Win-win or win-whatever? Setting our sights just a little bit lower in negotiations

Why is it that most people—even those who take (or teach) negotiation classes—still find it hard to negotiate? I’m here to argue for one of many reasons: the possibility that in many situations, most of us set our sights just a little too high.

Anyone who’s taken (or taught) a negotiation class can summarize the course in a single phrase: “win-win.” But now let me convince you of a less ambitious but potentially more common and attainable goal that can still make life negotiable: win-whatever.

A story to explain:

My two daughters recently visited a fine-dining establishment—let’s call it Chick-pat-E—both receiving the same book as a giveaway with their kids meal. Arriving at home, one put their book on the table, and the other let theirs fall to the floor. Which is which, no one knows.

Later that day, my six-year-old arrived at the table, claimed the table-book as her own, and started to read it. My three-year-old, witnessing said events, developed uncontrollable fits of rage. “That’s my book!” she insisted immediately, repeatedly, and with increasing levels of agitation. Now, I had no idea whose book was whose, but I leaned over to my six-year-old, winked at her, and asked her to be the “big girl” by accepting the (identical) book on the floor. And my six-year-old, to her great credit and with the benefit of three years, begrudgingly recognized that it really didn’t matter. So she gave the table-book to the three-year-old and accepted the floor-book as her own. A win for my three-year-old and a whatever for my six-year-old.

Now what would a win-win have looked like? Perhaps the three-year-old could’ve claimed the table-book today and the six-year-old could’ve claimed it tomorrow? Or the three-year-old could’ve gotten first dibs at the next Chick-pat-E giveaway? Or the six-year-old could’ve gotten the table-book but gifted one of her other books to the three-year-old? All interesting and innovative solutions but hard to execute in the presence of an increasingly agitated three-year-old. A win-win in this case would’ve been awfully difficult.

Reflecting on the story, is it possible that many of us find it hard to negotiate because we’re shooting just a bit too high? Are we ambitiously aiming for win-win when a win-whatever would really do? As great as win-wins can be—and I really believe it—I’d suggest that win-whatevers are often much easier to find and execute. And I do suggest, in my negotiation classes, that they’re just as important for getting to yes. So, the next time you’re struggling to identify a win-win way of divvying up housework, deciding on work responsibilities, or allocating giveaways from Chick-pat-E, consider setting your sights just a little bit lower—not way lower on conflict or avoidance or win-loss. Just a little bit lower on win-whatever. I think you’ll start to see indifference as a virtue.

Initiating the right relationship with seatmates

There comes a critical moment at the start of each flight—the moment you encounter your seatmate. At that moment, your actions can easily dictate how negotiable the next 2, 5, or 7 hours are going to be. Initiate a positive relationship, and you just might make it to Michigan. Initiate a bad one, and you’re bound for a fight over Phoenix.

That being the case, what can you do to set up the right relationship with your seatmate? Consider the following five research-based suggestions for happy flying:

  1. Be cordial to build trust: It’s the nice and human thing to do. In addition, smiling and saying hello can start a cycle of trust. Flights are long and arduous encounters, and numerous contingencies are likely to arise. Maybe their air will blow right on your face. Maybe their gargantuan bag will encroach on your under-seat space. With the benefit of some pent-up trust, you can probably figure out a solution. Without it, good luck.
  2. Help with their bags: In addition to being the nice and human thing to do, helping to put up their bags (or fetch their pen from an overhead jacket, as I recently did) generates a cycle of reciprocity, whereby they will later feel motivated to help you too. What if you need to get up and use the bathroom four times? Or get the Wi-Fi signal to work just once? A seatmate who you previously helped will probably be eager to reciprocate.
  3. Claim your territory: In addition to these cooperative and integrative overtures, it’s important to start claiming some value in the form of the armrest. We’ve all flown next to the guy—and it usually is—who thinks he owns all three seats in the row. If that norm leaves the ground, all three fliers are in for an extended squishing.
  4. Signal your intentions: Similarly, it’s important to set some expectations as to how you intend to spend the next 2, 5, or 7 hours. If you’d love to the chat the trip away, then start chatting even before the safety demonstration. But if you’d prefer to work, read, or sleep, you’d better set those expectations even earlier. An ambiguous signal—some idle but unenthusiastic chatter, for example—won’t serve anyone well. You’ll both end up chatting the flight away even though both preferred to sleep (something akin to the Abilene Paradox).
  5. Don’t be weird or annoying: If I had a quarter for every time my seatmates acted weird or annoying long before takeoff, thereby generating angst that lasts the whole flight, I’d be able to a buy a plane and avoid the whole situation. From continuously messing with the air vent, to standing up and sitting down ala ants-in-the-pants, to taking a cell phone call loud enough to render the phone superfluous, to pulling out reams upon reams of paper, to shooting visual daggers into the seatback, crazy or annoying maneuvers in the early stages of a flight abound. Other people aren’t going to stop acting weirdly, so you might have to lead by example.

In sum, flights are gliding laboratories for making life negotiable. But they’re applied rather than basic research laboratories, in that your efforts will directly dictate your happiness. Here’s to this amazing opportunity to make life negotiable!

Negotiation as entrepreneurship

When we hear the word “negotiate,” we often think of ourselves in a “negotiation,” staring down an unscrupulous car dealer or intransigent HR representative. Only infrequently do we treat “negotiate” as what it is: a verb.

That’s a shame because it leads us to forget that negotiating is an action people choose to take. Someone has to decide to negotiate. Remembering that can help us see negotiation for what it really is: an entrepreneurial attempt to achieve our own goals by helping someone else do the same. And seeing negotiation as entrepreneurship can make life more negotiable.

A quick, simple, real-life story to illustrate what I mean: I hate and I mean hate putting away all my clothes after they’re washed. I’m not sure what it is: perhaps it’s the press of other priorities, e.g., the need to publish or perish. Or perhaps just laziness. Regardless, I despise few chores more than folding and hanging. My wife, in turn, hates and I mean hates cleaning the cat box. And her reasoning is a little more sensible: it stinks and spills all over the place, and the cat inevitably decides to resolve his indigestion at just that moment. Loving my boy cat to pieces, however, I don’t really mind it.

Now, this looks nothing like a negotiation—particularly the kind with the car dealer or HR rep. But it clearly presents the opportunity to negotiate—and did in real life. Talking through our respective hates one day, she expressed confusion over mine: “What’s so bad about putting your clothes away?” And herein lay an entrepreneurial opportunity.

No, I wasn’t launching a Silicon Valley startup, seeking VC funding, or even setting up a corner store. But I would like to think I was being quite entrepreneurial when I proposed the simple and obvious trade: How about you put my clothes away if I clean the cat box? It’s not rocket science, and my end of the bargain may even seem silly if you like folding or dislike cat excrement. But it made sense to both of us at the time and made us both better off over the long run.

It’s a silly story, I know, but it has a point: the real purpose of negotiation is not to bend a car dealer into submission. It’s to create value by meeting your own needs and someone else’s at the same time. Since doing that is the same as being entrepreneurial, we’d probably all benefit by starting to see negotiation as entrepreneurship rather than conflict.

Three subtle strategies for correcting others’ screw-ups

Life presents many difficult situations, but few more difficult than the need to highlight someone else’s screw-up—actual or potential. Although identifying another person’s error is often the only way to correct it, many of us are so conflict avoidant as to ignore the issue completely. Unsuccessful car repair? Memo riddled with mistakes? Wrong color iPhone? Oh well…

Why so conflict avoidant? In part, because we think we have to mention the issue explicitly and fear the other side’s angry response. But the savviest among us know many subtle ways to highlight a screw-up without angering anyone at all. Just three such strategies that have made three accompanying situations in my own life more negotiable:

  1. Play dumb: We recently bought a fixer-upper and have had to do substantial fixing-upping, including a replacement of the heating unit. The company that did the replacement did good work, but we noticed one nettlesome issue: the master bedroom got a whole lot warmer than any other bedroom. No one was particularly eager to confront the owner of HVAC company, seeing as we liked him and otherwise appreciated his work. So we played dumb: “This is our first time replacing a heating unit; is it supposed to emit a lot more heat in the master than the other bedrooms?” Anyone could see that it wasn’t. But this innocent question offered an easier way of broaching the topic, and he responded by apologizing and adjusting a simple setting. So playing dumb can help, but only in cases like these when you trust the other party to offer an honest answer.
  2. Ask a related question: I recently took a work trip to Houston followed by a personal visit to my grandparents, who live in a suburb called The Woodlands. Having visited them before, I know the way to The Woodlands. Hence my alarm when the car service seemed to go in the opposite direction, as confirmed by the little blue dot on my iPad. It’s gonna be pretty uncomfortable for a visitor to ask a professional driver if he knows his way around his own town, I thought. So I asked a related question: “How long will it take us to get to The Woodlands from here?” “45 minutes,” he answered, “since this way isn’t as jammed as I-45.” Phew. Asking a related question certainly helped, though it did carry the risk of leaving the main question unanswered. What if he thought I was asking about The Woodlands out of idle curiosity, answering the question even while transporting me to Louisiana?
  3. Ask someone else: We have a favorite gastropub, which we visit as often as little ones allow. And we love the free biscuits dispensed before the meal. The only problem is that the biscuits don’t always arrive, sometimes because the server forgot. And it’s kind of uncomfortable to raise the possibility, particularly when interacting with the same server who’s served us a hundred times. So sometimes, while ordering in the presence of the server and the absence of the biscuits, I turn to my daughters and ask: “Do you want any biscuits today?” The answer, of course, is a resounding yes—and the server generally gets it. But there’s always the possibility that he won’t pay attention, the question being directed to someone else.

Bottom line: life occasionally requires us to address someone else’s goofs, actual or potential. But the prospect of implying that they goofed can petrify us into a state of frozen inaction. But it really doesn’t have to! Life also affords a variety of strategies for conveying our point implicitly. So don’t remain “frozen”—“let it go!”

“It’s not fair!”

Any guesses as to the most popular phrase in the toddler’s vocabulary? That’s right: “It’s not fair.” While we may be tempted to discount these three words as a manifestation of the toddler’s irrational mind, I’m here to suggest that they can actually teach us something important about disputes. In particular, I’d like to suggest that this phrase represents nearly everyone’s reaction in a dispute situation, and recognizing as much can make our own disputes more negotiable.

Any parent has experienced something like the following:

  • Toddler (7 AM): “I want chocolate!”
  • Parent: “No, not for breakfast.”
  • Toddler: “But it’s not fair!”
  • Parent: “Oh, yes it is.”

This is a classic dispute. The toddler made a claim, namely that chocolate was appropriate at 7 AM. And the parent rejected it, namely by saying no. Both sides found their own positions entirely fair.

While this dispute may seem silly or contrived, consider the following analogue: It’s January, and you wish to take your vacation a bit earlier this year than last. So you ask your boss: “Boss, can I take my vacation in February?” “No,” your boss says, “We’re pretty busy that time of year.” A completely different domain, but a very similar situation. You wanted to do something a little earlier than someone else expected, and they simply said no. Again, both sides probably found their own positions entirely fair.

Anytime one party makes a claim and another party rejects that claim, you have the basic outlines of a dispute. And anytime you have the basic outlines of the dispute, both parties think that their position is fair. The fact that we identify with our own vacation claim more than the toddler’s chocolate claim doesn’t change the basic situation: everyone in a dispute considers their own view the very epitome of fairness.

In this light, toddlers can teach us something important: in the context of a dispute, appeals to fairness are not likely to work. However fair your own claim seems, you can rest assured your counterpart sees things just the opposite. So how convinced will they be by the natural and oft-made argument, issued later and in a professional adult manner of course, that this particular decision is not particularly fair? Not very.

In this respect, I have to lodge a slight amendment to the book Getting to Yes. Despite the book’s many positive qualities, which I have often extolled in this blog, it advises the reader to resolve conflicts by focusing on objective standards. But the toddler’s behavior shows us that objectivity is subjective, at least when a negotiation becomes a dispute. Since everyone finds their own views the epitome of fairness, trying to be objective is unlikely to get you any closer to a resolution.

So what can you do? Well, you can probably turn to another insight from Getting to Yes: Focusing on underlying interests. The toddler wanted chocolate at 7 AM, but why? Perhaps they’re just hungry for something a little sweeter than the normal dose of plain oatmeal, in which case an apple may do? Your boss said no to the February vacation, but why? Are they concerned that you won’t finish the big report, which you’ve actually already drafted?

Bottom line: “It’s not fair” is everyone’s reaction to a dispute, not just the irrational toddler’s. And however professional and adult-like you put it, it’s not going to convince your counterpart. So the next time you find yourself in a dispute, resist the toddler’s temptation to highlight the unfairness of the situation and instead focus on unearthing whichever of your counterpart’s interests led them to reject your claim in the first place. It’s only by transcending the tendencies of a toddler—surprisingly hard for all of us in a dispute—that we can hope to resolve the disputes and achieve the interests in our own lives.

The real meaning of no

Sometimes it seems like our negotiation counterparts know only one word: “no.” Before we snicker at the size of their vocabulary, though, let us all appreciate the amazing diversity of meaning masked by that one small word. Since negotiators say “no” for all kinds of reasons, many or most of which have nothing to do with negation (but something to do with negotiation), making life negotiable involves understanding the remarkable conceptual richness lurking behind those tiny two letters.

So this post will seek to decode what our counterparts really mean by “no”—in particular, five common messages lurking behind that one common word. While these messages can only scratch the surface of our counterparts’ rich and multifaceted minds, I do hope they demonstrate the importance of looking behind the spoken word in negotiation. So here, without further ado, are five common meanings of no:

  1. You’re talking to the wrong person. People often say no simply because they don’t have the authority to say yes. When talking the cable company, for example, the person who answers the phone is usually not the magical “supervisor” who can somehow extend your promotional rate. In this case, your job is to talk to the magical supervisor—or at least convince the phone answerer to do so on your behalf.
  2. I don’t feel like doing my job today. People often say no because they’re simply too lazy to say yes. I’ve often encountered this one among associates in a big box store. During a recent trip to Walmart, for example, I made the ill-advised decision to try and return a purchase from Walmart.com in-store. “We don’t sell that in the store,” was the unhelpful associate’s response. “Ok,” I answered, “so how can I return a purchase made online—can I return it here and get a gift card to use on the website?” Amazing, that one simple question did enough of the associate’s job that she suddenly found a way to process the return. When the no stems from laziness, your job, sadly, is to do their job for them.
  3. I misunderstood your request. Perhaps the most common reason for saying no is a simple misunderstanding of the request. When you ask for a work colleague’s help with an important task, for example, their no often reflects a simple misconstrual of the task—and especially how much work it requires. In this case, like any case when you want someone to do something, your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to comply.
  4. You haven’t asked enough times. Experienced negotiators sometimes feel like they need to test your mettle by repeatedly rejecting your demands. It’s not that they’re unwilling to accede to those demands—oh no! It’s simply that they want to see how far they can push you before you eventually cave. Consider your last visit to the car dealer—everyone’s last visit to the car dealer. Responding successfully to the repeated no, of course, simply involves repeating the request—politely, perhaps differently, yet repeatedly, until they see undeniably that you’re serious.
  5. This is how my culture negotiates. Whereas we Westerners, on average, tend to negotiate by exchanging information on our needs and desires, negotiators from several Asian nations are thought to negotiate by exchanging and politely rejecting a series of offers. Implicit in the offer exchange, it seems, is an exchange of information about the importance of the various negotiable issues. If you’re negotiating across cultural boundaries, then, a “no” may mean something entirely foreign—namely, that this is my culture’s particular negotiation dance.

Now, in conclusion, I’m not suggesting that no always means otherwise—and certainly not that it means yes. No can certainly mean no. But negotiation research suggests that an initial no often stands in for a plethora of alternative meanings, many of which mean something closer to “try again” or “try something new.” So the overall point is this: the next time you hear a no, disengage your English language skills and consider the no an opening gambit—an invitation to find an alternative pathway to yes.

 

Let them choose! Idiosyncratic preferences at home or at work

Over the course of many dinnertimes, many parents notice a pattern in their young children’s preferences. Shortly after sitting down at the table, and whatever the color of the child’s plate (fork, placemat, cup), the kid decides it’s the wrong color. Pink plate? Oops, they wanted the green one. Green plate? Guess tonight was a pink night. And dare the parents resist the demand to switch plates (forks, placemats, cups)—that demand meaning the need to delay everyone’s meal and wash another dish? Let’s just say it’s not pretty.

Notice such a pattern often enough, and you start to devise a countervailing strategy: Let the child pick their own plate before dinner even starts! That way, they can never complain that you, the parents, picked the wrong one.

I think this is more than an idiosyncratic dinnertime pattern. It’s an example of a common strategy that can help make many corners of life more negotiable—at home, but also in the workplace.

At home or at work, we often interact with people who care passionately about a particular issue. We know their pet issue, and we know they’ll throw a stink if it doesn’t go their way. At home, it’s the plate, but at work, it might be the wording of a particular section in the report or the font size of their name on the cover.

Whether it’s the plate color or the font size, we can’t understand for the life of us why they care. Is a pink plate going to poison the food? Is a 14-point font going to produce the long-awaited promotion? Facing this situation, we can choose to react in at least four ways.

  1. Ask them why they care
  2. Wait and see whether the issue comes up, then negotiate over it
  3. Wait and see whether the issue comes up, then let them take charge
  4. Proactively let them choose beforehand

At home or at work, most of us have probably learned to avoid the first strategy, which tends to elicit about the same reaction from small children and coworkers. And most of us probably avoid the second, given the incredible unimportance of the issue. I’d venture that most of us choose the third, letting them choose their own plate or font if and when it becomes an issue—whatever.

I’d like to suggest that option #4 can make life more negotiable. By proactively giving somebody a choice about something they care passionately about, and doing so before the issue ever comes up for discussion, you’ve signaled that you understand and care about their input, and you’ve already helped them achieve their most important objective. In a word, you’ve now earned their trust and support for the duration of the upcoming discussion.

Sounds silly, and to you, it is. But to them, it’s not. For whatever unknown and unknowable reason, they really cared about the plate color or font size, and you gave them just what they wanted. Effectively, you let them make a choice in order to avoid a future negotiation or conflict. In so doing, you’ve not only saved the time associated with the negotiation or conflict; you’ve also created an ally, albeit one with very strange preferences.

The bottom line? If you know somebody cares a great deal about a relatively unimportant issue, it can often help to let them decide that issue before it ever comes up. Have you ever used this strategy at home or at work?