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.

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.

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.

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.