Negotiations over Netflix

One of our most common negotiations occurs on the couch. There we sit, next to a partner or friend, vigorously debating our differing opinions about what to watch.

Given their ubiquity, could more productive “Netflix negotiations” (as we’ll call them) make life as a whole more negotiable? On the off-chance they could, let’s review some of the most contentious types of Netflix negotiations and, for each one, some lessons from negotiation research that might help.

  • What to watch: Probably the most common Netflix negotiation involves two parties with fundamentally different preferences for entertainment. One loves the lovey-dovey, while the other soaks up the blood and gore. In these cases, as in many negotiations, the parties tend to spend far too much time persuading each other to love the love or soak up the gore. They spend far too little thinking up creative solutions like: 1) Outlander, or 2) You watch the love on your time, I the gore on mine, and we spend our collective time watching an entirely different genre we both like. I mean, neither solution is THAT creative, but since they both require a fundamentally different mindset, many of us just miss them.
  • Whether to binge: There are those of us who would prefer to watch an entire show on one exceptionally long sitting. And those of us who like to savor a show for weeks if not months. Assuming both parties could theoretically adapt to the other’s preferences, perhaps a tradeoff would help: We binge-watch the show that’s got you all hot and bothered, then we savor the show that’s really firing my pistons?
  • Whether we’re going to like it: Sometimes, we’re both open to trying a show, but we have differing expectations about its likely entertainment value. Rather than diving into the uncertainty with apprehension, as many people do, could the apprehensive person hedge by preemptively requesting that both parties reevaluate the show’s quality after a certain number of episodes, sort of like a contingency contract?
  • Whether to turn it off: Similarly, and more than most people would admit, we’re both eager to watch a show, and we invest a huge amount of time in doing so. But then we privately sour on the show and don’t really say anything for fear of disappointing our partner or friend. Instead of wasting yet more of our precious lifetime, however, may I suggest something like a post-settlement settlement – an open, albeit gentle discussion as to whether both parties would actually prefer to move on? Research on pluralistic ignorance suggests that you’ll be surprised by the proliferation of yeses.
  • Which show to prioritize: Given the abundance of excellent content, we’ll naturally encounter numerous situations when our partners or friends prioritize shows differently. They’ll really want to watch show X next , whereas we’ll really want to watch Y. We could draw straws or choose one or the other depending on the parties’ persuasiveness. But why not rely or an objective standard like Rotten Tomatoes? Or ask each party to develop a list of several shows in order of priority, kind of like a multi-issue offer? Who knows—the show you both ranked second might increase your collective happiness more than the show they listed first and you listed twelfth. And if you’re truly talking to a partner or friend, it’s your collective happiness that matters.

In the context of international treaties, mega-dollar mergers, and impeachment procedures, Netflix negotiations may not seem so consequential. But negotiations over Netflix, in addition to being more frequent, probably have a more direct line to our immediate happiness. So I’d say we should at least consider whether the lessons of negotiation research can produce happier and more harmonious moments on the couch.

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.

The negotiator’s blind spot: Forgetting to consider our counterparts

Most negotiators pay great attention to getting the right terms on a critical issue—a great salary, for example. Advanced negotiators also pay great attention to negotiating the right issues—not just a great salary but the right set of benefits and career trajectory, for example. But almost no negotiators pay great attention to a topic that’s at least as important as the first two: making sure they’re negotiating with the right people.

In the interest of convincing you that paying attention to the parties with whom we negotiate is just as critical for making life negotiable, let’s consider five risks of failing to do so:

  1. Your counterpart might not be able to decide. Oftentimes, the counterpart the world hands us can make some basic decisions but not the big decision required to honor our request. The frontline car dealer may not be able to offer that super-special discount. The HR rep may not be able to offer that super-customized work schedule. Unless we ensure we’re talking to the person who can make such decisions, they won’t get made in our favor.
  2. Your counterpart may be unnecessarily opposed. Sometimes, and especially when negotiating within organizations, we can choose which of several individuals to approach. We could take our proposal directly to senior executive A, or go through junior executives B or C. Without carefully considering which one to approach, we run the risk of hitting a raw nerve—a counterpart whose authority or very existence would be threatened by our idea, or someone who has some other idiosyncratic sensitivity to it. Sure, we can’t know everyone’s sensitivities in advance, but a little advance contemplation goes a long way.
  3. There may be a better match. As described in my book, The Bartering Mindset, the best and most successful negotiations take place between people with complementary needs—parties who happen to have what each other wants and want what each other has. Car dealers who are just dying to get our coveted model off the lot. Contractors who just happen to have a sale on our coveted cabinetry. If you haven’t considered whether your counterpart is complementary, you’ll be lucky to find that they are.
  4. There may be power in numbers. Many times, the best deal is actually a combination of deals. For example, you might find that a particular contractor will produce the best-looking kitchen, but sourcing your cabinetry through them would imperil your life savings. But hey, what if you hired them to do the kitchen and sourced the cabinetry from someone else? I’ve done it, and it works. Without considering your counterparts carefully, though, it just won’t happen.
  5. It’s a waste of time. None of us has oodles of time. But by negotiating with someone who can’t decide, who’s unnecessarily opposed, etc., we throw what discretionary time we have away. In other words, we reduce the benefits of negotiating by the opportunity cost of our wasted time. For most of us, those opportunity costs are nothing to sneeze at.

Unfortunately, as I said at the beginning, most people pay no attention to the parties with whom they’re negotiating. They might, if exceptionally talented, pay attention to negotiating the right issues. They’ll probably pay attention to getting the right terms on a critical issue, often monetary. But you, having read this post, may well be the only one considering your counterparts. For the reasons above and others, I think you’ll find it making life negotiable.

Five reputations no negotiator wants

Many of our most important negotiations happen at work. We negotiate job offers, reconcile competing strategies, allocate limited funds. So it would really behoove us to understand the drivers of our success in such situations—the factors that will determine whether we walk away happy or sad.

If I asked you to name just one such factor, what would you say?

Chances are, you’d name a negotiation strategy. Aggressively insist on your demands! Persuasively plead your case! Creatively seek a solution! Or some other behavior to display in the negotiation itself.

While none of these answers is inherently wrong, I’d suggest that your success in a critical organizational negotiation is often determined long before the negotiation itself—in the many less-critical negotiations and non-negotiation situations that crystallize your reputation. Critical negotiations become substantially more negotiable, in other words, when you’ve developed the right reputation beforehand.

It’s easier to see what the right reputation is if you first consider the opposite—the type of reputation you really don’t want to bring into a critical organizational negotiation. At that point, you really don’t want to be known as the:

  1. Constant negotiator: We all know someone who negotiates every flipping, last thing. Why do I only get 10 pencils? I need at least 12! Do we really have to go Applebee’s? I’m really hankering for the Olive Garden. Constant negotiator is not the type of reputation you want to carry into your critical organizational negotiations, as everyone will think this important negotiations is just another in your never-ending string of demands.
  2. Selfish negotiator: We all know someone who, though they don’t necessarily negotiate everything, they approach every negotiation (and non-negotiation) with exactly one objective: themself. Would it cost three jobs to guarantee my 12-pencil minimum at all times? No matter, as long as I get my pencils. You obviously don’t want to develop this reputation either, as everyone will come into the critical negotiation ready for battle.
  3. Pushover negotiator: Conversely, kind of, we all know someone who never ever sticks up for themself. Want to reduce my pencil allocation by two pencils a month, ultimately leaving me with pens alone? No matter, I’ll just buy some pencils myself. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as everyone will approach the critical negotiation with the demeanor of Jaws in the presence of a bleeding beluga.
  4. Reactive negotiator: We all know someone who, despite the “manager” in their title, sits around and lets the world conquer them. They seem utterly incapable of steering the course of events, and they often respond bitterly when the world steers them. Oftentimes, they just fade into the background. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as someone else in the critical negotiation will steer the negotiation in their own direction before you have the chance to, well, react.
  5. Incoherent negotiator: We all know someone who can never seem to collect their thoughts. Their statements are jumbled, and their requests tend toward the internally inconsistent. Thought 1: We should all get more pencils! Thought 2: Management should really cut costs! Developing such a reputation may well keep the other party on their toes. But you’re unlikely to get what you want from a critical organizational negotiation, for the simple reason that neither you nor they has a clue what that is.

So if you shouldn’t cultivate any of these reputations before a critical negotiation, what type of reputation should you to develop? A reputation as someone who confidently negotiates when they have to, but only when they have to. And when they do, as someone who confidently or even insistently sticks up for their true needs but also gives in on their non-needs, particularly when the other side truly needs the opposite. And someone who doesn’t react to negotiations as they happen but leads the way, typically by initiating and coherently guiding the discussion.

Do all of that in the small situations before your critical organizational negotiation and, dollars to donuts, you’ll walk away with the critical outcome.

Mythical images of the negotiator

I recently attended the International Association of Conflict Management meeting in Berlin—an opportunity for negotiation researchers like myself to geek out. And in the process of geeking out, I had an interesting albeit especially geeky thought: the image of negotiation and negotiators that most of us hold in our brains is actually quite different than the portrait painted by negotiation research. Put simply, our images of negotiation and negotiators are more often mythical than evidence-based.

In the hope that evidence can make life negotiable (especially in the era of a self-identified Negotiator-in-Chief), I offer the following contrasts between mythical and evidence-based negotiation. In mythical negotiation…

  1. Negotiation is mostly about doing huge deals. When we hear the word negotiation, we think of multi-billion dollar mergers and business contracts—issues that grab the headlines and everyone’s attention. In actuality, most of the world’s negotiations focus on issues that are totally unimportant to anyone other than you. It’s a negotiation when your child won’t eat, your spouse won’t do the dishes, and your seatmate won’t cooperate on a flight. Most negotiations concern our own daily difficulties—issues that matter only to us.
  2. Negotiations focus on money. Relatedly, we tend to equate the word negotiation with the word money. And yes, many negotiations involve money. But many just don’t—consider the three right above. And in many that do, it’s the qualitative issues rather than the monetary issues that really make the difference. You’ll never get the car dealer to agree with your preferred price, but you just might get him to throw in some oil changes.
  3. The best negotiators are jerks. We tend to assume that the best negotiators must be people with whom we’d never want to share a flight or have a dinner (watch the beginning of this Facebook video where our Negotiator-in-Chief says just that)—people who aggressively demand concessions and accommodations from everyone around them. In fact, the best negotiators are the very people with whom we’d most want to dine or fly—people who listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, who trust and seem to understand us, and who ensure that we walk away feeling at least reasonably satisfied with the conversation.
  4. The best negotiators are easy to identify. Relatedly, we tend to think that we can spot a great negotiator when we see one. It’s the driver zipping around in the Mercedes and cutting everyone off. Or the CEO slamming their fist on the table and demanding that a poor subordinate come up with something better. In fact, the best negotiators are invisible—to us, yes, but often even to themselves. If I had a quarter for every time I taught a negotiation class and observed a self-proclaimed “bad negotiator” eventually get the “Best Negotiator” award…
  5. The key to negotiation success is tactics. We tend to think that the most effective negotiators use the most sophisticated tactics—the car dealer who slips in “one additional fee” after we’ve already signed the contract, or the politician who corners a colleague into supporting a pork-barrel amendment. Tactics are certainly important. Any claim to the contrary would be silly. But more important than tactics—and perhaps much more important—is preparation. If the best negotiators display the most sophisticated tactics, it’s only because they spent the most time and effort preparing, understanding everything there is to know about themselves, the people across the table, and the negotiation situation itself.

In sum, negotiations and negotiators are steeped in mythology, very little of which holds up to empirical investigation. So few of us should be surprised when our most prominent negotiators promulgate the mythology but experience much more difficulty in reality.