COVID-19: Life’s still negotiable

In moments like these, when the world’s out of control, little seems negotiable. But I’m here to tell you that negotiation is needed now more than ever. Indeed, if we don’t at least try to negotiate a new path through uncertain and frightening times, we’re sure to make an already bad situation worse.

To see what I mean, consider just a few of the many situations that now require many of us to negotiate:

  1. Cancelling a non-refundable reservation: Yes, it says the travel reservation is non-refundable, no exceptions. But actually, it SAID the reservation was non-refundable before the whole world changed. There’s literally no risk in calling up our favorite travel website, explaining the newfound need for a cancellation, and seeing what they say—though there might be some lost time. Indeed, some airlines have already said yes preemptively. Don’t negotiate, however, and you’re setting yourself up for a sure loss.
  2. Setting the new terms with your kids: Things were going swimmingly with the kids. They’d go to school, you’d go to work, and you’d reconvene in the evening. But now, they’re not going to school, you’re not going to work, and you’re about to interact continuously for a solid two weeks (at least). In situations like these, it’s important to make the first offer as to the new rules: That is, proactively and preemptively inform them what learning activities (for example) they’ll be doing before watching cartoons each day. Don’t do that, and the cartoons will automatically appear immediately.
  3. Upgrading your service: Maybe that modem was working for emails. Maybe that cord-cutting was working for the evening news. But chances are, they’re not working for your new needs now. When negotiating a new deal with your service provider, don’t get desperate! Don’t go to the provider, hat in hand, and ask what you’ll have to pay for an upgrade. Go to them with a viable fallback option in hand—another internet or cable company—and only when you’ve researched it thoroughly and would actually be willing to exercise it. Don’t do that, and you’re sure to pay through the nose.
  4. Whether to attend the meeting in-person: Hopefully everyone’s gotten the memo. Just in case someone hasn’t (or it’s ambiguous whether you can), though, you may have to negotiate virtual attendance at a meeting. In these moments, it may be helpful to remind them that social distancing is ultimately a win-win—in the final analysis and the long-term, your interests aren’t opposed. Couple that with a demonstration of the ways you can still accomplish the meeting’s objectives, and you’ll hopefully convince them. Don’t, and we all experience community spread.
  5. Speaking to someone who won’t work virtually: And then there’s (sort of) the opposite. To illustrate, I entered a parking garage the other day, only to hear the parking attendant coughing violently for what seemed like minutes. Maybe it was only those few minutes. Maybe her water went down the wrong pipe. Maybe her employer wouldn’t let her leave, or she couldn’t afford it. But if it was actually COVID-19 and she chose to stay there, think of all the parking tickets touched! If you have to talk someone into leaving the workplace, it might be helpful, rather than urging or ordering them to leave, to probe their underlying reasons for staying–their interests. Do they need a social connection? Not have the necessary technology? Need the money to make it? All problems that can, at least in theory, be solved by an employer without contributing to community spread.

In sum, notwithstanding all the bad news about COVID-19, we’d all do well to remember that life’s still negotiable. Indeed, challenging times call on all of us to negotiate life ever more vigorously than before.

Making hotels negotiable

The Memorial Day weekend saw me and many others staying in a hotel. And staying in a hotel reminded me just how many aspects of a hotel stay are negotiable—how many aspects of a hotel stay often require negotiation to make life negotiable.

Luckily, many hotel negotiations rely heavily on just one principle: the notion that you may not get it if you ask, but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t. A few basic topics we must all at least occasionally raise with our hotels:

  • Additional amenities: A two-year-old with afternoon naptimes is not conducive to housekeeping. Accordingly, on our recent trip, we found ourselves running out of towels daily. In situations like these, many people are inexplicably afraid to request more. What will they think if I ask? Will they snicker behind the counter that I must shower all day long? But then you have to think: who cares? Do I dislike snickering more than I dislike drying myself with a sopping wet towel?
  • Erroneous bills: It didn’t happen this time, but it did happen the last. Mysteriously, a fancy steak dinner from the fabulous Embassy Suites restaurant showed up on my bill. As much as I love steak dinners from the Embassy Suites, I was reasonably sure that this one wasn’t mine. In such situations, many people are afraid to confront the hotel, lest they get offended or combative. But unless you like to pay for someone else’s steak, you pretty much have to. And it’s not likely to result in offense or combat since the hotel desires your satisfaction almost as much as you do. In my case, they simply looked up the receipt in question, which revealed that someone had creatively remembered their room number, creatively footing me with their filet.
  • Extremely random items: Since a hotel is your home away from home, you may well have to borrow some extremely random items that you could easily access in your own home. On the recent trip, for example, my two-year-old inexplicably glued a rubber band in her hair: A problem only scissors can solve. But since the TSA pretty much guarantees that I don’t travel with scissors, the situation called for an extremely random request—one that many don’t make on account of its randomness. And while the lady at the front desk scrunched her brow slightly, she was very happy to lend her scissors nonetheless. And everyone was happy to have the gluey rubber band removed.
  • Idiosyncratic preferences: Everyone has an idiosyncratic preference about their hotel rooms. Some need an outside-facing window, lest they feel incarcerated. Others need separation from the sunlight, lest they stay permanently awake. Many care heartily about distancing themselves from the elevator or ice machine. Such preferences, while idiosyncratic, are completely fair game to mention while checking in or later. Indeed, you have to mention them if you want the preference honored—how else would they know? And the hotel hopes you do so they can immediately and rather easily boost your satisfaction (and their rating).
  • Maintenance requests: Stay in enough hotel rooms, and you’re bound to encounter a rickety old air conditioner, constantly running toilet, or completely spent bulb. “I’ll just deal with it,” many of us think, not wanting to raise a ruckus or trouble the maintenance department. But why? I’m quite sure the hotel wants to know about the maintenance problem just as much as you want to tell them, so they can then head off a long line of dissatisfied occupants. There’s every reason to mention it and virtually no reason to stay mum.

These are just examples. Other opportunities to negotiate with hotels abound—from extra services, to late checkouts, to compensation for a generally crummy experience. The bottom line is that many hotel problems are quite easily solved by simply raising the issue. And raising the issue is exactly what a halfway decent hotel wants you to do.

If you want it, just ask!

One of the simplest and yet most complicated principles of negotiation success is this: If you want something, you have to ask for it! It’s one of the simplest principles because it sounds pretty obvious. It’s one of the most complicated because few people actually do it. Put differently, most of us—myself included—want important things that we don’t request. And while that can sometimes represent a mark of maturity, we frequently fail to ask because we’re either embarrassed or erroneous in our belief that everyone else already knows our greatest hopes and desires.

So let me take this opportunity to be explicit: When you want something subjectively important, making life negotiable requires you to ask. And let me give you a simple and somewhat silly example from the last week that nevertheless makes the point.

I like to jog, and my jogging shoes recently developed the nasty habit of slicing and dicing my ankles. Badly needing a new pair as of 1/6/16, I turned the coupon drawer upside down in search of a DSW coupon. Despite the fact that DSW sends me coupons weekly, if not daily, I could only find two that had expired: $20 off (expiring 12/13/15) and $5 off (expiring 12/31/15). Though DSW’s full prices were not going to break me, I could already feel the onset of cognitive dissonance from an ill-timed, full-price purchase. My psychological health required a discount, but I had no current coupon to support one.

Now, most people in this situation would feel embarrassed to ask for a discount because they don’t really deserve one—and I have to admit that I felt a few pangs as well. But thinking that this was an apt topic for a future post, I decided to request one anyway. And I did so in a specific way: It was 10 am; I decided to go right away before they could receive any other annoying requests. Upon entry, I sought out someone with apparent managerial authorities, immediately and before offering any indication of my acute need to buy. Putting the 12/31 coupon on top—to emphasize both its relative recency and its relative affordability—I greeted the manager politely yet sheepishly, admitting (honestly) that the holidays had somehow distracted me from my DSW coupons. Could she somehow find it in her heart to honor one of them?

“Just this once, I can honor the $5 coupon,” she said. “Great!” I thought. Yes, I could’ve greedily pushed for the $20 coupon. But I wasn’t in it for the money; I was making this request because it felt important to avoid the feeling of foolishness attending a coupon-less trip to DSW.

Now, this was admittedly not the world’s most consequential negotiation. No climate accords were reached nor denuclearization plans formalized. But it nicely illustrates the point that, if you have a specific hope, wish, or desire, you’d better make sure your counterpart finds out. Think about it: what DSW manager in her right mind would’ve greeted me at the front door and spontaneously offered a discount? It just doesn’t happen. When you want something, you have to ask.

So why don’t we do that? Sometimes, we think other people can read our mind. More often, though, it’s because we’re embarrassed to make a request, particularly if we don’t think it will be granted. And here I like to highlight the bottom line from this post: If you ask for it, you may not get it. But if you don’t ask for it, you almost certainly won’t get it.

So in the spirit of a more negotiable 2016, I would encourage you to be a little more open about your hopes, wishes, and desires. Worst case: you’re no worse than you were beforehand. Best case: you’re better.

Have you ever asked for what you want and been surprised by what you get?