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.

Getting to no: Three more reasons that you might want to disagree

Even before the first class in my negotiation courses, I always ask my students to read Getting to Yes. Indisputably the most influential book on negotiations, it breaks down the misconception that negotiations are necessarily combative, presenting four principles to help readers identify win-win solutions instead.

It’s a great book, and that’s why I assign it. But in the first class, I also tell my students that it’s got at least one major problem: its title. Because “getting to yes” implies that the goal of negotiation is reaching agreement. And often it is, but sometimes it’s not. If my students don’t learn to tell the difference, they open themselves up to calamity.

And the same goes for you—and me, and everyone else. Knowing when to get to no—when it’s actually better to walk away from the table instead of reaching a crummy agreement—is essential for making life negotiable. So let’s consider three common situations when you should consider setting your cooperative instincts aside, agreeing to disagree instead:

  1. When you’ve got a better alternative. If you can buy a car for $20,000 at another dealer, don’t pay $21,000 for the same car at this one. Pretty obvious, right? Yes in theory, no in practice. Although we know we shouldn’t agree to something obviously inferior, many of us still do. We can’t resist the sweet smile of dealer sitting across the current table. Or we’d feel guilty abandoning him after taking so much of his time. Or we convince ourselves that it’s not really worth a thousand dollars to deal with another car dealer, even though it definitely is. All of these issues contribute to the agreement bias: our well-known tendency to agree to inferior deals. Luckily, now that you know about it, you won’t have to do it.
  2. When the process or outcome would be questionable. Sometimes you’ve got a perfectly good deal cooking, but something about the whole affair just doesn’t smell right. Perhaps the deal is prefaced upon a conveniently omitted fact. Or it would damage a really important relationship. Or it would make you tremendous amounts of money at a vulnerable party’s else’s expense. Although the temptation is to charge ahead, chances are that you’d eventually land in hot water—with your own conscience if no one else. Another good time to walk away.
  3. When you need more time to decide. Sometimes you’ve got a perfectly good deal cooked up and it seems perfectly ethical, but you’re still not sure you should settle. Why? Because you don’t have a better alternative at the moment but suspect you will soon. Perhaps you found a nice little house and are tempted to make a nice little offer, but you’re secretly afraid that a nicer, bigger house might come on the market if you waited a week. Negotiations are not static occurrences; they take place over time, which means your alternatives can change with time. Although there’s no perfect way to know what the future will bring, few of us having a perfectly clear crystal ball, the suspicion that you might have a better alternative tomorrow is a good reason to get to no today.

These are just three examples, but they highlight an important fact that will make life negotiable: agreements are nice, and reaching them is often a nice goal. But our real goal is achieving outcomes that make us and the people around us happy. When our current negotiation won’t do that, we’re best off walking. In praise of disagreement again!

Have you ever walked away and known you did the right thing?