Negotiating your way through upheaval

We live in an age of upheaval—political, social, and viral. So, I thought it might be useful to ponder the possibility that times of great upheaval call for great negotiation skills. Indeed, in unsettling times like these, negotiation is often the only way to make life negotiable.

Consider the following five reasons why upheaval and negotiation often go hand-in-hand, along with some COVID-related examples:

  1. The old rules don’t apply: When the world changes, the old rules rarely change with it. Indeed, that’s kinda the point of rules—to prescribe boundaries impervious to external changes. As just one example, consider the fact that well-worn rules about the hours you’re expected to work and availability you’re expected to maintain don’t apply when everyone knows you’re inches from your computer all the time. Negotiating a new norm may offer the only way forward.
  2. New problems arise: When to work and how available to make yourself is an old problem with worn-out rules as the solution. But upheaval also tends to create entirely new and unanticipated problems—like the need to work out the terms of interaction with individuals who have very different social distancing preferences, needs, or political stances. Since new problems don’t even have worn-out rules, they place even more emphasis on negotiation.
  3. New opportunities arise: Times of upheaval don’t just create problems—they create opportunities. Perhaps Winston Churchill was recognizing as much when he said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” To consider an example close to home, many of us have recently discovered how our idiosyncratic talents—mask-sewing, sourdough-baking, podcast-recording—might represent new business opportunities. But capitalizing on new business opportunities—like most opportunities—requires negotiation with a plethora of people (e.g., partners, suppliers, customers, funders, etc.).
  4. Circumstances change fast: Even when the rules do change with a changing world, they rarely change fast enough. For example, many of us work for organizations that have already had to bin their business strategies for the next decade even though the new rules of engagement are not yet clear. Without a clear roadmap for the future, people will naturally use their individual preferences and viewpoints to chart a path forward. And whenever those preferences and viewpoints clash without a clear and relevant standard of adjudication, negotiation is often the only way of averting a conflict.
  5. New relationships emerge: Times of upheaval have a way of forcing us into new patterns of interpersonal interaction. For example, many of us now find ourselves spending less time with coworkers and more time with extended family and community members. Insofar as extended family and community members have different preferences and viewpoints on issues like mask-wearing, hobbies, and personal space—not that they ever do—negotiation becomes essential.

So, upheavals have a way of thrusting negotiation to the forefront—of forcing us to negotiate our way through the new and evolving muddle of everyday life. Here’s hoping that some careful attention to negotiation can make these unsettling times at least a little more negotiable.

Ok, so you want to barter—but how?

My last post sought convince you that now—in the midst of the COVID crisis—is precisely the time to barter. In brief, the point was that many people now have little choice but to barter, that barter is a better way of negotiating with family and friends, and that barter can help us both deal with short-term shortages and become better negotiators in the long-term. In short, bartering can make life negotiable.

But this all begs an obvious question: How? That is, how to barter effectively? So in this post, let me introduce a critical feature of bartering—the double coincidence of wants—along with three critical implications for bartering better.

As noted in my last post, bartering involves trading whatever you have for whatever you want. For a direct trade to happen, however, you have to meet one very specific condition: You have to want exactly what another person has and have exactly what another person wants—a condition known as the double coincidence of wants. As implied by the name, it can be challenging to the point of utterly coincidental to find a person and trade that satisfy that condition.

But a little reflection on the double coincidence reveals at least three ways to make it less coincidental and more attainable—principles that anyone who barters routinely knows well (and anyone who seeks to negotiate effectively should too, as described below):

  1. Understand yourself holistically: The first step in satisfying the double coincidence is understanding your own side of the coincidence holistically—that is, identifying not just what you want from a bartering trade but also what you’re offering. Say you desperately need some flour for bread: That’s great, but no one’s going to give it to you if you can’t clearly articulate what you’re offering in return. And, while you’re at it, you might as well identify some other things you need—just in case they’re short on flour but happen to have some coveted toilet paper, for example.
  2. Discuss multiple issues: It’s little use identifying your need for flour and TP—or your willingness to offer papier-mâché dolls and mow their lawn—if you’re not willing to raise all these issues in the discussion. And even if you do, it’s little use unless you prompt them to do the same, to talk about whatever it is they need and can offer. Talking about all kinds of things might seem random and scattered; at first, maybe they’ll look at you funny when you mention TP and papier-mâché in the same sentence. But a seemingly random discussion of multiple needs and offerings is often the only way of satisfying the double coincidence.
  3. Seek out multiple partners: Sadly, the first person you approach may not have any flour or TP on-hand; or maybe they do but have no interest in your papier-mâché or lawn-mowing. But by approaching several people, time-consuming as it is, the double coincidence becomes substantially less coincidental. Surely someone with some flour needs some beautiful papier-mâché! Barterers know that theirs is a multiparty endeavor.

These principles, among others, will help you barter better. As described in my book, however, that’s not all! They’ll also help you negotiate better—even when you’re negotiating over money. Indeed, no negotiator can truly excel without understanding themselves holistically, discussing multiple issues, and talking to multiple counterparts. So now’s the time to barter, both for its own sake and for the benefit of your future negotiations. Hopefully these tricks of the “trade” can help you.

Is now the time to barter?

The crazy COVID situation has taught us many important lessons about negotiation—lessons that should make life negotiable whenever it returns to normal.

But COVID also holds at least one negotiation lesson that can make life negotiable now—one that, taken seriously and implemented immediately, could help us navigate this increasingly trying time: the power of bartering (trading the goods and services we have for the goods and service we need).

Immersed in a monetary economy, many of us scarcely consider bartering. When we need some toilet paper or flour, we pay some money to get them. When someone needs our labor or something else we have or produce, they hopefully pay us. So ingrained is the monetary approach to need satisfaction that even COVID is unlikely to change it soon.

Still, the following five features of the COVID situation do render the monetary approach marginally less relevant and bartering much more powerful than they were mere months ago. Now might be a good time to barter because:

  1. Money is scarce: As industries dry up, layoffs set in, and salaries get slashed, many of us will find ourselves with fewer greenbacks in our wallets and bank accounts. So we will obviously need to supply the parties who can meet our needs with something else of value. The goods and services we have, when bartered, offer an alternative means of exchange.
  2. Time is plentiful: Just as our bank accounts go empty, so do our calendars. Bereft of at least a few long commutes, unnecessary meetings, and social activities, many of us have at least a little more time on our hands. Whereas the absence of money is a liability, however, the absence of commitments is an asset, as it provides us with the additional free-time to put our diverse talents—from baking, to video-editing, to Etsy selling—to potentially marketable use.
  3. It fits with family and community: As most of us spend much more time with our families and communities—and much less in a physical workplace—we need negotiation strategies suited to the setting. Our family members might be offended if we offered to sell them our bread; our neighbors might resent if we offered to rent their garden tools. But anthropological research as well as common sense suggest the bartering is more relational and thus more appropriate as a means of negotiating with family and friends. Fewer family members might get offended if we asked them to teach us video-editing after we shared our bread; fewer neighbors might resent our borrowing their tools if we emphasized they could borrow ours later. Oh, and since it’s more relational and less contentious, bartering may even offer a needed source of social connection.
  4. Everything’s under- or over-supplied: As we all know, many traditional sources of TP, PPE, flour, and the like (i.e., stores) have become unreliable. Conversely, those of us who stocked ourselves up may find our shelves overflowing with reams of TP (or whatever else). In that world, where money-accepting stores are unreliable and friendly neighbors with TP deficiencies are cropping up everywhere, bartering may offer an alternative way of matching supply to demand.
  5. It’s a better mindset for negotiation: Even if we weren’t living in a world with unreliable stores and widespread TP deficiencies, and even if we weren’t negotiating with friends and family instead of business partners, negotiators of all stripes may perform better when they treat their task as a bartering trade rather than a monetary transaction—even when their task involves money. Indeed, that’s the whole point of my book, The Bartering Mindset. So trying out bartering can make us a better negotiator now, and we might as well use our newfound free-time to give it a try.

In sum, for all the horrible aspects of the COVID situation, it holds some important and potentially helpful lessons about negotiation, few more urgent than the power of bartering. Happy trades to you!

Negotiation lessons from COVID-19

Long before the virus abates, we can all see society reverting to its old ways. Be it in the increasingly strident commentary on cable news or the accelerating efforts to pin blame for a still-unfolding crisis, signs of a collective retreat into our polarized camps are apparent, as is the resurgence of the faulty assumption that anyone on the other side of any issue is wrong.

Before we completely retreat and slam our respective doors, however, let’s take a moment to review a few lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19. In particular, and in keeping with the theme of my writing, let’s review five key lessons with direct relevance for negotiation—lessons that collectively point toward a better and more productive way to negotiate, and thus a more negotiable life.

Many of us have learned from our COVID-19 experience that:

  1. Our interests are not necessarily opposed: Pre-COVID, many of us approached negotiations thinking that whatever we want is precisely the opposite of whatever our negotiation counterparts want. COVID may have reminded us that we share at least a few select interests with even our bitterest opponents—our interests in life, health, and basic economic security, for example.
  2. We don’t always understand our own interests very well: Pre-COVID, many of us assumed that our own interests consisted in overscheduling our family lives to the max or spending as many hours as possible chained to a solitary desk. COVID may have reminded us that these approaches to life didn’t reflect our core interests very well at all. In other words, we’ve realized that we have greater and deeper interests—perhaps in savoring small moments with family, living a fulfilling and well-rounded life, and learning to grow our own yeast.
  3. Negotiations are all around us: Thanks to all that home time, many of us have been reminded that negotiations don’t just happen at car dealers or over job offers. They happen in our families, our communities, and really anytime we depend on anyone else’s cooperation—and who doesn’t need almost everyone’s cooperation to get by these days? More broadly, COVID may have reminded us that negotiation is nothing more than problem-solving in collaboration with others. And in the face of manifold social problems coupled with changes that upend all the rules, negotiations are sometimes the only type of problem-solving we’ve got left.
  4. Not everything’s negotiable: Perhaps in jarring contrast to the last point, which essentially reiterated that much of life is negotiable, COVID may have reminded us that some of it isn’t. Certain issues—health, life, access to food—remain so necessary, so deserved, and/or so sacred that we might be able to negotiate them—meaning deal with them, manage them, navigate them. But they’re not negotiable—meaning optional, merely desirable, or useful as a bargaining chip.
  5. Without preparation, everything falls apart: Say what you will about the U.S. response to COVID, but few would say we were well-prepared. Preparation matters for many reasons, but a key reason is that it enables people to make credible statements from the start—statements about the availability of testing or benefits of masks, for example—that bolster (or undermine) your trustworthiness as a negotiator over the long-term. Macro-level developments, like our own micro-level experiences, can teach us a few things about negotiation.

In sum, this virus has been undeniably horrible. But here’s hoping it’s taught us at least a few useful lessons about negotiation. They’re not new lessons—I and a great many others have said them many times before. But sometimes it takes a crisis to focus the mind. In that sense, let’s hope a very unhealthy period can teach us a few healthy lessons for the future.

COVID-19: Life’s still negotiable

In moments like these, when the world’s out of control, little seems negotiable. But I’m here to tell you that negotiation is needed now more than ever. Indeed, if we don’t at least try to negotiate a new path through uncertain and frightening times, we’re sure to make an already bad situation worse.

To see what I mean, consider just a few of the many situations that now require many of us to negotiate:

  1. Cancelling a non-refundable reservation: Yes, it says the travel reservation is non-refundable, no exceptions. But actually, it SAID the reservation was non-refundable before the whole world changed. There’s literally no risk in calling up our favorite travel website, explaining the newfound need for a cancellation, and seeing what they say—though there might be some lost time. Indeed, some airlines have already said yes preemptively. Don’t negotiate, however, and you’re setting yourself up for a sure loss.
  2. Setting the new terms with your kids: Things were going swimmingly with the kids. They’d go to school, you’d go to work, and you’d reconvene in the evening. But now, they’re not going to school, you’re not going to work, and you’re about to interact continuously for a solid two weeks (at least). In situations like these, it’s important to make the first offer as to the new rules: That is, proactively and preemptively inform them what learning activities (for example) they’ll be doing before watching cartoons each day. Don’t do that, and the cartoons will automatically appear immediately.
  3. Upgrading your service: Maybe that modem was working for emails. Maybe that cord-cutting was working for the evening news. But chances are, they’re not working for your new needs now. When negotiating a new deal with your service provider, don’t get desperate! Don’t go to the provider, hat in hand, and ask what you’ll have to pay for an upgrade. Go to them with a viable fallback option in hand—another internet or cable company—and only when you’ve researched it thoroughly and would actually be willing to exercise it. Don’t do that, and you’re sure to pay through the nose.
  4. Whether to attend the meeting in-person: Hopefully everyone’s gotten the memo. Just in case someone hasn’t (or it’s ambiguous whether you can), though, you may have to negotiate virtual attendance at a meeting. In these moments, it may be helpful to remind them that social distancing is ultimately a win-win—in the final analysis and the long-term, your interests aren’t opposed. Couple that with a demonstration of the ways you can still accomplish the meeting’s objectives, and you’ll hopefully convince them. Don’t, and we all experience community spread.
  5. Speaking to someone who won’t work virtually: And then there’s (sort of) the opposite. To illustrate, I entered a parking garage the other day, only to hear the parking attendant coughing violently for what seemed like minutes. Maybe it was only those few minutes. Maybe her water went down the wrong pipe. Maybe her employer wouldn’t let her leave, or she couldn’t afford it. But if it was actually COVID-19 and she chose to stay there, think of all the parking tickets touched! If you have to talk someone into leaving the workplace, it might be helpful, rather than urging or ordering them to leave, to probe their underlying reasons for staying–their interests. Do they need a social connection? Not have the necessary technology? Need the money to make it? All problems that can, at least in theory, be solved by an employer without contributing to community spread.

In sum, notwithstanding all the bad news about COVID-19, we’d all do well to remember that life’s still negotiable. Indeed, challenging times call on all of us to negotiate life ever more vigorously than before.