What should we expect from a negotiation?

What type of outcomes should we expect from a negotiation? Since decades of research suggest our answer dictates both the behaviors we’ll display and the deals we’ll reach, it’s critical to answer carefully. In particular, I’d argue that calibrating our expectations appropriately is one of the most important waystations on the road to more negotiable negotiations.

To call the right type of expectations for negotiation into relief, let’s first consider three common but inappropriate expectations negotiators bring to the bargaining table. It’s typically inappropriate to go into negotiations expecting to get:

  1. Everything in the entire world. The most aggressive among us (and apparently most members of Congress) go into negotiations assuming it’s appropriate to expect everything in the entire world. That is, they assume they should get literally everything they want on all issues—or at least they talk that way. That’s not only inappropriate—it’s silly. As we all learned in kindergarten if not before, we can’t have our way on everything all the time. Assuming we can in a negotiation is sure to produce an impasse or worse.
  2. Nothing in the world. Conversely, the meekest negotiators go into negotiations assuming they won’t get and don’t actually deserve anything at all. Rather, they somehow assume their dominant counterparts’ most unreasonable whims and aggressions—the car dealer’s outrageous sticker price, the bank’s ridiculous fees, the cable company’s unbelievable markups—must be justifiable somehow. Beyond the reality that expecting nothing is going to get us just that much, this expectation is inappropriate because it makes inappropriate expectation #1 appropriate for your counterpart. And if you’re actually negotiating with that counterpart—if they need your cooperation just as you need theirs—it’s not.
  3. Half of everything we each request. If expecting everything and nothing are equally inappropriate, doesn’t it follow that expecting half of what we each request is wise? No, for the simple reason that we and our counterparts tend to value the issues differently. There are some things we absolutely need from a deal—all-wheel-drive to handle those icy roads, a job that allows for some virtual work—and there are some things we don’t. And of course, the same is true for our counterparts. If we simply take the average between our random demands and theirs, we’ll end up with more than we need on some issues and less than we need on others—as will they. It’s woefully inefficient for everyone. And that’s the problem with an overly simplistic view of compromise in general: it leaves everyone unhappy.

So what should we actually expect from a negotiation? Everything we really need. We should (and in fact must) go into a negotiation expecting to achieve our true needs—lest we guarantee ourselves a set of unmet needs. But note that everything we really need is not the same as everything in the entire world, nor none of it, nor half of whatever we and they happen to ask for. It’s everything we want on our most important issues, often in exchange for everything they want on theirs (i.e., an integrative tradeoff).

In sum, many negotiators set their sights too high by expecting everything in the world, too low by expecting nothing, and too inefficiently by expecting half of whatever everyone happens to request. So the next time you go into a negotiation, make sure you’ve differentiated what you really need from what you really don’t, then committed yourself to getting all of the former—and nothing more or less.

Negotiation success through graduation platitudes

The graduation season is upon us! Setting aside all of the reasons for joy and celebration, that can only mean one thing: so is the season of the platitude-laced graduation speeches. And while few of us enjoy platitudes, many of us would probably acknowledge that they contain nuggets of wisdom. Why else would wise people keep repeating them?

Thus, in the spirit of the season and in hopes of making life more negotiable, I thought it might be useful to investigate whether the most common platitudes contain any nuggets of wisdom about negotiation. So here are five common platitudes and their implications for negotiation—all of which are surprisingly informative and eerily consistent with negotiation research:

  1. Dream big: With this omnipresent platitude, speakers advise graduates to set their sights high, shoot for the stars, aim for their most cherished objectives. And when the going gets tough, should they quit? No! Double down and try again. Well, that’s exactly what negotiation instructors have advised their students to do for decades: set aggressive targets reflective of ideal goals, then continue to doggedly pursue them—creatively if necessary—without ever giving up or giving in.
  2. Don’t look back: Quickly on the heels of the first platitude, many speakers offer the second, suggesting that graduates should not only dream big and persist, but also resist the temptation to regret “what could’ve been.” In an eerily similar vein, negotiation research suggests that people should focus on their target while bargaining, but then evaluate the agreement against their bottom line, the goal being both a great outcome and a negotiator who doesn’t look back in regret.
  3. Do what makes you happy: This common platitude advises graduates to look beyond the socially sanctioned markers of success (e.g., a big paycheck) in order to pursue their true motivations—the factors that will truly dictate their happiness or lack thereof. In very much the same spirit, Getting to Yes and nearly every negotiation course it inspired advises negotiators to “focus on interests rather than positions.” When negotiating, that is, try to satisfy your true, underlying motivations (your interests) by going beyond surface-level positions—many of which inevitably involve money.
  4. Thank the people who got you here: Speakers often ask graduates to pause their aspirations and thank the people who got them this far. Similarly, I have argued that that life is only negotiable when we occasionally stop negotiating long enough to express gratitude for the people around us.
  5. Always wear sunscreen: Perhaps this one hasn’t quite reached “platitude” status, but it sure got popular a few years back. We could dig pretty deep into the underlying meaning, but let’s just go one level deeper than the words: don’t forget to take simple steps that protect you from bad outcomes. There are lots of ways to go wrong in negotiations, but negotiation research has long shown that negotiators without alternatives almost always get burned.

So the platitudes in those graduation speeches actually turn out to capture numerous nuggets of negotiation wisdom. Something to ponder the third or fourth time you hear a speaker telling you to “dream big.”