phone. It’s not the supervisor and the answerer are operating off a different set of policy waiver policies. Indeed, the second person is probably not even a supervisor. It’s just that they reserve the policy waivers for the people persistent enough to ask for the supervisor.
You might get a more helpful person. Everyone has a bad day now and again, and customer service representatives are far from the exception. Indeed, it’s just possible that today’s the lucky day for the first representative you encounter, in which case your chances automatically increase by talking to someone less crabby.
You might get experience asking the question. In addition to surfacing different people and answers, asking several times increases your own understanding of the issues. For example, a comment during your first conversation might reveal that the organization doesn’t offer “discounts” for the current bundle of services, but it might be willing to unbundle the services and reduce the price accordingly. Can you ask like that on the third try?
You might learn something about the organization. Even if you don’t get a better answer or representative, and even if you don’t come up with a better way to phrase the request, you might learn something useful about the organization. At a minimum, you might learn that the organization is not delivering the level of customer service you expect, prompting a useful consideration of your alternatives. Better yet, you might gain a general appreciation for the types of policies the organization cannot waive and the types they might—an insight that will probably come in handy the next time you need a favor.
In sum, you should not take organizational denials as the end of the story—at least not until you’ve encountered a few of them. Instead, you should try to see a few organizational denials as a natural part of the process—a series of no’s on the eventual road to yes.
The road to regrettable yet avoidable workplace mistakes is littered with the absence of three small words: what’s my alternative? A failure to ask this simple question, I submit, can account for a major portion of our worst workplace decisions. To avoid such decisions and make our lives more negotiable, let’s look at a few of the perils associated with failing to consider our alternatives, along with some simple examples of each.
Walking away from a good deal. Perhaps the most pernicious consequence of failing to consider our alternatives is the risk of walking away from a positive situation. Why would anyone do that? Often because of a flurry of emotions. Consider the many regrettable instances when people mouth off to their superiors or become embroiled in workplace conflicts, thinking they can easily find another job if they have to. But can they? Unfortunately, the labor market is rarely so obliging.
Accepting a bad deal. Quite the opposite, failing to consider our alternatives can lead us to stick with an inferior option. Consider the huge proportion of Americans who consider themselves locked in a dead-end job. Many of them certainly are, given a host of economic and social challenges beyond their control. But at least some of them are not: At least some of the people who consider themselves trapped in a dead-end job could in fact pursue a less stressful or less demanding job, or even found a viable business, if only they entertained such alternatives seriously.
Wasting time deliberating. Many people spend a great deal of time pondering what to do when there is realistically only one thing they can do. Should I accept my boss’s offer to lead that important project? If I really have the option to decline, it’s worth the careful thought. But if my career implicitly depends on my acceptance, then it’s better to confront a lack of alternatives than to pointlessly give myself an ulcer.
Becoming complacent. People and firms often rest on their laurels—failing to innovate or experiment with new ways of working or doing—because they overestimate the costs of failed experiments or underestimate the costs of continuing down a well-trodden path. In other words, they fail to carefully consider the alternatives to doing nothing, so nothing is often what they do.
Submitting to whatever someone says. Many individuals and firms have their favorite vendor or preferred service provider. Look to no one else for service X or product Y! While this approach might make everyone feel good, it’s not particularly likely to produce a favorable agreement. Think about it: even if the preferred vendor is benevolent, how motivated will they be to offer an amazing deal if they know that you’ll accept their terms regardless? Not very. So it’s good to have friends, but when you are bidding for business, it’s also good to have alternatives.
In sum, this negotiation professor believes that a major swathe of our most regrettable yet avoidable decisions can in fact be avoided by considering our alternatives carefully. The next time you make that major decision? Consider considering your alternatives first.
The students in my negotiation classes are very rarely surprised to learn that negotiators sometimes lie. Deception, they assume, is central to negotiation. “And why do negotiators lie?” I probe—a question that usually elicits eye-rolls and answers related to one of two obvious motives: greed (e.g., “to get a better deal”) or fear (e.g., “to avoid a bad deal”). And the students are partially right, in that greed and fear can explain a fair portion of negotiators’ deceptions.
But the students are wrong in one critical respect: some of the most common reasons why negotiators lie have little to do with either motive. Indeed, although research has not and may never ascertain the proportion of lies attributable to each specific cause, lies born of greed or fear are probably—and surprisingly—in the minority. So let’s consider some of the most common reasons why negotiators lie, in hopes of making ethically challenging situations negotiable:
A lack of preparation: The most common source of deception in negotiation, most likely, is a distinct lack of forethought. How will I answer that tough question about my alternatives? What will I say if they ask me, point-blank, about my bottom line? We often fail to consider such questions in advance, which can tempt us to deceive when our counterpart actually asks them.
A lack of creativity: Negotiators often lie because they find themselves in a tough spot and perceive a false dilemma: to lie or not to lie? In reality, even a small dose of creativity often suggests a third way. What if the recruiter asks if I have a competing offer? Could I focus on the fact that I just hit the job market and am expecting great success, instead of fixating on a yes or no?
A lack of time: Negotiators often lie because they don’t take the time to consider the situation carefully, opting for the simplest and often the most self-serving option, which is the most deceptive.
Confusion between competition and deception: Negotiation scholars like to distinguish between competitive and deceptive negotiation behaviors. Put simply, real negotiators often don’t. They see deception as just one more competitive arrow in the quiver, appropriately attached to the bow whenever a value-claiming opportunity arises.
Subtle environmental cues: Believe it or not, negotiators may be tempted to lie by the objects, substances, or physical spaces around them. As I’ve recently summarized, psychology offers many reasons to suppose that environmental cues as innocuous as money, fake sunglasses, or ominous colors can heighten the temptation to lie.
Mythical images of the negotiator: Relatedly, and as I’ve also described before, negotiators and negotiation are steeped in mythology. Our most common image of the successful negotiator—the aggressive, competitive, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, wheeler-and-dealer (no names)—is incomplete at best and wrong at worst. Incorrect images lead to inappropriate behaviors.
Agreement bias: Put simply, we don’t feel very good walking away from our negotiation counterparts, even when we know we should. So when we see that one little lie is all that’s required to seal the deal and walk away smiling—when we tell the counterpart the sweet words they want to hear or omit the treacherous words they don’t—well, then we often end up lying.
In sum, my negotiation students are quite right that greed and fear underlie some of the deception we see in negotiations. But they—and probably most other people—are wrong in thinking that greed and fear are the only or even the primary sources of lies in negotiation. They’re not! People lie for manifold and diverse reasons, not that any of those reasons excuse them for doing so. Here’s hoping that knowing the reasons can help you detect deception from others and wholeheartedly avoid it yourself.
Scarcely a day passes when we don’t need a coworker to do something—respond to an email, review a report, run an analysis, take a web survey, or offer a status update. So deep is our dependence that we’ve developed a sophisticated repertoire of strategies for eliciting others’ responses. Some of the most popular:
Persuading them: Reviewing the 12 critical reasons why they really need to respond to that email.
Exhorting them: Underlining, emboldening, italicizing, CAPITALIZING, or ALL OF THE ABOVE-ING to drive home the urgency of reviewing that report.
Scaring them: Painting a subtle or not so subtle picture of the dire consequences associated with the absence of that analysis.
Burying them: Reminding them about the web survey so unbelievably often that they take it just to stop the emails.
Going above them: Taking your request for the status update directly to their boss.
These strategies all share the same goal: they seek to highlight the costs of non-compliance. As a result, they often produce the very same outcome: non-compliance.
So here’s a simple but frequently-overlooked alternative: Make it easy for them! In other words, try to make compliance so simple that they almost can’t help themselves. I’m here to tell you that it can make life negotiable. Some examples:
Instead of reviewing the 12 critical reasons they need to respond to the email, copy and paste the email they’re supposed to respond to right below yours, preventing them from having to scroll for the next 5 minutes.
Instead of EXHORTING them to review the report and referring them to the long-deleted message from 3 months ago, reattach it when you remind them.
Instead of scaring them into completing the analysis, ask whether you can answer any questions about it or help clean up the data.
Instead of burying them with reminders about the web survey, move the link they’re supposed to click to the subject line.
Instead of going over their head to get a status update, complete the status update form yourself and ask them to verify whether you got it right.
In addition to coming across as substantially more pleasant, such strategies create channel factors: powerful catalysts of behavior. So the next time you’re thinking of making it harder for another person to say no, consider making it easier for them to say yes.
There comes a moment in most negotiations when we consider making a concession. Whether it’s reducing the amount of the requested discount on our cable bill, succumbing to a coworker who keeps asking us to do something, or accepting an organizational decision that we know to be flawed—opportunities to concede abound. And in many such situations, conceding is just what we should do.
Right before we do, however, let me suggest we all follow a simple heuristic: Ask a question before you make a concession! By at least trying to ask a question before you concede, I think you’ll find life growing successively more negotiable.
Consider the following questions, all of which can help to avert a looming concession:
“What if we…?” This question often surfaces new ideas that avoid the need for a concession. As in, what if we agreed to a multi-year contract in exchange for the requested discount on my cable bill? New possibilities often afford detours around costly concessions.
“Why?” This question often surfaces underlying interests unbeknownst to the person preparing to concede. As in, “Why are you, my coworker, asking me to do that task?” Perhaps it’s sheer laziness, but perhaps it’s something more nuanced—a desire to solicit your ideas or put your name on the document, for example, both of which might pave the way for alternate solutions.
“Why not?” This question often surfaces concerns unbeknownst to the person preparing to concede. As in, “Why does organizational policy not permit me to do X? Again, perhaps it’s pure bureaucracy, but perhaps it’s something more nuanced—a concern about setting precedents or creating perceived inequity, for example, which might highlight ways to assuage the concern and avoid the concession at the same time.
“How can we make this work?” This question actually enrolls the respondent in the process of finding a way to avoid your concession. As in, “I want to go with your cable company, but I can’t afford it. How can we make this work?” No guarantees, but people generally like being asked to contribute their expertise, as well as solutions of their own making.
“Can I think about it?” This question buys you the necessary time to identify an alternative to conceding, which is particularly useful if you’re a slow-plodding analytical thinker like myself. As in, “Can I think about your request to do that task, dear coworker?” With the benefit of some time, you can often take a guess at the interests underlying the request, as well as some alternative ways of fulfilling them. At worst, the time should buy you some courage.
In sum, concessions are good and necessary parts of any reasonable negotiation. By the same token, most of us concede far too often—and often when we don’t need to. Accordingly, the next time you consider a concession, I’d encourage you to consider a question first.