Preparing to negotiate? Use your “BRAIN”!

Most people know to prepare before a negotiation. If not, then negotiation instructors like me frequently remind them. So the problem is not a lack of awareness about the need to prepare. It’s the lack of a framework describing what to prepare. What exactly should negotiators ponder before arriving at the bargaining table?

Since knowing what to prepare is pretty much a prerequisite for preparing itself, and preparing itself a prerequisite for a negotiable life, let me suggest you use your BRAIN (via the following acronym):

  • BATNA. All good preparation starts with a consideration of alternatives—specifically a negotiator’s next-best alternative if the current negotiation fails (i.e., their Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement or BATNA). Otherwise, they’ll never know how much power they have or how far to push the envelope.
  • Reservation price. Great negotiators transition directly from their BATNA to their bottom line, walk away point, reservation price. Otherwise, they don’t really have the foggiest idea whether to get to yes or get to no and go with their BATNA.
  • Aspirations. BATNAs and reservation prices are great, but negotiators who spend too much time pondering their alternatives or minimally acceptable agreements (i.e., their reservation prices) tend to get them. To get something better, great negotiators also define their goals, targets, aspirations—actively considering what they really want when their counterpart demurs.
  • Interests. The acronym might as well stop there (and consider the acronym if it did), but the preceding letters alone tend to elicit a very competitive negotiation. Great negotiators know that spending the whole time competing to attain their aspirations, clear their reservation price, or avoid their BATNA results in a competitive scramble over the crumbs of a very small pie. Instead, they know they need to identify and find creative ways of fulfilling both negotiators’ overall objectives (i.e., their interests), and thereby “grow the pie.”
  • Negotiation counterpart. So why not BRAI then? Because that makes very little sense as a word and even less sense as a preparation strategy—the latter because it completely omits the other party. Negotiators who BRAI, and most negotiators do, fail to anticipate their counterpart’s situation and thus find it immensely hard to understand or respect that situation while negotiating. So great negotiators repeat the preceding letters for their counterpart, taking a wild albeit educated guess as to their counterpart’s BATNA, reservation price, aspirations, and interests.

So the next time you sit down to prepare for a negotiation, don’t just use your mind—use your BRAIN! Doing so can’t spell the difference between a smart negotiation outcome and an outcome that everyone deems dumb.


Playing a guessing game alone: A strange but powerful negotiation strategy

In most negotiation courses, professors repeatedly ask students to complete a seemingly silly exercise: playing a guessing game alone. That is, professors require their students to read a negotiation case, then take a wild guess as to their future counterpart’s situation—in particular, the counterpart’s interests, priorities, alternatives, and bottom line.

“What’s the point?” the bolder students ask. “How would do we go about that?” the more circumspect students say. By the second or third class, though, most students fully get the point. Taking even the wildest of guesses about their counterpart’s situation, they see, is a form of perspective-taking that can make even the toughest situations negotiable.

Consider the following five reasons to play a pre-negotiation guessing game, alone:

  1. You’ll understand them better once they start talking. You wouldn’t play a real guessing game alone because you’d never know whether your guess was right. But you’ll definitely have a chance to validate your guesses about your negotiation partner, and research suggests that people who have gone through the exercise can process their counterpart’s statements more easily and rapidly once the negotiation starts—even if their initial guesses were wrong. Simply simulating another person’s thinking, it seems, prepares us to comprehend that thinking once we actually hear it.
  2. You’ll anticipate potential tradeoffs. Another reason you’d never play a real guessing game alone: you’d have no idea what you were guessing about. But you definitely know what you’re guessing about before a negotiation—all of the topics above, which often attune you to creative, win-win tradeoff opportunities. And it never fails to amaze my students (or me) how many such opportunities pop to mind even before the negotiators ever meet. Planning to ask an overworked boss for a raise? Could you offer to take over a critical task that you actually find fun in exchange for said raise? Such ideas often arise long before the negotiation begins.
  3. You’ll anticipate potential pain points. Steering clear of needless controversies and exposed nerves is often a prerequisite to a deal. Otherwise, all the creative tradeoffs in the world won’t get you to yes. Playing a guessing game often surfaces plenty of pain points. Does your overworked boss seem overly insecure about his or her own performance? Better frame your offer to take over some work as an effort to learn from the boss’s expertise.
  4. You’ll generate trust. People who play pre-negotiation guessing games tend to mention the products of those games during the negotiation itself. “I was wondering whether you’re interested in / concerned about / hoping for X?” Such statements not only open the spigot of information-sharing; they also convey your own earnest interest in the counterpart’s welfare, thereby signaling your trustworthiness.
  5. You’ll develop a healthy sense of humility. Without playing a pre-negotiation guessing game, we often think of our counterparts as automatons who reflexively seek to deny our every hope and dream. Pre-negotiation guessing games help to remind us that they’re humans too, complete with needs, wishes, and aspirations of their own. Humanization can go a long way toward a good deal (and being a good person).

Silly as a guessing game alone may seem, then, it’s well-worth my students’ time before their simulated negotiations—and yours before your real negotiations. Guess right or guess wrong, I’ll guess that you start negotiating better.

Who’s your negotiation hero?

Students often ask me to name a negotiation hero—the one person who most epitomizes the lessons taught in class. Presumably they expect me to identify a corporate titan like Jack Welch, a politician like our Negotiator-in-Chief, or even a high-powered sporting agent like Scott Boras.

So imagine their consternation when I politely decline to answer. “But why?” they ask, figuring I just took the world’s biggest cop-out.

I didn’t. I answered that way for a reason, and the reason cuts to the heart of the difference between real negotiation and mythical negotiation, an understanding of which can make life substantially more negotiable. That being the case, let me take this opportunity to share the reason for my refusal. I never name a negotiation hero because:

  1. Real negotiation heroes don’t publicize their accomplishments. Unlike mythical negotiators, who love to broadcast their conquests, real negotiation heroes generally hold their victories close to the vest—perhaps out of humility or perhaps to avoid alerting their future counterparts. People who keep their accomplishments guarded are not particularly easy to identify.
  2. Real negotiation heroes don’t reveal themselves in huge deals. Since most of the negotiations we encounter on a daily basis concern mundane challenges—dishes, discounts, difficulties at work—real negotiation heroes show their stuff in subtle ways. They might do the huge deal occasionally, but they more often solve the simple problem gracefully. Navigating daily life with finesse is unlikely to show up in the newspaper.
  3. Real negotiation heroes look nothing like mythical negotiators. Whereas mythical negotiators are aggressive jerks who pound the table until the other side utterly caves to their egregious monetary demands, real negotiation heroes tend to be quiet, analytical problem-solvers who devise creative, value-creating solutions to complex problems. Hardly the stuff of the evening news.
  4. Real negotiation heroes make the people around them feel that way. You won’t even know a negotiation hero when you talk to one. Instead, you’ll walk away from the conversation feeling like a negotiation hero yourself. Real negotiation heroes know how to create and spread the value around, leaving everyone feeling heroic rather than overawed by the true hero. If we can’t spot the negotiation heroes across the table, how can we spot them from afar?
  5. Real negotiation heroes may not realize it themselves. Real negotiation heroes probably spend less time reflecting on their own prowess and more time reflecting on the problems all around them. They may feel satisfied after working through a conflict or surmounting a challenge, but they’ll probably move on to the next conflict or challenge quickly rather than firing off a self-congratulatory tweet. If we can’t spot the negotiation heroes inside ourselves…

In sum, real negotiation heroes are nearly impossible to detect—and nothing like the people in our minds. The upside? Those of us who consider ourselves hapless at the bargaining table may actually find something heroic down deep.

When to part with your Plan B

I’ve often alluded to the need to develop a BATNA: a next-best option or plan B if the current negotiation fails. Any negotiation instructor worth their salt will give the same advice. But the advice also raises a critical conundrum that often goes unanswered: when to let your BATNA go. When’s the right time to exercise plan A and let your fallback option go their merry way?

Since knowing when to part with your BATNA can dictate both your economic outcomes and your long-term reputation, thereby making life more or less negotiable, let’s consider five questions that can inform a decision about letting your BATNA go. If you’d like, consider these questions in the context of two job offers, one of which you prefer (plan A) to the other (plan B):

  1. Am I certain about plan A? Plan B effectively offers insurance against the collapse of plan A. So if plan A is far from certain—if someone from plan A has mentioned but not confirmed you’ll get a job offer, for example—then it’s probably better to retain plan B.


  1. Is plan B starting to feel that way? No one likes to feel like a fallback. If you’ve been stringing plan B along, stalling sketchily while they eagerly await an answer, chances are they will. Since the associated damage to your reputation may start to outweigh the benefits of a fallback, you should consider parting ways.
  2. Would I ever say yes to plan B? Maybe it’s the reluctance to say no, or the fear of cold decisiveness. Either way, people frequently retain BATNAs that they would never in a million years exercise. If you would never say yes to your best alternative—if it’s a job you couldn’t possibly envision yourself doing, for example—it’s only right to say no, and quickly.
  3. Are you preventing your plan B from exercising theirs? Oftentimes, your BATNA’s offer to you is preventing them from exercising their own BATNA, e.g., an offer to somebody else. If you are standing in the way of their doing so for no clear reason, it’s probably better to part ways.
  4. How small of a world is it? If you and your BATNA will never again cross paths—not even on the interweb—then you might consider retaining them a big longer. Are you dealing with a used car dealer in the middle of nowhere? But in the considerably more common situation where you and your BATNA both inhabit a small world, I’d suggest treading much more carefully. Will your stringing-alonging follow you around till the end of time? Will every future employer in your industry / city / profession know how fallbackish your current BATNA felt? If so, then treat them with extreme caution and respect, if only for this fairly self-focused reason.

In sum, good negotiators know to cultivate a BATNA. Great and responsible negotiators know to never string a BATNA along unnecessarily. Here’s hoping that these five questions help you navigate these ethically fraught waters.

Mythical images of negotiation

Picture a negotiation. What comes to mind? Two people, explicitly negotiating for a fixed period of time, over a fixed set of issues, from opposite sides of a table. Right?

Common and obvious as that image may be, I’m here to tell you that it represents precious few negotiations in the real world. Outside of our minds and negotiation classrooms, negotiations look a whole lot different—and a whole lot messier.

Since detecting a negotiation can prompt you to think and act more strategically, thereby making life more negotiable, let’s look at five features of many negotiations in the real world. Throughout, please imagine an omnipresent, real-world negotiation situation: your desire to convince your work colleagues to do something:

  1. Multiple (or many) people: Real-world negotiations rarely involve just two people. Convincing your work colleagues to do anything consequential, for example, will probably require you to talk to at least a few of them, possibly at a few levels of hierarchy and in a few departments. At a minimum, you’ll have to CC them on the emails.
  2. Nobody (or not everybody) detects a negotiation: In the real world, people don’t typically sit down and think, “let’s negotiate” or “we’re negotiating.” Rather, they have a problem or goal, which they bring to a variety of other people in a variety of subsequent situations. In the entire duration of your negotiation with work colleagues, for example, it’s doubtful that anybody (with the possible exception of you) will explicitly label your efforts a negotiation.
  3. Long and uncertain period of time: Real-world negotiations don’t usually fit neatly into a 30- or 45-minute boxes. They happen in fits and starts over long and uncertain periods of time, erupting in an explosion of activity at certain (seemingly random) times and languishing in long periods of inactivity. To convince your organizational colleagues, for example, you’ll probably solicit some informal feedback, meet with your boss, slowly socialize the idea among your colleagues, and withstand a long period of messy implementation discussions. That’s all negotiation.
  4. Fluid issues: Real-world negotiations don’t usually fit neatly into 1-4 discrete and mutually exclusive issues, easily quantified. They involve an uncertain set of issues at the outset, at best. Subsequently, some issues meander onto the table unexpectedly. And other issues fall by the wayside inexplicably. You probably won’t anticipate all of your colleagues’ concerns with your suggestion at the outset, for example, nor will all of those concerns necessarily have anything to do with the final solution.
  5. Fluid communications: In the real-world, precious few negotiations occur in formal meetings at physical tables. Sure, you’ll have a few formal meetings to promote your plan, but you’ll also have an array of phone calls, Skype calls, emails, water-cooler chats, and chance encounters in the elevator. The entire messy process is a negotiation.

From this discussion, it’s easy to see that the negotiations in our minds look very little like many of the negotiations in our real lives. It seems that we hold mythical images of negotiation in addition to mythical images of negotiators. In both cases, it’s important to recognize the differences, as we’ll otherwise fail to deploy our best negotiation skills (or succeed in deploying the wrong ones). So here’s hoping this post helps you identify the negotiations and negotiators you’ll most likely in the real world.

Contracts as conversation starters

If you’ve ever hired a contractor, you know there’s something about a contract that makes it seem final. Maybe it’s the careful calculations, detailed specifications, or numerous terms and conditions. Regardless, there’s something about most contracts that make them seem like the end of the discussion. But I’m here to tell you that a contract is often only the beginning, and that assuming as much can make life much more negotiable.

A quick story to illustrate:

My sisters and I wanted to buy a snowplowing service for my parents for Christmas (don’t worry—they already know about the contract). Having contacted several companies for quotes, I received a contract that included a charge for each visit—and an increasingly large charge depending on the snowfall amount. That would be fine for a snowplowing service in Florida, but my parents live in a much snowier location, and my sisters and I only had a fixed amount of money to spend. So I requested protection against a huge bill in the form of another contract that charged a fixed amount. The snowplowing company obliged, but the fixed amount was high enough to make me worry about the possibility of a Florida-like year, in which case we would be vastly overpaying. So I requested one more revision to the contract—a rebate if the company did not have to visit much at all. The company again obliged, offering to waive a third of the cost if it didn’t happen to snow much. Overall, we got a great service that will take care of the lion’s share of the snow, but will also protect us against vastly over- or under-paying.

I relate this long and winding tale not because I think you’re particularly interested in snowplowing. I relate it because it illustrates how treating a contract as a conversation starter can often be the only way to get the kind of contract you need. And getting the contract you need is often the only way to make life negotiable. So the takeaway is simple: don’t take a contract’s calculations, specifications, or terms and conditions as an indication of finality. Take the contract as an opening gambit, in an ongoing discussion, about an agreement that makes everyone happy.

Giving away freebies: An “irrational” business strategy

Business 101: When a customer asks you to do some service or provide some good, find a way to charge them. Right? Wrong. Well, not entirely wrong, but let me tell you about an important set of situations in which giving away freebies can actually make selling more negotiable.

First, a series of stories:

I seem to have a lot of problems with my tires. A front tire was recently deflating constantly, causing me to spend more time at the air pump than the dinner table. I took the car to the local Goodyear, who informed me that the valve wasn’t positioned correctly, causing air to escape. They fixed it, they said, and even replaced the valve just in case. “How much do I owe you?” I said, reaching for my wallet. “Nothing,” they said. “It was quick, and valves don’t cost much.”

Then, about a month later, my hubcap randomly fell off. I went to the same local Goodyear, asking for assistance in installing a new one, as the process seemed about as simple as a differential equation. “Sure,” they said, “We’ll take care of it.” And they did, in about a minute. Then they again insisted on charging me nothing.

Perhaps these stories seem the epitome of stupidity. Goodyear offered their valuable time twice to assist me with some silly tire problems. And each time, they insisted on charging me nada. How could that possibly represent sound strategy?

Because they knew well enough that I was a new customer who would eventually need a very expensive full tire replacement. And they knew that when I did, I’d think of the local Goodyear instead of the slimy local dealer who is more than happy to charge a hundred dollars for a wingnut. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. I needed a full tire replacement on another car very soon after, and my appreciation for the freebies turned into nearly $600 in revenue.

So what’s the negotiation principle? That people choose to engage with counterparts they trust—and avoid those they don’t. And that people especially choose to engage with those they not only trust but feel beholden to, as I did to the generous Goodyear. So part of any negotiation is eking out the biggest possible profit right now. But another and potentially more important part is generating enough goodwill to keep the counterparts coming in the future.

In sum, to all the rational thinkers who advise us to monetize as much and as often as possible, I’d say this: That may be a smart strategy in the short-term—the very, very short-term. But research on trust and reciprocity would suggest that it’s likely to shoot you in the foot in the medium term, by which I mean anything longer than the very, very short term. The pursuit of self-interest, it seems, may involve at least a short stop at the way-station of generosity.