The five real meanings of “I can’t do that”

It’s your negotiation counterpart’s favorite phrase: “I can’t do that.” And it’s a discouraging phrase that most of us take at face-value, deeming our dreams as good as dashed. And sometimes we should, as it signifies the actual impossibility of our request.

But many times, we shouldn’t. Because, many times, it means something subtly but critically different. And here’s where we usually go wrong: We don’t recognize the many subtle meanings of the very same phrase, thereby rendering life less negotiable. So, the next time your negotiation counterpart says, “I can’t do that,” know that they might mean:

  1. I don’t want to do that. “Can’t” implies utter impossibility, total infeasibility, absolutely no way that could happen. Unfortunately, many of our negotiation counterparts actually mean “don’t.” As in, they don’t really feel like it. Since not really feeling like it is far less final than not being able, you’ve just discovered a golden opportunity to pry back the reasons for their reluctance. Are they concerned about the work required, precedents broken, approvals needed? Whatever it is, it’s possible you can address it (once you understand it).
  2. I can do that but don’t want you to know. It’s a sad fact of negotiation, and life more broadly. Sometimes people lie, or at least bluff. So saying they can’t is an exercise in flexible ethics meant to crush your dreams before they ever take flight. Luckily, a simple “Why?” is often enough to catch the underprepared bluffer red-handed and unable to answer convincingly.
  3. I won’t do that unless you do this. Sometimes, “I can’t” is less a lie than a gambit—an attempt to get something out of you before they comply. Luckily, a “What if I did X?” on your end can often turn the most non-negotiable issues negotiable.
  4. I can’t do that, but I can do this. Relatedly, negotiators sometimes say they can’t because they really can’t grant your super-specific request. But that particular can’t says nothing about their willingness to grant other, as-yet unmade requests. To see so for yourself, try an experiment the next time a wily HR negotiator tells you they “can’t” negotiate salary: Say ok, but ask whether they would give you something else you value for the given salary. Often, they will, which means they actually can negotiate salary—and have, by accepting your proposed tradeoff.
  5. I haven’t really thought about it. Sadly, some of our negotiation counterparts aren’t as astute or motivated as we are. We surface an idea, and it doesn’t sound much like the clunking of their mental machinery, so they reject us without really thinking it over. Here, your job as negotiator becomes to educate—to show them just how simple it would be for them to comply. Shown a simple way to say yes, many will, if only to be rid of you.

 The point is embarrassingly simple: “I can’t do that” is a popular phrase that you shouldn’t automatically accept at face-value. Maybe they really can’t—and so be it. But if it’s just that they “can’t,” then chances are you can find a way to eliminate the ‘t.

Negotiating the revision of academic articles

Anyone who writes research articles knows that responding to a revise and resubmit (R&R) decision is a negotiation between authors and reviewers. But it occurred to me recently, while working through a revision myself, that this is but when one of the many negotiations wrapped up in the revision process. Since an awareness of the other negotiations between and among the parties to a revision can make publishing negotiable, let’s consider five such negotiations:

  1. Editors with reviewers: Both action editors and reviewers generally read your paper. Since all are humans with unique perspectives, sometimes they disagree. When that happens, editors face an implicit negotiation with reviewers, born of the need to convey their own opinions to the authors without alienating the reviewers or minimizing their perspectives. Editors often resolve this negotiation through coded language, e.g., by suggesting that the authors focus on certain issues or by offering their own interpretation of a reviewer’s comment. Experienced authors learn to interpret their subtle signals.
  2. Authors among themselves: On the receiving end of a whole lot of requested revisions, the best-intentioned and most knowledgeable authors may still reach very different conclusions about the appropriate response. One author may see the need to follow the reviews to a T, collecting a boatload of data just to be sure, while others may wish to respond (more quickly) by arguing against the need for it. Thus, the authors face a negotiation amongst themselves—a negotiation that experienced authors expect and respect through its satisfactory conclusion.
  3. Authors with funders: To the extent that R&Rs request new data, they have a tendency to require more money. Thus, they also have a tendency to necessitate a negotiation between authors and funders—particularly their departments and external funding agencies. Experienced authors anticipate that and don’t hesitate to ask for more when they have to.
  4. Authors with theory and data: Whatever an R&R asks the authors to do, they cannot ethically disregard relevant theory or their own data. Sure, they can (and often should) challenge existing theory to make a contribution. Sure, they can (and often should) explore the review team’s hunches if their current or future data allow it (without pretending they hypothesized as much). But they cannot (and should not) disregard what is known or was predicted just to get published. Experienced authors know when to negotiate with theory or data and when to draw the line. Luckily, good editors respect and understand that.
  5. Editors with journals and managing editors: Least appreciated, perhaps, are the negotiations that action editors undertake with managing editors and editors-in-chief. Action editors with great articles that run long, challenge received wisdom, or miss the critical deadline, for example, may need to negotiate within the journal’s hierarchy for an exception. Experienced authors know that and try to minimize the amount of internal negotiating required to publish their article—or at least to give the action editor a strong case.

So revising an article is certainly a negotiation between authors and reviewers, as any reader of this or my previous post on this topic knows. But it’s a lot more negotiating than that, and experienced authors understand the complex web of negotiations involved in publishing their work. To the extent you wish to publish journal articles too, here’s hoping this post helps you wend your way through the web.

The five silent strategies of highly successful negotiators

When most of us think of negotiating, we think of talking. So most of us might be surprised to learn that five critical negotiating tactics do not involve talking at all—they involve complete silence. Since understanding the five silent strategies of highly successful negotiators can make life negotiable, let’s consider what they are:

  1. Preparing: One of the most important negotiation strategies involves the silent use of a pen. Few tactics predict negotiation success better than the adequacy of a negotiator’s preparation—particularly the extent to which they quietly document and internalize the elements of the BRAIN acronym.
  2. Waiting: The worst negotiators get antsy when their counterpart or an organizational decision-making process hasn’t yet produced a reply to their proposal. So they all-too-eagerly follow up with the other side or, worse yet, make an immediate and unprompted concession. The best negotiators don’t do that: They silently and patiently await a reply, thereby signaling how little they need one.
  3. Listening: It might not surprise you to learn that the best negotiators listen, silently closing their one mouth to open their two ears. Or that doing so holds multiple benefits like letting the other side vent, share their interests, or offer tacit ideas on how to meet them. Unfortunately, it surprises most negotiators themselves, who spend the majority of their time with their one mouth open and two ears closed.
  4. Walking: Sure, this strategy doesn’t involve complete silence. The other side might hear your feet receding or the door latching. But the quasi-silent strategy of leaving the table is crucial, as it offers several invaluable opportunities: particularly the opportunity to check with someone else, compare a potential deal against your best alternative, or execute your best alternative if it’s better.
  5. Holding back: The best negotiators have a far richer inner monologue than their spoken words reveal. They mentally ponder whether a particular deal is better than their bottom-line, whether to share a sensitive piece of information, or whether their counterpart has a screw or two loose. But they silently suppress such thoughts, lest their negotiations go seriously off-track.

Sure, these silent strategies comport little with our image of the mythical negotiator. Still, I can tell you that negotiation research and the repeated observations of a humble negotiation professor fully support their effectiveness. So here’s to you, the silent but highly-successful negotiators among us.

Should I negotiate despite a certain no?

As my last post suggested, the first clue you might want to negotiate instead of settling for a suboptimal outcome is dissatisfaction with the status quo. But what if that dissatisfaction is accompanied by absolute certainty that the other party will reject any alternative proposal? Surely you shouldn’t negotiate when you’re certain the other party will say no. Or should you?

You should at least consider it. Indeed, for reasons like the following five, negotiating in the face of a certain no is one of the least appreciated and most powerful ways to make life negotiable:

  1. You make a deposit in the no bank: Most people don’t like being disagreeable all the time—even stubborn people and your organization’s biggest bureaucrats. So every no they give you creates a liability in their psychological no bank—an increasingly acute sense that they should probably repay your persistence with a yes at some point. Put simply, the more no’s a particular person gives you, the higher the probability they’ll give you a yes the next time.
  2. You learn about the other side: In the process of saying no, some naysayers will grace you with a why not. That is, they’ll tell you why it’s so difficult to agree to this particular proposal. And the why not often contains some of the most critical information you’ll ever receive in an organization. Knowing that requests framed a particular way or lacking a particular individual’s blessing don’t succeed in this firm will surely make you savvier the next time.
  3. You might get a no on that but a yes on something else: In the process of saying no, other naysayers may grace you with a but. That is, they’ll say no to your main request but spontaneously offer to do something else that still solves your problem. And at the end of the day, who cares how they solve your problem!?! As long as they do, you’re golden.
  4. You communicate the importance of the issue: Negotiation is not just a process for attaining your goals. It’s a form of communication by which you inform the people around you what you really care about. Ask your superiors about a particular issue enough times and the good ones among them are likely to process your passion for the issue and find a way to work with you the next time it matters.
  5. You’re never actually certain. Sure, you might feel certain about an impending no. But humans being human beings, they often utterly surprise us—particularly by gracing us with an unexpected yes. Maybe they’re feeling unusually cheery today, trying to honor their New Year’s resolution to act agreeably, or hoping to lower the liabilities in their favor bank. Or maybe they just chickened out with the no on the tip of their tongue. Whatever the cause of their shocking amenability, you can be certain that you’re never as certain as you think.

But wait—am I encouraging you, via these points, to negotiate everything all the time? No, as my previous post makes clear, I’m not. All I’m saying in the current post is that the expectation of a no is not a sufficient reason to abandon the possibility of a negotiation. Sometimes a no is just a way-station on the long and winding road to yes.

The best-kept secrets of non-leader negotiators

My last post discussed how organizational leaders negotiate. But a nettlesome fact remains: Many of us are not leaders! We find ourselves farther down the food chain, sometimes much farther.

So a nettlesome question remains: How can non-leaders negotiate?

Since the practices of the most effective non-leader negotiators can make many people’s lives negotiable, let’s consider five of their best-kept secrets:

  1. Dropping subtle hints and popping subtle questions: Meetings to make important decisions are often populated by leaders and non-leaders alike. Sure, the non-leaders’ primary role may be to take notes or make sure the meeting ends on-time. But the most effective non-leader negotiators identify at least the occasional opportunity to drop a subtle hint or ask a subtle question about the subject matter—hints and questions that often redirect the conversation or surface a surprisingly glaring concern.
  2. Being polite: In a world of shockingly impolite people, unadulterated and unexpected politeness acquires immense value. Simply and consistently approaching leaders with a smile and an authentic interest in how they’re doing and what they’re worrying about goes an awfully long way when leaders need a sounding board—particularly a sounding board who has not been required to drink the Kool-Aid by virtue of their leadership position.
  3. Developing powerful allies: Contrary to popular perceptions of negotiation, there’s no rule requiring the best negotiators to fly solo, singlehandedly crushing a piteous counterpart into a pulp. The most effective non-leader negotiators know that all-too-well, and they don’t even try to fly solo. They identify powerful allies who have the organizational leverage to represent their point-of-view—and, more importantly, the willingness to.
  4. Maintaining strict neutrality: Ironically in light of the last point, the most effective non-leader negotiators also pull a Switzerland. Even as they develop allies to stick up for them when it counts, they don’t take a side among competing factions or become a pawn in somebody else’s game of thrones. Sitting at the bar after work, with everyone liquored up and gossiping about the people in the other faction, they chortle but resist the temptation to contribute another caustic comment. Sure, they won’t have nearly as much fun at the bar. But they’ll build a bedrock of trust with both factions, whichever one wins.
  5. Being more prepared: Non-leaders rarely have more organizational power than leaders. But they do tend to have more of another critical resource: time. Sure, no one has much time. But the average non-leader does have more of by comparison. And the most effective non-leader negotiators leverage their comparative advantage to the full, spending their additional time preparing for meetings and decisions in excruciating detail. Simply by commanding the facts, they tend to direct the conversation.

So how do the most effective non-leaders negotiate? As in the case of like leaders, little like we imagine. Subtly, quietly, and slowly counteracting their subordinate role, they accumulate the social capital needed to lead anyway.

What are some other best practices of non-leader negotiators? Join the conversation by leaving a comment!

Which is worse: Negotiation failure or failing to negotiate?

I recently traveled to Australia for work, visiting an open-air market for some family souvenirs. Now, an Australian market is not an Indian or Turkish market—not a place where haggling is necessary or necessarily expected. So I suspected going in that any attempts at negotiation would not be particularly fruitful. And I could’ve decided to abandon negotiation accordingly.

But being the author of Life’s Negotiable, I decided to try it anyway. As expected, my attempts to negotiate were met with limited success. Ironically and perhaps confusingly, though, they also highlighted three reasons why the greater failure would’ve been a failure to negotiate at all. And herein is a lesson that can make life negotiable: The biggest negotiation failure is a failure to negotiate.

What in the world could I mean? Consider the rest of the story. I set out in pursuit of three souvenirs: two stuffed animals and a wine holder. Along the road to the negotiation failure described in the third point below, I jotted down three reasons why failing to negotiate would’ve been the greater failure. If you don’t negotiate, you don’t:

  1. Learn about the market. My first and most important negotiation strategy was to walk around the market and compare the various vendors’ prices and selection. Having done so, I learned that certain vendors were selling the items in the question for an attractive price but also selling…how shall we put this…junk. And, looking closer at these vendors’ stuffed animals and wine holders, I learned that they too were…how shall we put this…junk. Design flaws and manufacturing errors galore—and not even from Australia. At least for these products, the rock-bottom prices were too good to be true, I learned.
  2. Learn about the item in question: In the process of walking around the marketplace, I also learned some interesting things about the products under consideration. For example, I learned that the wine holders in this market (at least the ones from the non-junk vendors) are each hand-painted with a unique pattern and color palette signifying a specific set of thoughts and emotions—nice sentiments like serenity, peace, and courage. Since I knew I wanted one with olive green and maroonish-brown, I made sure to note and convey the meaning of those colors upon delivery, which definitely increased the impact of the gift.
  3. Find opportunities to sweeten the deal: Having eliminated the junk vendors and understood the colors, I ultimately identified a vendor with no junk and some reasonably good deals. In fact, this vendor’s signs indicated that I could get two stuffed animals for a special bulk price of X Australian Dollars. But there was no obvious deal on wine holders, prompting me to ask for an even special-er bulk price for one wine holder and two stuffed animals. “No,” he said, which is why I labeled the whole thing a negotiation failure. But the vendor did inform me that I could get an unadvertised volume discount if I purchased two wine holders. Now, we don’t drink that much wine or have that much room on the kitchen counter, but if we did, this offer could’ve sweetened the deal considerably. So, in combination with the avoidance of poor products and the accumulation of information, I consider this failure productive.

What’s the point? That, at least when it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to negotiate—and often it doesn’t—the only real failure in negotiation is a failure to negotiate. A little lesson from down-under.

Practicing for negotiations: Why not?

We practice meticulously for every important event in our lives. Whether it’s a presentation, a soccer game, or an interview, if we value the outcome, we typically spend some serious time practicing (e.g., by dry-running, scrimmaging, or mock-interviewing).

So it’s curious that most of us devote so little time—approximately none at all—to practicing for our most important negotiations. Perhaps we’ll give some passing thought to our strategy for the car dealer or even use the BRAIN acronym to structure our thinking. But mental preparation is not the same thing as active practicing, and precious few of us will ever consider the latter.

But why??? Do we all consider ourselves so much better at negotiating than presenting, shooting a soccer ball, or detailing our greatest strength? Do we all feel foolish enlisting the help of a make-believe car dealer? Do we not even know where to start?

I honestly don’t know.

Since practice is the only thing that can make negotiations perfect (or at least negotiable), however, I’ll assume it’s the last one and urge you to start here:

Pick a trustworthy friend, perhaps an aspiring thespian. Bring them up to speed on every last aspect of the negotiation and your likely counterpart. Then, actually pretend you’re negotiating, making sure to focus your role-playing on the following topics:

  1. Opening and setting the right tone. As in first dates, the first minute of a negotiation sets the tone for most of the subsequent relationship. Will this be a cooperative or combative discussion? A problem-solving exercise or a cage match? Whatever the tone you intend to set, you’d better practice setting it to follow through when the heat is on.
  2. What you’ll share and won’t. In every negotiation, you’ll have to share certain nuggets of information to get to yes. And you’ll have to avoid a discussion of other topics like the plague—your bottom line for example. You need to practice sharing the former and avoiding the latter tactfully.
  3. Responding to tough questions. Your counterpart may well ask you to share the information you really don’t want to. They may also ask questions that tempt you to lie. You need to hear yourself concocting an answer that doesn’t give away the farm or your ethical (and/or legal) compass.
  4. Rebooting the conversation. At some point, most tough negotiations get mired in a positional debate. “I want X!” “I want Y!” And X is typically the opposite of Y. If you hope to rise above such a debate in real-time, you need a practiced strategy for changing the conversation. A strategic suggestion to take a break or a blue-sky question about an entirely different topic?
  5. Walking away if you have to. It’s kind of like the safety demonstration on the airplane. You really don’t want to think about it and hope you never have to remember it, but you’d better make sure to understand it. If a negotiation disaster sets in and you can’t find a way to best your BATNA, you need a practiced plan for walking away gracefully rather than falling into a tailspin.

In sum, for all the same reasons you play a scrimmage rather than fielding a new soccer team just before the game, we should all practice negotiating rather that discovering our negotiation prowess (or lack thereof) in real-time. If nothing else, consider it an opportunity to indulge your inner thespian.