Misunderstanding yourself: A classic negotiation blunder

Even negotiation instructors sometimes make negotiation mistakes. Since I recently made an exceedingly common mistake, perhaps it’s worth the public shaming that will necessarily come with sharing. At best, the story should make your own life more negotiable. At worst, it’ll offer me a form of catharsis.

Most of us tend to assume that we know ourselves completely—our every desire, need, and preference. It’s our wily counterparts—their needs, desires, and preferences—that we assume we don’t know and need to find out during a negotiation.

While we do know ourselves better than anyone else, I’m here to tell you that we don’t know ourselves well enough for a negotiation. Put differently, we can’t assume we don’t need to inquire into our own preferences carefully each time we negotiate. We always need to understand ourselves better.

To that point, my family recently decided to pay for a fairly involved and expensive landscaping project. Forever the negotiation professor, I tried to experiment with various methods of reducing the price. Voila! I could do so by performing a portion of the work myself. Sounds good, but the devil’s in the details—in this case, the work:  I would have to clear an exceedingly long, 20-foot wide strip of overgrown jungle that would challenge even the mightiest of bulldozers, pulling up fathoms of English ivy and removing decades of discarded yard waste.

“I’ll do it,” I foolishly declared, without asking myself whether my preference for savings outweighed my preference for health, happiness, and life satisfaction in general. And now, several days removed from an entire weekend of clearing, my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water. Oh, and I’m still sad that I had to miss my daughter’s T-ball game.

Now, was that really worth the savings? In retrospect, not really. Turns out that, although I do prefer savings to no savings, I don’t prefer savings to a totally lost, unproductive, and painful weekend of social isolation in the searing sauna of Maryland sun. In other words, I didn’t understand my own preferences particularly well—or if I did, I didn’t carefully compare them against each other.

I say this not just to poke fun at myself but because it’s a mistake that most of us make often. We assume, when negotiating, that we understand own preferences so well that we don’t need to consider them at all. I’m here to tell you that we always do.

So the next time you’re negotiating, don’t pull a Brian. I mean, do pull the Brians described in many of my posts, but don’t pull this one. Treat your own preferences as a question to be considered, a riddle to be solved, a topic rife for inquiry. Do that, and I think you’ll find your back less sore and your life more negotiable.

Let them choose! Idiosyncratic preferences at home or at work

Over the course of many dinnertimes, many parents notice a pattern in their young children’s preferences. Shortly after sitting down at the table, and whatever the color of the child’s plate (fork, placemat, cup), the kid decides it’s the wrong color. Pink plate? Oops, they wanted the green one. Green plate? Guess tonight was a pink night. And dare the parents resist the demand to switch plates (forks, placemats, cups)—that demand meaning the need to delay everyone’s meal and wash another dish? Let’s just say it’s not pretty.

Notice such a pattern often enough, and you start to devise a countervailing strategy: Let the child pick their own plate before dinner even starts! That way, they can never complain that you, the parents, picked the wrong one.

I think this is more than an idiosyncratic dinnertime pattern. It’s an example of a common strategy that can help make many corners of life more negotiable—at home, but also in the workplace.

At home or at work, we often interact with people who care passionately about a particular issue. We know their pet issue, and we know they’ll throw a stink if it doesn’t go their way. At home, it’s the plate, but at work, it might be the wording of a particular section in the report or the font size of their name on the cover.

Whether it’s the plate color or the font size, we can’t understand for the life of us why they care. Is a pink plate going to poison the food? Is a 14-point font going to produce the long-awaited promotion? Facing this situation, we can choose to react in at least four ways.

  1. Ask them why they care
  2. Wait and see whether the issue comes up, then negotiate over it
  3. Wait and see whether the issue comes up, then let them take charge
  4. Proactively let them choose beforehand

At home or at work, most of us have probably learned to avoid the first strategy, which tends to elicit about the same reaction from small children and coworkers. And most of us probably avoid the second, given the incredible unimportance of the issue. I’d venture that most of us choose the third, letting them choose their own plate or font if and when it becomes an issue—whatever.

I’d like to suggest that option #4 can make life more negotiable. By proactively giving somebody a choice about something they care passionately about, and doing so before the issue ever comes up for discussion, you’ve signaled that you understand and care about their input, and you’ve already helped them achieve their most important objective. In a word, you’ve now earned their trust and support for the duration of the upcoming discussion.

Sounds silly, and to you, it is. But to them, it’s not. For whatever unknown and unknowable reason, they really cared about the plate color or font size, and you gave them just what they wanted. Effectively, you let them make a choice in order to avoid a future negotiation or conflict. In so doing, you’ve not only saved the time associated with the negotiation or conflict; you’ve also created an ally, albeit one with very strange preferences.

The bottom line? If you know somebody cares a great deal about a relatively unimportant issue, it can often help to let them decide that issue before it ever comes up. Have you ever used this strategy at home or at work?


Your nontransitive preferences are driving me crazy!

One of the great frustrations of daily life, not to mention neoclassical economics, is nontransitive preferences. Huh? In English, transitive preferences would mean that if B is better than A, and if C is better than B, then C must be better than A. But in daily life—when dealing with children or coworkers, for example—we often encounter people with nontransitive preferences: those who make these comparisons, then defiantly defend A.

In these frustrating situations, we have a choice. We can either become neoclassical economists and assume that these people and their silly preferences don’t exist. Poof! There go our kids. Or we can acknowledge their existence and figure out how to deal with them. Although the former may be better for economic analysis, I believe the latter will make life more negotiable.

Parents, how often have you had a conversation like this? “Billy, do you want to go to the pool or the park?” “The pool!” “Ok, or we could go to the beach?” “Yeah, the beach!” Then, halfway to the beach, “Can we go the park?”

Non-transitive preferences.

At work, how often have you heard something like this? “Our widget project is much more promising than our lepton project. But our quark project is much more promising than our widget project.” Then, in a memo two weeks later, we’re going with the lepton project!

Non-transitive preferences.

Does this mean that people are irrational? From my perspective, that’s not a very helpful question. More helpful is to ask why it happens, which also suggests what you can do. Here are five common reasons for non-transitivity, along with some suggestions about how to respond:

  1. They are confused: Sometimes their non-transitive preferences simply reflect their confusion. Perhaps they didn’t understand which playground you meant, or got lost somewhere else on the logic train. In this case, it might help to review all of the options before deciding (or deciding again) and/or ask them to make one decision between all three options.
  2. They are trying to confuse you: Sometimes, they understand their own preferences perfectly well but think they can lose you along the logic train. Perhaps they were trying to pacify you in the meeting but thought you’d forget their statements by the time the memo came out. In this case, you may want to document everything carefully as the conversation unfolds.
  3. You are confused: If we’re accusing others of confusion or malevolence, it’s only fair to admit that we can sometimes get confused too. Maybe Billy wanted to go to the park all along, but we were distracted by an interesting blog post on non-transitive preferences when he originally expressed that preference. In this case, you may want to repeat the process.
  4. They are conflicted or their preferences are changing: Non-transitive preferences don’t have to reflect confusion or malevolence; they could also reflect shifting preferences. Maybe the quark project was our priority during the meeting, but then new information on the market for leptons came to light. In this case, all you can do is roll with the punches.
  5. The options are incomparable: Similarly, sometimes the options are apples and oranges (and lemons). They are incomparable, so any comparisons between them are inherently unstable. Maybe going to the park is such a different experience than going to the beach that Billy’s opinion is bound to change depending on what he’s thinking at the moment. In that case, you and Billy should probably consider the independent merits of each option rather than comparing them to each other.

Non-transitive preferences can be infuriating—to parents, in organizations, and for economists. But, by acknowledging their existence and developing a plan to deal with them, we can make life at least a little more negotiable—if not a little more neoclassical.