Continuing to talk

In important business settings, many A-types suffer a serious physical problem: we cannot stop our mouths from moving until our point is completely and convincingly made. Any fewer words, we reason, and we’ve failed to fully persuade. Hence the penchant to keep talking until we consider our points completely and convincingly made.

There’s just one problem. The individuals around us often agree to our point well before we consider it convincingly made. We often keep talking because we feel the need to do so—not because we actually need to do so. Overcoming the temptation to keep talking can make life substantially more negotiable.

To see why, imagine yourself making an important business decision with two other members of your organization. You’ve been discussing the issue for awhile, and a set of substantially differing opinions have emerged. But you now find yourself on the soapbox, with an important and impressive line of reasoning that should take the discussion to its obvious and compelling conclusion. About halfway into your logical tour de force, however, your counterparts feel the irresistible sway of your reasoning and unexpectedly agree to your recommendation. Do you stop talking and decide move on? Most of us A-types would not, finding ourselves unable to conclude our comments without taking them to their logical conclusion.

What’s the harm in continuing to talk? Well, I see three big risks:

  1. They might get annoyed. Continuing to talk creates the serious risk that your counterparts may grow increasingly irritated with your monologue and distinct lack of listening ears. “Why does this guy keep talking? Didn’t he hear us agree?”, they might wonder, checking their watches and reiterating their agreement with increasing levels of urgency. So you might drive your counterparts crazy by continuing to talk.
  2. You might undermine your argument. Is it possible that Clause H, sub-clause IV, sub-bullet 16 in your complex and nuanced line of reasoning might somehow undermine your overall point? Sure as we all are in the airtight nature of our own reasoning, there’s always the possibility of a logical contradiction or at least a compelling counterargument lurking in the shadows of our own reasoning. So you might undercut your logic by continuing to talk.
  3. They might change their mind. Even if you don’t undermine your own argument—even if the argument, in all of its rhetorical force, fully supports your point—there’s always the possibility that your counterparts might inexplicably change their minds. Humans being humans with minds being minds, there’s always the chance that people given the time to think will decide to change course. So you might actually undermine the emerging consensus by continuing to talk.

In sum, we A-types face the distinct challenge of knowing when to declare victory and move on, even when the full force of our intellect has not been fully revealed. Though difficult and disappointing given the full sweep of our intellect, accepting other people’s agreement can ultimately win us more battles—that being the ultimate goal of our intellect.

James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and offers in negotiation

Last week, many of us watched as FBI director James Comey detailed the FBI’s investigation into Hilary Clinton’s email practices, then recommended against criminal charges. Many of us continued to watch as he was criticized from both sides of the aisle—in an unusually intense grilling by the House, for example. Although such a politically-fraught statement was sure to make one side angry, this statement seemed to make everyone angry—the left for its critique of Clinton’s behavior and the right for its recommendation not to charge.

Why would that be? Well, I’m not the FBI director, and I do understand why the person who is felt compelled to give an especially detailed statement. But I am a negotiation professor. As such, I believe that three negotiation principles can help to explain the universal sigh following Comey’s statement. They all originate in the idea that his explanation resembles a negotiator’s attempt to engage in persuasion, and his recommendation about criminal charges resembles a first offer (albeit one that everyone had to accept). If you buy that analogy, then negotiation research would suggest three problems with this approach:

  1. The arguments didn’t clearly support the conclusion: Perhaps the most basic principle of persuasion and offers in negotiation is that that the persuasion has to logically support the offer. The most consistent criticism of Comey’s statement was that the explanation implied that charges were coming. But then they didn’t. This created an uncomfortable inconsistency between the two—a “gap,” as Democratic Representative Elijiah Cummings put it.
  2. It was easy to generate counterarguments. Negotiation research has suggested that attempts to couple persuasion and offers backfire when the person who receives them can easily generate counterarguments. In that case, the research suggests that an offer without much persuasion may work better. I think it’s fair to say that Republicans didn’t have a hard time generating counterarguments, meaning that the simple, traditional, “here’s our recommendation” approach may have worked proven more compelling.
  3. The persuasion preceded the offer: Some intriguing and emerging research by negotiation scholars Nazli Bhatia and Robin Pinkley suggests that an offer followed by persuasion has a stronger influence on the listener than persuasion followed by an offer. The reason? The former approach leads the listener to start justifying the offer in their own minds. Unfortunately, Comey’s statement followed the latter pattern, the bulk of the presentation focusing on persuasion and the “offer” coming only at the end.

Again, who am I to second-guess the FBI director? No one, but I do believe that these three negotiation principles may help to explain the reaction he received. The lesson for the rest of us? If we’re going to make an offer and persuade someone to accept it, we’d better make sure to do it in that order, with the persuasion supporting the offer, and only when we’re confident that obvious counterarguments won’t pop to mind.

Getting your ideas implemented: What a prospect (theory)!

From time to time, we all have good ideas that could help our organizations thrive. Assuming we want to share them, and assuming decision-makers want to listen, the obvious challenge is to convince them that the benefits outweigh the costs, the upside justifies the risk.

In a world of slim budgets, that’s never easy. But a dose of prospect theory can make this difficult prospect negotiable.

In short and in simple, prospect theory indicates that people act very differently when they think they’re losing versus gaining something. In particular, “losses loom larger than gains,” meaning that our pain from a $1 loss is greater than our pleasure from a $1 gain. A critical corollary: when we think we’re losing, we take risks to right the ship; when we think we’re gaining, we get conservative to protect our gains.

What does this have to do with selling ideas? Well, any idea can be described as a gain or a loss—it’s a matter of language (i.e., “framing”). And I would argue that most people (self included!) intuitively put the wrong frame on their ideas, unwittingly limiting their persuasiveness.

To see why, imagine you discovered a cheaper way to make your organization’s widgets. You’re confident your new method can save the organization $1 million a year, but it requires them to buy a $250,000 technology. The question is how you sell it to your superiors.

Well, if you’re like most people, you’d make sure to emphasize the benefits. So you’d say something like: “This will save us a million dollars a year!” Since you’re saying what your organization will gain, you’re describing the benefits with a gain frame.

A gain frame could work, but it’s probably not your best strategy. Why? Because, according to prospect theory, gains aren’t very motivating; people who feel like they’re gaining don’t feel particularly inclined to take risks, like shelling out $250,000. But what if you instead said: “If we don’t adopt this method, we will continue to lose $1 million a year.” Same information, and just as true, right? But prospect theory clearly suggests that the loss framing will strike a deeper chord, motivating the decision-maker to pay closer attention and accept more of the inherent risks. In sum, when talking about the benefits, our intuition suggests a gain frame, but a loss frame will probably work better.

And what about the costs? Assuming you caught a decision-maker’s attention with your loss-framed benefits, she’s sure to ask about the costs. Well, the intuitive and direct answer is obvious: “It’ll cost us $250,000.” Since you’re emphasizing the outflow of cash, you’re essentially using a loss frame to describe the costs.

A loss frame is alright; hopefully, she will rationally compare the small costs with the huge benefits and sign on the dotted line. But since you’ve put her in a loss frame, prospect theory suggests she could also experience amnesia about the benefits and start worrying about where in the world she can find a quarter million dollars. So what if you said something like this instead: “We would have to make an investment in a promising $250,000 technology.” Again, basically the same information, and just as true. But you’ve now portrayed the expense as a gain, which it really is if your projections are accurate. So, when talking about the costs, our intuition suggests a loss frame, but a gain frame will probably work better.

Does this all seem like a lesson in language games? Well, over three decades of research suggest that small words can have huge effects. So if your projections really indicate a major organizational opportunity, and if you really believe that you’ve gotten them right, then it’s worth your time to carefully consider the smallest turn of phrase.

Here’s to the prospect (theory) of getting your next idea implemented!

Friday night fights: Choosing negotiation instead of persuasion

Where to go? What to do? Where to eat? At least once a weekend, most of us discuss at least one of these questions with someone else—a friend, a significant other, a spouse.

But what happens when we disagree? It’s difficult, but negotiable.

To make it negotiable, however, is to understand the difference between negotiation and persuasion. Specifically, it’s to treat differences of opinion as opportunities to negotiate, not invitations to persuade. This post will discuss why and how to do that.

To make this real, imagine it’s Friday night. You’re dead-set on visiting your favorite gastropub, but your significant other is just as dead-set on visiting her favorite Italian restaurant. Seeing a stalemate in the cards, what will you say next?

If you’re like most people, you’ll start to extoll the gastropub’s virtues (the beer selection! the TVs! the burgers!). If that doesn’t work, you’ll probably start to subtly trash the Italian restaurant (the grumpy waiters! the tiny bathroom! the runny sauce!). In short, if you’re like most people, you’ll start to persuade. But wait, “most other people” probably includes your significant other, right? What’s she likely to do? Seeing you start to persuade, chances are that she’ll do that too. Where’s this likely to lead? Another Friday night eating stale Trader Joe’s burritos in front of Dateline NBC.

But imagine for a moment that you instead saw the situation as a chance to negotiate. What would you say then? Well, you wouldn’t just drop your taste for the gastropub, developing a sudden interest in spaghetti. To clear up a basic misconception, negotiation does not mean surrender. No – what you’d do is share your fundamental reason for wanting to visit the gastropub, which often has surprisingly little to do with the arguments you would’ve used to persuade. Perhaps the real reason underlying your gastropub preference, for example, is its proximity to your house—you’ve had a rough week and want to walk somewhere close, not drive to the Italian place three suburbs away. Next, after sharing your fundamental reason, you’d ask hers: why do you want to go to that Italian place? “Because I want somewhere quiet so we can talk,” she might say, “and we always have to shout at that gastropub.”

Well now you’ve opened up a world of possibilities. You want somewhere close, and she wants somewhere quiet. There are about five quiet restaurants within walking distance. Just by negotiating rather than persuading, you’ve avoided a nasty dispute and all of its ramifications for your Friday night.

The critical point is that negotiation is not the same thing as persuasion. Negotiation may involve some element of persuasion—you may still have to persuade your significant other than one of the five restaurants is better than another. But negotiation is much broader than persuasion, and it starts much differently—with both parties sharing their fundamental reasons.

Have you ever selected a restaurant this way?