“Negotiation” naturally connotes talking—and lots of it.
But if I’ve learned anything as a negotiation professor, it’s that the students who shine in our simulated negotiations are not the ones who do the most talking. They’re the ones who approach negotiations in comparable silence. Not an intense, brooding silence precipitating a calamitous impasse. But a pensive, respectful silence that lets their counterparts sound off.
Since a quiet approach can make even the toughest negotiations negotiable, let’s consider a few of the many benefits of keeping our collective traps shut at the bargaining table:
- They’ll start talking. What do most of us do when a conversation partner falls unexpectedly and utterly silent? Squirm in our chair, searching for something—anything—to say. I can easily demonstrate it in class by stopping smack-dab in the middle of a thought and looking sweetly at the students. They hate it! Someone always giggles, then someone coughs, then someone comments. The same is true in negotiation. If you can summon the courage to bite your tongue unexpectedly, chances are that your counterpart won’t bite theirs. Instead, they’ll probably launch into a monologue on their own situation, which just might reveal some interesting tidbits that you could fold into a deal.
- They’ll vent. Sometimes, in negotiations and especially in disputes, we find ourselves sitting across the table from someone angry. Maybe they’re peeved by our last offer, seething over a perceived slight, or simply having a bad hair day. Regardless, an angry counterpart should cue us to say nothing at all. Why? Because even the angriest angry negotiator can’t keep it up for long. They’ll vent, and eventually they’ll just run out of steam. Then you can finally return to the task of talking like adults.
- You’ll cool down. I hate to admit it after the last point, but sometimes we’re the angry negotiators. Sometimes we’re peeved about an offer, a slight, or uncooperative hair. In these cases, most of us like nothing more than to talk—to vent, just like our counterparts in the last point. But since our counterparts probably haven’t had the benefit of the last point, they’re unlikely to follow its guidance. Instead, they’ll let your anger feed into theirs, which may eventually trigger a radioactive explosion. So, on the off-chance you feel angry, that too is a wonderful time to summon your better angels and stay utterly silent. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, count to 10 if you’re angry and 100 if you’re very angry. Hard to do. But dig down deep for the willpower, and I think you’ll be amazed at how quick your jets cool (and how cool you can keep theirs).
So next time you hear “negotiation,” don’t hear talking, hear…
In September, I tackled the thorny problem of where to spend the holidays. Briefly, I suggested that fighting with your spouse about which family to visit (a distributive strategy) is less productive than figuring out a way to satisfy both of you (an integrative strategy).
Well, suppose you gave my suggestion a try—you offered to spend Christmas with your spouse’s family in San Francisco if she’d spend Easter in Chicago with yours—but she wasn’t too interested. If only she’d read these incredibly useful posts! Regardless, you’re now thinking of defaulting to what I originally called a “50/50 person split”: you spend Christmas in Chicago, while she heads to San Francisco. In effect, you’re considering walking away from this particular bargaining table. And the tenor surrounding your dinner table is starting to reflect it.
The impending holiday impasse is unpleasant, but still negotiable! In this post, I’ll discuss five simple questions to ask yourself before giving up on this or any negotiation. Though they won’t necessarily prevent you from giving up, they’ll at least help to ensure that impasse is the best option. So here go the questions:
- Have I asked why? In other words, have you explored the reasons behind her preferences? Why did she flat-out decline your offer to split the holidays? If you asked, she might tell you that her brother will visit San Francisco for Easter but not Christmas, which opens up the possibility of making her happy by reversing the order of the cities in your offer.
- Have I said why? In other words, have you communicated the reasons behind your preferences? Perhaps your mother is having an operation around Easter, and you really need to be in Chicago to help her. If you said so, perhaps your spouse would realize that your collective Easter plans are much more important to you than her, especially since her brother’s visiting both of you later this year.
- Am I angry? In other words, is emotion propelling you toward an impasse? Few decisions are best made angry, and negotiation decisions are no exception. If you’re angry, I’d suggest ratification as a means of justifying a short break.
- Do we have to decide now? Even better than a short break is an extended break in which both parties ponder their options. No, you can’t wait too long in the face of rising airfares, nor is procrastination generally a great strategy. But in the face of an impending impasse, it’s usually worth the wait in order to collect your thoughts.
- Is the alternative really better? In other words, is the 50/50 person split (your BATNA) really preferable to the worst deal you could reach with your spouse? Suppose she’s still insisting on both of you spending both holidays in San Francisco. While that makes you angry, is it worse than spending Christmas (and probably Easter too) apart? Perhaps so, and then an impasse is justified. But the point is to ask the question, as we often impasse out of anger even though the alternative is actually worse (previously called hubris).
So the bottom line is this: Before walking away from this or any other negotiation table, make sure you’ve asked and said why, taken the time to diffuse your anger and weigh your options, and verified that the alternative is preferable. If you’ve skipped any of those steps, it’s worth spending a little more time at table, if only to make the holidays that much merrier.
How do you decide whether to walk away from a negotiation?