When the problem is not knowing the problem

We’ve all worked with someone and felt like nothing was working. No reply to emails, no answer to questions, no consideration of suggestions. What did you do? If you did something, it was probably to highlight the problem and discuss a prospective solution. And kudos to you, because confronting the problem can often make life more negotiable than ignoring it.

But wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to make life even more negotiable? Well, luckily there is: by discussing the problem and not just highlighting it. It’s a subtle point, but note that the approach I mentioned involved highlighting the problem; the discussion only started when we came to the solution. And that’s exactly how most of us deal with irritating colleagues, if we deal with them at all—by highlighting the problem, which we assume to be the real problem, then immediately discussing a way to solve it.

“You take forever to respond to my emails! You never respond to my questions! Have you ever heard my suggestions? Now what do you think we should do about it?”

The issue is that the problem gets noted (by you) but never discussed. And if the problem never gets discussed, it’s possible you got it wrong. And if you got the problem wrong, well, then the solution will probably be wrong too.

An example may help: Early in the morning, you often write important, time-sensitive emails to your colleague in another office. Your colleague, that slothful waste of space, never seems to reply until late in the day, well after the reply would’ve done you any good.

The standard approach: “You take forever to respond to my emails! Can you start responding within four hours?” To which your colleague, reluctant to fuel the conflict further, may well agree.

The issue: You assumed the issue was sloth, when in fact it was your coworker’s flexible schedule. She comes in at 11 and stays till 8. Having noted rather than discussed the problem, her schedule could come up but probably won’t. Instead, when she arrives at 11, she’ll probably race to reply to the emails you sent her at 7:30, fearful of the four-hour deadline. Thus racing, the quality of her information will probably suffer, as will the quality of whatever you intend to do with it.

A better approach: “I’ve noticed that I send several important emails about 7:30 am each day, and you reply about 4:30 pm. Can we talk about why?”

By posing that question rather than pointing at the obvious problem, you’ve suddenly made it much more likely to hear about the flex-work. “Oh, it’s because of my flexible schedule!” she might say. At which point, the two of you could work out a much more creative solution. Like you holding off on your emails until 11 am, then expecting a reply within the hour.

Here’s the bottom line: We all think negotiations are about finding the right solution. Negotiations are really about getting the problem right. If you do that, a workable solution will often appear out of nowhere—and it probably won’t be the solution you devised in the first place. If you don’t do that, well, then your initial solution will probably get implemented, which will rarely be optimal for anyone.

I leave you with a quote from no lesser of a mind than Einstein: “The formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”

Life’s negotiable: Research-based strategies for solving life’s problems

Negotiable (Merriam-Webster): 

Capable of being traversed, dealt with, or accomplished

Open to discussion or dispute

I’ll be the first to admit it: Life doesn’t always seem negotiable.

On a given day, children refuse to eat, coworkers refuse to cooperate, and the cable company refuses to remove that annoying charge.

But let me also insist that life is negotiable. I gave the blog that name for a reason. To see what it is, let’s refer back to the definition:

Capable of being traversed, dealt with, or accomplished: Each of us is capable of traversing life, dealing with its problems, and accomplishing our goal

Open to discussion or dispute: It’s much easier to traverse life if we learn to leave its problems open to discussion or dispute

I can confidently claim that life’s negotiable because I spend my own life researching and teaching negotiation, among other topics, at Johns Hopkins University.

The purpose of this blog is to help you negotiate life by exploring negotiation strategies supported by many decades of research, a very small portion of which was done by my colleagues and myself. Each dose of this blog will discuss a common life problem, momentous or momentary. From career changes to diaper changes, each will present a real problem that real people face, describing a single, research-based negotiation strategy that I consider particularly helpful for solving it.

So here’s what you can specifically expect from each of the posts to come:

  • A discussion of a real problem that you have faced, are facing, or probably will face—coupled with a personal anecdote if I have one
  • A plain-English description of a research-based negotiation strategy that is particularly relevant for solving it
  • A discussion of other problems that this strategy might solve and/or other strategies that you could easily combine with it

What’s the overall goal? To provide you with more reliable guidance than you could get from an armchair negotiator, many of whose advice (I must say) overtly conflicts with research. But also to provide you with more accessible guidance than you could get by wading through an academic article. In short, I am to translate research into real life.

Am I suggesting that you can neatly solve each of life’s problems with a single negotiation strategy? No, that would be silly. But I am suggesting that particular problems are particularly amenable to particular strategies, and that by regularly learning the strategies on this blog, you can develop a negotiation toolbox that helps to solve many of life’s problems.

I look forward to helping make life negotiable. Let me conclude with a question: Which of life’s problems would you like to read about in future posts?