The unreliability of our gut: Intuitions in negotiation

The recent summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un has brought the issue of intuition in negotiation to the fore. The North Korean dictator reportedly spent years planning for such a meeting, trusting little to his gut and everything to his analysis and preparation. President Trump, in contrast, is widely known to rely on his gut, for example by saying that he would simply intuit whether a deal with Kim was possible within the first minute.

Given these two divergent approaches, each with its own appeal, it’s probably worth considering the reliability of our intuitions in negotiations. Unfortunately, I’m here to suggest that they are not very reliable at all.

In the spirit of making life (if not world events) negotiable, consider the following five ways that our intuitions can fail us. Our intuitions often tell us…

  1. To avoid making the first offer. Seems intuitive to let the other party move first. That way, we can learn about their preferences and maybe get a great deal. Right? Well, often wrong. As I’ve suggested often before, if we do that, we miss the golden opportunity to focus the other party’s attention on our own goals and desires, making us counteroffers very much in line with our own thinking. Instead, we end up making offers very much in line with theirs.
  2. To deal with one issue at a time. Seems intuitive to agree on each issue in turn, and probably the easiest first. Right? Typically wrong again. If we do that, we treat each each issue as a competitive fight, losing the opportunity to link and trade issues. Accordingly, we leave ourselves with a tremendous problem when we come to the truly contentious issues, typically at the end.
  3. That if I want something, you don’t. Seems intuitive that two negotiators want two opposite things. Right? Wrong more often than you’d think. People do want the opposite of some things, typically money or other quantitative issues. But, as I’ve suggested often before, they often want the same thing on qualitative issues—or at least care less about some qualitative issues than others, paving the way for tradeoffs. Intuition fails us again, precluding the possibility of a win-win.
  4. To focus on our bottom line. Seems intuitive to focus on our bottom line, and especially whether the deal under discussion is better than said line. Right? Wrong or at least woefully incomplete. If we focus exclusively on our bottom line, chances are that we’ll settle for something just better than that line, which is often not very good at all. Instead, we need to focus on our target, only coming back to our bottom line when we need to, at the end.
  5. That everyone negotiates pretty in much the same way. Seems intuitive that everybody around the world pretty much thinks about and approaches negotiations the same that way we do. Right? No, totally wrong. Mountains of evidence now indicate that negotiators from different cultures very markedly in their strategies, interests, and the ethical or legal standards they bring to the table. Intuition fails us again, and this time with a bang.

So you see that, appealing as our gut may be, it’s not particularly reliable in negotiations. And now that we all understand as much, maybe we can collectively convince our political leaders.

Who’s your negotiation hero?

Students often ask me to name a negotiation hero—the one person who most epitomizes the lessons taught in class. Presumably they expect me to identify a corporate titan like Jack Welch, a politician like our Negotiator-in-Chief, or even a high-powered sporting agent like Scott Boras.

So imagine their consternation when I politely decline to answer. “But why?” they ask, figuring I just took the world’s biggest cop-out.

I didn’t. I answered that way for a reason, and the reason cuts to the heart of the difference between real negotiation and mythical negotiation, an understanding of which can make life substantially more negotiable. That being the case, let me take this opportunity to share the reason for my refusal. I never name a negotiation hero because:

  1. Real negotiation heroes don’t publicize their accomplishments. Unlike mythical negotiators, who love to broadcast their conquests, real negotiation heroes generally hold their victories close to the vest—perhaps out of humility or perhaps to avoid alerting their future counterparts. People who keep their accomplishments guarded are not particularly easy to identify.
  2. Real negotiation heroes don’t reveal themselves in huge deals. Since most of the negotiations we encounter on a daily basis concern mundane challenges—dishes, discounts, difficulties at work—real negotiation heroes show their stuff in subtle ways. They might do the huge deal occasionally, but they more often solve the simple problem gracefully. Navigating daily life with finesse is unlikely to show up in the newspaper.
  3. Real negotiation heroes look nothing like mythical negotiators. Whereas mythical negotiators are aggressive jerks who pound the table until the other side utterly caves to their egregious monetary demands, real negotiation heroes tend to be quiet, analytical problem-solvers who devise creative, value-creating solutions to complex problems. Hardly the stuff of the evening news.
  4. Real negotiation heroes make the people around them feel that way. You won’t even know a negotiation hero when you talk to one. Instead, you’ll walk away from the conversation feeling like a negotiation hero yourself. Real negotiation heroes know how to create and spread the value around, leaving everyone feeling heroic rather than overawed by the true hero. If we can’t spot the negotiation heroes across the table, how can we spot them from afar?
  5. Real negotiation heroes may not realize it themselves. Real negotiation heroes probably spend less time reflecting on their own prowess and more time reflecting on the problems all around them. They may feel satisfied after working through a conflict or surmounting a challenge, but they’ll probably move on to the next conflict or challenge quickly rather than firing off a self-congratulatory tweet. If we can’t spot the negotiation heroes inside ourselves…

In sum, real negotiation heroes are nearly impossible to detect—and nothing like the people in our minds. The upside? Those of us who consider ourselves hapless at the bargaining table may actually find something heroic down deep.

Mythical images of the negotiator

I recently attended the International Association of Conflict Management meeting in Berlin—an opportunity for negotiation researchers like myself to geek out. And in the process of geeking out, I had an interesting albeit especially geeky thought: the image of negotiation and negotiators that most of us hold in our brains is actually quite different than the portrait painted by negotiation research. Put simply, our images of negotiation and negotiators are more often mythical than evidence-based.

In the hope that evidence can make life negotiable (especially in the era of a self-identified Negotiator-in-Chief), I offer the following contrasts between mythical and evidence-based negotiation. In mythical negotiation…

  1. Negotiation is mostly about doing huge deals. When we hear the word negotiation, we think of multi-billion dollar mergers and business contracts—issues that grab the headlines and everyone’s attention. In actuality, most of the world’s negotiations focus on issues that are totally unimportant to anyone other than you. It’s a negotiation when your child won’t eat, your spouse won’t do the dishes, and your seatmate won’t cooperate on a flight. Most negotiations concern our own daily difficulties—issues that matter only to us.
  2. Negotiations focus on money. Relatedly, we tend to equate the word negotiation with the word money. And yes, many negotiations involve money. But many just don’t—consider the three right above. And in many that do, it’s the qualitative issues rather than the monetary issues that really make the difference. You’ll never get the car dealer to agree with your preferred price, but you just might get him to throw in some oil changes.
  3. The best negotiators are jerks. We tend to assume that the best negotiators must be people with whom we’d never want to share a flight or have a dinner (watch the beginning of this Facebook video where our Negotiator-in-Chief says just that)—people who aggressively demand concessions and accommodations from everyone around them. In fact, the best negotiators are the very people with whom we’d most want to dine or fly—people who listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, who trust and seem to understand us, and who ensure that we walk away feeling at least reasonably satisfied with the conversation.
  4. The best negotiators are easy to identify. Relatedly, we tend to think that we can spot a great negotiator when we see one. It’s the driver zipping around in the Mercedes and cutting everyone off. Or the CEO slamming their fist on the table and demanding that a poor subordinate come up with something better. In fact, the best negotiators are invisible—to us, yes, but often even to themselves. If I had a quarter for every time I taught a negotiation class and observed a self-proclaimed “bad negotiator” eventually get the “Best Negotiator” award…
  5. The key to negotiation success is tactics. We tend to think that the most effective negotiators use the most sophisticated tactics—the car dealer who slips in “one additional fee” after we’ve already signed the contract, or the politician who corners a colleague into supporting a pork-barrel amendment. Tactics are certainly important. Any claim to the contrary would be silly. But more important than tactics—and perhaps much more important—is preparation. If the best negotiators display the most sophisticated tactics, it’s only because they spent the most time and effort preparing, understanding everything there is to know about themselves, the people across the table, and the negotiation situation itself.

In sum, negotiations and negotiators are steeped in mythology, very little of which holds up to empirical investigation. So few of us should be surprised when our most prominent negotiators promulgate the mythology but experience much more difficulty in reality.

To tell the truth? Three Republicans, three approaches

Against my better judgment, I’ve now written several posts about the current presidential election. For example, here’s the latest. The references to negotiation are just too good and too frequent to ignore! So why not keep going?

The three remaining candidates for the Republication nomination—Kasich, Cruz, and Trump—embody three distinct ways of dealing with the truth. Since most of us encounter ethical quandaries daily—and since the way we approach them can easily make life more negotiable—we might as well take this opportunity to talk honesty. So, we’ll use the three Republican candidates to explore three distinct ways of dealing with the truth.

Before tackling this treacherous topic, let me just say that I’m not personally labeling anyone a sinner or a saint (nor trying to impose my own moral view). I’m just using the public image of all three candidates—as constructed by popular news outlets and the politicians themselves—to highlight three particular approaches to the truth. So, if you don’t agree with my characterizations, I would have to refer you back to the popular news outlets and political maneuvers from whence they came. And with that, gulp, here goes…

  1. Kasich: John Kasich portrays himself—and is often portrayed as—the morally-upstanding guy in the room. As an example of his ethical image, he recently told Wisconsin voters that the GOP’s promise to repeal Obamacare was “stupid.” Anyone who understands the probability of repealing Obamacare under Obama can diagnose this statement for what it is: the truth. And yet, anyone who understands how primary elections work can diagnose it for what it’s likely to do: irritate Republican voters. Thus, with this statement at least, Kasich embodies the morally “pure” way of dealing with a tradeoff between truth and expediency: simply telling the truth.
  2. Cruz: Ted Cruz doesn’t portray himself this way, but Donald Trump has often called him “Lyin’ Ted.” Though one can never be sure, there are various suggestions that the moniker may have a kernel of truth—a questionable Facebook post about Rubio, the questionable circumstances surrounding scantily-clad photos of Ms. Trump, or the questionable phone call to Iowa voters about Ben Carson. To elaborate on the last, Cruz staffers apparently called Carson supporters to tell them—falsely—that Carson was planning to quit the race. If Cruz was behind for any of these choices—and again, we can never be sure—then he would embody the opposite, anti-Kasich way of dealing with the tradeoff: stretching the truth in service of political expediency.
  3. Trump: Trump embodies the most interesting approach to the truth: taking one side of an issue and then the other side so rapidly and seamlessly that no one knows which one he believes. Thus, no one can definitively say whether he was telling the truth. Supporters can claim that he was and opponents that he wasn’t—everyone’s right! In this way, Trump has found an innovative way of transcending the tradeoff faced by Kasich and Cruz, insisting on neither a disadvantageous truth like Kasich nor a potentially advantageous lie like Cruz. I think it’s fair to say that his dexterity with the truth is one of the many factors contributing to his ongoing appeal.

Do these approaches matter to our own lives, despite our lack of presidential intentions? Well, I’m assuming we don’t often face the specific tradeoff between truth and votes. But we often face the general tradeoff between truth and self-interest, or at least expediency. Each of us must come to our own conclusions about how to handle these situations, but the three Republicans offer three distinct models for dealing with the truth—honesty, deception, or some ways of transcending the tradeoff. Here’s hoping their approaches can help us forge a path through our own moral minefields.

Are the best negotiators just like Trump?

Since it’s election season and Donald Trump often pins his qualifications on his negotiation prowess, this post will depart from my normal focus on solving everyday problems. Instead, I’d like to explore the qualities of the very best negotiators, comparing and contrasting them with the Trump persona we all know well.

I hope you’ll forgive the diversion, but I think it’s useful for making life negotiable.

The Donald is a very wealthy man who often attributes his own success to his negotiation skills. Since none of us knows what he does at the bargaining table, he could very well be right. For the very same reason, however, we should all pause before leaping to the conclusion that his public behaviors reflect the features of successful negotiators. Are the best negotiators carbon copies of the public Trump? Well, several decades of negotiation research would use words like the following to describe the very best negotiators; you can judge for yourself whether they also describe the public Trump:

  1. Humble: The best negotiators don’t brag, nor suggest that they know everything. Quite the opposite, they try to deemphasize their past achievements, knowing that braggadocio will only raise their counterpart’s hackles. Indeed, they actively shift the focus away from themselves toward their counterparts, assuming that they absolutely have to learn by listening. Out-hearing rather than out-talking their counterpart, they know, is the key to negotiation triumph.
  2. Enlightened: The best negotiators are concerned about their counterparts’ outcomes in addition to their own. But it’s not an act of charity—it’s the enlightened realization that making their negotiation counterpart better off tends to make them better off too. It’s the fully-rational understanding that a small slice of a big pie is usually bigger than a big slice of a small pie.
  3. Creative: The best negotiators approach problems with an eye to uncovering creative solutions. In particular, they spend most of their time looking for “out-of-the box” ways to help themselves and their counterparts both achieve their goals at the same time. I’m just guessing here, but building a big wall is probably not the first solution to our immigration challenges that they would entertain.
  4. Balanced: The best negotiators know that negotiation is not a byword for aggression. They realize that negotiations sometimes call for competitive behavior but often call for cooperation, and they know how to use both in good time and measure. Ultimately, they gauge their success by the extent to which they created value and built a relationship, not the depths to which they crushed their counterpart.
  5. ProblemFocused: In the words of Getting to Yes, the best negotiators focus on the problem instead of the people. In others words, they never get personal. Disaster, moron, dummy, lightweight, loser. These are not words you’d often hear them using.

Are these the qualities of the public Trump? You can be the judge. I suspect you know my answer, though I hope you also know that I don’t aspire to trash the man or his negotiation skills—with his billions and billions (and my distinct lack thereof), he must be doing something right. My goal is simply to suggest that anyone who aspires to make life negotiable by emulating the public Trump should pause and perhaps consider a few other role models first.