“What’s the worst that can happen?” A simple question to make life negotiable

The situation’s more complicated, but I’ll first state it simply:

If I had to pick just one way that people go wrong in negotiations, it’s that they don’t negotiate. Facing a dissatisfactory situation, they just live with it. And if I had to pick just one reason that people live with it, it’s that they don’t ask a simple but immensely powerful question of themselves: “What’s the worst that can happen?” By asking that one simple question routinely, I think you’ll find your life becoming more negotiable.

Now the more complicated version: When we encounter crummy situations, we can’t always negotiate our way out of them. In particular, we’re sometimes stuck with a situation no one else can control—a difficult past, a chronic disease, weeks of icy rain in Maryland. But other times, we’re stuck with a situation another person could resolve: A crummy schedule the boss could resolve with flexible hours, a ridiculous price the dealer could resolve with a discount, a relative’s annoying habit they could resolve by just stopping it (!).

In the former situations, negotiation’s not going to get us far (though this post might help). But in the latter, the question we need to—and often don’t—ask ourselves is this: “What’s the worst that can happen?” For example, will the request of our boss really lead her to fire us, will the ask of the car dealer really cause him to kick us out of the dealer, will the huddle with the relative really drive her to the eggnog, never to utter our name again?

If the answer to such questions is yes, then kudos to us for living with it. The costs of negotiation are just too high.

But here’s the problem: Many of us don’t know the answer since we never ask the question. Instead, we implicitly equate the worst that can happen with the worst outcome in the world. But how accurate is that assumption? Will our boss really fire us for requesting some flexibility? Will the car dealer really forgo our business entirely? Will our family member really slosh away our entire relationship past and present in the eggnog? If we never ask the question, we never know the answer.

In sum, by never asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”, we often vastly overestimate the costs of negotiation, which makes any benefits pale in comparison—which makes us suffer through a wide array of solvable situations. It’s an exceedingly common situation, and thus an exceedingly common mistake. Consider some other common examples:

  • Fees from service providers: What’s the worst that could happen if we ask the bank or the airline or the cable company to waive the fee? They won’t, in which case we’re right back where we began. But they’re not going to send us to a different bank or different airline or different cable company unless they’re exceedingly irrational (no comment). And they might just make a “one-time exception.”
  • Creative ideas in meetings: What’s the worst that could happen if we raise a new and creative and slightly oddball idea in a meeting? Generally, people will ignore it and move on. But unless we’ve developed a thorough reputation for irrelevance or insanity, they won’t immediately put our career on the slow-tack. And they might just consider what we said.
  • Family preferences: What’s the worst that could happen if we suggest a different restaurant or alternative family vacation? They’ll decide against us, and then we’re stuck with the same Applebee’s or Disney getaway we were. But hey—maybe they’ll at least consider our dislike of overcooked burgers or overpriced opportunities to wait in line next time.

These are just a few of the innumerable situations where failing to ask what’s the worst that can happen leaves us with the worst that’s already happened. I’m certainly not saying that you always have the ability to ask, nor that you always should. But I’m certainly saying that when you do have the ability, you should always at least consider the worst-case.

Renovating a room? Three more reasons to get multiple quotes

I’ve previously advised you, when hiring a contractor, to obtain several quotes. And I’ve so-advised for a specific reason—a reason that most negotiation instructors would fully endorse: because you’ll then have an alternative, providing leverage over the preferred contractor’s price. But I’m here to suggest some less recognized but no less important reasons to engage with multiple parties—reasons that can easily make your contracting more negotiable.

Consider just three:

  1. You learn about the issue: We’re currently pondering a bathroom renovation and have invited several contractors over to offer their ideas. And simply by talking to several independent parties, I’ve learned all kinds of interesting and esoteric things about bathrooms—from the building codes about medicine cabinets to the standard height of a toe kick (in addition to what a toe kick is). Had I talked to just one party, I would’ve amassed few such nuggets of information—nuggets that will inevitably inform the final decision.
  2. You hear lots of ideas: You’d think: one bathroom, one set of possibilities. But then you’d be wrong. Each contractor has offered an entirely different vision for the same space, multiple layouts with markedly different advantages and disadvantages. Had I talked to just one party, I might’ve been showering in some awfully strange places or paying to move some awfully expensive pipes.
  3. You learn about your own preferences: Talk to a neoclassical economist, and they’ll probably tell you that you understand your own preferences. Talk to me, and I can tell you that, if I had any a priori preferences about a bathroom renovation, I had no idea what they were. But in the process of conversing with multiple contractors, I’ve come to develop some rather refined renovation preferences. Slate floor? Only if it’s smoothed. Oval mirror? Looks awfully nice between some rectangular cabinets. Only by talking to multiple parties did I come to understand myself.

So, talking to multiple parties is not just about driving the price down. It’s also about understanding whatever it is you’re negotiating about—as well as yourself. Without that, no discount will make your bathroom negotiable.

Success as a steadily improving BATNA

How can you know your life is broadly successful? The question is often asked, but rarely from the perspective of negotiation research. So let me share an answer implicit in that research, an understanding of which can make life negotiable: you can measure success, in part, by the trajectory of your BATNA.

Huh? Let me explain.

BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, is your next best alternative to any particular negotiation. Put simply, it’s your plan B. In general, successful people tend to see the number and quality of their BATNAs steadily increasing over time. Just a couple quick examples:

  • Multiple job offers: The most successful people tend to have employers fighting for their services rather than the reverse. In other words, they have many alternatives to any particular job. Thus, they have the luxury of choosing the best option.
  • Multiple life choices: The most successful people have many choices about how to live their life. They can choose to continue working, as most of us must But they can also choose to take some time off, sail the world in a small schooner, or simply take a mental relaxation break. In other words, they have many alternatives to their current way of living.
  • Multiple friends and colleagues: The most successful people have many people, both friends and colleagues, beating a path to their door—whether to have a beer or start a project. In other words, they have many alternatives to the relationships they find less than fully enriching.

Across several definitions of success, then, the common denominator is a consistently improving BATNA. So if you’re looking for a way to measure your success, you might consider the trajectory of your BATNA.

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.

Preparing to negotiate? Use your “BRAIN”!

Most people know to prepare before a negotiation. If not, then negotiation instructors like me frequently remind them. So the problem is not a lack of awareness about the need to prepare. It’s the lack of a framework describing what to prepare. What exactly should negotiators ponder before arriving at the bargaining table?

Since knowing what to prepare is pretty much a prerequisite for preparing itself, and preparing itself a prerequisite for a negotiable life, let me suggest you use your BRAIN (via the following acronym):

  • BATNA. All good preparation starts with a consideration of alternatives—specifically a negotiator’s next-best alternative if the current negotiation fails (i.e., their Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement or BATNA). Otherwise, they’ll never know how much power they have or how far to push the envelope.
  • Reservation price. Great negotiators transition directly from their BATNA to their bottom line, walk away point, reservation price. Otherwise, they don’t really have the foggiest idea whether to get to yes or get to no and go with their BATNA.
  • Aspirations. BATNAs and reservation prices are great, but negotiators who spend too much time pondering their alternatives or minimally acceptable agreements (i.e., their reservation prices) tend to get them. To get something better, great negotiators also define their goals, targets, aspirations—actively considering what they really want when their counterpart demurs.
  • Interests. The acronym might as well stop there (and consider the acronym if it did), but the preceding letters alone tend to elicit a very competitive negotiation. Great negotiators know that spending the whole time competing to attain their aspirations, clear their reservation price, or avoid their BATNA results in a competitive scramble over the crumbs of a very small pie. Instead, they know they need to identify and find creative ways of fulfilling both negotiators’ overall objectives (i.e., their interests), and thereby “grow the pie.”
  • Negotiation counterpart. So why not BRAI then? Because that makes very little sense as a word and even less sense as a preparation strategy—the latter because it completely omits the other party. Negotiators who BRAI, and most negotiators do, fail to anticipate their counterpart’s situation and thus find it immensely hard to understand or respect that situation while negotiating. So great negotiators repeat the preceding letters for their counterpart, taking a wild albeit educated guess as to their counterpart’s BATNA, reservation price, aspirations, and interests.

So the next time you sit down to prepare for a negotiation, don’t just use your mind—use your BRAIN! Doing so can’t spell the difference between a smart negotiation outcome and an outcome that everyone deems dumb.

When to part with your Plan B

I’ve often alluded to the need to develop a BATNA: a next-best option or plan B if the current negotiation fails. Any negotiation instructor worth their salt will give the same advice. But the advice also raises a critical conundrum that often goes unanswered: when to let your BATNA go. When’s the right time to exercise plan A and let your fallback option go their merry way?

Since knowing when to part with your BATNA can dictate both your economic outcomes and your long-term reputation, thereby making life more or less negotiable, let’s consider five questions that can inform a decision about letting your BATNA go. If you’d like, consider these questions in the context of two job offers, one of which you prefer (plan A) to the other (plan B):

  1. Am I certain about plan A? Plan B effectively offers insurance against the collapse of plan A. So if plan A is far from certain—if someone from plan A has mentioned but not confirmed you’ll get a job offer, for example—then it’s probably better to retain plan B.

But…

  1. Is plan B starting to feel that way? No one likes to feel like a fallback. If you’ve been stringing plan B along, stalling sketchily while they eagerly await an answer, chances are they will. Since the associated damage to your reputation may start to outweigh the benefits of a fallback, you should consider parting ways.
  2. Would I ever say yes to plan B? Maybe it’s the reluctance to say no, or the fear of cold decisiveness. Either way, people frequently retain BATNAs that they would never in a million years exercise. If you would never say yes to your best alternative—if it’s a job you couldn’t possibly envision yourself doing, for example—it’s only right to say no, and quickly.
  3. Are you preventing your plan B from exercising theirs? Oftentimes, your BATNA’s offer to you is preventing them from exercising their own BATNA, e.g., an offer to somebody else. If you are standing in the way of their doing so for no clear reason, it’s probably better to part ways.
  4. How small of a world is it? If you and your BATNA will never again cross paths—not even on the interweb—then you might consider retaining them a big longer. Are you dealing with a used car dealer in the middle of nowhere? But in the considerably more common situation where you and your BATNA both inhabit a small world, I’d suggest treading much more carefully. Will your stringing-alonging follow you around till the end of time? Will every future employer in your industry / city / profession know how fallbackish your current BATNA felt? If so, then treat them with extreme caution and respect, if only for this fairly self-focused reason.

In sum, good negotiators know to cultivate a BATNA. Great and responsible negotiators know to never string a BATNA along unnecessarily. Here’s hoping that these five questions help you navigate these ethically fraught waters.

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.