Declaring yourself a negotiation superhero—By considering your plan B

Worried about an upcoming negotiation? Dreading the back-and-forth? The fast ones your counterpart is sure to pull when you’re not looking? Well, don’t fear: here’s a research-based suggestion that can make negotiations negotiable: actively thinking about your BATNA.

I’ve repeatedly discussed the importance of BATNA: your Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement, or simply your Plan B. As noted by me and countless other negotiation researchers, having and knowing and improving your BATNA lets you walk away from an unproductive negotiation. Less appreciated, I think, is the way that actively thinking about your BATNA before a negotiation can steel you for some upcoming bargaining—at least when your BATNA is decently attractive.

To see what I mean, imagine you’re about to talk to a flooring contractor who is likely to quote you an unattractive price. Imagine further that you have another decent quote in-hand, and you’d like to get your flooring upgraded but really don’t need to. You detest negotiation in general—and especially with pushy salespeople. Accordingly, you’re dreading the upcoming interaction and secretly hoping he calls to cancel.

In this situation, most people are so consumed with worry that they simply forget about their BATNA. Somewhere in the back of their brains, they know that they can always walk away from an overly pushy contractor, but they don’t actively focus on the fact that this guy is just one minor blip in a long list of potential next steps.

But why not?

Why not stop, forget about the pushy contractor, and refocus on the fact that you don’t really need this guy’s flooring, or really any flooring at all? Thinking like that, you’ll realize that it’s the pushy contractor who should be nervous: It’s he who stands to lose a large chunk of change if you don’t like his proposal—he who’d better fear the formidable you and your ability to bolt. Thinking like that, you can confidently place your hands on your hips, puff out your chest, and declare yourself a negotiation superhero.

So the next time you’re fearing an upcoming negotiation, stop thinking about it! And refocus on the fact that you don’t really need it, that you have a plan B.

It’s a powerful strategy but comes with two obvious caveats: First, it obviously falls flat if your BATNA is bad. If your foot is falling through to the basement and all alternative quotes are unbearably expensive, it clearly won’t really help to consider them (though we often vastly overestimate the unattractiveness of our alternatives). Second, it’s not a great idea to keep thinking about your BATNA when the guy actually appears at your doorstep. Instead, as noted elsewhere, you should shift your attention toward your target when negotiating and only return to your BATNA at the end.

So let this be the beginning of the end of your negotiation fears! Our alternatives are often far better than we think, if we really think about them—and we should.

What’s my alternative?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Negotiation lessons from the safety patrol

I recently volunteered to serve as safety patrolman for my neighborhood. In essence, this involved trolling around the neighborhood at night, making sure no one (i.e., no teenager) was breaking community rules (e.g., loitering at the community beach) or even breaking the law (e.g., defacing said beach).

Since my duties tended to bring the community’s interests (and my own) into conflict with the interests of others (i.e., teenagers), these duties introduced several opportunities to negotiate. Accordingly, the experience reminded me of several important negotiation principles, which I thought I’d share in the hope of making life more negotiable.

  1. Interrupting other peoples’ interests is not particularly pleasant. Who wants to act as the killjoy that spoils some lovestruck teenagers’ lovely evening on the pier, shining a flashlight right in the face of affection? Not me, nor many others I know. In general, I remembered that interests consisting of interrupting other people’s interests are not particularly pleasant to pursue. With that said…
  2. It’s easier when you’re representing others. While less than lovely to give some young lovers (or young tokers) the boot, it was made much easier by the underlying motive: I wasn’t being a killjoy of my own accord. I was doing the community’s bidding, essentially representing the will of several hundred people. In general, I remembered that representing other people often strengthens your resolve. What’s more…
  3. Symbols help. The job of patrolman does have some benefits. I got to drive around with a flashing orange light on my car and wear a flashy orange vest apparently stolen from the Village People. Ridiculous to me and anyone who knew me, these symbols were quite intimidating to teenagers, for whom they legitimized my annoying requests. Perhaps for this reason, the experience also reminded me that…
  4. Most people comply. Thankfully, precious few teenagers protested. Sure, there were the aspiring few negotiators who tried to convince me that they were, for example, “just enjoying the lighting show.” But even these enterprising young negotiators agreed to clear the beach, as per community rules, after a further request. Perhaps they realized that…
  5. It’s good to have an obvious and powerful alternative. Any lip from these teenagers and I had the community and county’s approval to reel in the long arm of the law (i.e., call the police). A strong alternative for me, albeit not one I was particularly eager to engage. A weak alternative for the teenagers, who would find themselves with a rap sheet before even completing their FAFSA.

These examples are probably a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the lessons are real. They highlight, once again, that negotiations truly surround us. And they reminded me—and can remind us all—that negotiating power comes from the surrounding situation at least as much as your prowess.

What’s up, doc? Negotiating in healthcare

Most of us spend more on healthcare than we’d like to—more, in some cases, than our annual car or mortgage payments. That being the case, why do we spend so much time negotiating the terms of our cars and houses, and so little the terms of our healthcare?

Frankly, the negotiation professor in me just doesn’t know. From my perspective, a few simple principles from the research literature on negotiation can make our healthcare much more negotiable. Just a few illustrative examples:

  1. Setting high aspirations. Negotiation research consistently shows that those who set and stick to aggressive goals tend to achieve better outcomes. With respect to our own bodies, though, I suspect many of us are dissuaded from our goal of ideal health when a well-intentioned doctor tell us “there’s nothing wrong,” or “you’re just fine,” even when we know there is and we’re not.
  2. Reiterating our core interests. Negotiation research shows that the most effective negotiators are those who hew to a consistent script—reiterating their core problem or motivation as consistently and repeatedly as possible. This seems particularly important in healthcare, when we often have to answer the very similar questions of a seemingly endless series of people. On a visit to the ER, for example, we might have to state our symptoms to the front desk, triage nurse, attending nurse, doctor, radiologist, and so it goes. The more consistent our message to each person, even in response to slightly different turns-of-phrase, the better our chances of proper treatment.
  3. Cultivating an alternative: The best negotiators always develop an alternative possibility—another car or house they’d be willing to buy, for example. Negotiating the terms of an alternative affords them power in their primary negotiation but also, importantly, helps them learn about whatever they’re negotiating. What price should I really offer for my preferred Corvette? Some of us cultivate an alternative in healthcare by obtaining a second opinion. But I suspect that some of us don’t because we think the doctor will get offended. Assuming we’re at least as motivated to learn about our health as our cars, I’d suggest we should.
  4. Asking questions: The best negotiators ask a lot of questions. Indeed, they probably use their listening ears more than their speaking lips. Well, few contexts are quite as rife for questions as the cryptic explanation of benefits. $392.54 for an octowhatgraphy with Dr. Whosehisname? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that calling the insurance company and asking about it not only helps me mitigate confusion. It also turns up quite a few clerical errors that end up saving me money.
  5. Just asking: Asking a lot of questions is great, but even more basic is asking in the first place. The best negotiators are those who simply ask for whatever they need or want rather than expecting their counterpart to guess. But I suspect that few of us really ask for what we want in healthcare, mainly because we think we can’t—especially with a high-status doctor across the table. Lower prices, less invasive procedures, fewer unnecessary appointments: it’s all worth an ask if it matters.

In short, few aspects of our own lives are more important than our health. So why not do what we can to negotiate a healthier deal?