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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Initiating the right relationship with seatmates

There comes a critical moment at the start of each flight—the moment you encounter your seatmate. At that moment, your actions can easily dictate how negotiable the next 2, 5, or 7 hours are going to be. Initiate a positive relationship, and you just might make it to Michigan. Initiate a bad one, and you’re bound for a fight over Phoenix.

That being the case, what can you do to set up the right relationship with your seatmate? Consider the following five research-based suggestions for happy flying:

  1. Be cordial to build trust: It’s the nice and human thing to do. In addition, smiling and saying hello can start a cycle of trust. Flights are long and arduous encounters, and numerous contingencies are likely to arise. Maybe their air will blow right on your face. Maybe their gargantuan bag will encroach on your under-seat space. With the benefit of some pent-up trust, you can probably figure out a solution. Without it, good luck.
  2. Help with their bags: In addition to being the nice and human thing to do, helping to put up their bags (or fetch their pen from an overhead jacket, as I recently did) generates a cycle of reciprocity, whereby they will later feel motivated to help you too. What if you need to get up and use the bathroom four times? Or get the Wi-Fi signal to work just once? A seatmate who you previously helped will probably be eager to reciprocate.
  3. Claim your territory: In addition to these cooperative and integrative overtures, it’s important to start claiming some value in the form of the armrest. We’ve all flown next to the guy—and it usually is—who thinks he owns all three seats in the row. If that norm leaves the ground, all three fliers are in for an extended squishing.
  4. Signal your intentions: Similarly, it’s important to set some expectations as to how you intend to spend the next 2, 5, or 7 hours. If you’d love to the chat the trip away, then start chatting even before the safety demonstration. But if you’d prefer to work, read, or sleep, you’d better set those expectations even earlier. An ambiguous signal—some idle but unenthusiastic chatter, for example—won’t serve anyone well. You’ll both end up chatting the flight away even though both preferred to sleep (something akin to the Abilene Paradox).
  5. Don’t be weird or annoying: If I had a quarter for every time my seatmates acted weird or annoying long before takeoff, thereby generating angst that lasts the whole flight, I’d be able to a buy a plane and avoid the whole situation. From continuously messing with the air vent, to standing up and sitting down ala ants-in-the-pants, to taking a cell phone call loud enough to render the phone superfluous, to pulling out reams upon reams of paper, to shooting visual daggers into the seatback, crazy or annoying maneuvers in the early stages of a flight abound. Other people aren’t going to stop acting weirdly, so you might have to lead by example.

In sum, flights are gliding laboratories for making life negotiable. But they’re applied rather than basic research laboratories, in that your efforts will directly dictate your happiness. Here’s to this amazing opportunity to make life negotiable!

Coalitions with co-travelers: Making delays negotiable

I’ve experienced a lot of flight delays, but never arrived at an airport seven hours before a delayed flight departed. Such was the case on a recent trip from St. Louis to Baltimore. Thanks to some substantial snowfall somewhere else, the plane that was supposed to return me to Baltimore was arriving in St. Louis two hours from 6 pm, 7 pm, 8 pm, 9, and 10 pm. Thanks, snow.

Clearing security at about 5 pm and receiving an email about the impending delay, I held out the distinct hope that this situation could be averted by standing by on an earlier flight that departed around 5:20. At the desk for that flight, however, I encountered another traveler from my own delayed flight trying every tactic in the book. “Can I pay you some money to get on the earlier flight?” she asked the agent. “Let me tell you why I need to be in Baltimore right away.” “My boyfriend is gonna be so sad!” Ten minutes later, seeing the conversation continuing, the agent growing beleaguered, the earlier flight boarded, and my own chances of getting on it falling by the minute, I realized that I had to break up this conversation to make life negotiable.

So what could I do? Well, I could’ve gotten angry at the annoying traveler or interrupted the conversation rudely, asking whether she was planning on letting anyone else talk to the agent ever. In other words, I could’ve formed a coalition with the Southwest agent, teaming up against the annoying traveler to make both of our lives more negotiable. But would that’ve gotten me on the flight? Probably not, as the traveler would’ve trained her monologue on me, delaying us all a lot longer.

So instead of forming a coalition with the agent, I thought, I need to form a coalition with the annoying traveler. Only by aligning myself with the force interfering with my goal could I hold out any hope of attaining it. And that is what I did. “Oh, are you on the delayed flight to Baltimore too?” I asked her, knowing full-well that she was. “Yes,” she opined woefully, “you too?” “Yes,” I opined in return. And then seized the opportunity, albeit brief, to address the agent: “May I get on the waitlist too?” And thus I did.

Now, full disclosure, getting on the waitlist did absolutely no good whatsoever. There was one seat available on the earlier flight, meaning that lucky #6 on the standby list (Mr. Gunia / BC) did not quite make it. (Nor did annoying #5). Still, had there been six seats available, this tactic of forming a coalition with the disputant rather than going to war with her—well, it would’ve paid off in spades. So I still think it’s worth recommending as a means of making life negotiable.

When we have to negotiate with multiple parties, we’re usually tempted to join forces with the person who seems most supportive—in this case, the friendly Southwest agent. By doing that, we think, we’ll be able to overpower any annoying impediments. In fact, when we do that, the annoying impediments often take exception, trying everything in their power to stymie our aspirations. So, assuming we have a serious but not a mortal difference of opinion with the people standing in our way, it’s often more effective to form a coalition with them. By doing that—by expressing empathy with another passenger’s plight, for example—we can often flip them from adversaries to supporters, or at least to less serious impediments.

With the airlines, it often seems that few tactics can make life negotiable. But forming a coalition with the co-passengers impeding us is one tactic worth a try, to practice our negotiation skills if not to arrive in Baltimore any sooner.