Our many everyday opportunities to negotiate

I might write about negotiation, but I’m still amazed at how often everyday negotiation opportunities present themselves. And identifying such opportunities is nothing short of critical, as finding chances to negotiate is often the only way to make life negotiable.

To see what I mean, consider three recent interactions with a single bike shop. The background: My wife had dropped off her bike in a moment of panic—when a blown tube left her incapable of getting home. I knew my own bike needed a tune-up but couldn’t drop it off at that particular time. The bike shop had called my wife on a Friday, indicating that her bike was ready for pickup:

  • Negotiation opportunity #1: My wife really wanted her bike. With two small kids and one small car, however, she had few real opportunities to pick it up. Identifying an opportunity to help her and potentially get my own bike serviced at the same time, I asked her to call the bike shop and authorize me to pick it up. She did, and they agreed. Many people wouldn’t see this as a negotiation, it was. By simply taking the initiative to ask for what she wanted rather than wait for a window of opportunity months later, she proactively achieved her interests (retrieved her wheels).
  • Negotiation opportunity #2: Showing up on my own bike, I indicated my desire to pick up hers. I also expressed my interest in having my own bike serviced, but only if: A) it could be done before Monday (when I needed it to get to work) and B) there was a volume discount available given the two sequential repairs. The bike shop indicated that they were open over the weekend and had just finished their other repairs, so A was no problem. And, although they usually only give discounts when two bikes are repaired together, they would offer me a volume discount just this once. Cheers to request B! Again, this might not seem like a negotiation. But insofar as I shared and achieved my interests (and also made the first offer), it certainly was.
  • Negotiation opportunity #3: Showing up to pick up my own bike, I paid and happily rode off. Unfortunately, the ride home revealed that the annoying clicking sound I had noted when I dropped it off was still there, clicking away. It would not be unusual for a biker in this situation to suck it up and ride home, assuming the shop did its best. But here was another opportunity to negotiate—namely to return to the shop and report, politely, that the underlying issue had not been resolved. Finding the shop skeptical, I offered the owner his very own opportunity to ride my bike. And, sure enough, there was the click. And the click. And the click. A little work with his reliable wrench, and voila! The clicking disappeared. I rode away happier, able to enjoy my bike without earplugs. And I probably left the owner, despite his initial skepticism, pleased that he had retained a customer.

Now, none of negotiations are high-stakes deals likely to reshape the global business or political landscape. Not even one would probably appear in a book like The Art of the Deal. But they indicate just how common negotiations can be, and how identifying everyday opportunities to negotiate can improve at least one small corner of the world—namely, your own.

Have you recently encountered any unexpected, everyday opportunities to negotiate?

How do negotiators lead?

How do negotiators lead? Even the question sounds strange, as one negotiator is not really following the other. Nevertheless, negotiations need leaders. Indeed, the negotiator who leads is often the negotiator who triumphs. And leading in negotiations can often make your own life more negotiable.

So what exactly does leadership in negotiation entail? In my view, having the gall to set a strategic direction for the negotiation. And—since the other negotiator has no particular reason to comply—doing so in a manner that subtly encourages them to follow. Leadership in negotiations, I believe, involves doing five things first, in hopes that they take the cue and reciprocate each time:

  1. Be the first to state a goal: In sharp contrast to the image of negotiators as bombastic businessmen who start by lobbing threats and tweeting ultimatums (not that we know anyone like that), negotiators-as-leaders are quick to inform their counterparts, explicitly or implicitly, that they share the same goal: identifying a solution that solves everyone’s problems. However bombastic the subsequent tactics, the shared goal provides at least the possibility of trust.
  2. Share the first piece of information: Negotiators-as-leaders know that neither negotiator has a snowball’s chance of achieving their own objectives unless both negotiators, having built some trust, lay some cards on the table. But most negotiators are wary of card-laying, lest the counterpart see the full hand. Thus, negotiators-as-leaders lead by example, by sharing a particular card—namely, some subtle indication of their foremost priority. It certainly takes gall, and surely is not risk-free. But neither is leading, the last time I checked.
  3. Ask the first question: The beauty of sharing the first piece of information is that the negotiator-as leader can then ask the first question. Having laid at least one card on the table, they can now legitimately ask to see at least one of the counterpart’s. And here’s the wonderful part: research suggests that when you do something nice to somebody else (e.g., sharing information), they generally feel compelled to do something nice to you (e.g., answering your question).
  4. Make the first offer: Leadership in negotiation is not all lollypops and sunshine. Negotiators-as-leaders also know how to lay on a little bombast, albeit at the right time and in the right way. One appropriate way to unleash the bombast, as I’ve said repeatedly before, is to make the first offer. But the appropriate time to do so is after a sufficient number of cards have been revealed. So negotiators-as-leaders know that they ultimately need to make the first offer, but only after they play a few hands.
  5. Make the first concession: The beautiful thing about making the first offer is that it also enables a negotiator to make the first concession. Having anchored the other side on an aggressive first offer, and having heard the presumably aggressive counteroffer of the counterpart, the negotiator-as-leader can now show some goodwill by backing down from the precipice. And as negotiators-as-leaders well-know, a little backing down can take two negotiators a long way from the cliff.

In sum, negotiations need leaders just as much as other organizational situations. It’s just that negotiators-as-leaders don’t have the luxury of devoted followers sprinkling rose petals at their feet. They have counterparts who may see them as the enemy, and thus show no particular eagerness to follow. So negotiators lead not by issuing directives or strategic decrees from the mountaintop. They lead by taking action and hoping the other side follows. And surprisingly often, they do.

False anchors II: Don’t get sunk by your teenager

My latest post discussed the topic of false anchors: large numbers issued by retailers for the sheer purpose of anchoring the consumer, then creating an immediate contrast with the “sales” price. “Our amazing TV usually sells for $3000 but—today only—get it for an unbelievable $1800!” The purpose of the post was to alert unsuspecting buyers to the possibility of a psychological trap.

Well, an astute reader offered another example well worth relating, in the spirit of making life negotiable. She actually mentioned the idea of false anchors to a bunch of high schoolers, who recognized the tactic like the back of their hand. Indeed, they immediately offered an analog from their own lives. Whenever they have some bad news to relate to their parents—a D on their math exam, perhaps—they admitted they often say something like this: “Mom, don’t worry: I’m not pregnant, and I haven’t been arrested. I do have to tell you something, though: I just got a D on my math exam.”

What a perfect extension of false anchors! Teenagers, like retailers, are essentially anchoring the listener—in this case, their unsuspecting parents—on some really bad news. And shortly thereafter, they’re bringing up the real news, which is bad but not REALLY bad. In the context of the really bad news, the bad news doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Using this example to make life negotiable depends on whether you’re the teenager or the parents. If you’re the teenager, it undoubtedly works—once. It’s a good way to deliver some bad news and make it seem slightly less bad. Otherwise, why would your peers use it so often? But that’s not to say it’s ethical, preying as you are on your parents’ psychological biases. Nor that it will work more often than once. Your parents, having at least half a brain, will probably cut you some slack the first time but call you out the second time, not necessarily for the bad grade but for the well-worn use of a sketchy tactic.

Now if you’re the parents, making life negotiable means recognizing this tactic the first time. I can only hope that this post helps you to do so. And when you do, your response should resemble the consumer’s response to the amazing TV deal. Just as the consumer must ignore the first price and compare the second against competitors, you the parent must force yourself to ignore the anchor—in this case, the impregnation or incarceration—and focus on the real point—the D. Then evaluate that D against whatever standard you usually use to evaluate grades, not the prospect of grandkids or bail bonds. And, while calling Best Buy to tell them you spotted their false anchor won’t get you very far, telling your kid you spotted their tactic will probably go a ways toward nipping it in the bud in the future.

Have you ever dropped a false anchor as a teenager or detected one as a parent?

James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and offers in negotiation

Last week, many of us watched as FBI director James Comey detailed the FBI’s investigation into Hilary Clinton’s email practices, then recommended against criminal charges. Many of us continued to watch as he was criticized from both sides of the aisle—in an unusually intense grilling by the House, for example. Although such a politically-fraught statement was sure to make one side angry, this statement seemed to make everyone angry—the left for its critique of Clinton’s behavior and the right for its recommendation not to charge.

Why would that be? Well, I’m not the FBI director, and I do understand why the person who is felt compelled to give an especially detailed statement. But I am a negotiation professor. As such, I believe that three negotiation principles can help to explain the universal sigh following Comey’s statement. They all originate in the idea that his explanation resembles a negotiator’s attempt to engage in persuasion, and his recommendation about criminal charges resembles a first offer (albeit one that everyone had to accept). If you buy that analogy, then negotiation research would suggest three problems with this approach:

  1. The arguments didn’t clearly support the conclusion: Perhaps the most basic principle of persuasion and offers in negotiation is that that the persuasion has to logically support the offer. The most consistent criticism of Comey’s statement was that the explanation implied that charges were coming. But then they didn’t. This created an uncomfortable inconsistency between the two—a “gap,” as Democratic Representative Elijiah Cummings put it.
  2. It was easy to generate counterarguments. Negotiation research has suggested that attempts to couple persuasion and offers backfire when the person who receives them can easily generate counterarguments. In that case, the research suggests that an offer without much persuasion may work better. I think it’s fair to say that Republicans didn’t have a hard time generating counterarguments, meaning that the simple, traditional, “here’s our recommendation” approach may have worked proven more compelling.
  3. The persuasion preceded the offer: Some intriguing and emerging research by negotiation scholars Nazli Bhatia and Robin Pinkley suggests that an offer followed by persuasion has a stronger influence on the listener than persuasion followed by an offer. The reason? The former approach leads the listener to start justifying the offer in their own minds. Unfortunately, Comey’s statement followed the latter pattern, the bulk of the presentation focusing on persuasion and the “offer” coming only at the end.

Again, who am I to second-guess the FBI director? No one, but I do believe that these three negotiation principles may help to explain the reaction he received. The lesson for the rest of us? If we’re going to make an offer and persuade someone to accept it, we’d better make sure to do it in that order, with the persuasion supporting the offer, and only when we’re confident that obvious counterarguments won’t pop to mind.

Trump’s curious opening offers

As anyone following politics is well-aware, Donald Trump has made a habit of staking out aggressive negotiating positions. Whether it’s insisting that Mexico will foot the entire cost of a wall or suggesting that he might entertain nuclear retaliation against ISIS, Trump seems unafraid of making the first offer, and making it aggressively.

In that sense, he’s following the advice in one of my earlier posts, as aggressive first offers can often make life more negotiable. And I’m sure it’s because he carefully studied that post.

Yet, Trump has also made a habit of coupling his first offers with other, more curious and less comprehensible tactics. In this post, I’d like to highlight what they are, advising you to stay away from them if you’re using the first offer to make life negotiable:

  1. Calling it a tactic. Aggressive anchors work, in part, because they convince the other side you mean business—that you might actually have a plan to strong-arm the Mexicans or nuke the Islamic State. But that’s only when you avoid suggesting you don’t. Shortly after making each of the first offers above, Trump labeled them negotiating tactics, implying that he didn’t really mean what he said. For example, he followed the nuclear comment by saying: “at a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would.” If you’re going to make a first offer, say it like you mean it and don’t call it a tactic. Otherwise, you look weaker than if you hadn’t made the first offer in the first place.
  2. Waffling. Trump has the habit of staking out an aggressive position on one talk show, saying the opposite on the next talk show, then going back to the initial position on the third talk show. For some humorous examples, see this Washington Post article. As I’ve said in a previous post, there’s nothing inherently wrong with changing your mind when the situation demands. But reversing most of the aggressive positions you take when nothing has changed suggests confusion, at best. If you’re going to make a first offer, don’t make the second offer; and if you do, don’t make it the opposite of the first offer.
  3. Overshooting. As I’ve said before, the best first offers are aggressive but realistic; they are not outrageous, as outrageous offers just drive the other side away. So when you offer to simultaneously deport 11 million illegal immigrants, that probably doesn’t convince your potential negotiating partners in Congress you’re serious. It makes them laugh (or cry). If you’re going to make a first offer, try to make one that the other side finds just slightly unacceptable, not completely unbelievable.

I’m not a billionaire, nor on the cusp of becoming president. So, let me be measured in my critique and admit that there may be a method to his maneuvers, insofar as they make him look unpredictable. But if you’re planning to make the first offer, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you adopt his approach. Instead, make a confident, consistent, realistic first offer that the other side will probably take seriously.

Negotiations across cultures: To make or not to make the first offer?

Every day, most of us interact with several people from unfamiliar cultures. In many of our cross-cultural interactions, our inclination is to tread carefully, lest we commit an unwitting cultural faux pas. In a word, many of us act tentatively across cultures.

In general, that’s a good thing, reflecting a genuine desire to avoid offense and the correct intuition that cultures extensively differ. But what about when we negotiate with a cross-cultural counterpart? Should we bargain tentatively too? Our cross-cultural negotiations will be more negotiable if we don’t.

To see why, recall one of my previous posts, which generally advised you to make the first offer in a negotiation if you can. By doing that, I argued, you can direct your counterpart’s attention to your own goals rather than theirs. As a result, they will use the first offer to estimate the value of the commodity being negotiated, and their subsequent offers will look very much like your first offer. Many years of research have supported this so-called “first offer effect,” attributing it to the basic hardwiring of our brains and showing, for example, that the person who moves first does better.

But what about when you negotiate across cultures? Should you still make the first offer or should you follow the inclination to be tentative? It turns out that the previous research on the first offer effect had come almost entirely from Western cultures, so some colleagues and I recently conducted new research to find out. Recognizing that people from different cultures differ in several ways, many of which are relevant to negotiation, we predicted that they wouldn’t differ in the fundamental hardwiring of their brains. From Baltimore to Beijing, we expected the first mover to walk away from negotiations happy.

Almost uniformly, they did. Across two studies, the first offer effect still emerged in a prototypical East Asian culture: Thailand. In addition, the effect emerged in negotiations among individuals representing 32 cultures and all continents except Antarctica. Regardless of culture, then, making the first offer produced advantageous outcomes, and failing to make the first offer produced a problem.

The bottom line? Being tentative is probably a good antidote to cultural offense, but it’s also a recipe for getting hammered in cross-cultural negotiations. Though you may convey your cultural sensitivity, waiting for an offer is also likely to put you in a perilous position.

With that said, here’s an important reminder before applying this advice: making the first offer doesn’t mean making the first offer right away. In fact, in many cultures (especially Latin American and East Asian), it’s vitally important to build a strong relationship before anyone makes an offer. (Future posts will discuss this and other things that actually do differ across cultures). So the point is not to start making offers the second you meet a cross-cultural counterpart. The point is that it’s worth trying to make an offer before they do, whatever their culture.

Have you ever made the first offer in a cross-cultural negotiation? Or felt uncomfortable doing that?

My toddler STILL won’t eat their dinner! Timing your first offer

One of my first posts tackled one of the most intractable problems: convincing a toddler to eat dinner. In brief, it suggested making the first offer: approaching the toddler before dinner and offering a cookie if they eventually eat their meal. Not waiting for the meltdown and offering several cookies out of desperation.

As I said there and will reiterate here: getting a toddler to eat is not easy, but it’s negotiable! To make it negotiable, though, is to understand an important distinction in the advice originally provided: making the first offer does not mean making an offer first thing. It just means making an offer before your wily counterpart (in this case your toddler) does. As I said in the first post: “it’s generally a good idea to make the first offer—that is, to make an offer before the other side does.”

This distinction is subtle enough that it merits its own post. To see why, imagine that you implemented the initial advice by offering the toddler a cookie before they even approached the table. Specifically, you said: “Little Billy dearest, if you sit down at the table right now, finish your entire plate of broccoli, and don’t get up until you’ve done that, you can have one chocolate chip cookie. If you don’t sit down, don’t eat all of your broccoli, or get up from the table before eating all of your broccoli, you don’t get any cookies.” That’s a good first offer: it’s clear, it’s specific, and it preempts any possible protests by Billy dearest.

But it may also be premature. What happens if Billy sits down promptly, starts eating earnestly, but stops eating halfway through the broccoli? “Billy dearest,” you say, “remember what I said: You have to eat that whole plate of broccoli without getting up in order to get your cookie.”

“But mommy / daddy,” Billy protests, “I have to go POTTY!”

Now you’re in a jam. On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of bowel self-awareness you’ve been pining for. On the other, you made it perfectly clear that Billy would not get a cookie if he got up. Let him go potty and you reinforce his bowel self-awareness, but you also undermine your credibility and undercut your offer. If he’s anything like my toddler, he will suddenly find the need to go potty anytime he doesn’t want to eat something—then demand the cookie.

What happened here? You followed my advice and made a very respectable first offer. But you made it before fully understanding Billy’s situation. That is, you made an offer first thing, not just before Billy did. Had you asked Billy, prior to the offer, “Billy, do you have to go potty before dinner?”, chances are this particular jam could’ve been avoided.

So the general point is this: when negotiating with toddlers or anyone else, it’s best to understand everything you can about their situation—and make sure they understand all the critical aspects of your situation—before anyone makes an offer. Then and only then do you want to make a first offer, meaning the first offer that anyone makes in the negotiation. It’s not a risk-free strategy, but in matters of human interaction, those are few and far between.

How you ever made an offer too soon?