Negotiating the suboptimal scheduling of virtual meetings

With virtual meetings omnipresent, many of us find their scheduling suboptimal for our productivity. “That mid-morning meeting just severed my chain of thought!” “That 30-minute break wasn’t even long enough to clean up my inbox!” While many of us perceive the productivity loss associated with the suboptimal scheduling of virtual meetings, however, fewer of us see a solution.

Luckily, the negotiation literature can help. In particular, negotiation research highlights some basic principles that can make the scheduling of meetings more negotiable, assuming you have some discretion:

  1. Make the first offer: Research has long suggested that negotiators who make the first offer often (though not always) achieve beneficial outcomes. So, the next time you learn of the need to meet, why not be the first one to suggest a time (that suits your schedule)?
  2. Give equivalent options: Research has also suggested that negotiators like to receive multiple options rather than singular proposals. Giving them a choice casts you as flexible—and listening to their response might help you understand their situation. So, when you make the first offer as to a meeting time, consider suggesting not just one but a few options that work well.
  3. Consider a range offer: In normal negotiations—say over the price of a used car—there are reasons to be wary of range offers. Buyer: “I’ll pay $10-12K.” Seller: “Ok: $12K!” There are also reasons to use them strategically (e.g., by saying “$10-12K” if $12K is actually your goal). When scheduling meetings, however, the calculus is considerably simpler: If you’re free from 1-4 pm and indifferent as to when in the period you meet, it’s probably better to offer the whole range, as 1 pm, 1:30 pm, 2 pm, etc. sort of become equivalent options. With that said…
  4. Leverage the deadline effect: Just as deadlines tend to focus negotiators’ minds, a subsequent meeting tends to encourage productivity in the present meeting. That being the case, you might want to schedule the present meeting directly adjacent to the next one.
  5. Trade importance against timing: Negotiators can rarely get everything they want, but they can often get the really important things by making some tradeoffs. In the context of meetings, it’s probably unreasonable to expect a meeting with the CEO that perfectly aligns with your personal scheduling preferences. But if you can be slightly flexible on your preferences, the CEO might find a way to slip you in. Put differently, as important as your personal scheduling preferences might be, weigh them against the personal importance of the meeting.

In a world of constant Zooming, there are few easy solutions to persistent productivity loss. Still, by treating the scheduling process as a negotiation and deploying some time-tested negotiation principles, you might just find yourself zooming through your work instead.

Why the best negotiators bask in bad feelings

Most of us have had no shortage of bad feelings lately. So, many of us might be interested to learn of an important situation—negotiation—in which bad feelings are actually quite good. Put differently, bad feelings represent a necessary and useful component of many productive negotiations. So, the most effective negotiators tend to not only tolerate but bask in them—thereby making their task more negotiable.

Consider the following bad feelings and the reasons a knowing negotiator might indulge them:

  • Dissatisfaction: Negotiations rarely start until somebody, at some level, gets dissatisfied with something. You don’t buy a car until you realize you could drive a better one. You probably wouldn’t negotiate a job offer if it already fulfilled your dreams. Since dissatisfaction triggers the very need to negotiate, effective negotiators learn to appreciate it.
  • Anxiety: Truth be told, many effective negotiators feel quite anxious about negotiating. “Gulp! What’ll I actually say?” And if the anxiety persists into the negotiation, it’s probably not helpful. But at least in the short-term, anxiety may motivate them to prepare rather than winging it. Insofar as anxiety elicits the hard work needed to succeed, effective negotiators may learn to indulge it.
  • Irritation: The best negotiators don’t necessarily smile at their counterpart’s offers. They often recognize that those offers fall annoying short of a standard—perhaps a standard of fairness or a better offer. “But wait—my coworker makes twice that much!” And their irritation is critical, as it motivates them to respectfully offer a counteroffer rather than roll over and accept something suboptimal.
  • Fear: Even as they respectfully offer a counteroffer, many people experience abject fear at their counterpart’s reaction. “Are they gonna hate me? What if they say no?” Or maybe they offered a counteroffer a while ago and haven’t heard squat. “Do they already hate me?” It’s scary! But effective negotiators know they need to not only deal with their fear but bask in it, as withstanding adverse reactions and prolonged delays is often the only way to show resolve.
  • Guilt: Negotiators have many behaviors at their disposal, some more ethical than others. Since many of these behaviors fall into a gigantic grey area, negotiators must often consult their feelings—and particularly their feelings of guilt—to obtain an imperfect signal of ethicality. If an upcoming tactic elicits preemptive guilt, probably best to avoid it. If a past behavior seems skeezy, probably best to rectify it. Having had to make many tough ethical calls, the best negotiators are happy to hear from their consciences.

In sum, many bad feelings have an upside in negotiation—and the best negotiators know it. No one’s advocating for more dissatisfied, anxious, irritated, fearful, and guilty people walking around. We’ve got enough of those! Nor is anyone saying that all negotiations—or all of a negotiation—should feel bad. They shouldn’t! I’m simply suggesting that a moderate dose of negativity can be functional in negotiation—and even that experiencing bad feelings should help you walk away feeling better.

How big companies negotiate—in aggregate

Many of us find now ourselves negotiating with big companies—to extend our promotional rates, cancel our service before the contract ends, miss a payment or two. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Given that reality, I wanted to share a consideration—discouraging at first but encouraging upon consideration—that can make such conversations negotiable: Many (though not all) big companies don’t really give a hoot about our individual situations.

Touching as their recent commercials might be, they aren’t particularly sensitive to our unique challenges, empathetic to our personal struggles.

Discouraging, right? Well, yes, unless and until you realize the flip-side: what they do care about. Much as your personal story might not concern them much, big companies do care about the reactions of many customers, in aggregate. That is, they think of negotiations in aggregate rather than individual terms.

That realization holds some important implications for the way you, as an individual, negotiate with them. Here are just three:

  1. Strategic social media: Adverse postings on social media have a way of multiplying and morphing into aggregate dissatisfaction. If you’ve received dissatisfactory service and can precede your call with a powerful tweet, preferably with pictures—or promise to do so later—the company just might give you a hearing. And if you can also show you’re an influencer of some sort, well, then, they might grant you the full judge and jury.
  2. Judicious threats: Since they don’t really care about your individual situation, they won’t closely listen when you explain why that situation necessitates a rate cut, deferred payment, etc. (as many of us do). But they’ll become all ears when you credibly threaten to cancel and ask to be transferred to that department. Why? Well, one reason is that cancellations actually hurt in the aggregate, whereas sob stories don’t. Unwise in many other negotiation contexts, threats may unfortunately be necessary in some negotiations with big companies.
  3. Unrelenting communication: If there’s anything other than mass-cancellation that troubles companies in aggregate, it’s mass inquiry—huge wait times on their customer service lines, mountains of paperwork coming in, lots of complicated and unresolved case numbers. For you, the individual negotiator (in concert with many other individual negotiators), this implies the need to be persistent and unrelenting in your communications—willing to endure excruciating wait times, to insist on talking to their supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor, to send in mountains of paperwork yourself, to call back as often as necessary. If you do that (and others do too), they may see the aggregate implications of continuing to put off the persistent (like you)—gridlock. (Case in point: Many travel firms like Hotwire and Hotels.com did when everyone called at the start of COVID, and they gave everybody a refund.)

So the realization that many (though not all) companies don’t really care about us as individuals has an ironic upside: They actually do care—about us and many other people in aggregate. If you can show them how your individual case relates to their aggregate concerns, well, then big companies become just about as caring as anyone else.

Ok, so you want to barter—but how?

My last post sought convince you that now—in the midst of the COVID crisis—is precisely the time to barter. In brief, the point was that many people now have little choice but to barter, that barter is a better way of negotiating with family and friends, and that barter can help us both deal with short-term shortages and become better negotiators in the long-term. In short, bartering can make life negotiable.

But this all begs an obvious question: How? That is, how to barter effectively? So in this post, let me introduce a critical feature of bartering—the double coincidence of wants—along with three critical implications for bartering better.

As noted in my last post, bartering involves trading whatever you have for whatever you want. For a direct trade to happen, however, you have to meet one very specific condition: You have to want exactly what another person has and have exactly what another person wants—a condition known as the double coincidence of wants. As implied by the name, it can be challenging to the point of utterly coincidental to find a person and trade that satisfy that condition.

But a little reflection on the double coincidence reveals at least three ways to make it less coincidental and more attainable—principles that anyone who barters routinely knows well (and anyone who seeks to negotiate effectively should too, as described below):

  1. Understand yourself holistically: The first step in satisfying the double coincidence is understanding your own side of the coincidence holistically—that is, identifying not just what you want from a bartering trade but also what you’re offering. Say you desperately need some flour for bread: That’s great, but no one’s going to give it to you if you can’t clearly articulate what you’re offering in return. And, while you’re at it, you might as well identify some other things you need—just in case they’re short on flour but happen to have some coveted toilet paper, for example.
  2. Discuss multiple issues: It’s little use identifying your need for flour and TP—or your willingness to offer papier-mâché dolls and mow their lawn—if you’re not willing to raise all these issues in the discussion. And even if you do, it’s little use unless you prompt them to do the same, to talk about whatever it is they need and can offer. Talking about all kinds of things might seem random and scattered; at first, maybe they’ll look at you funny when you mention TP and papier-mâché in the same sentence. But a seemingly random discussion of multiple needs and offerings is often the only way of satisfying the double coincidence.
  3. Seek out multiple partners: Sadly, the first person you approach may not have any flour or TP on-hand; or maybe they do but have no interest in your papier-mâché or lawn-mowing. But by approaching several people, time-consuming as it is, the double coincidence becomes substantially less coincidental. Surely someone with some flour needs some beautiful papier-mâché! Barterers know that theirs is a multiparty endeavor.

These principles, among others, will help you barter better. As described in my book, however, that’s not all! They’ll also help you negotiate better—even when you’re negotiating over money. Indeed, no negotiator can truly excel without understanding themselves holistically, discussing multiple issues, and talking to multiple counterparts. So now’s the time to barter, both for its own sake and for the benefit of your future negotiations. Hopefully these tricks of the “trade” can help you.

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.

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.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” A simple question to make life negotiable

The situation’s more complicated, but I’ll first state it simply:

If I had to pick just one way that people go wrong in negotiations, it’s that they don’t negotiate. Facing a dissatisfactory situation, they just live with it. And if I had to pick just one reason that people live with it, it’s that they don’t ask a simple but immensely powerful question of themselves: “What’s the worst that can happen?” By asking that one simple question routinely, I think you’ll find your life becoming more negotiable.

Now the more complicated version: When we encounter crummy situations, we can’t always negotiate our way out of them. In particular, we’re sometimes stuck with a situation no one else can control—a difficult past, a chronic disease, weeks of icy rain in Maryland. But other times, we’re stuck with a situation another person could resolve: A crummy schedule the boss could resolve with flexible hours, a ridiculous price the dealer could resolve with a discount, a relative’s annoying habit they could resolve by just stopping it (!).

In the former situations, negotiation’s not going to get us far (though this post might help). But in the latter, the question we need to—and often don’t—ask ourselves is this: “What’s the worst that can happen?” For example, will the request of our boss really lead her to fire us, will the ask of the car dealer really cause him to kick us out of the dealer, will the huddle with the relative really drive her to the eggnog, never to utter our name again?

If the answer to such questions is yes, then kudos to us for living with it. The costs of negotiation are just too high.

But here’s the problem: Many of us don’t know the answer since we never ask the question. Instead, we implicitly equate the worst that can happen with the worst outcome in the world. But how accurate is that assumption? Will our boss really fire us for requesting some flexibility? Will the car dealer really forgo our business entirely? Will our family member really slosh away our entire relationship past and present in the eggnog? If we never ask the question, we never know the answer.

In sum, by never asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”, we often vastly overestimate the costs of negotiation, which makes any benefits pale in comparison—which makes us suffer through a wide array of solvable situations. It’s an exceedingly common situation, and thus an exceedingly common mistake. Consider some other common examples:

  • Fees from service providers: What’s the worst that could happen if we ask the bank or the airline or the cable company to waive the fee? They won’t, in which case we’re right back where we began. But they’re not going to send us to a different bank or different airline or different cable company unless they’re exceedingly irrational (no comment). And they might just make a “one-time exception.”
  • Creative ideas in meetings: What’s the worst that could happen if we raise a new and creative and slightly oddball idea in a meeting? Generally, people will ignore it and move on. But unless we’ve developed a thorough reputation for irrelevance or insanity, they won’t immediately put our career on the slow-tack. And they might just consider what we said.
  • Family preferences: What’s the worst that could happen if we suggest a different restaurant or alternative family vacation? They’ll decide against us, and then we’re stuck with the same Applebee’s or Disney getaway we were. But hey—maybe they’ll at least consider our dislike of overcooked burgers or overpriced opportunities to wait in line next time.

These are just a few of the innumerable situations where failing to ask what’s the worst that can happen leaves us with the worst that’s already happened. I’m certainly not saying that you always have the ability to ask, nor that you always should. But I’m certainly saying that when you do have the ability, you should always at least consider the worst-case.

An underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations

I have previously argued that treating the important issues in life as negotiations rather than rules can make life negotiable. But of course, if you do that, the person on the other end and will have to decide whether to accept your attempt at negotiation or refer back to the rules. And herein lies, in my experience, a vastly underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations: Jerks are likely to see their negotiation attempts rejected in favor of the rulebook, making life distinctly non-negotiable.

Now, no one reading this post is probably “a jerk.” But since we all have to work hard to suppress our moderately-quasi-jerk-like impulses at times (or at least deal with others who seem to be working distinctly less hard), it’s worth anyone’s time to consider this underappreciated cost of jerkiness.

Allow me to explain.

When people interact in organizations, they obviously make a variety of judgments about each other. One of the most important judgments, however, is simple and dichotomous: jerk or non-jerk? And at a later point in time, when the person deemed a jerk or non-jerk comes back to the person who did the deeming—the perceiver—to try and negotiate around the rules—an exception to the approval process, a benefit not conferred to others, a faster-than-normal turnaround time—chances are the perceiver will revert back to their initial judgment. Jerk or non-jerk?

If the former, then the requester has a problem. But it’s not the problem you might think—it’s not that the perceiver will negotiate vociferously against them. It’s that the perceiver won’t even entertain the idea of a negotiation. They’ll refer back to the rules—the approval process as described in the handbook, the benefits as listed in the offer letter, the turnaround time listed on the intranet.

But what if the same request comes from a person previously deemed a non-jerk? No guarantees on the easiness or success of the ensuing negotiation for the requester, but the point is that they’re more likely to get one. The perceiver may at least consider the possibility of bending the approval process, extending an extra benefit in the interest of non-jerk retention, lighting some fires to get the critical document turned around early.

And herein lies a vastly underappreciated reason to avoid even moderately-quasi-jerk-like impulses in organizations. Only by doing so can one preserve even the possibility of solving problems through negotiations rather than rules—the former of which can make life negotiable, the latter of which won’t. It’s a simple point but one worth considering in the most trying workplace moments, or at least when the jerks seem to be outpacing the non-jerks. In the end, they’ll probably run into the rulebook.

Should you accept that job? Defining a reservation price

There comes a time in all of our lives (approximately every three years) when we must decide whether to change jobs. This decision may seem difficult (and it is). But it’s negotiable!

Now, negotiating a new job offer requires a whole host of negotiation concepts and skills, including the ones I’ve described in recent posts. But today, I’ll focus on one that becomes particularly important when you’ve actually gotten a job offer and are deciding whether to stay or go: your reservation price.

To be clear, this is the situation: you’ve already looked far and wide for the best alternative opportunity; you think you’ve found it, and they extended an offer. This alternative job, in the parlance of the last post, is your BATNA. You’re now deciding whether it’s good enough to get up and go.

Now’s the time to consider your reservation price. It may sound technical, but the concept of reservation price is already second-nature: it’s just your bottom line. How you define a reservation price and what you do with it, though, is more like third or fourth nature for many of us. That’s where this post seeks to help.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that your current job pays $50,000. You like the job; your coworkers are friendly; the commute is manageable; you see a clear career path forward. It’s just that pesky $50,000, which doesn’t seem to pay the bills and still leave enough for that long-awaited Hawaiian vacation. Thus, you decided to hit the job market and eventually found a similar job in the same field. Though waiting for the actual offer, you do have some concerns: your prospective coworkers don’t seem all that welcoming; you would have to drive 45 minutes instead of 20; and you’re not sure of the promotion opportunities. Now—before you receive the offer—is the time to define your reservation price.

In any upcoming negotiations over the new job, you will have a BATNA—your current job—and it will have a value: the $50,000 salary. Yet, $50,000 is not your reservation price; your reservation price is your numerical bottom line, adjusted for all of the intangibles. $50,000 doesn’t yet reflect the intangibles. Since you like your current coworkers, commute, and career prospects, you might say to yourself: “Self, I will not accept the new job with ambiguously-friendly coworkers, a longer commute, and unclear prospects unless it pays at least $60,000. That number, not the $50,000 salary, is your reservation price. The extra $10,000 makes up for the intangibles.

Now the situation becomes a lot clearer. If the new employer extends an offer of $65,000, you should probably eventually accept it; if they extend an offer of $55,000, you should probably negotiate. If you deploy your best negotiation tactics (and hopefully the previous posts will help) but still can’t clear the $60,000 hurdle, then you should probably decline.

Easy enough, right? Yet, few people define a clear reservation before entering into a negotiation. Still fewer both define a reservation price and then resist the temptation to “adjust” it once the offer comes in. Receiving the $55,000 offer, they convince themselves it’s “good enough.” But to perform reasonably well in negotiations, this is exactly what you cannot do. Only by clearly defining a reservation price and sticking to it unless your BATNA changes dramatically can you hope to avoid a poor outcome.

Reservation prices don’t have to be prices; they can be conditions: “My office has to be in Fort Worth rather than the Dallas to accept this job” (for example). Regardless, my advice to any negotiator would be to understand with clarity where the line falls between what will and will not work. Drawing and not deviating from that line, though far from easy, is nothing short of essential.

Have you defined a bottom line in a previous negotiation? How?