COVID-19: Life’s still negotiable

In moments like these, when the world’s out of control, little seems negotiable. But I’m here to tell you that negotiation is needed now more than ever. Indeed, if we don’t at least try to negotiate a new path through uncertain and frightening times, we’re sure to make an already bad situation worse.

To see what I mean, consider just a few of the many situations that now require many of us to negotiate:

  1. Cancelling a non-refundable reservation: Yes, it says the travel reservation is non-refundable, no exceptions. But actually, it SAID the reservation was non-refundable before the whole world changed. There’s literally no risk in calling up our favorite travel website, explaining the newfound need for a cancellation, and seeing what they say—though there might be some lost time. Indeed, some airlines have already said yes preemptively. Don’t negotiate, however, and you’re setting yourself up for a sure loss.
  2. Setting the new terms with your kids: Things were going swimmingly with the kids. They’d go to school, you’d go to work, and you’d reconvene in the evening. But now, they’re not going to school, you’re not going to work, and you’re about to interact continuously for a solid two weeks (at least). In situations like these, it’s important to make the first offer as to the new rules: That is, proactively and preemptively inform them what learning activities (for example) they’ll be doing before watching cartoons each day. Don’t do that, and the cartoons will automatically appear immediately.
  3. Upgrading your service: Maybe that modem was working for emails. Maybe that cord-cutting was working for the evening news. But chances are, they’re not working for your new needs now. When negotiating a new deal with your service provider, don’t get desperate! Don’t go to the provider, hat in hand, and ask what you’ll have to pay for an upgrade. Go to them with a viable fallback option in hand—another internet or cable company—and only when you’ve researched it thoroughly and would actually be willing to exercise it. Don’t do that, and you’re sure to pay through the nose.
  4. Whether to attend the meeting in-person: Hopefully everyone’s gotten the memo. Just in case someone hasn’t (or it’s ambiguous whether you can), though, you may have to negotiate virtual attendance at a meeting. In these moments, it may be helpful to remind them that social distancing is ultimately a win-win—in the final analysis and the long-term, your interests aren’t opposed. Couple that with a demonstration of the ways you can still accomplish the meeting’s objectives, and you’ll hopefully convince them. Don’t, and we all experience community spread.
  5. Speaking to someone who won’t work virtually: And then there’s (sort of) the opposite. To illustrate, I entered a parking garage the other day, only to hear the parking attendant coughing violently for what seemed like minutes. Maybe it was only those few minutes. Maybe her water went down the wrong pipe. Maybe her employer wouldn’t let her leave, or she couldn’t afford it. But if it was actually COVID-19 and she chose to stay there, think of all the parking tickets touched! If you have to talk someone into leaving the workplace, it might be helpful, rather than urging or ordering them to leave, to probe their underlying reasons for staying–their interests. Do they need a social connection? Not have the necessary technology? Need the money to make it? All problems that can, at least in theory, be solved by an employer without contributing to community spread.

In sum, notwithstanding all the bad news about COVID-19, we’d all do well to remember that life’s still negotiable. Indeed, challenging times call on all of us to negotiate life ever more vigorously than before.

Five non-deceptive reasons that negotiators don’t tell the full truth

One of the biggest challenges any negotiator faces is getting the full truth from their counterpart—in particular, learning the real interests lurking behind their positions. Why’s my coworker really pushing that proposal? Why’s the homeowner really delaying that inspection?

Facing a less-than-fully forthcoming counterpart, most of us draw a simple conclusion: They must be concealing something. Or, taking it a step further—they must be a liar.

I’m here to tell you, however, that negotiators fail to disclose their full interests for many reasons that have nothing to do with deception. Since understanding those reasons can make life negotiable, let me outline five of the most common:

  1. They don’t understand their interests: It’s much less intriguing that than the hypothesis you’re facing an ethically-craven knave, but it’s probably more likely: Your counterpart simply doesn’t understand themself. Be it time pressure, an overabundance of issues, or a shortage of self-awareness, a plethora of factors conspire to place many negotiators at the table without a full understanding of their own interests. If so, then the best recourse is not to suspect them but to stimulate some introspection.
  2. They’re too close to the problem: Conversely, some negotiators understand their situation quite well—so well they’ve got a set of blinders glued to their faces. They’ve been in the organization so long, know the business so well, etc. that they’re just sure their position is right. Only problem is they can’t tell you why—and don’t see the need to. If so, the best recourse may be to ask a series of open-ended questions that progressively unglue their blinders.
  3. It’s too sensitive: Sometimes, negotiators hesitate to disclose their interests—or at least write them in an initial email or state them in an initial phone call—because those interests are simply too sensitive. Maybe they’re pushing that proposal because the boss has threatened them if they don’t. Maybe they’re delaying that inspection because they’re too busy grieving for the person who lived there. In these situations, the best recourse may be to win their trust over an extended period of time, then ask.
  4. Telephone game: Sometimes, the person across the table is not the person with the problem under consideration. They’re just representing the person with the problem, in which case they could’ve easily fallen victim to the telephone game. Maybe the problem owner didn’t reveal their own interests, or maybe they did and something got lost in translation. Either way, your counterpart’s reticence may amount to garden variety communication breakdown. If so, the best recourse may be to send some questions back to the problem owner or request their presence at the next meeting.
  5. High-context communication: Sometimes, the person across the table thinks they’re sharing their interests, plain as day, but you’re not hearing them. This may or may not happen in married couples, but excellent research suggests it’s quite common in cross-cultural negotiations. Whatever the setting, here’s the issue: One negotiator is using high-context communication—embedding the message in facial expressions, tone of voice, and other subtle hints—whereas the other is receiving low-context signals—looking largely to the words. If so, the best recourse may be for the low-context negotiator to play back what they’re hearing and ask the high-context negotiator to elaborate.

What’s the point? It’s really simple actually: When you encounter a negotiator who seems less-than-fully forthcoming, resist the temptation to diagnosis their behavior as deception or their demeanor as deceptive. Instead, consider that something about the situation may be prompting their seeming evasiveness, and focus your attention on discovering what it is.

Is my negotiation progressing nicely? What, why, and how

How can you know if your negotiation is heading in the right direction? Few complicated questions have simple answers, but let me try to make this one as simple as possible in hopes of making life negotiable.

If your negotiation is progressing nicely, the discussion should generally answer the following three questions, in the following order:

  1. What? Most productive negotiations start with an examination of the basic situation, the facts (actual, not alternative). As in, what are we actually discussing here, and what’s the context? Seems obvious to get the facts out of the way first, but surprisingly many negotiators don’t, preferring to launch into overt conflict before clarifying the premises. (Ask our friends in Washington.) If your negotiation doesn’t surface the facts first, chances are it won’t produce much of anything useful later.
  2. Why? Most productive negotiations eventually progress from a discussion of what we’re talking about to a discussion of why those issues matter to each side. Don’t get to the reasons for the facts as we see them—and surprisingly many don’t—and chances are you’ll get mired in a pointless debate over each side’s positions and their utter irreconcilability. We’ll get stuck at me wanting a raise and you giving me zilch without ever exploring creative ways to reduce my commuting costs, reimburse my education, or obtain a bonus when I bring in the promised business.
  3. How? Most productive negotiations eventually move on from each party’s priorities to a discussion of prospective solutions. Having understood what’s important to each side, the negotiators obviously need to consider how to reconcile those priorities. If your negotiation never gets there—and surprisingly many don’t—and you’ll have a great and deep understanding of the situation and each other. But that’s it. You’ll leave the room scratching your head about what in the world was just decided and what to do next. Ever leave a meeting with just that feeling?

Now, before taking this what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness too far, a clarification is in order: Negotiation, like any form of problem-solving, is an iterative process. You may move on to the why questions and then discover you didn’t understand the what well enough. That’s fine! As long as you eventually get back to why, your negotiation is still progressing nicely.

What’s not fine is skipping steps. Since understanding underlying priorities (why) is hard and often a bit awkward, for example, many people prefer to skip right from what to how. Do that, and you’re likely to surface a solution that seems to fix the situation but doesn’t really solve anyone’s underlying problem. Other people—the go-getters, solution-seekers, extreme Type-A’s—may try to jump right to solutions. Do that, and your solutions won’t even fit the surface-level situation, let alone the underlying problem.

With those clarifications in mind, I would humbly offer the what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness. Answer those questions in that general order, and you’ll probably find your negotiation progressing nicely. Skip some of those questions or don’t answer any of them, and you’re likely to get the personal equivalent of a shutdown.

What they’re asking for vs. what they want

Businesspeople commonly assume that customers’ requests correspond closely to their underlying needs. If he asks for the S version, he must want a sportier (yet costlier) ride. If she asks for a specific species of tree, she must want something beautiful (yet eventually ginormous). The customer is always right! But I’m here to tell you that the correlation between whatever people ask for and whatever they’re actually trying to accomplish—in business and many other arenas of life—is not statistically significant. And appreciating as much can make business (and life) more negotiable.

To see what I mean, imagine a customer in the process of renovating their kitchen—not that I’ve been there. The friendly contractor asks the dutiful customer: Can you please go to this website, take a look, and let me know what type of countertop material you want? Then, the customer dutifully examines the website and comes back to the contractor with a specific request. Quartzite!

Now what will the typical contractor assume? This customer wants something beautiful and durable and doesn’t mind an exorbitant price, not to mention continuous maintenance . But why might that conclusion be mistaken? Consider three reasons:

  1. The customer doesn’t know what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s a fact. Many people just don’t know what they’re really trying to accomplish, especially when considering a complex, multifaceted, and multidimensional problem like the countertop that will best suit their needs in the long run. So they dutifully examine the website and pick a countertop they think will meet their needs, but it won’t because they haven’t identified those needs very accurately in the first place.
  2. The customer knows what they’re trying to accomplish but doesn’t know how to accomplish it. Many customers, confronted with a website detailing thousands of countertop options, each with several thousand attributes, simply go into cognitive arrest. They simply can’t fathom the overwhelming volume of information, much less the time involved in considering it all carefully. So they simply select the first one that seems, at first glance, to minimally satisfy whatever bar they’re trying to clear. This tendency, commonly known as satisficing, can easily lead to a suboptimal request even if the customer knows exactly what they’re trying to accomplish.
  3. The customer knows what they’re trying to accomplish and how to accomplish it but is too afraid to ask. Many customers, facing a busy contractor booked out months in advance, know they would be best served by something cheap. Formica’s what I need! But they’re afraid the contractor will laugh at them, make a haughty snorting noise, or decide the project’s not worth their time. So the customer asks for something better than what they really need. But wait—isn’t that good for the contractor? Any contractor worth their salt knows it won’t be in the long run, when the bills come in or the customer starts talking to friends who really need a contractor to install some quartzite.

So never assume that requests correspond with needs! And don’t think selling is the only context when that assumption falls flat! Spouses, children, and work colleagues have all been known, on occasion, to make requests that correspond loosely with their underlying needs. Anticipating as much can make life negotiable!

Preparing to negotiate? Use your “BRAIN”!

Most people know to prepare before a negotiation. If not, then negotiation instructors like me frequently remind them. So the problem is not a lack of awareness about the need to prepare. It’s the lack of a framework describing what to prepare. What exactly should negotiators ponder before arriving at the bargaining table?

Since knowing what to prepare is pretty much a prerequisite for preparing itself, and preparing itself a prerequisite for a negotiable life, let me suggest you use your BRAIN (via the following acronym):

  • BATNA. All good preparation starts with a consideration of alternatives—specifically a negotiator’s next-best alternative if the current negotiation fails (i.e., their Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement or BATNA). Otherwise, they’ll never know how much power they have or how far to push the envelope.
  • Reservation price. Great negotiators transition directly from their BATNA to their bottom line, walk away point, reservation price. Otherwise, they don’t really have the foggiest idea whether to get to yes or get to no and go with their BATNA.
  • Aspirations. BATNAs and reservation prices are great, but negotiators who spend too much time pondering their alternatives or minimally acceptable agreements (i.e., their reservation prices) tend to get them. To get something better, great negotiators also define their goals, targets, aspirations—actively considering what they really want when their counterpart demurs.
  • Interests. The acronym might as well stop there (and consider the acronym if it did), but the preceding letters alone tend to elicit a very competitive negotiation. Great negotiators know that spending the whole time competing to attain their aspirations, clear their reservation price, or avoid their BATNA results in a competitive scramble over the crumbs of a very small pie. Instead, they know they need to identify and find creative ways of fulfilling both negotiators’ overall objectives (i.e., their interests), and thereby “grow the pie.”
  • Negotiation counterpart. So why not BRAI then? Because that makes very little sense as a word and even less sense as a preparation strategy—the latter because it completely omits the other party. Negotiators who BRAI, and most negotiators do, fail to anticipate their counterpart’s situation and thus find it immensely hard to understand or respect that situation while negotiating. So great negotiators repeat the preceding letters for their counterpart, taking a wild albeit educated guess as to their counterpart’s BATNA, reservation price, aspirations, and interests.

So the next time you sit down to prepare for a negotiation, don’t just use your mind—use your BRAIN! Doing so can’t spell the difference between a smart negotiation outcome and an outcome that everyone deems dumb.

Revision requests from journals: Time to negotiate!

Revision requests from journals—when you’re lucky enough to receive them—represent golden opportunities to negotiate: with reviewers, as I’ve suggested before, but also with coauthor(s).

Consider some of the many topics that may require at least an implicit negotiation with your coauthors:

  • Whether the revision is doable
  • Timelines and deadlines
  • How to respond to reviewer requests
  • Who will do what
  • Who will contribute what
  • Who will get the final say
  • Any implications for authorship

And these are just some of the salient examples. To make revisions negotiable, consider the following negotiation principles that are particularly critical for these situations:

  1. Integrative rather than distributive negotiation: You and your co-authors presumably share the same goal: to get the paper published at the journal that just returned it. Therefore, and in spite of any creative differences that may arise, the pie is more expandable than fixed. What’s good for the goose is generally good for the gander. It’s helpful to keep that in mind at the outset, and periodically when the revisionary road gets bumpy.
  2. Trade-offs rather than value-claiming: The parties to a revision request might be tempted to engage in a distributive, value-claiming competition over apparently fixed pies, like who will rewrite what. But why? Why fight over a single issue when there are so many to choose from, and when several could be bundled for mutual gain? In particular, the various parties to a revision request may often find it easier and/or more pleasant to do different things. Maybe one party can easily collect new data but has no time to write, while the other has oodles of time for writing but no mechanism for data collection. In this case, it’s probably better to have one author do all the writing and the other all the collecting, as opposed to arm-wrestling over the writing alone.
  3. Information exchange rather than offer exchange: When several authors differ about the appropriate response to a reviewer comment (for example), the temptation is for each party to strenuously make their case. In other words, each party is essentially tempted to make an offer and see which offer predominates. That’s ok, but it’s often better for each party to stop making proposals and start probing the reasons underlying the other parties’ positions. “Why do you feel so strongly that we need to scrap that study?” A question like that often surfaces a vivid experience, paper of which you were oblivious, or underlying philosophy of science that makes the strenuous position a lot more understandable.
  4. Contingency contracts rather than immediate decisions: Oftentimes, reviewer comments thrust co-authors into a lively debate about how extensively to rework the paper. “That argument won’t make sense” or “That experiment won’t work,” one side might say, only to have the other strenuously disagree. The parties could continue to debate it or simply let the argument and/or experiment speak for themselves. In other words, they could decide to let the author who believes in the argument or experiment craft it or do it, then collectively determine whether it makes sense or works (respectively). That approach—akin to the negotiation strategy known as a contingency contract—is often more productive than debating ad nauseum.
  5. Post-settlement settlement rather than static agreement: Responses to a revision request often take an extraordinarily long time. Agreements reached at the outset about who will do what, how the team will respond to reviewer comments, or what the timeline will look like often seem sheepishly out-of-date as the arduous process unfolds. Rather than slavishly sticking to the original agreement, why not occasionally renegotiate a deal that’s better for everyone as new facts come to light—essentially the strategy known as post-settlement settlement?

In sum, revision requests are wonderful opportunities—opportunities that every scholar worth their salt dreams of. But the receipt of the request is not the end but the beginning of the process, as the authors then need to negotiate the terms of an arduous and extended undertaking. By treating the revision request as an opportunity to solve a very complex problem with very smart people rather than an opportunity to wage a self-focused battle, all authors can fulfill their dreams and remain friends to reflect on it.

Convincing kids to do things, part II

Last week, we considered convincing multiple kids to do things, characterizing the whole process as a multiparty negotiation. This week, let’s consider convincing one kid to do one type of thing: something good for them but not particularly appealing. For example: eating their veggies, getting their flu shot, or making some form of physical contact with the ocean during an expensive and time-consuming beach trip (not that the last holds direct personal relevance).

In my experience, a few simple, research-based tips can make these beneficial but fear-eliciting requests a bit more negotiable. For example, you might try to:

  1. Make an aggressive but justifiable first offer: Do you actually hope they ultimately eat but one veggie? I’d suggest starting by asking them to eat all their carrots, broccoli, and spinach. Then, when you eventually back down to carrots, you’ve become a reasonable and accommodating parent rather than an intransigent and annoying one.
  2. Plan for judicious concessions: I wouldn’t recommend jumping right from all of all three veggies down to the carrots alone. If you do, they’re likely to try and nix the carrots too. Instead, I’d suggest an initial concession of half the spinach, most of the broccoli, and all the carrots (or something like that). Then, make smaller and smaller concessions as you approach all the carrots, thereby signaling to your aspiring negotiator that you’ll go no further.
  3. Ask why: The most powerful word in the negotiator’s dictionary is “why.” Why? Because it often paves the way toward a creative solution. Perhaps it’s patently obvious they’re afraid of the ocean because of its immense waves. But then you ask why and hear something about its probably chilliness or sharp shells—problems you could solve by asking them to submerge a finger or wear their water shoes.
  4. Treat it as a multi-round negotiation: Supposing your aggressive first offer doesn’t work, you could always try the reverse: a multi-round negotiation in which you ask for a little and then progressively request more. Will your nervous daughter perhaps dip her toes today, wade to her waist tomorrow, and catch some crazy surf the third day? (For more on #1 versus 4, here’s a good reference.)
  5. Introduce new issues: Let’s be honest: there’s very little to like about a flu shot (other than avoiding the flu). Even you don’t even like it, so your kid won’t either—and you won’t get far by touting its benefits. In that case, you might consider adding an issue—namely, an issue that your kid will find more appealing than the shot, like stickers or lollipops. Introducing one of these possibilities upon the successful completion of the flu shot could spell the difference between a meltdown and mature acceptance.

In sum, adults know they have to do things they don’t much like. But kids often don’t, necessitating a creative and thoughtful strategy on behalf of their parents. Here’s hoping some simple tips can make these fearsome situations a bit more manageable.