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?