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.

Negotiating the open middle seat

If you’ve flown in the past, it might seem impossible. But if you’re flying in the present (age of the virus), it’s actually becoming probable: an open middle seat. Indeed, I’m looking at one as I type this.

Find yourself and your row-mate with an open middle seat, and you find yourself with a negotiation. Since effectively hammering out the division of this and many other resources can make life negotiable, consider the following alternatives to winging it:

  1. Define your primary interest: An open middle seat is not just one but a bundle of resources, among them its tray table, under-seat storage space, floor space, seat space, seat-back pocket space, and entertainment system (if it happens to have one). Before this (and any other) negotiation, the first and most important step is defining which resources are most valuable to you. Doing so prepares you to…
  2. Make the first offer: Say it’s the under-seat storage space you covet, so as to free up your own under-seat space for your feet (or legs, or, on “Reunited Airlines,” your elbows). If so, say so! More specifically, ask your row-mate, “Do you mind if I put my bag under here?” How many times I’ve asked! And how many times I’ve received! As many negotiation researchers have noted, first offers powerfully anchor the conversation.
  3. Don’t ask for everything: Even as you request whatever you really want, however, be prepared to offer whatever you don’t. If you demand and receive the under-seat space, for example, it’s only fair to offer the seat surface itself for their bulky coat. And offering it explicitly is actually a win-win, as the unprompted concession should facilitate far friendlier skies during subsequent negotiations (e.g., over where to put the drinks and snacks).
  4. Explore a seat switch: Thanks to the nickel-and-diming instincts of the U.S. airline industry, the middle seat doesn’t always start off free. You start out sitting in it, your row-mate next to you in the aisle (for example). What to do if the window fortuitously remains free when the door closes? If you like the window, you could obviously move there, and your row-mate would probably appreciate it. But what if you like the aisle? The absence of a third passenger offers an unmistakable opportunity to reimagine the possibilities: “Looks like we have an empty seat here. Would you like the window, or do you prefer the aisle?” The worst they can say is the latter, even while appreciating your generosity.
  5. Adjust as contingencies arise: Any flight introduces innumerable contingencies. Your row-mate becomes incapable of using their laptop thanks to someone else’s severe recline. You find yourself with a towering collection of trash in the aftermath of the snacks. Or, personal story from my last flight, your headphone jack literally snaps off in your own headphone hole, and you can either use the middle seat’s hole (while sitting at the window) or be supremely bored. Perceptive negotiators, in-flight or on-ground, adjust to changing circumstances rather than slavishly sticking to outdated agreements. For example, in the case of the headphones, I simply inquired: “You mind if I plug my new Reunited Airlines headphones in over here?” It’s not rocket science, but many people don’t for fear of disrupting the status quo.

The point is incredibly simple: Open middle seats are invaluable resources that we would do well to treat as such—by negotiating. Do that, and you might actually experience some friendly skies.

Picking the right (and wrong) time to negotiate

As I’ve noted repeatedly before, one of our biggest challenges as negotiators is overcoming misguided mythology about negotiation. The way we imagine negotiations is simply not the way many real-world negotiations happen. A prominent aspect of that mythology, in turn, is the idea that negotiations happen at pre-appointed places and times—two people staring at each other across a large oaken table at the time indicated by their Outlook calendars.

Some negotiations happen that way, but many of the most important ones we face in organizations—particularly discussions of goals, proposals, and plans with key constituents—just don’t. They happen at unanticipated times and places—unexpectedly opportune moments when a fortuitous opening arises.

Since learning to identify the most opportune (and inopportune) moments for an intra-organizational negotiation can make life negotiable, let’s identify three prominent examples of each.

It might be opportune to initiate an intra-organizational negotiation when:

  • An important decision or change is imminent: In normal organizational times, decision-makers may see your attempt to disrupt the status quo as distracting or annoying. In unsettled times, on the cusp of critical decisions or changes, your proposal may help them make sense of ambiguity and forge a clearer path forward.
  • You discover you can fulfill a key need: Most of us need and want a lot of things from our organizations. But, as articulated in my book, we’re more likely to get them—indeed, more likely to get anything from any counterpart—when they need something from us too. The best negotiators are highly attuned to situations when they can unexpectedly solve someone’s problem.
  • You or the issue gets unexpected airtime: Sometimes we unexpectedly encounter an important person in the elevator. Other times, we unexpectedly hear an important issue mentioned in a meeting. Assuming a long enough elevator ride or flexible enough meeting (coupled with a pressing enough issue), the best negotiators seize the opportunity.

To this list of opportune moments, however, I would hasten to add three caveats in the form of factors that make a situation—and sometimes the same situation—inopportune for negotiation. It might be inopportune to negotiate, for example, when:

  • You’ve been asking for a lot: Don’t ask the person on the elevator or the people in the meeting for anything if you’ve recently been asking for a lot. Do that, and they’ll likely take the stairs or exclude you from the meeting the next time—not to mention ignore your current request.
  • The other party is flustered or annoyed: If they come back from a meeting about the unsettled times in a state of distress—as is common in a state of unsettlement—now’s not the time for a negotiation.
  • You don’t yet understand the situation: Simply detecting you can meet an unmet need doesn’t justify a negotiation on its own—not until you really understand the need and its context. Seemingly opportune moments can still be extremely premature.

Reflecting on the examples above, it becomes apparent how wrong our mythical image of negotiation really is. Many of the most important negotiations happen in the absence of any Outlook invites, in locations more likely to feature floor buttons than oaken tables. I sincerely hope that recognizing the happenstance, ad hoc, scattershot nature of negotiations makes your life more negotiable.

Negotiating to protect our time

One of the primary reasons people negotiate is to allocate scarce resources. And one of the scarcest of all resources is time. So it should come as no surprise that protecting our time—much as it seems little like a negotiation—is. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that our success in preserving certain amounts or periods of time strongly shapes the negotiability of our lives.

With that in mind, let’s consider some lessons from negotiation research with direct relevance for protecting our time:

  1. Define your positions and interests: You can’t protect your time unless you know exactly what you want to protect—how much or what period? And you won’t have much success in protecting it unless you deeply understand why you need to. A few extra minutes at the office doesn’t seem like much unless you link it to your inability to coach your kid’s soccer team. And your interest in coaching soccer highlights new (and somewhat obvious but surprisingly underexplored) solutions like coming in earlier instead of staying later.
  2. Establish a reputation: After deciding how much time to protect, establish a reputation for protecting it! As in any negotiation, a true bottom line—a latest possible hour in the office, unavoidable family commitment—shouldn’t slip. And bolster your reputation for protecting your own time by showing an unwavering respect for other people’s right to protect theirs.
  3. Propose solutions: It’s easier to protect your time if you replace a “no” with a “no but.” That is, when someone tries to encroach on your time—as someone always will—don’t just reject them in a flurry of frustration. Reject their specific request but seek to satisfy their underlying interest. “No, I can’t come in on Saturday because I’m coaching my kid’s soccer team. But what if I hustled and got everything done on Thursday? Or stayed late on Friday? Or took the Saturday call from home?” It’s not rocket science, but it’ll elicit a substantially warmer response.
  4. Highlight the win-win: It won’t work with everyone, but certain time-encroachers may be convinced by appeals to their enlightened self-interest. “It’s good for both of us if I set a regular schedule—that way, we’ll both know what to expect, I’ll always avoid the traffic and have more time to work from home, I’ll do a better job in the long-run, etc.”
  5. Find complementarities: Maybe you want to leave early for soccer practice and a coworker wants to come in late to get their kids to school. Or you feel dead-tired in the morning and productive at night, whereas a coworker feels the opposite. Reaching an arrangement with complementary parties like these might just allow everyone to protect their preferred periods of time while providing continuous coverage of the workload.

As with so much of life, then, protecting our time is a negotiation, and the lessons from negotiation research can make life negotiable. With that, I’ll take no more of your time.

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.

Bartering over burgers: How trades and transfers can make you happier and healthier

I love to eat out with my family. But I and any other adult who eats at restaurants receptive to small kids often encounters a problem: The meals on offer don’t quite match their culinary or health goals. In these situations, and in accordance with my book The Bartering Mindset, I’ve found that trading and transferring resources can make everyone happier—and life more negotiable.

Allow me to explain.

My family and I frequent a favorite American restaurant. Despite the many tasty dishes, most have a few features that don’t entirely satisfy. In particular, most taste great but come in unnecessarily large portions, or with incredibly unhealthy sides. What’s more, the kids’ menu is disappointingly small. In sum, most of the menu options promise a less-than-entirely satisfactory meal to one or more parties.

And that was the situation facing us on a recent Friday. Sitting there staring at the menu, I wanted a burger that happened to come with an unnecessary second patty and an overabundance of fries. The older of my two young daughters wanted a burger but couldn’t find one on the kids’ menu. My wife’s selection came with a bun she never eats. The younger of my two young daughters hankered for some fries but only wanted mains that didn’t come with them—in particular, plain pasta. And she scoffed at the meatball that would actually accompany the pasta. Finally, those potatoes that came with my wife’s dish looked awfully good to me.

Can you guess what we did? That’s right – we transferred and traded food! Specifically, we sent:

  1. My burger to daughter: I offered my second patty to the daughter who wanted a burger, and thereby eliminated my temptation to eat it (which, of course, required a negotiation with the waitress, who was not accustomed to serving the second patty on a separate plate).
  2. Wife’s bun to same daughter: When the daughter facing the prospect of a bun-less patty complained, my wife happily offered to unload the bun she never ate. Needless to say, a reduction in complaining benefited us all.
  3. A few fries to other daughter: Once the younger daughter agreed to eat the plain pasta and I later observed her doing so, I fulfilled my promise to give her some fries. This allowed her to enjoy the preferred dinner option plus some fries while further advancing my own health.
  4. That daughter’s meatball to me: In return, I politely requested her entire, delicious, homemade meatball, which I knew she didn’t want (and I couldn’t understand why). This put my health right back where it would’ve been if I had eaten the fries—and perhaps the second patty.
  5. My wife’s potatoes to me: I asked to sample my wife’s potatoes. She obliged, perhaps in tacit anticipation of some reciprocal fries.

This idiosyncratic and slightly embarrassing story illustrates a much broader and more important point: Neither mealtime nor life typically satisfies every last one of our wants and needs. But by openly exploring whether to transfer and trade resources with those around us, we can often make several parties happier at the same time. Indeed, as my book suggests, that’s the essence of negotiation. So whether it’s as simple as a meal or as complicated as a business transaction, I’d encourage you to barter your way to a better life.

Five reasons to love ambiguity in negotiation

One of the least-liked features of negotiations is their ambiguity. In many negotiations, we say some things, our counterpart says some things, and then it’s totally ambiguous what anyone should say or do. But I’m here to tell you that ambiguity is one of the very greatest features of negotiation; indeed, a negotiation particularly mired in ambiguity is often a negotiation going well. In a word, ambiguity makes negotiations negotiable.

If that seems paradoxical, let me outline five unambiguous reasons to love the ambiguity of negotiations in general—and to particularly appreciate our most ambiguous negotiations. Ambiguity in negotiations allows you to:

  1. Make the first offer: In most any negotiation, both negotiators face major ambiguity as to the appropriate terms: what price to offer, what raise to request, which division of labor to propose. But that’s fantastic, as it allows the negotiator with slightly more courage and preparation to make the first offer and thereby set the tenor of the conversation.
  2. Move from positions to interests: The worst negotiations feature no ambiguity at all. Instead, the parties’ positions are crystal-clear, opposed, and set in stone. What could be clearer than that—and less productive? But if you’re experiencing ambiguity instead, chances are the parties haven’t yet locked themselves into intractable positions, meaning you still have hope of moving from positions to interests.
  3. Ask a lot of questions: If the options on the table seem clear, many people typically feel foolish asking a lot of questions. If it’s your way or my way, what else does anyone need to know? A pervasive sense of ambiguity about the viable options, in contrast, provides a beautiful justification for a multitude of questions. Blame it on your slow cognition or apologize for your embarrassing need to clarify, but query away! Since open-ended questions are one of the most powerful tools for ferreting out those critical interests, chances are your queries will help immensely.
  4. Explore creative solutions: Relatedly, people who seem to face clear agreement options tend to resist muddying the waters by proposing something entirely new and possibly a bit wacky. When nobody at the bargaining table knows what constitutes a viable solution, however, there’s no yardstick for judging what’s wacky and what’s not. And wackiness in the form of creative and unanticipated solutions is often all that stands between you and an impasse. Ambiguity lets you go there.
  5. Use ratification: In non-ambiguous negotiations, it’s kinda uncomfortable to ask for some time to think it over or check with someone else. If the possibilities are so straightforward, why would anyone need to? But the presence of lingering ambiguity, even as the deal seems done, affords ample reason to contemplate, crunch the numbers, or consult the various stakeholders. In a word, ambiguity provides cover for a strategy, ratification, that can dramatically improve your leverage.

In sum, as much as we might dread it, the ambiguity of negotiations is typically our friend, and particularly ambiguous negotiations tend to be particularly productive. To those points, let me hasten to add one thing: not all ambiguity. It’s obviously unhelpful if you or your counterpart has no idea what you’re trying to get from a deal, or has ambiguous authority to decide. More generally, ambiguity that obscures the negotiators’ own interests or authority probably won’t help. Still, I hope this post helps to highlight how many of the ambiguous moments in negotiation we should really appreciate or even stimulate in hopes of keeping the possibilities open—and our chances of satisfaction intact.