Win-win or win-whatever? Setting our sights just a little bit lower in negotiations

Why is it that most people—even those who take (or teach) negotiation classes—still find it hard to negotiate? I’m here to argue for one of many reasons: the possibility that in many situations, most of us set our sights just a little too high.

Anyone who’s taken (or taught) a negotiation class can summarize the course in a single phrase: “win-win.” But now let me convince you of a less ambitious but potentially more common and attainable goal that can still make life negotiable: win-whatever.

A story to explain:

My two daughters recently visited a fine-dining establishment—let’s call it Chick-pat-E—both receiving the same book as a giveaway with their kids meal. Arriving at home, one put their book on the table, and the other let theirs fall to the floor. Which is which, no one knows.

Later that day, my six-year-old arrived at the table, claimed the table-book as her own, and started to read it. My three-year-old, witnessing said events, developed uncontrollable fits of rage. “That’s my book!” she insisted immediately, repeatedly, and with increasing levels of agitation. Now, I had no idea whose book was whose, but I leaned over to my six-year-old, winked at her, and asked her to be the “big girl” by accepting the (identical) book on the floor. And my six-year-old, to her great credit and with the benefit of three years, begrudgingly recognized that it really didn’t matter. So she gave the table-book to the three-year-old and accepted the floor-book as her own. A win for my three-year-old and a whatever for my six-year-old.

Now what would a win-win have looked like? Perhaps the three-year-old could’ve claimed the table-book today and the six-year-old could’ve claimed it tomorrow? Or the three-year-old could’ve gotten first dibs at the next Chick-pat-E giveaway? Or the six-year-old could’ve gotten the table-book but gifted one of her other books to the three-year-old? All interesting and innovative solutions but hard to execute in the presence of an increasingly agitated three-year-old. A win-win in this case would’ve been awfully difficult.

Reflecting on the story, is it possible that many of us find it hard to negotiate because we’re shooting just a bit too high? Are we ambitiously aiming for win-win when a win-whatever would really do? As great as win-wins can be—and I really believe it—I’d suggest that win-whatevers are often much easier to find and execute. And I do suggest, in my negotiation classes, that they’re just as important for getting to yes. So, the next time you’re struggling to identify a win-win way of divvying up housework, deciding on work responsibilities, or allocating giveaways from Chick-pat-E, consider setting your sights just a little bit lower—not way lower on conflict or avoidance or win-loss. Just a little bit lower on win-whatever. I think you’ll start to see indifference as a virtue.

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Negotiating Life’s Non-Negotiables

My posts routinely suggest that life becomes negotiable when we apply some simple scientific principles from negotiation research. But we all know that not everything’s negotiable. The weather (it’s been raining in Maryland for months), our own health (we all face the fickle hand of fate), the state of American politics (nuff said). Some things just can’t be negotiated.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not negotiable!

Indeed, non-negotiable issues often force us to negotiate with ourselves, and those same scientific principles can still make our own intra-individual negotiations more negotiable. To see what I mean, consider the following five principles as they relate to negotiations with ourselves:

  1. Interests: Negotiation research advises you to ascertain your counterpart’s interests (their underlying needs, desires, and priorities). But in the face of circumstances we can’t control—say the perpetual cloud hanging over my home state—we would all do well to examine our own. Is it in our own interests, long-term, to worry about the weather? Probably not. (See health point above.)
  2. Integrative solutions: Negotiation research emphasizes that outcomes don’t need to hurt one party to benefit the other. Likewise, we’ve all heard that every cloud has a silver lining. In the case of Maryland’s many clouds, the silver lining has been my ability to focus on writing rather than the many distractions associated with a sunny day. So Mother Nature’s perverse pleasure in raining on me meshes well with my very appropriate pleasure in being productive.
  3. BATNA: Negotiation research urges to consider your Plan B. In the case of uncontrollable events, that exercise could actually help you realize that the event is a teeny bit negotiable. What’s your alternative to complaining about the political state of our country? Finding a way to get involved and change whatever small corner of it you can, as many people have (recently).
  4. Ratification: Negotiation research teaches us, when we’re deep in the heart of a contentious negotiation, to step away and think about it before acting rashly. Similarly, people who happen to get all worked up about politicians or entire branches of government often find it useful to consider another topic before taking to Twitter.
  5. Negotiating in teams: Negotiation research teaches us that two heads are often better than one at the bargaining table. When it comes to life’s uncontrollable and sometimes insurmountable challenges, two heads are surely better than one. Indeed, finding a way to obtain some social support and tackle the non-negotiable together is probably the most productive way to make it negotiable after all.

These are just examples—and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek—about the relevance of negotiation research for the intra-individual negotiations that often attend non-negotiable events. But the serious point is that many of us are our own toughest negotiation counterparts. Life becomes negotiable when we realize we don’t have to be.

What they’re asking for vs. what they want

Businesspeople commonly assume that customers’ requests correspond closely to their underlying needs. If he asks for the S version, he must want a sportier (yet costlier) ride. If she asks for a specific species of tree, she must want something beautiful (yet eventually ginormous). The customer is always right! But I’m here to tell you that the correlation between whatever people ask for and whatever they’re actually trying to accomplish—in business and many other arenas of life—is not statistically significant. And appreciating as much can make business (and life) more negotiable.

To see what I mean, imagine a customer in the process of renovating their kitchen—not that I’ve been there. The friendly contractor asks the dutiful customer: Can you please go to this website, take a look, and let me know what type of countertop material you want? Then, the customer dutifully examines the website and comes back to the contractor with a specific request. Quartzite!

Now what will the typical contractor assume? This customer wants something beautiful and durable and doesn’t mind an exorbitant price, not to mention continuous maintenance . But why might that conclusion be mistaken? Consider three reasons:

  1. The customer doesn’t know what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s a fact. Many people just don’t know what they’re really trying to accomplish, especially when considering a complex, multifaceted, and multidimensional problem like the countertop that will best suit their needs in the long run. So they dutifully examine the website and pick a countertop they think will meet their needs, but it won’t because they haven’t identified those needs very accurately in the first place.
  2. The customer knows what they’re trying to accomplish but doesn’t know how to accomplish it. Many customers, confronted with a website detailing thousands of countertop options, each with several thousand attributes, simply go into cognitive arrest. They simply can’t fathom the overwhelming volume of information, much less the time involved in considering it all carefully. So they simply select the first one that seems, at first glance, to minimally satisfy whatever bar they’re trying to clear. This tendency, commonly known as satisficing, can easily lead to a suboptimal request even if the customer knows exactly what they’re trying to accomplish.
  3. The customer knows what they’re trying to accomplish and how to accomplish it but is too afraid to ask. Many customers, facing a busy contractor booked out months in advance, know they would be best served by something cheap. Formica’s what I need! But they’re afraid the contractor will laugh at them, make a haughty snorting noise, or decide the project’s not worth their time. So the customer asks for something better than what they really need. But wait—isn’t that good for the contractor? Any contractor worth their salt knows it won’t be in the long run, when the bills come in or the customer starts talking to friends who really need a contractor to install some quartzite.

So never assume that requests correspond with needs! And don’t think selling is the only context when that assumption falls flat! Spouses, children, and work colleagues have all been known, on occasion, to make requests that correspond loosely with their underlying needs. Anticipating as much can make life negotiable!

Renovating a room? Three more reasons to get multiple quotes

I’ve previously advised you, when hiring a contractor, to obtain several quotes. And I’ve so-advised for a specific reason—a reason that most negotiation instructors would fully endorse: because you’ll then have an alternative, providing leverage over the preferred contractor’s price. But I’m here to suggest some less recognized but no less important reasons to engage with multiple parties—reasons that can easily make your contracting more negotiable.

Consider just three:

  1. You learn about the issue: We’re currently pondering a bathroom renovation and have invited several contractors over to offer their ideas. And simply by talking to several independent parties, I’ve learned all kinds of interesting and esoteric things about bathrooms—from the building codes about medicine cabinets to the standard height of a toe kick (in addition to what a toe kick is). Had I talked to just one party, I would’ve amassed few such nuggets of information—nuggets that will inevitably inform the final decision.
  2. You hear lots of ideas: You’d think: one bathroom, one set of possibilities. But then you’d be wrong. Each contractor has offered an entirely different vision for the same space, multiple layouts with markedly different advantages and disadvantages. Had I talked to just one party, I might’ve been showering in some awfully strange places or paying to move some awfully expensive pipes.
  3. You learn about your own preferences: Talk to a neoclassical economist, and they’ll probably tell you that you understand your own preferences. Talk to me, and I can tell you that, if I had any a priori preferences about a bathroom renovation, I had no idea what they were. But in the process of conversing with multiple contractors, I’ve come to develop some rather refined renovation preferences. Slate floor? Only if it’s smoothed. Oval mirror? Looks awfully nice between some rectangular cabinets. Only by talking to multiple parties did I come to understand myself.

So, talking to multiple parties is not just about driving the price down. It’s also about understanding whatever it is you’re negotiating about—as well as yourself. Without that, no discount will make your bathroom negotiable.

Five pernicious assumptions that your service providers make about you

If you’re like me, then virtually every week brings an unexpected fee hike. Take last week, when both my cable bill and cellular bill unexpectedly jumped $20 a month. “How in the world can our service providers have such gall?”, you might ask.

Well, let me tell you how: they make five common, negotiation-related assumptions about me and you and everyone else—assumptions that the average consumer consistently proves correct. But by understanding and disproving these assumptions, you, the non-average consumer, can make life negotiable.

Specifically, your service providers consistently assume that:

  1. You won’t notice the fee increase: Your service providers commonly believe they can slip one by you—that you are one of those people who doesn’t scrutinize their statements or e-bills or direct withdrawals. Prove them wrong by approaching your bills with the mindfulness of a novice operating a power tool.
  2. You won’t have the courage to call: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you do notice the fee increase, you’ll probably be too wimpy to pick up the phone and call them on it. Prove them wrong by putting their number into your speed dial.
  3. You won’t have the time to call: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice and muster the courage to call, you won’t have the time to. This, I must say, is probably where they get the most people, stretched as we all are. But prove them wrong by thinking not about whether it’s worth your time to dispute the $20, but whether it’s worth your time to dispute the $20 x 12 months. Then multiply that amount by the number of service providers likely to jack up your fees in the near future.
  4. If you do call, a simple no will suffice: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice the fee hike and assemble both the courage and the time to call, they’ll be able to dissuade you with a simple “no.” For example, “No, that pricing promotion has ended, so we can’t put you back on it.” Prove them wrong by asking a different question. For example: “Ok, is there a different active promotion that would bring me back to the same price?” (That exact question eliminated the two $20 fee hikes mentioned above.)
  5. You won’t be willing to walk away: Worst case, your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice and call and fight for your case, you won’t walk away and go with another provider if you have to. Prove them wrong by calling with a quote from another provider in-hand. Then ask to connect with the cancellation department, which almost always proves more pliable.

In sum, your service providers are banking on your being inattentive, wimpy, busy, gullible, and certain to surrender eventually. If you want to make life negotiable, you have no alternative to proving them wrong. Unlike your service providers, I assume that you can.

Three surprising advantages of negotiating with multiple people

Many of our negotiations feature several counterparts: It’s us on one side of the table and a couple of people across it. Faced with multiple counterparts, even the experienced negotiator quakes in their boots. How can we, our lone selves, contend with multiple opponents? But a recent multiparty negotiation at the dentist’s office reminded me that these types of negotiations do not necessarily redound to our disadvantage—they sometimes afford us, the lone negotiator, some interesting, information-related advantages.

Background for the story: One of my teeth is slightly chipped. On a recent trip to the dentist, I considered inquiring about the possibility of fixing it with a filling. Let’s review the rest of the story and thereby surface some benefits of negotiating against multiple parties, in the hopes of making life negotiable.

  1. You can compare the information offered by each party. Before inquiring with the dentist about the filling, I decided to inquire with the friendly hygienist. Specifically, I asked her whether, after sinking a boatload of load of money into an expensive filling, it would stay in for more than five minutes. “On that tooth, it’s hard to keep the filling in there for long,” she said. Then, after the hygienist had left the room and dentist had entered, I re-asked the same question. “Oh, that will definitely stay in for a long time,” the dentist assured me. Same question—two very different answers. Interesting.
  2. You can take action based on the information disparities. Hearing the discrepancy between the hygienist’s and dentist’s opinions, I started to experience some uncertainty as to its source. Did the discrepancy reflect the dentist’s advanced training or…eh hem…his other interests? So I asked him about the possibility of a contingency contract in which he would guarantee the filling for a certain period of time or give me my money back. He very begrudgingly agreed, suggesting the discrepancy reflected his advanced training, sort of.
  3. You can control the information you provide to each party. At this point, the hygienist reentered the room, and the dentist overoptimistically interpreted our conversation as indicating I was ready to schedule an appointment for the filling immediately. And before I could correct his overzealousness, he had shaken my hand and left. The hygienist, in turn, walked me upfront, repeated the dentist’s message to the scheduler, and wished me well. But before the scheduler had even opened her Outlook calendar, I seized the opportunity to tell her that I was actually only interested in learning more about the procedure—specifically, its price and whether my insurance would cover it. So I asked her whether she would call me with the price, at which point I would consider and call her back (a form of ratification). The introduction of this third counterpart, the scheduler, was all that saved me from an expensive and premature agreement.

In sum, the next time you find yourself on one side of a table and multiple people on the other, don’t panic. In many ways, you, the lone negotiator, have the informational advantage. Seize it!

When the equality rule fails: The case of four shells

If I’ve learned one thing as a negotiation professor, it’s that the fairest and most obvious ways of dividing resources often seem unfair and non-obvious to the parties involved. Consider the equality rule. What could be fairer than a 50-50 split? Unfortunately, the parties embroiled in a negotiation don’t always see it that way. So we need an alternative approach to make life negotiable.

To illustrate the dilemma and a set of potential solutions, let me recount a story.

My family and I recently visited the beach. One morning, I took a long run and decided to pick up some cool shells for my five- and three-year-old daughters. At first, I found three shells, thinking that more than sufficient. But then I remembered that three shells allocated to two young ladies would elicit open warfare. So I searched high and low for a fourth, finding an amazing orange one that I expected to settle the matter. Two shells for each daughter. Equality rule!

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. And I should’ve seen it coming: Both daughters regarded the orange shell as way cooler than the others, so both daughters clamored for it.

The equality rule, so obvious in theory, completely failed in practice. And what to do then? I have to admit, I didn’t immediately know, as I was shell-shocked at this incomprehensible failure of the obvious. With reflection though, I came to see that the situation actually presented many different solutions:

  • Flip a coin: I could flip to determine the lucky recipient of the orange shell, give that daughter one more, and give the other daughter the remaining two. Problem is, someone would be incredibly dissatisfied with the fickle hand of fate.
  • Share the orange shell: If the equality rule didn’t work, maybe a quasi-communist rule would. We could all agree to share the orange shell, which is great but would bring all the baggage of common property, even while leaving three shells to divide among two people.
  • Search for another orange shell: Perhaps the ideal option, this one came with an obvious problem: I’ve never seen a shell quite like that. That’s why everyone liked it. So it wasn’t going to work.
  • Return the orange shell to its marine home and find a fourth: While this would’ve technically solved the problem, any parent can tell you that it would’ve elicited far bigger problems.
  • Let the daughters sort it out: They need to learn that life’s negotiable after all, so why not let them figure out a solution of their own? I have to admit that I considered this option carefully, but I thought it might be better to guide them toward a solution.
  • Three-for-one trade: I could give one daughter the orange shell and the other daughter all three of the more pedestrian shells. That seemed promising, but they flatly rejected it. Three pedestrian shells apparently did not compare to a glorious orange one.
  • Figure it out later: Having ruled out all the other obvious solutions, I could think of only one more at the time. Why not wait until the initial allure of the orange shell had worn off a bit? Then maybe everyone’s rationality would return, making the sort-it-out or three-for-one solutions more feasible. And that’s essentially what I did, hoping for a three-for-one. Turns out, the problem got a whole lot easier when someone mentioned the candy store, and everyone forgot the shells.

So what’s the point of all this? First, that even the simplest and least controversial of situations can generate unexpected conflicts and the need for negotiation. Second, that the equality rule can easily fall flat, and we have to be flexible enough to abandon it. Finally, that the key to any negotiation really comes down a combination of creativity and patience. Once the negotiator engages their creativity and indulges their patience long enough to generate some options, a workable solution usually presents itself. Combine a little creativity and patience, and life’s a beach!