They’re everywhere! Honing your negotiation awareness

The word “negotiation” makes us think of slimy car salesman, long boardroom tables, and aggressive real estate agents. Those are certainly negotiations, but they’re not “negotiation” in total. Indeed, a goal of my blog has been to show how many negotiations surround us: in our difficulties with children, interactions with coworkers, and calls with the cable company, to name a few.

What I haven’t done, though, is describe how to know you’re in a negotiation. In other words, I haven’t officially defined negotiation or provided criteria to distinguish negotiations from non-negotiations. Knowing whether you’re in a negotiation is critical because it provides clues about how to achieve your goals. If you’re in a negotiation, for example, all of the topics in my blog (e.g., these from 2015) should apply. If you’re not, you may want to look elsewhere for guidance. So this post will try to make life negotiable by honing your “negotiation awareness.”

To put it simply: anytime you depend on someone else to achieve your goals, you’re negotiating. To get more specific, consider the following questions. The more you answer with a “yes,” the more likely you’re in a negotiation. Note that these questions are stated in the second-person (“you”), but since they apply to everyone, you might still find yourself in a negotiation if someone else in your life answers them in the affirmative.

  1. Are you dissatisfied with the status quo? Negotiations start with a problem. It could be something simple, like needing a waiter to bring your food. Or something complicated, like needing a new car. Regardless, if you couldn’t be happier and have no desire to bring about a change, you’re probably not negotiating.
  2. Can you tell someone about your dissatisfaction? Negotiations continue when people say something about their problem to someone else—with their voice, their email account, or some other medium. If you have a problem but don’t mention it to anyone else, you’re probably not negotiating (but you may be suffering).
  3. Do your interests differ from theirs? Sometimes people have and mention their problems to someone with the exact same priorities. For example, one team member laments the difficulty of a particular task to another team member who is also struggling with the task. These people are not really negotiating; negotiation requires at least the perception that your interests differ from someone else’s. If you have a problem and mention it to a completely sympathetic listener, you’re probably not negotiating.
  4. Do you have some common ground? By the same token, negotiations only happen when people perceive at least the possibility of a solution that satisfies both. If you’re talking to your sworn enemy, and neither of you sees any possibility of a solution short of all-out warfare, you’re probably not negotiating.
  5. Do you need to know more? If you tell someone with partially-conflicting interests about your problem (fulfilling the previous four criteria), you’re still not necessarily in a negotiation. You’re only likely to negotiate if you need more information from that person. In other words, negotiation involves the resolution of uncertainty. Married couples sometimes tell each other about their problems and have partially-conflicting interests but already know all there is to know about each other. If there’s nothing more to discuss, you’re probably not negotiating.

In sum, the more of the preceding questions you answered with a “yes,” the more likely you are to find yourself negotiating. And if you reflect on those questions for a moment more, you’ll see that an awful lot of everyday situations qualify as negotiations. Consider just one example that we don’t usually consider a negotiation: the slow arrival of your food in a restaurant. If you’re dissatisfied with the situation, say something to your waiter, believe that the delivery of your food is one his concerns but not his only concern, and don’t know exactly how much longer you’ll have to wait—well, it’s a negotiation.

Which of your daily situations fulfill these criteria and qualify ad negotiations?

How to out-negotiate the car dealer: Cultivating your alternatives

My last post discussed one of the toughest negotiations—convincing a toddler to comply. This post considers one of the most feared—dealing with a car dealer. Most people would rather extract their teeth through their eyeballs than talk to a car dealer. How can we hope for a decent deal when the guy across the table is continuously snapping his jaws?

This problem is formidable, but negotiable. The key is to recognize that there is not just one guy or one table—that you (like the dealer) have alternatives.

Anytime you negotiate anything, you have a primary negotiation partner and you have a next-best alternative: whatever you would do if the current negotiation fails. Since the landmark book Getting to Yes, this alternative has been called your BATNA: your best alternative to negotiated agreement. As I usually repeat ad nauseam in a negotiation course, BATNAs are your greatest source of power in a negotiation. If you have a good BATNA, you can walk away from the current crocodile. If you don’t, he might as well snap away. So, speaking now to those of us who don’t “like” negotiating, take heart! Being a powerful negotiator doesn’t mean acting like Donald Trump; it means having a viable plan B.

I know of few negotiations where BATNAs are more important than car purchases. As the buyer of a car, you typically have multiple—often many—dealers to choose from. The single-most important thing you can do to get a good deal is to visit enough dealers (by taxi, if you have to) to fall in love with at least two cars—each at a different dealer. As I often remind my students, falling in love with one person is a beautiful and wonderful thing in everyday life. Yet, falling in love with one house, one car, or one job is almost guaranteed to make you a sucker. Why? Because if you’re head-over-heels over one car, for example, you have no choice but to submit to every snap of that crocodile’s jaws. You have to accept whatever terms they offer.

Conversely, what happens if you find yourself swept away by two cars at different dealers? At a minimum, you learn about the market. Quite often, the cars are quite similar, but one is inexplicably cheaper. I recently found the exact same car at two dealers, 10 miles apart, but $3000 different in price. That’s right, a $3000 discount, no “negotiation” in the traditional sense. In addition to learning about the market, cultivating an alternative immediately affords you confidence. With a $3000 discount in hand, I can assure you that I felt much more comfortable pushing back on the original, higher-priced crocodile. As a result, and most importantly, having a good BATNA immediately gets you a better deal. Without revealing the exact amount of the discount to any other dealers (which is a topic for another post), the $3000 discount gave me the confidence to go to a third dealer and get the same discount on the same car with better features (all-wheel drive for those icy mid-Atlantic hills).

In sum, one of the single-most important strategies in any negotiation, especially a consequential purchase, is to cultivate a good alternative, a strong BATNA. Doing that is not only effective; it’s heartening for the non-born negotiator, as it doesn’t require negotiation tactics as much as time. As little of that as we all have, I would advise any serious negotiator, negotiating any serious issue, to find enough time to find a BATNA.

Have you cultivated your alternatives in a past negotiation? How has it worked?