Is my negotiation progressing nicely? What, why, and how

How can you know if your negotiation is heading in the right direction? Few complicated questions have simple answers, but let me try to make this one as simple as possible in hopes of making life negotiable.

If your negotiation is progressing nicely, the discussion should generally answer the following three questions, in the following order:

  1. What? Most productive negotiations start with an examination of the basic situation, the facts (actual, not alternative). As in, what are we actually discussing here, and what’s the context? Seems obvious to get the facts out of the way first, but surprisingly many negotiators don’t, preferring to launch into overt conflict before clarifying the premises. (Ask our friends in Washington.) If your negotiation doesn’t surface the facts first, chances are it won’t produce much of anything useful later.
  2. Why? Most productive negotiations eventually progress from a discussion of what we’re talking about to a discussion of why those issues matter to each side. Don’t get to the reasons for the facts as we see them—and surprisingly many don’t—and chances are you’ll get mired in a pointless debate over each side’s positions and their utter irreconcilability. We’ll get stuck at me wanting a raise and you giving me zilch without ever exploring creative ways to reduce my commuting costs, reimburse my education, or obtain a bonus when I bring in the promised business.
  3. How? Most productive negotiations eventually move on from each party’s priorities to a discussion of prospective solutions. Having understood what’s important to each side, the negotiators obviously need to consider how to reconcile those priorities. If your negotiation never gets there—and surprisingly many don’t—and you’ll have a great and deep understanding of the situation and each other. But that’s it. You’ll leave the room scratching your head about what in the world was just decided and what to do next. Ever leave a meeting with just that feeling?

Now, before taking this what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness too far, a clarification is in order: Negotiation, like any form of problem-solving, is an iterative process. You may move on to the why questions and then discover you didn’t understand the what well enough. That’s fine! As long as you eventually get back to why, your negotiation is still progressing nicely.

What’s not fine is skipping steps. Since understanding underlying priorities (why) is hard and often a bit awkward, for example, many people prefer to skip right from what to how. Do that, and you’re likely to surface a solution that seems to fix the situation but doesn’t really solve anyone’s underlying problem. Other people—the go-getters, solution-seekers, extreme Type-A’s—may try to jump right to solutions. Do that, and your solutions won’t even fit the surface-level situation, let alone the underlying problem.

With those clarifications in mind, I would humbly offer the what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness. Answer those questions in that general order, and you’ll probably find your negotiation progressing nicely. Skip some of those questions or don’t answer any of them, and you’re likely to get the personal equivalent of a shutdown.

Getting the most out of your contractor

With the advent of the do-it-yourself revolution in home improvement, we are all tempted to look it up on the internet and then, well, do it ourselves. Tiling, painting, plumbing—internet as guide, house as palette. And when we can’t—when the task is too complicated or the time is too short—the temptation is to once again look it up, then pay somebody to do exactly what we would’ve done if we could’ve done it. Right?

Right, but wrong approach. Useful as the look-it-up-and-shoot approach may be for DIY, it’s usually not the best way to engage with a contractor. So if you need to hire such a person anytime soon, here’s a tip that can immediately make life more negotiable: tell them what you’re trying to accomplish, not what you want them to do.

The difference is subtle but significant. And it’s well-established in negotiation research, which consistently advises negotiators to focus on interests rather than positions. In negotiations, that means telling your counterpart your underlying needs and motivations as opposed to your overt demands and offers. In working with a contractor, it means telling them your overall objectives rather than the exact piece of equipment (down to SKU and aisle number at Lowes) that you’d like them to install (bin number available on request).

A quick real-life story that might clarify: we once wanted to redo some wood floors that looked as if they hadn’t been redone since the advent of wood itself. After obtaining multiple bids, as advised, we settled on a contractor who offered high quality for a reasonable price and also came highly recommended. Rather than telling him exactly what stain we wanted and exactly which rooms to stain, we told him what we wanted to accomplish: to lend the house a light, airy feel; to do everything in a cost-effective manner; and to avoid doing anything that would ultimately interfere or look bad with an eventual kitchen renovation. Telling him what we wanted highlighted several possibilities we hadn’t envisioned or found in aisle 27 (bin 6) at Lowes: not staining the floors at all but letting the natural wood shine through and not yet redoing the floors in the kitchen, seeing as they might get damaged by the renovation or at least might clash with the cabinets. Brilliant! The solution looked great, saved a bunch of money, and paved the way for a beautiful kitchen renovation, complete with future flooring update.

With the benefit of a story, it’s easy to see the benefits of telling a contractor what you want to accomplish rather than exactly what you want. In general, here they are:

  1. You might find a cheaper solution. For example: not staining the floors.
  2. You might find a solution that better fits your needs. For example: not redoing the floors in the kitchen.
  3. You might discover you have a different problem. If you tell a contractor to install something from aisle 27, they probably will. If you tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and ask them how to get there, you have a fighting chance of leveraging their expertise. Hearing you put your trust in their expertise, they’ll probably put said expertise to work and give you their opinion as to whether you’ve accurately diagnosed the problem. If not, then wouldn’t it be great to solve the real problem?
  4. You might find that you don’t really have a problem. Again, contractors usually do what you tell them when you pay them to. But if you tell them the perceived problem and what you’re hoping to do about, they just might point you down a much easier path—at least if they’re honest. And if they’re not, well then you can always go with someone else or go back to aisle 27. Which leads to the next point…
  5. You might discover how competent or honest your contractor is. Again, you’re advised to get multiple bids. If you do that and tell each person exactly what to do, each will probably give you a price for doing just that. If you tell multiple people what you’re trying to accomplish, however, their responses will—if nothing else—tell you something about their level of knowledge. Or, if someone suggests something way out of left field (not that this has happened to me several times recently), you might even learn about their honesty.

So, the next time you have a problem with your home, I’d advise you to resist the siren’s call of Lowes.com. Instead, figure out what you’re really trying to accomplish and tell your multiple potential contractors your overall objectives. Wonderful and reliable as Lowes.com always is, leaving room for your contractor’s judgment can leave you much better off.

Have you ever told a contractor your overall objectives and been surprised by their response?

Negotiation success through graduation platitudes

The graduation season is upon us! Setting aside all of the reasons for joy and celebration, that can only mean one thing: so is the season of the platitude-laced graduation speeches. And while few of us enjoy platitudes, many of us would probably acknowledge that they contain nuggets of wisdom. Why else would wise people keep repeating them?

Thus, in the spirit of the season and in hopes of making life more negotiable, I thought it might be useful to investigate whether the most common platitudes contain any nuggets of wisdom about negotiation. So here are five common platitudes and their implications for negotiation—all of which are surprisingly informative and eerily consistent with negotiation research:

  1. Dream big: With this omnipresent platitude, speakers advise graduates to set their sights high, shoot for the stars, aim for their most cherished objectives. And when the going gets tough, should they quit? No! Double down and try again. Well, that’s exactly what negotiation instructors have advised their students to do for decades: set aggressive targets reflective of ideal goals, then continue to doggedly pursue them—creatively if necessary—without ever giving up or giving in.
  2. Don’t look back: Quickly on the heels of the first platitude, many speakers offer the second, suggesting that graduates should not only dream big and persist, but also resist the temptation to regret “what could’ve been.” In an eerily similar vein, negotiation research suggests that people should focus on their target while bargaining, but then evaluate the agreement against their bottom line, the goal being both a great outcome and a negotiator who doesn’t look back in regret.
  3. Do what makes you happy: This common platitude advises graduates to look beyond the socially sanctioned markers of success (e.g., a big paycheck) in order to pursue their true motivations—the factors that will truly dictate their happiness or lack thereof. In very much the same spirit, Getting to Yes and nearly every negotiation course it inspired advises negotiators to “focus on interests rather than positions.” When negotiating, that is, try to satisfy your true, underlying motivations (your interests) by going beyond surface-level positions—many of which inevitably involve money.
  4. Thank the people who got you here: Speakers often ask graduates to pause their aspirations and thank the people who got them this far. Similarly, I have argued that that life is only negotiable when we occasionally stop negotiating long enough to express gratitude for the people around us.
  5. Always wear sunscreen: Perhaps this one hasn’t quite reached “platitude” status, but it sure got popular a few years back. We could dig pretty deep into the underlying meaning, but let’s just go one level deeper than the words: don’t forget to take simple steps that protect you from bad outcomes. There are lots of ways to go wrong in negotiations, but negotiation research has long shown that negotiators without alternatives almost always get burned.

So the platitudes in those graduation speeches actually turn out to capture numerous nuggets of negotiation wisdom. Something to ponder the third or fourth time you hear a speaker telling you to “dream big.”