“No conditions on hugs!” Three situations that don’t call for concessions

Let me introduce you to one of the world’s best negotiators: she’s five and sleeps across the hall. Why does she qualify as one of the world’s best? Because she always knows exactly what she wants and takes every—I mean every—opportunity to ask for it. In particular, she sees all of my requests as opportunities to extract concessions.

“Can you please eat the rest of your dinner?” “Only if I get an extra piece of candy.”

“Can you please brush your teeth?” “Only if I get an extra story.”

In the interest of supporting her budding aspirations as a negotiator, I sometimes play along, adjusting the initial offer accordingly. Knowing she’ll request an extra piece of candy to wrap up dinner, for example, I initially offer one rather than the allowable two.

But more often than not, I don’t play along. And this aspiring negotiator would do well to learn why. Indeed, every aspiring negotiator would do well to understand the underlying lesson: that many situations offer opportunities to extract concessions, but some just don’t. And understanding which is which is crucial for making life negotiable.

Three situations in which it’s probably not appropriate to request a concession:

  1. When a concession would devalue the discussion: In keeping with her strategy, my aspiring negotiator often seizes on the request for a bedtime hug by saying, “Only if you sing another song!” Setting aside the potential merits of another song, a father-daughter hug is sacred rather than transactional—sanctified rather than commoditized. And treating it as a commodity to be bought and sold only serves to devalue the discussion. “No conditions on hugs,” I say.
  2. When you already owe a concession. My little starling—hard as it is to believe—doesn’t spend every last moment having stellar behavior. What five-year old does? And when I observe the non-stellar behavior, it’s incumbent on me to communicate as much. “We don’t throw markers on the floor,” I might say, “and now we need to have a timeout.” “Ok, but only if you let me watch a movie,” she might respond. But wait—it’s me who deserves a concession in the form of time served out—not she who deserves a concession in the form of cinematic magic.
  3. When the same concession request has been denied a hundred times before. Typically, at the end of a school day, I ask my starling to tell me anything interesting or important that happened that day. “Ok, I’ll only tell you two things,” she might say. “No, I’d like you to tell me anything interesting or important,” I always say, after which about ten things spontaneously pop out. But my aspiring negotiator, not to be deterred, requests the same concession the very next day. Now, the best negotiators are certainly persistent in the face of adversity, and they certainly try again when their first attempt is denied. But after the hundredth denial, they also conclude that they need to focus their concession requests on a more negotiable issue.

In sum, my five-year old is a master negotiator in many senses of the word. But she has yet to learn one of the most important lessons, as have many people who rank themselves among the world’s best negotiators: there’s a time and place to request concessions, as well as a time and place to accede to other people’s wishes. Identifying and accepting the latter situations can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Questions instead of concessions!

There comes a moment in most negotiations when we consider making a concession. Whether it’s reducing the amount of the requested discount on our cable bill, succumbing to a coworker who keeps asking us to do something, or accepting an organizational decision that we know to be flawed—opportunities to concede abound. And in many such situations, conceding is just what we should do.

Right before we do, however, let me suggest we all follow a simple heuristic: Ask a question before you make a concession! By at least trying to ask a question before you concede, I think you’ll find life growing successively more negotiable.

Consider the following questions, all of which can help to avert a looming concession:

  1. What if we…?” This question often surfaces new ideas that avoid the need for a concession. As in, what if we agreed to a multi-year contract in exchange for the requested discount on my cable bill? New possibilities often afford detours around costly concessions.
  2. “Why?” This question often surfaces underlying interests unbeknownst to the person preparing to concede. As in, “Why are you, my coworker, asking me to do that task?” Perhaps it’s sheer laziness, but perhaps it’s something more nuanced—a desire to solicit your ideas or put your name on the document, for example, both of which might pave the way for alternate solutions.
  3. “Why not?” This question often surfaces concerns unbeknownst to the person preparing to concede. As in, “Why does organizational policy not permit me to do X? Again, perhaps it’s pure bureaucracy, but perhaps it’s something more nuanced—a concern about setting precedents or creating perceived inequity, for example, which might highlight ways to assuage the concern and avoid the concession at the same time.
  4. “How can we make this work?” This question actually enrolls the respondent in the process of finding a way to avoid your concession. As in, “I want to go with your cable company, but I can’t afford it. How can we make this work?” No guarantees, but people generally like being asked to contribute their expertise, as well as solutions of their own making.
  5. “Can I think about it?” This question buys you the necessary time to identify an alternative to conceding, which is particularly useful if you’re a slow-plodding analytical thinker like myself. As in, “Can I think about your request to do that task, dear coworker?” With the benefit of some time, you can often take a guess at the interests underlying the request, as well as some alternative ways of fulfilling them. At worst, the time should buy you some courage.

In sum, concessions are good and necessary parts of any reasonable negotiation. By the same token, most of us concede far too often—and often when we don’t need to. Accordingly, the next time you consider a concession, I’d encourage you to consider a question first.

Convincing kids to do things, part II

Last week, we considered convincing multiple kids to do things, characterizing the whole process as a multiparty negotiation. This week, let’s consider convincing one kid to do one type of thing: something good for them but not particularly appealing. For example: eating their veggies, getting their flu shot, or making some form of physical contact with the ocean during an expensive and time-consuming beach trip (not that the last holds direct personal relevance).

In my experience, a few simple, research-based tips can make these beneficial but fear-eliciting requests a bit more negotiable. For example, you might try to:

  1. Make an aggressive but justifiable first offer: Do you actually hope they ultimately eat but one veggie? I’d suggest starting by asking them to eat all their carrots, broccoli, and spinach. Then, when you eventually back down to carrots, you’ve become a reasonable and accommodating parent rather than an intransigent and annoying one.
  2. Plan for judicious concessions: I wouldn’t recommend jumping right from all of all three veggies down to the carrots alone. If you do, they’re likely to try and nix the carrots too. Instead, I’d suggest an initial concession of half the spinach, most of the broccoli, and all the carrots (or something like that). Then, make smaller and smaller concessions as you approach all the carrots, thereby signaling to your aspiring negotiator that you’ll go no further.
  3. Ask why: The most powerful word in the negotiator’s dictionary is “why.” Why? Because it often paves the way toward a creative solution. Perhaps it’s patently obvious they’re afraid of the ocean because of its immense waves. But then you ask why and hear something about its probably chilliness or sharp shells—problems you could solve by asking them to submerge a finger or wear their water shoes.
  4. Treat it as a multi-round negotiation: Supposing your aggressive first offer doesn’t work, you could always try the reverse: a multi-round negotiation in which you ask for a little and then progressively request more. Will your nervous daughter perhaps dip her toes today, wade to her waist tomorrow, and catch some crazy surf the third day? (For more on #1 versus 4, here’s a good reference.)
  5. Introduce new issues: Let’s be honest: there’s very little to like about a flu shot (other than avoiding the flu). Even you don’t even like it, so your kid won’t either—and you won’t get far by touting its benefits. In that case, you might consider adding an issue—namely, an issue that your kid will find more appealing than the shot, like stickers or lollipops. Introducing one of these possibilities upon the successful completion of the flu shot could spell the difference between a meltdown and mature acceptance.

In sum, adults know they have to do things they don’t much like. But kids often don’t, necessitating a creative and thoughtful strategy on behalf of their parents. Here’s hoping some simple tips can make these fearsome situations a bit more manageable.

Proactive concessions: A secret weapon for making life negotiable

Peruse The Art of the Deal or a negotiation book like that, and you’re likely to encounter some advice like this: “Never concede unless you have to!” And that mindset sorta makes sense if you think that all negotiations consist of competitive battles with slimy car dealers.

But my posts have consistently sought to convince you that negotiations are a lot more common than that. We negotiate anytime we depend on someone else to achieve our objectives, meaning essentially all day long. And in many of our negotiations, the advice to avoid conceding is just wrong—so wrong that I’d actually advise you to do the opposite by racing to concede first. Proactive concessions, I submit, can make life more negotiable.

To see what I mean, consider the following negotiation that we rarely consider one: a work project in which you and a team member—let’s call her Judy—have much different visions about a collective project. By making a proactive concession…

  1. You get to choose the issue: If you wait for Judy to concede, you might find yourself reciprocally conceding on a really important issue. If she backs down from a January deadline to something later, for example, you’ll probably have to back down from a December deadline to something sooner, even if anything sooner seems impossible. But if you beat Judy to the concession, you might be able to avoid a concession on deadlines entirely, backing down on some other issue that you care about less—who’s responsible for what, perhaps.
  2. You generate felt reciprocity: If Judy concedes first, you’re on the psychological hook to concede something in return. And that’s not where you want to be in the midst of a contentious negotiation, particularly if you’ve already arrived at your bottom line. If you concede first, however, you’ve got a chip to cash in when it’s time to talk turkey.
  3. You generate trust: If Judy concedes first, she’s sitting there stewing over the need to work with a stubborn meany. If you concede first, she’s sitting there realizing that you’re surprisingly reasonable and potentially even worthy of trust.
  4. You dictate the size of your subsequent concessions: If Judy makes a big concession on the deadline issue—say January to May—and thus basically forces you to back down from December to August, you can bet both parties will be arriving at a June 15th compromise in no time. If you concede first and make a small concession on the deadline issue—say December to November—you set the tone that your subsequent concessions will be smaller (as concessions usually are). Thus, you’re less likely to lose your summer vacation.
  5. You get to send a signal: If Judy moves first, you may or may not learn anything about her preferences. If you move first, you get the chance to explain your preferences in a subtle but potent way: “Anything earlier than December is impossible, Judy, but I’m happy to take responsibility for writing the initial draft if it helps.” With that simple statement, you’ve not only conceded on who does what (with all of the associated benefits); you’ve also signaled to the formidable Judy that dates are more important.

In sum, concessions are routinely underappreciated and often flat-out denigrated. But smart negotiators know that proactive concessions offer a potent strategy for setting the tone and steering the conversation—a secret weapon for making life negotiable.

Getting a great deal on Craigslist: Strategic concessions

If you’ve ever used Craigslist, you know that costly transactions with complete strangers are now totally normal. From cars, to boats, to diamonds, even luxury items are now transacted online. Yet, ubiquity does not imply simplicity, as intransigent online parties often make unreasonable demands, then fail to find common ground.

Online deals are difficult, but negotiable!

To make them negotiable, however, is to make concessions. Distasteful as Donald Trump may find them, concessions are the best negotiators’ best friend. And online, in the absence of any other basis for trust, they are nothing short of essential. So the key to (online) negotiations is not to resist concessions; it’s to make them strategically.

To illustrate, let’s imagine that you’re selling your beloved Bonneville on Craigslist. (Yes, I had one in high school and am still blogging about it in 2015). And let’s imagine that you’ve done everything I’ve advised so far—defined your alternatives, used them to determine your bottom line, set a target, made a first offer, and made it aggressively (say $15,000, i.e., 1000 times the car’s MPG). Shortly after posting this figure on Craigslist, some presumptuous “bigbuyer216” had the nerve to email you an offer of $5,000! Maybe you don’t even want to deal with such a jerk. But what if the days roll by without any other offers, and what if you really need the cash? Looks like you’ll have to deal with bigbuyer216, and looks like both of you will have to make concessions. So, without further ado, here are five ways to make them wisely:

  1. Make your first concession your biggest concession: Supposing your bottom line is $10,000 (the horror!), start with a big concession like $2,500, bringing the price down to $12,500. Then progressively reduce the size of your concessions. Perhaps the second is more like $1,000. Even the dense bigdealer216 will interpret your shrinking concessions as a sign that you’re nearing your bottom line, meaning he’d better get serious if he wants your beautiful Bonneville.
  2. But don’t make a huge first concession: What happens if you go from $15,000 all the way down to $10,000? First, any credibility surrounding your initial offer will disappear. Second, bigdealer216, seeing himself $5,000 better off at the drop of a hat, will greedily want more. But since you’ve already reached your bottom line, you can’t offer anything more. Frustrated at your seeming intransigence, bigdealer216 will probably try to satisfy his Bonneville fix elsewhere.
  3. And don’t make unilateral concessions. If you’re willing to offer $12,500, don’t say “$12,500,” as there’s nothing stopping bigdealer216 from replying “No thanks, $5,000.” Then you might be tempted to say “$11,000,” at which point bigdealer216 will just repeat himself, at which point you might be tempted to offer your bottom line of $10,000. You’ve just negotiated against yourself. Instead, tie each of your concessions to their concessions. For example, you might say: “I’m willing to offer you $12,500 if you pay cash.” By making all concessions reciprocal concessions, you avoid the risk of being the only enlightened person at the table.
  4. Offer a reason for your concessions. People like to feel that they and the people around them are acting for good reasons—even when they aren’t. So your concession will seem more convincing if you not only offer $12,500 and ask them for cash, but also explain that you are making the concession because you are sincerely motivated to reach a deal with the admirable bigdealer216.
  5. Don’t say “final offer.” Few phrases are more tempting or less helpful in a negotiation. We usually say “final offer” not because it is, but because we can’t think of anything better to say. The main effect of saying so, however, is to box yourself into a corner. There’s nothing stopping bigdealer216 from continuing to negotiate or explore creative options, but you’ve just eliminated any hope of doing so yourself. So if you’re tempted to say “final offer,” just repeat your last offer instead.

These five rules are helpful for making concessions in any negotiation. But they are essential for online negotiations, in which both parties are tempted to make outrageous offers, then hide behind their computers.

Have you had any success making concessions online?