The negotiator’s blind spot: Forgetting to consider our counterparts

Most negotiators pay great attention to getting the right terms on a critical issue—a great salary, for example. Advanced negotiators also pay great attention to negotiating the right issues—not just a great salary but the right set of benefits and career trajectory, for example. But almost no negotiators pay great attention to a topic that’s at least as important as the first two: making sure they’re negotiating with the right people.

In the interest of convincing you that paying attention to the parties with whom we negotiate is just as critical for making life negotiable, let’s consider five risks of failing to do so:

  1. Your counterpart might not be able to decide. Oftentimes, the counterpart the world hands us can make some basic decisions but not the big decision required to honor our request. The frontline car dealer may not be able to offer that super-special discount. The HR rep may not be able to offer that super-customized work schedule. Unless we ensure we’re talking to the person who can make such decisions, they won’t get made in our favor.
  2. Your counterpart may be unnecessarily opposed. Sometimes, and especially when negotiating within organizations, we can choose which of several individuals to approach. We could take our proposal directly to senior executive A, or go through junior executives B or C. Without carefully considering which one to approach, we run the risk of hitting a raw nerve—a counterpart whose authority or very existence would be threatened by our idea, or someone who has some other idiosyncratic sensitivity to it. Sure, we can’t know everyone’s sensitivities in advance, but a little advance contemplation goes a long way.
  3. There may be a better match. As described in my book, The Bartering Mindset, the best and most successful negotiations take place between people with complementary needs—parties who happen to have what each other wants and want what each other has. Car dealers who are just dying to get our coveted model off the lot. Contractors who just happen to have a sale on our coveted cabinetry. If you haven’t considered whether your counterpart is complementary, you’ll be lucky to find that they are.
  4. There may be power in numbers. Many times, the best deal is actually a combination of deals. For example, you might find that a particular contractor will produce the best-looking kitchen, but sourcing your cabinetry through them would imperil your life savings. But hey, what if you hired them to do the kitchen and sourced the cabinetry from someone else? I’ve done it, and it works. Without considering your counterparts carefully, though, it just won’t happen.
  5. It’s a waste of time. None of us has oodles of time. But by negotiating with someone who can’t decide, who’s unnecessarily opposed, etc., we throw what discretionary time we have away. In other words, we reduce the benefits of negotiating by the opportunity cost of our wasted time. For most of us, those opportunity costs are nothing to sneeze at.

Unfortunately, as I said at the beginning, most people pay no attention to the parties with whom they’re negotiating. They might, if exceptionally talented, pay attention to negotiating the right issues. They’ll probably pay attention to getting the right terms on a critical issue, often monetary. But you, having read this post, may well be the only one considering your counterparts. For the reasons above and others, I think you’ll find it making life negotiable.

Contagious conflicts: The case of the brawling boaters

My home state of Maryland is famous for all things water: crabs, the Bay, the Naval Academy, devastating floods, and now this viral video. In case you don’t care to watch, let me summarize in a sentence: a bunch of…less sophisticated folk…are boating on the Choptank River, and two of them get in a massive and unrestrained brawl, which sends the boat flying and threatens the safety of their fellow passengers and many nearby sailors.

This amazing video illustrates an important feature of conflict, an awareness of which can make life negotiable: blind spots. In general, blind spots are important factors or consequences that we overlook when making decisions. In negotiations and other conflict situations, blind spots are common. In the case of the brawling boaters, the obvious blind spot was this: an insufficient appreciation for the impact of their conflict on the many people around them. With the possible assistance of their friend James Beam, they showed no apparent concern for the many innocent people imperiled by their uninhibited violence.

While these brawlers may seem very little like ourselves—and let’s hope that they are—I’m sorry to say that this particular blind spot probably afflicts us all. Even if we don’t brawl on the Choptank, most of us are insufficiently cognizant of the ways our conflicts afflict others. When we fight with our coworkers, we often overlook the effects on our families. When we fight with our families, we often overlook the effects on our coworkers. And understanding this particular blind spot after the fact is not enough if we can’t process it in the heat of the moment.

So here’s the point: conflicts are almost never confined to the people at the table. At a minimum, our conflicts afflict other people through our sour demeanors. Quite possibly, those sour demeanors help to fuel further conflicts with the people afflicted. While blind spots are inherently hard to spot (hence the name), an awareness of this particular blind spot is a good place to start. Knowing that our conflicts afflict others might at least motivate us to define all of the relevant “others” in our own lives. Having consciously defined who we care about, we’re in a better position to erect a Chinese wall between our conflicts with one group and our interactions with another.

As usual, not rocket science, but hopefully food for thought—especially if you happen to find yourself on the Choptank with an angry and intoxicated fellow.