Negotiation lessons from COVID-19

Long before the virus abates, we can all see society reverting to its old ways. Be it in the increasingly strident commentary on cable news or the accelerating efforts to pin blame for a still-unfolding crisis, signs of a collective retreat into our polarized camps are apparent, as is the resurgence of the faulty assumption that anyone on the other side of any issue is wrong.

Before we completely retreat and slam our respective doors, however, let’s take a moment to review a few lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19. In particular, and in keeping with the theme of my writing, let’s review five key lessons with direct relevance for negotiation—lessons that collectively point toward a better and more productive way to negotiate, and thus a more negotiable life.

Many of us have learned from our COVID-19 experience that:

  1. Our interests are not necessarily opposed: Pre-COVID, many of us approached negotiations thinking that whatever we want is precisely the opposite of whatever our negotiation counterparts want. COVID may have reminded us that we share at least a few select interests with even our bitterest opponents—our interests in life, health, and basic economic security, for example.
  2. We don’t always understand our own interests very well: Pre-COVID, many of us assumed that our own interests consisted in overscheduling our family lives to the max or spending as many hours as possible chained to a solitary desk. COVID may have reminded us that these approaches to life didn’t reflect our core interests very well at all. In other words, we’ve realized that we have greater and deeper interests—perhaps in savoring small moments with family, living a fulfilling and well-rounded life, and learning to grow our own yeast.
  3. Negotiations are all around us: Thanks to all that home time, many of us have been reminded that negotiations don’t just happen at car dealers or over job offers. They happen in our families, our communities, and really anytime we depend on anyone else’s cooperation—and who doesn’t need almost everyone’s cooperation to get by these days? More broadly, COVID may have reminded us that negotiation is nothing more than problem-solving in collaboration with others. And in the face of manifold social problems coupled with changes that upend all the rules, negotiations are sometimes the only type of problem-solving we’ve got left.
  4. Not everything’s negotiable: Perhaps in jarring contrast to the last point, which essentially reiterated that much of life is negotiable, COVID may have reminded us that some of it isn’t. Certain issues—health, life, access to food—remain so necessary, so deserved, and/or so sacred that we might be able to negotiate them—meaning deal with them, manage them, navigate them. But they’re not negotiable—meaning optional, merely desirable, or useful as a bargaining chip.
  5. Without preparation, everything falls apart: Say what you will about the U.S. response to COVID, but few would say we were well-prepared. Preparation matters for many reasons, but a key reason is that it enables people to make credible statements from the start—statements about the availability of testing or benefits of masks, for example—that bolster (or undermine) your trustworthiness as a negotiator over the long-term. Macro-level developments, like our own micro-level experiences, can teach us a few things about negotiation.

In sum, this virus has been undeniably horrible. But here’s hoping it’s taught us at least a few useful lessons about negotiation. They’re not new lessons—I and a great many others have said them many times before. But sometimes it takes a crisis to focus the mind. In that sense, let’s hope a very unhealthy period can teach us a few healthy lessons for the future.

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.

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?

What’s up, doc? Negotiating in healthcare

Most of us spend more on healthcare than we’d like to—more, in some cases, than our annual car or mortgage payments. That being the case, why do we spend so much time negotiating the terms of our cars and houses, and so little the terms of our healthcare?

Frankly, the negotiation professor in me just doesn’t know. From my perspective, a few simple principles from the research literature on negotiation can make our healthcare much more negotiable. Just a few illustrative examples:

  1. Setting high aspirations. Negotiation research consistently shows that those who set and stick to aggressive goals tend to achieve better outcomes. With respect to our own bodies, though, I suspect many of us are dissuaded from our goal of ideal health when a well-intentioned doctor tell us “there’s nothing wrong,” or “you’re just fine,” even when we know there is and we’re not.
  2. Reiterating our core interests. Negotiation research shows that the most effective negotiators are those who hew to a consistent script—reiterating their core problem or motivation as consistently and repeatedly as possible. This seems particularly important in healthcare, when we often have to answer the very similar questions of a seemingly endless series of people. On a visit to the ER, for example, we might have to state our symptoms to the front desk, triage nurse, attending nurse, doctor, radiologist, and so it goes. The more consistent our message to each person, even in response to slightly different turns-of-phrase, the better our chances of proper treatment.
  3. Cultivating an alternative: The best negotiators always develop an alternative possibility—another car or house they’d be willing to buy, for example. Negotiating the terms of an alternative affords them power in their primary negotiation but also, importantly, helps them learn about whatever they’re negotiating. What price should I really offer for my preferred Corvette? Some of us cultivate an alternative in healthcare by obtaining a second opinion. But I suspect that some of us don’t because we think the doctor will get offended. Assuming we’re at least as motivated to learn about our health as our cars, I’d suggest we should.
  4. Asking questions: The best negotiators ask a lot of questions. Indeed, they probably use their listening ears more than their speaking lips. Well, few contexts are quite as rife for questions as the cryptic explanation of benefits. $392.54 for an octowhatgraphy with Dr. Whosehisname? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that calling the insurance company and asking about it not only helps me mitigate confusion. It also turns up quite a few clerical errors that end up saving me money.
  5. Just asking: Asking a lot of questions is great, but even more basic is asking in the first place. The best negotiators are those who simply ask for whatever they need or want rather than expecting their counterpart to guess. But I suspect that few of us really ask for what we want in healthcare, mainly because we think we can’t—especially with a high-status doctor across the table. Lower prices, less invasive procedures, fewer unnecessary appointments: it’s all worth an ask if it matters.

In short, few aspects of our own lives are more important than our health. So why not do what we can to negotiate a healthier deal?

“It’s not fair!”

Any guesses as to the most popular phrase in the toddler’s vocabulary? That’s right: “It’s not fair.” While we may be tempted to discount these three words as a manifestation of the toddler’s irrational mind, I’m here to suggest that they can actually teach us something important about disputes. In particular, I’d like to suggest that this phrase represents nearly everyone’s reaction in a dispute situation, and recognizing as much can make our own disputes more negotiable.

Any parent has experienced something like the following:

  • Toddler (7 AM): “I want chocolate!”
  • Parent: “No, not for breakfast.”
  • Toddler: “But it’s not fair!”
  • Parent: “Oh, yes it is.”

This is a classic dispute. The toddler made a claim, namely that chocolate was appropriate at 7 AM. And the parent rejected it, namely by saying no. Both sides found their own positions entirely fair.

While this dispute may seem silly or contrived, consider the following analogue: It’s January, and you wish to take your vacation a bit earlier this year than last. So you ask your boss: “Boss, can I take my vacation in February?” “No,” your boss says, “We’re pretty busy that time of year.” A completely different domain, but a very similar situation. You wanted to do something a little earlier than someone else expected, and they simply said no. Again, both sides probably found their own positions entirely fair.

Anytime one party makes a claim and another party rejects that claim, you have the basic outlines of a dispute. And anytime you have the basic outlines of the dispute, both parties think that their position is fair. The fact that we identify with our own vacation claim more than the toddler’s chocolate claim doesn’t change the basic situation: everyone in a dispute considers their own view the very epitome of fairness.

In this light, toddlers can teach us something important: in the context of a dispute, appeals to fairness are not likely to work. However fair your own claim seems, you can rest assured your counterpart sees things just the opposite. So how convinced will they be by the natural and oft-made argument, issued later and in a professional adult manner of course, that this particular decision is not particularly fair? Not very.

In this respect, I have to lodge a slight amendment to the book Getting to Yes. Despite the book’s many positive qualities, which I have often extolled in this blog, it advises the reader to resolve conflicts by focusing on objective standards. But the toddler’s behavior shows us that objectivity is subjective, at least when a negotiation becomes a dispute. Since everyone finds their own views the epitome of fairness, trying to be objective is unlikely to get you any closer to a resolution.

So what can you do? Well, you can probably turn to another insight from Getting to Yes: Focusing on underlying interests. The toddler wanted chocolate at 7 AM, but why? Perhaps they’re just hungry for something a little sweeter than the normal dose of plain oatmeal, in which case an apple may do? Your boss said no to the February vacation, but why? Are they concerned that you won’t finish the big report, which you’ve actually already drafted?

Bottom line: “It’s not fair” is everyone’s reaction to a dispute, not just the irrational toddler’s. And however professional and adult-like you put it, it’s not going to convince your counterpart. So the next time you find yourself in a dispute, resist the toddler’s temptation to highlight the unfairness of the situation and instead focus on unearthing whichever of your counterpart’s interests led them to reject your claim in the first place. It’s only by transcending the tendencies of a toddler—surprisingly hard for all of us in a dispute—that we can hope to resolve the disputes and achieve the interests in our own lives.

What they want and why they want it: Providing exceptional customer service

May I ask you to complete a difficult task? Please take a second and recall a recent experience in which you received exceptional customer service.

Tough as that task may be, I’m sure we can all recall at least one time when we, the customer, felt like we were exceptionally well served. And I’m willing to bet that many of our experiences share two common features:

  1. Our friendly customer service agent fulfilled our main request
  2. But our friendly customer service agent went beyond our main request by trying to understand our underlying needs and how to satisfy them even better

An example: I once asked a Verizon customer service representative whether she could extend a promotional period on my phone bill. “Why yes,” she said, and did so. “But let me also check something,” she added, apparently surmising that I wanted to cut costs. “Based on your typical usage, I have plan that meets your needs and costs even less. Better yet, it’ll never expire. What do you think?” Obviously, I considered that a great idea.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: if Verizon was full of such employees, the company would probably go out of business. And you’re right. Nevertheless, from the customer’s perspective, this was exceptionally good service—and not just because she saved me a bunch of money. It was exceptionally good service because she cared enough to understand what was important to me, then attempt to fulfill it even better.

If you are in customer service—if you in any way serve a customer—this is a strategy that can make life negotiable. Try to not only do what the customer is asking. Try to understand why they are asking for it, then ask yourself how you can meet that need even better. This is kind of the inverse of a previous post when I advised you, as the customer, to try and understand what’s motivating a stubborn customer service representative. As the customer, that can be the only way to get things done. As the customer service representative, it’s the way to go above and beyond.

Now, I still know what you’re thinking. Many customer service agents are incentivized to concede as little as possible to demanding customers. If you, as customer service representative, went above and beyond on every request, wouldn’t you probably get fired? If all such requests were about money, maybe so. But anyone in customer service can tell you that customers have many needs, only one of which is money. Indeed, many customers, having received exceptionally crummy service in the past, simply need to vent. If you, as customer service representative, can understand that motive and satisfy it by simply expressing some empathy, you’ve satisfied the underlying need and thereby provided exceptional customer service.

But I still know what you’re thinking! As a customer service representative, won’t the customer get mad if you do anything other than exactly what they’re asking? Well, if you ignore what they’re asking and do something completely different, then probably so. But if you do what they’re asking for and then do something extra—well, it’s hard to imagine anger over a bonus.

So here’s the bottom line: When serving a customer, it’s helpful to ascertain not just what they want but why they want it. By doing that, customer service representatives can go above and beyond basic expectations and make some small portion of their lives more negotiable—not to mention their customers’.

Getting the most out of your contractor

With the advent of the do-it-yourself revolution in home improvement, we are all tempted to look it up on the internet and then, well, do it ourselves. Tiling, painting, plumbing—internet as guide, house as palette. And when we can’t—when the task is too complicated or the time is too short—the temptation is to once again look it up, then pay somebody to do exactly what we would’ve done if we could’ve done it. Right?

Right, but wrong approach. Useful as the look-it-up-and-shoot approach may be for DIY, it’s usually not the best way to engage with a contractor. So if you need to hire such a person anytime soon, here’s a tip that can immediately make life more negotiable: tell them what you’re trying to accomplish, not what you want them to do.

The difference is subtle but significant. And it’s well-established in negotiation research, which consistently advises negotiators to focus on interests rather than positions. In negotiations, that means telling your counterpart your underlying needs and motivations as opposed to your overt demands and offers. In working with a contractor, it means telling them your overall objectives rather than the exact piece of equipment (down to SKU and aisle number at Lowes) that you’d like them to install (bin number available on request).

A quick real-life story that might clarify: we once wanted to redo some wood floors that looked as if they hadn’t been redone since the advent of wood itself. After obtaining multiple bids, as advised, we settled on a contractor who offered high quality for a reasonable price and also came highly recommended. Rather than telling him exactly what stain we wanted and exactly which rooms to stain, we told him what we wanted to accomplish: to lend the house a light, airy feel; to do everything in a cost-effective manner; and to avoid doing anything that would ultimately interfere or look bad with an eventual kitchen renovation. Telling him what we wanted highlighted several possibilities we hadn’t envisioned or found in aisle 27 (bin 6) at Lowes: not staining the floors at all but letting the natural wood shine through and not yet redoing the floors in the kitchen, seeing as they might get damaged by the renovation or at least might clash with the cabinets. Brilliant! The solution looked great, saved a bunch of money, and paved the way for a beautiful kitchen renovation, complete with future flooring update.

With the benefit of a story, it’s easy to see the benefits of telling a contractor what you want to accomplish rather than exactly what you want. In general, here they are:

  1. You might find a cheaper solution. For example: not staining the floors.
  2. You might find a solution that better fits your needs. For example: not redoing the floors in the kitchen.
  3. You might discover you have a different problem. If you tell a contractor to install something from aisle 27, they probably will. If you tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and ask them how to get there, you have a fighting chance of leveraging their expertise. Hearing you put your trust in their expertise, they’ll probably put said expertise to work and give you their opinion as to whether you’ve accurately diagnosed the problem. If not, then wouldn’t it be great to solve the real problem?
  4. You might find that you don’t really have a problem. Again, contractors usually do what you tell them when you pay them to. But if you tell them the perceived problem and what you’re hoping to do about, they just might point you down a much easier path—at least if they’re honest. And if they’re not, well then you can always go with someone else or go back to aisle 27. Which leads to the next point…
  5. You might discover how competent or honest your contractor is. Again, you’re advised to get multiple bids. If you do that and tell each person exactly what to do, each will probably give you a price for doing just that. If you tell multiple people what you’re trying to accomplish, however, their responses will—if nothing else—tell you something about their level of knowledge. Or, if someone suggests something way out of left field (not that this has happened to me several times recently), you might even learn about their honesty.

So, the next time you have a problem with your home, I’d advise you to resist the siren’s call of Lowes.com. Instead, figure out what you’re really trying to accomplish and tell your multiple potential contractors your overall objectives. Wonderful and reliable as Lowes.com always is, leaving room for your contractor’s judgment can leave you much better off.

Have you ever told a contractor your overall objectives and been surprised by their response?

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.”

Work-life balance as a negotiation with yourself

In today’s hurried and harried age, almost everyone has a hard time with work-life balance. The fundamental reason is obvious: the constantly increasing demands of work and life continually crash up against the fixed 1440 minutes in each day.

And while it’s technically true that we can’t expand the clock, negotiation research has spent the better part of 50 years exploring how to unfix fixed resources. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that we can make life more negotiable by treating work-life balance as a negotiation with ourselves.

The prototypical negotiation study gives two people a seemingly fixed resource like money, then lets them fight it out. Yet, it studies the steps they can take to avoid fighting it out—how they can “expand the pie” rather than simply carve it up. By analogy, what if the fixed resource was time, and what if the two negotiators were our work self and our life self? In that case, five classic negotiation principles would apply:

  1. Don’t assume a fixed pie. The fundamental reason that negotiators fail to expand the pie is they assume it’s not expandable. Thus, two sisters fighting over an orange cut it in half rather than discovering that one sister wants the inside for juice, while the other wants the outside for garnish. They assume the orange is fixed rather than exploring how to “squeeze” more value out of it. With respect to work-life balance, perhaps we could start by assuming that time is not as fixed as it seems? By looking hard enough, most of us can find ways to squeeze more value out of our time—to take that conference call from the car instead of listening to talk radio, to do more web surfing during lunch and less during story time.
  2. Build trust (with yourself). Exacerbating the tendency to assume a fixed pie is the tendency to assume that of our counterparts are nefarious demons. But when negotiating with yourself, you should pretty much assume that’s not true. So take the time to validate both sides of yourself. Remind your life self that your work self is a good and worthy soul—a valid self that only wants the best for the rest of yourself. And remind your work self that your life self is equally trustworthy—that it’s out to maximize your happiness, not tank your career. By explicitly trusting both sides of yourself, you’ll be able to…
  3. Communicate your core interests. Negotiators often fail to expand the pie because they don’t explicitly share their priorities, nor ask about their counterpart’s priorities. Instead, they engage in positional battles in which each tries to grab as much of the fixed pie as possible. If work-life balance is a negotiation between our work self and our life self, might it help for each self to be honest with the other about what is most (and least) important? Might our work self admit to our life self that’s it really important to rock this project but less important to visit the company picnic? Might our life self admit that our daughter’s soccer game is much more important than fixing that squeaky bathroom door?
  4. Insist on your priorities (but only). Contrary to popular belief, negotiation research does not tell people to “compromise,” nor to demand the world on a silver platter. It tells people to hold firm on the things that matter most, but relinquish the things that matter less. If the report is critical, buy yourself an hour by forgetting the squeaky door. But if the soccer game is critical, skip the picnic, and only retrieve your phone to take a picture.
  5. Define and enforce a clear agreement. Negotiations are worthless unless they result in a clear agreement that gets implemented. Similarly, an agreement between our work self and life self is worthless unless we’re explicit about its terms and judicious in enforcing them. So if you decide that 12-5 pm on Saturdays is family time, write it down or at least repeat it often enough that you don’t let 12 slip to 12:30. In a word, draw boundaries and be ruthless in enforcing them.

This is not rocket science, and I don’t pretend that it is. But I hope that thinking about work-life balance as a negotiation helps you to actually attain it. Signing off in search of my own balance…

The key to a stress-free Thanksgiving: Celebrating our differences

My last post suggested that we’re often so concerned about (cultural) differences that we fail to negotiate decisively. In a word, it highlighted a hidden cost of an excess focus on diversity. This week, I think it’s appropriate to sing the praises of diversity (of a different kind, for a different reason): It is differences—not similarities—that make deals possible. In a word, diversity of interests makes life negotiable.

I discuss this now because few settings make differences more apparent than the Thanksgiving gathering of far-flung family members. Our normal equilibrium gives way to Cousin Jack (who would love to spend Thanksgiving watching nine hours of football), Aunt Jill (who prefers to spend those same hours cooking, eating, and visiting), and Sister Sally (whose just wants to get a head start on Black Friday). And they all descend at the same time! Rarely do differences become more apparent.

A common reaction—daresay our normal reaction—is to dread such differences before they arise and paper over them or fight over them once they do. “Jack, Thanksgiving is not about TV!”, Jill yells from the kitchen. “Jill, who in their right mind spends nine hours standing around a kitchen?”, Jack retorts. Sound familiar?

But these differences are not the bane they sometimes seem. Indeed, they’re actually one more thing to be thankful for this holiday. To see why, imagine that the parties had no differences whatsoever with respect to their preferred activities. Suppose that everyone wanted to spend all day watching the one TV in the house: Jack the football, Jill the early onset holiday movies, and Sally the home shopping network. Well then, we’d have a REAL problem: we’d have a serious fight about which channel to watch.

Thankfully this Thanksgiving, you don’t have that problem. While Jack veg-es out, Jill can happily cook and Sally happily shop. And if spending your time apart is not your cup of tea, well, you can probably even find an integrative solution: Jill can time her turkey for Jack’s halftime, and Sally’s shops (we hope) won’t be open then. In short, we can all enjoy our preferred Thanksgiving activities, while still finding a way to give thanks together.

The bottom line is this: On Thanksgiving and in any other potentially contentious negotiation, we often wish and hope for our differences to go away. In fact, we should thank our lucky stars that we disagree because it’s only through differences that potential solutions emerge. In short, it’s differences that ultimately make life negotiable. Just one more thing to be thankful for this year.

How do you manage the differing priorities of family members?

I need more money! Five topics to ponder before requesting a raise

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

–Ben Franklin

 

Despite that supposedly low inflation rate, everyone’s cost of living seems to constantly go up. With rising costs come the need for a rising income. Increasing your income, in turn, often requires you to request a raise.

Asking the boss for more money is tough! But Ben Franklin’s advice makes even the toughest challenges negotiable.

Although Ben’s quote did not appear in one of his negotiation blogs, it might as well have appeared there: preparation is probably the single-biggest predictor of negotiation success and failure, especially in important and complicated negotiations like raise requests. The real question, then, is what to prepare—what things to think about in the heart-pounding moments before the request?

Well, imagine yourself palpitating at your desk, two hours before the raise meeting. Before this or any other important negotiation, always consider the following five issues:

    • Your interests. Why do you want a salary increase? “Because I need more money!” you’re thinking, as well as, “What a stupid question!” Truth-be-told, it’s often far from a stupid question. To see why, force yourself to ask yourself “why” again. Why do you need more money? Are you planning to buy something big? Struggling to pay your bills? Saving up for school? All of these are common reasons to request a raise, but each has very different implications for the types of solutions that might satisfy you. If you’re planning to buy a house next year, an end-of-year bonus might help, but if you can’t pay your electric bill right now, an end-of-year bonus won’t do you much good. If you’re saving for school, your company’s educational reimbursement policy is probably more relevant than your paycheck.
    • Their interests. What’s likely to motivate your boss? When she initially demurs, why? Is this year’s budget already gone? Would paying you more create inequity? Is she just demurring to demur? Again, knowing why means knowing what solutions might work. If she doesn’t have any money right now, maybe she will at the beginning of next fiscal year. If it’s inequity she fears, maybe offering to assume more responsibility would make a raise more palatable. If she’s demurring to demur, maybe you should just justify your request.
    • Your reservation price. What’s the worst outcome you would accept? This of course depends on your best alternative to your current job. If you don’t have one or haven’t thought about what it might be, then you’d have to accept almost anything (or nothing) in the way of a raise. But if you have an attractive, high-paying job offer burning a hole in your personal inbox, you should set an aggressive minimum for your current company and accept nothing less.
    • Their reservation price. What’s the most they’re likely to give? This of course depends on their best alternative to you. If they could step out the front door and sneeze on somebody with your skillset, then they’re sure to act like Scrooge. But if finding another “you” would take months or years of aggressive recruiting, then they’re likely to say yes to anything reasonable you request. Most importantly, if the most they’re willing to give is less than the least you’re willing to accept, you’d better start looking for another job and/or come up with a creative way to satisfy your interests that doesn’t involve a salary increase.
    • Your target. What’s the best salary you could realistically expect? That number should be much closer to their reservation price than yours. And since their reservation price is a number that they would be willing to give, they will not be offended when you focus on it and use it to make a first offer during the negotiation, which is generally what I’d advise you to do.

 

The bottom line: in this and any important negotiation, listen to Ben Franklin. What do you think about while preparing for an important negotiation?

 

PS If you like what you’re reading and would like to learn more, I’m teaching an open-enrollment course on Strategic Negotiations in November. I hope to see you there! http://carey.jhu.edu/academics/executive-education.