Ask three times!

How often do you find yourself asking organizations for favors—discounted prices, waived policies, or extended promotional rates? Quite often, I’d suppose. And how often do the organizations say yes on the very first try? Hardly ever, if your experience is anything like mine.

But don’t hang up in a flurry of despair! Because the best negotiators know that asking multiple times—sometimes of multiple people—is often the only way to achieve their objectives. Indeed, in the domain of organizational favors, I’d say that asking at least three times is the only way to make life negotiable.

Consider five reasons:

  1. You might get a different answer. Many organizations are not known for the consistency or impeccable training of their customer service representatives. Perhaps the first representative declined your discount request simply because they yet haven’t received the discount training? And perhaps the second or third just received it yesterday?
  2. You might get a better answer. Anyone who’s ever dealt with an organization knows that “talking to a supervisor” often produces a better answer than talking to whomever answers the phone. It’s not the supervisor and the answerer are operating off a different set of policy waiver policies. Indeed, the second person is probably not even a supervisor. It’s just that they reserve the policy waivers for the people persistent enough to ask for the supervisor.
  3. You might get a more helpful person. Everyone has a bad day now and again, and customer service representatives are far from the exception. Indeed, it’s just possible that today’s the lucky day for the first representative you encounter, in which case your chances automatically increase by talking to someone less crabby.
  4. You might get experience asking the question. In addition to surfacing different people and answers, asking several times increases your own understanding of the issues. For example, a comment during your first conversation might reveal that the organization doesn’t offer “discounts” for the current bundle of services, but it might be willing to unbundle the services and reduce the price accordingly. Can you ask like that on the third try?
  5. You might learn something about the organization. Even if you don’t get a better answer or representative, and even if you don’t come up with a better way to phrase the request, you might learn something useful about the organization. At a minimum, you might learn that the organization is not delivering the level of customer service you expect, prompting a useful consideration of your alternatives. Better yet, you might gain a general appreciation for the types of policies the organization cannot waive and the types they might—an insight that will probably come in handy the next time you need a favor.

In sum, you should not take organizational denials as the end of the story—at least not until you’ve encountered a few of them. Instead, you should try to see a few organizational denials as a natural part of the process—a series of no’s on the eventual road to yes.

How do negotiators lead?

How do negotiators lead? Even the question sounds strange, as one negotiator is not really following the other. Nevertheless, negotiations need leaders. Indeed, the negotiator who leads is often the negotiator who triumphs. And leading in negotiations can often make your own life more negotiable.

So what exactly does leadership in negotiation entail? In my view, having the gall to set a strategic direction for the negotiation. And—since the other negotiator has no particular reason to comply—doing so in a manner that subtly encourages them to follow. Leadership in negotiations, I believe, involves doing five things first, in hopes that they take the cue and reciprocate each time:

  1. Be the first to state a goal: In sharp contrast to the image of negotiators as bombastic businessmen who start by lobbing threats and tweeting ultimatums (not that we know anyone like that), negotiators-as-leaders are quick to inform their counterparts, explicitly or implicitly, that they share the same goal: identifying a solution that solves everyone’s problems. However bombastic the subsequent tactics, the shared goal provides at least the possibility of trust.
  2. Share the first piece of information: Negotiators-as-leaders know that neither negotiator has a snowball’s chance of achieving their own objectives unless both negotiators, having built some trust, lay some cards on the table. But most negotiators are wary of card-laying, lest the counterpart see the full hand. Thus, negotiators-as-leaders lead by example, by sharing a particular card—namely, some subtle indication of their foremost priority. It certainly takes gall, and surely is not risk-free. But neither is leading, the last time I checked.
  3. Ask the first question: The beauty of sharing the first piece of information is that the negotiator-as leader can then ask the first question. Having laid at least one card on the table, they can now legitimately ask to see at least one of the counterpart’s. And here’s the wonderful part: research suggests that when you do something nice to somebody else (e.g., sharing information), they generally feel compelled to do something nice to you (e.g., answering your question).
  4. Make the first offer: Leadership in negotiation is not all lollypops and sunshine. Negotiators-as-leaders also know how to lay on a little bombast, albeit at the right time and in the right way. One appropriate way to unleash the bombast, as I’ve said repeatedly before, is to make the first offer. But the appropriate time to do so is after a sufficient number of cards have been revealed. So negotiators-as-leaders know that they ultimately need to make the first offer, but only after they play a few hands.
  5. Make the first concession: The beautiful thing about making the first offer is that it also enables a negotiator to make the first concession. Having anchored the other side on an aggressive first offer, and having heard the presumably aggressive counteroffer of the counterpart, the negotiator-as-leader can now show some goodwill by backing down from the precipice. And as negotiators-as-leaders well-know, a little backing down can take two negotiators a long way from the cliff.

In sum, negotiations need leaders just as much as other organizational situations. It’s just that negotiators-as-leaders don’t have the luxury of devoted followers sprinkling rose petals at their feet. They have counterparts who may see them as the enemy, and thus show no particular eagerness to follow. So negotiators lead not by issuing directives or strategic decrees from the mountaintop. They lead by taking action and hoping the other side follows. And surprisingly often, they do.

Responding to organizational stupidity: To highlight or understand?

People in organizations make stupid statements all the time. They get the facts wrong in presentations. They make nonsensical statements in meetings. They portray an undoubtedly incorrect conclusion as the Gospel truth.

Assuming you want to respond to a stupid statement, you face a choice. Should you highlight the stupidity latent in the statement, or should you try to understand its source? In my experience, one of these choices is more appealing to most people, but the other can make life more negotiable.

To see which is which, let’s conduct a thought experiment (inspired by Pascal’s famous wager): Suppose you’re sitting in a presentation, and the person presenting—a visitor from another department, perhaps—keeps saying something that strikes you as patently wrong. It’s time to ask questions, and you now face a choice: use your question to highlight the stupidity of the statement (e.g., “Why do you keep saying X when it’s Y?”) or use it to try and understand the source of the stupidity (e.g., “Can you tell me more about your thinking on X?”)?

Having heard one of those questions, the presenter then responds. And here’s the critical question: What’s everybody else in the room going to think of you and presenter after they do? A moment’s reflection suggests that it depends the presenter’s response—namely, whether they have any semblance of a good reason for saying X, even though you think it’s Y. As anyone who has worked in an organization knows, they very well may not—but they just well may.

Let’s consider the four possibilities, along with the likely perceptions of the others in the room:

  1. You highlight the stupidity. They have no good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re smart, and the presenter is dumb. But everyone also thinks you’re kind of a jerk for asking the question that way.
  2. You highlight the stupidity. They do have a good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re dumb, and the presenter is smart. Everyone also thinks you’re kind of a jerk for asking the question that way.
  3. You try to understand the stupidity. They have no good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everything thinks you’re smart, and the presenter is dumb. Everyone also thinks you’re likable, humble, and mature for asking the question that way.
  4. You try to understand the stupidity. They do have a good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re dumb, and the presenter is smart. But everyone also thinks you’re likable, humble, and mature for asking the question that way.

Obviously, I’m overstating others’ perceptions for dramatic effect. But it’s easy to see your best possible outcome (#3) occurs when you try to understand the stupidity, and your worst outcome (#2) when you highlight it. Additionally, consider decades of research showing that people place more emphasis on a person’s warmth than their competence when making interpersonal judgments—they generally care more about a person’s benevolence than their brains. And consider recent research showing that people may place even more emphasis on a person’s integrity, which would seem to overlap somewhat with the above qualities of humility and maturity. Both streams of research would suggest that the worst possible outcome you could get by trying to understand the stupidity (#4) is better than the best outcome you could get by highlighting it (#1).

In short, if you buy my predictions and the research I just mentioned, it rarely makes sense to highlight the stupidity. Unfortunately, that option seems to hold a nearly boundless appeal for many members of organizations. Little do they know they’re making life less negotiable…

How do you respond to stupid comments in organizations?