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.

Contracts as conversation starters

If you’ve ever hired a contractor, you know there’s something about a contract that makes it seem final. Maybe it’s the careful calculations, detailed specifications, or numerous terms and conditions. Regardless, there’s something about most contracts that make them seem like the end of the discussion. But I’m here to tell you that a contract is often only the beginning, and that assuming as much can make life much more negotiable.

A quick story to illustrate:

My sisters and I wanted to buy a snowplowing service for my parents for Christmas (don’t worry—they already know about the contract). Having contacted several companies for quotes, I received a contract that included a charge for each visit—and an increasingly large charge depending on the snowfall amount. That would be fine for a snowplowing service in Florida, but my parents live in a much snowier location, and my sisters and I only had a fixed amount of money to spend. So I requested protection against a huge bill in the form of another contract that charged a fixed amount. The snowplowing company obliged, but the fixed amount was high enough to make me worry about the possibility of a Florida-like year, in which case we would be vastly overpaying. So I requested one more revision to the contract—a rebate if the company did not have to visit much at all. The company again obliged, offering to waive a third of the cost if it didn’t happen to snow much. Overall, we got a great service that will take care of the lion’s share of the snow, but will also protect us against vastly over- or under-paying.

I relate this long and winding tale not because I think you’re particularly interested in snowplowing. I relate it because it illustrates how treating a contract as a conversation starter can often be the only way to get the kind of contract you need. And getting the contract you need is often the only way to make life negotiable. So the takeaway is simple: don’t take a contract’s calculations, specifications, or terms and conditions as an indication of finality. Take the contract as an opening gambit, in an ongoing discussion, about an agreement that makes everyone happy.

Getting the most out of your contractor

With the advent of the do-it-yourself revolution in home improvement, we are all tempted to look it up on the internet and then, well, do it ourselves. Tiling, painting, plumbing—internet as guide, house as palette. And when we can’t—when the task is too complicated or the time is too short—the temptation is to once again look it up, then pay somebody to do exactly what we would’ve done if we could’ve done it. Right?

Right, but wrong approach. Useful as the look-it-up-and-shoot approach may be for DIY, it’s usually not the best way to engage with a contractor. So if you need to hire such a person anytime soon, here’s a tip that can immediately make life more negotiable: tell them what you’re trying to accomplish, not what you want them to do.

The difference is subtle but significant. And it’s well-established in negotiation research, which consistently advises negotiators to focus on interests rather than positions. In negotiations, that means telling your counterpart your underlying needs and motivations as opposed to your overt demands and offers. In working with a contractor, it means telling them your overall objectives rather than the exact piece of equipment (down to SKU and aisle number at Lowes) that you’d like them to install (bin number available on request).

A quick real-life story that might clarify: we once wanted to redo some wood floors that looked as if they hadn’t been redone since the advent of wood itself. After obtaining multiple bids, as advised, we settled on a contractor who offered high quality for a reasonable price and also came highly recommended. Rather than telling him exactly what stain we wanted and exactly which rooms to stain, we told him what we wanted to accomplish: to lend the house a light, airy feel; to do everything in a cost-effective manner; and to avoid doing anything that would ultimately interfere or look bad with an eventual kitchen renovation. Telling him what we wanted highlighted several possibilities we hadn’t envisioned or found in aisle 27 (bin 6) at Lowes: not staining the floors at all but letting the natural wood shine through and not yet redoing the floors in the kitchen, seeing as they might get damaged by the renovation or at least might clash with the cabinets. Brilliant! The solution looked great, saved a bunch of money, and paved the way for a beautiful kitchen renovation, complete with future flooring update.

With the benefit of a story, it’s easy to see the benefits of telling a contractor what you want to accomplish rather than exactly what you want. In general, here they are:

  1. You might find a cheaper solution. For example: not staining the floors.
  2. You might find a solution that better fits your needs. For example: not redoing the floors in the kitchen.
  3. You might discover you have a different problem. If you tell a contractor to install something from aisle 27, they probably will. If you tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and ask them how to get there, you have a fighting chance of leveraging their expertise. Hearing you put your trust in their expertise, they’ll probably put said expertise to work and give you their opinion as to whether you’ve accurately diagnosed the problem. If not, then wouldn’t it be great to solve the real problem?
  4. You might find that you don’t really have a problem. Again, contractors usually do what you tell them when you pay them to. But if you tell them the perceived problem and what you’re hoping to do about, they just might point you down a much easier path—at least if they’re honest. And if they’re not, well then you can always go with someone else or go back to aisle 27. Which leads to the next point…
  5. You might discover how competent or honest your contractor is. Again, you’re advised to get multiple bids. If you do that and tell each person exactly what to do, each will probably give you a price for doing just that. If you tell multiple people what you’re trying to accomplish, however, their responses will—if nothing else—tell you something about their level of knowledge. Or, if someone suggests something way out of left field (not that this has happened to me several times recently), you might even learn about their honesty.

So, the next time you have a problem with your home, I’d advise you to resist the siren’s call of Lowes.com. Instead, figure out what you’re really trying to accomplish and tell your multiple potential contractors your overall objectives. Wonderful and reliable as Lowes.com always is, leaving room for your contractor’s judgment can leave you much better off.

Have you ever told a contractor your overall objectives and been surprised by their response?