Negotiating the holidays: Five common negotiations in a magical time of year

With the holidays fully upon us, I thought it might be useful to recap some negotiations you’re likely to face amidst the festivities—along with some research-based suggestions for making them negotiable. I’m pretty sure you’ll face at least one of the following negotiations over the next few weeks:

  1. Deciding where to spend the holidays. Many of us will have a robust discussion with our better halves as to where to spend the holidays—and for how long. For some suggestions on avoiding a less-than-festive meltdown in the process, you might want to review this post.
  2. Dealing with annoying seatmates. Many of us will encounter fellow holiday fliers who…how shall we put this…have a slightly different take on in-flight decorum. For some suggestions on keeping the skies friendly, check out this post.
  3. Finding time for family. Many of us will need to physically pry ourselves away from our desks to spend the desired time with family and friends. For some tips on negotiating a reasonable work-life balance when it’s needed most, you might want to review this post.
  4. Counteracting predatory retailers. When purchasing our presents, many of us will encounter amazing deals. Others will encounter “amazing” deals—deals that retailers would love for you to misinterpret as such. To recognize and counteract a particularly pernicious version of this trap, consider the following post and paper.
  5. Giving appropriate and reacting appropriately to gifts. It’s the season of giving and receiving, but many people struggle to devise the appropriate gift or react appropriately when they receive the annual fruitcake. So consider reviewing the following posts on giving and receiving for some insights from the negotiations literature.

And now, here’s ho-ho-hoping your holiday becomes a bit more negotiable.

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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.

When the equality rule fails: The case of four shells

If I’ve learned one thing as a negotiation professor, it’s that the fairest and most obvious ways of dividing resources often seem unfair and non-obvious to the parties involved. Consider the equality rule. What could be fairer than a 50-50 split? Unfortunately, the parties embroiled in a negotiation don’t always see it that way. So we need an alternative approach to make life negotiable.

To illustrate the dilemma and a set of potential solutions, let me recount a story.

My family and I recently visited the beach. One morning, I took a long run and decided to pick up some cool shells for my five- and three-year-old daughters. At first, I found three shells, thinking that more than sufficient. But then I remembered that three shells allocated to two young ladies would elicit open warfare. So I searched high and low for a fourth, finding an amazing orange one that I expected to settle the matter. Two shells for each daughter. Equality rule!

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. And I should’ve seen it coming: Both daughters regarded the orange shell as way cooler than the others, so both daughters clamored for it.

The equality rule, so obvious in theory, completely failed in practice. And what to do then? I have to admit, I didn’t immediately know, as I was shell-shocked at this incomprehensible failure of the obvious. With reflection though, I came to see that the situation actually presented many different solutions:

  • Flip a coin: I could flip to determine the lucky recipient of the orange shell, give that daughter one more, and give the other daughter the remaining two. Problem is, someone would be incredibly dissatisfied with the fickle hand of fate.
  • Share the orange shell: If the equality rule didn’t work, maybe a quasi-communist rule would. We could all agree to share the orange shell, which is great but would bring all the baggage of common property, even while leaving three shells to divide among two people.
  • Search for another orange shell: Perhaps the ideal option, this one came with an obvious problem: I’ve never seen a shell quite like that. That’s why everyone liked it. So it wasn’t going to work.
  • Return the orange shell to its marine home and find a fourth: While this would’ve technically solved the problem, any parent can tell you that it would’ve elicited far bigger problems.
  • Let the daughters sort it out: They need to learn that life’s negotiable after all, so why not let them figure out a solution of their own? I have to admit that I considered this option carefully, but I thought it might be better to guide them toward a solution.
  • Three-for-one trade: I could give one daughter the orange shell and the other daughter all three of the more pedestrian shells. That seemed promising, but they flatly rejected it. Three pedestrian shells apparently did not compare to a glorious orange one.
  • Figure it out later: Having ruled out all the other obvious solutions, I could think of only one more at the time. Why not wait until the initial allure of the orange shell had worn off a bit? Then maybe everyone’s rationality would return, making the sort-it-out or three-for-one solutions more feasible. And that’s essentially what I did, hoping for a three-for-one. Turns out, the problem got a whole lot easier when someone mentioned the candy store, and everyone forgot the shells.

So what’s the point of all this? First, that even the simplest and least controversial of situations can generate unexpected conflicts and the need for negotiation. Second, that the equality rule can easily fall flat, and we have to be flexible enough to abandon it. Finally, that the key to any negotiation really comes down a combination of creativity and patience. Once the negotiator engages their creativity and indulges their patience long enough to generate some options, a workable solution usually presents itself. Combine a little creativity and patience, and life’s a beach!

Many negotiations in a Mexican restaurant

It never fails to amaze me how many of our daily interactions involve negotiation. Such is the point of this blog! But a recent trip to a Mexican restaurant really drove home the point, so I thought I’d relay it in the spirit of making life negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations, all from a single Mexican dinner:

  1. With a busy host: On our way into the restaurant, I saw a sign offering free bowling coupons to patrons. But I saw no bowling coupons upon entry. So I had to negotiate with the host by asking where I could find the elusive coupons. And the harried host looked none too pleased to track them down. But eventually, we got them. And this illustrates the principle: if you want something, ask for it!
  2. With a busy waiter: In the process of scarfing down her chips, my younger daughter seemed to get a crumb stuck in her throat. It was nothing major, but she did feel uncomfortable. So I had to flag down the first waiter I saw for some water. Unfortunately, he was carrying seven margaritas at the time. And he looked none too pleased at my interruption. But he brought the water, and pronto, when I explained. This illustrates the principle: don’t back down from your most important needs.
  3. With my older daughter: My older daughter, during the chip incident, had gone to the bathroom with mommy. That left daddy to order the drink I thought she’d like – a delicious cup of apple juice. But inevitably, daddy was wrong. What she wanted was pink lemonade. Of course! So I decided to suggest a contingency contract: If you’re still thirsty after the ginormous apple juice, I’ll buy you a lemonade. (Inevitably, she wasn’t.)
  4. With both daughters: Both daughters like to put 12 shakes of salt on each chip. Unfortunately, that’s a ticket to the cardiologist. So I had to negotiate over the salt, specifically by promising to dispense a moderate amount of salt over the entire chip basket if they would promise to drop the salt shaker. This illustrates the topic of concessions: I was willing to make a small concession in service of a greater good (my daughters’ long-term health and wellbeing).
  5. With my wife: I wanted a second margarita, as I usually do. My wife didn’t want her first, as she usually doesn’t. But I forgot my wife’s preferences and started to order my second. Luckily, she interrupted my order by offering hers, thereby illustrating an integrative solution: she saved us $15, and I got entire margarita minus one sip.

Through these somewhat silly and mundane examples, I hope you see how common negotiations can be. While few of our meals involve five negotiations, most of our lives involve negotiation in some way or another. So here’s to making life negotiable!

“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.

To each their own: Technological solutions to negotiation

Last weekend, my daughter and I went to Home Depot. As a means of making the errand slightly more interesting, I let her bring her LeapPad – basically a miniature iPad for learning. During the drive, she was playing her LeapPad, and I was listening to my music. Apparently the music was interfering with the LeapPad’s lovely sound effects, however, as she pointedly told me to cut the tunes.

Ha! I thought. Here’s a solution that will make life negotiable. I’ll put the music entirely in front and on the driver’s side, allowing me to enjoy my music Leap-free. And she, in the back seat on the passenger side, can enjoy her LeapPad music-free.

Then ha! I thought. What a perfect topic for a blog post, as technologies like these provide a wonderful way of achieving everyone’s goals concurrently. And technologies like these abound: Different temperatures for different sides of the car, individual lights for individual seats on planes, separate TVs for each machine at the gym. Technologies like these offer a metaphor for success in many negotiations, since solutions that meet multiple parties’ most important goals at the same time are good solutions.

At the same time, the music solution led me to wonder whether the effects of these technologies and the solutions they enable are uniformly positive. Yes, my daughter got what she wanted, and yes, so did I. But we both got what we wanted by essentially ignoring the others’ needs. Is that really the best kind of solution that two people—particularly two family members—could reach to a problem? Perhaps not. What if I had asked her to tell me more about her game and why the sounds matter? What if we had agreed to listen to her Leap Pad on the way to Home Depot, and my music on the way home? Or agreed to play her LeapPad games without their lovely music? Or agreed that her learning was more important than my entertainment? Or decided on an entirely different solution, like talking to each other on the way to Home Depot? Perhaps one or more of those solutions would’ve not only met our needs but also helped us to understand each other better at the same time.

So what’s the point? The learning, for me, is that technologies like the ones in our car can be incredibly powerful for helping multiple parties meet their needs, but that meeting needs is not the sum total of a successful negotiation. A successful negotiation not only meets the parties’ needs but also leads the parties to a greater understanding, thus bringing them closer together and more likely to thrive in their future negotiations. So next time, I’m going to resist the pull of the radio settings, and try a different approach instead—one that enables me to better understand my daughter’s needs at the same time. You see, not even negotiation professors profess to know all the answers. But we do profess that all of life is a negotiation, meaning that opportunities to learn about negotiation and make life negotiable are all around us.

Gratitude: Or when not to negotiate

My posts often talk about getting more of what you want. That is by design, as some basic negotiation skills can often help you get more and give more at the same time. Who wouldn’t do that if they could?

Yet, the holidays—and especially their gift-giving traditions—offer an opportunity to make the opposite point: that getting more is not always the goal. Indeed, life’s only negotiable when we can at least sometimes suspend our desire for more and be thankful for the people around us.

But when should we do that? This post will offer five questions that—answered in the affirmative—suggest it’s time to at least momentarily supplant desire with gratitude. Beyond the holidays, they offer some clues about other situations in which negotiation’s not your best option:

  • Are they obviously trying to benefit you? It’s true: those 48 Snoopy socks were not atop your Christmas list. But did your sister buy them thinking you’d love them? Or did she just have an expiring Kohl’s coupon? If the former, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
  • Is it about the process or the outcome? Gift-giving is one of many life situations when the outcome is less important than the process—or at least should be. As another such situation, I’d venture that few of us throw our toddler a birthday party in hopes of excellent hospice care. If you’re in a situation when everyone’s focus is the activity or human interaction itself, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
  • Have you already achieved your primary objective? What’s your primary objective for the holiday season? For many people, it’s to be surrounded by a happy and healthy family. The temptation, having read posts like mine, is to negotiate everything just because. In fact, when you’ve already achieved your most important objectives, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
  • Would the costs of initiating a negotiation outweigh the benefits? Go back to the Snoopy socks. True, you could probably get a better present next year by, for example, laughing and demanding an Xbox next time. But would the Xbox outweigh the strained relationship? If not, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.
  • Are you the only one dissatisfied? Suppose the whole family got the Snoopy socks. Is everyone else trying them on and enjoying the (awkward) moment while you’re brooding over the expected Xbox? If so, it’s probably a good time to be thankful.

So the point is this: If you can find an opportunity to get more and give more this holiday season, by all means do it. But if you find that the effort to get more is actually giving you and everyone else less, gratitude is probably the better option.