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.

Seven surprising reasons why negotiators lie

The students in my negotiation classes are very rarely surprised to learn that negotiators sometimes lie. Deception, they assume, is central to negotiation. “And why do negotiators lie?” I probe—a question that usually elicits eye-rolls and answers related to one of two obvious motives: greed (e.g., “to get a better deal”) or fear (e.g., “to avoid a bad deal”). And the students are partially right, in that greed and fear can explain a fair portion of negotiators’ deceptions.

But the students are wrong in one critical respect: some of the most common reasons why negotiators lie have little to do with either motive. Indeed, although research has not and may never ascertain the proportion of lies attributable to each specific cause, lies born of greed or fear are probably—and surprisingly—in the minority. So let’s consider some of the most common reasons why negotiators lie, in hopes of making ethically challenging situations negotiable:

  1. A lack of preparation: The most common source of deception in negotiation, most likely, is a distinct lack of forethought. How will I answer that tough question about my alternatives? What will I say if they ask me, point-blank, about my bottom line? We often fail to consider such questions in advance, which can tempt us to deceive when our counterpart actually asks them.
  2. A lack of creativity: Negotiators often lie because they find themselves in a tough spot and perceive a false dilemma: to lie or not to lie? In reality, even a small dose of creativity often suggests a third way. What if the recruiter asks if I have a competing offer? Could I focus on the fact that I just hit the job market and am expecting great success, instead of fixating on a yes or no?
  3. A lack of time: Negotiators often lie because they don’t take the time to consider the situation carefully, opting for the simplest and often the most self-serving option, which is the most deceptive.
  4. Confusion between competition and deception: Negotiation scholars like to distinguish between competitive and deceptive negotiation behaviors. Put simply, real negotiators often don’t. They see deception as just one more competitive arrow in the quiver, appropriately attached to the bow whenever a value-claiming opportunity arises.
  5. Subtle environmental cues: Believe it or not, negotiators may be tempted to lie by the objects, substances, or physical spaces around them. As I’ve recently summarized, psychology offers many reasons to suppose that environmental cues as innocuous as money, fake sunglasses, or ominous colors can heighten the temptation to lie.
  6. Mythical images of the negotiator: Relatedly, and as I’ve also described before, negotiators and negotiation are steeped in mythology. Our most common image of the successful negotiator—the aggressive, competitive, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, wheeler-and-dealer (no names)—is incomplete at best and wrong at worst. Incorrect images lead to inappropriate behaviors.
  7. Agreement bias: Put simply, we don’t feel very good walking away from our negotiation counterparts, even when we know we should. So when we see that one little lie is all that’s required to seal the deal and walk away smiling—when we tell the counterpart the sweet words they want to hear or omit the treacherous words they don’t—well, then we often end up lying.

In sum, my negotiation students are quite right that greed and fear underlie some of the deception we see in negotiations. But they—and probably most other people—are wrong in thinking that greed and fear are the only or even the primary sources of lies in negotiation. They’re not! People lie for manifold and diverse reasons, not that any of those reasons excuse them for doing so. Here’s hoping that knowing the reasons can help you detect deception from others and wholeheartedly avoid it yourself.

Questions instead of concessions!

There comes a moment in most negotiations when we consider making a concession. Whether it’s reducing the amount of the requested discount on our cable bill, succumbing to a coworker who keeps asking us to do something, or accepting an organizational decision that we know to be flawed—opportunities to concede abound. And in many such situations, conceding is just what we should do.

Right before we do, however, let me suggest we all follow a simple heuristic: Ask a question before you make a concession! By at least trying to ask a question before you concede, I think you’ll find life growing successively more negotiable.

Consider the following questions, all of which can help to avert a looming concession:

  1. What if we…?” This question often surfaces new ideas that avoid the need for a concession. As in, what if we agreed to a multi-year contract in exchange for the requested discount on my cable bill? New possibilities often afford detours around costly concessions.
  2. “Why?” This question often surfaces underlying interests unbeknownst to the person preparing to concede. As in, “Why are you, my coworker, asking me to do that task?” Perhaps it’s sheer laziness, but perhaps it’s something more nuanced—a desire to solicit your ideas or put your name on the document, for example, both of which might pave the way for alternate solutions.
  3. “Why not?” This question often surfaces concerns unbeknownst to the person preparing to concede. As in, “Why does organizational policy not permit me to do X? Again, perhaps it’s pure bureaucracy, but perhaps it’s something more nuanced—a concern about setting precedents or creating perceived inequity, for example, which might highlight ways to assuage the concern and avoid the concession at the same time.
  4. “How can we make this work?” This question actually enrolls the respondent in the process of finding a way to avoid your concession. As in, “I want to go with your cable company, but I can’t afford it. How can we make this work?” No guarantees, but people generally like being asked to contribute their expertise, as well as solutions of their own making.
  5. “Can I think about it?” This question buys you the necessary time to identify an alternative to conceding, which is particularly useful if you’re a slow-plodding analytical thinker like myself. As in, “Can I think about your request to do that task, dear coworker?” With the benefit of some time, you can often take a guess at the interests underlying the request, as well as some alternative ways of fulfilling them. At worst, the time should buy you some courage.

In sum, concessions are good and necessary parts of any reasonable negotiation. By the same token, most of us concede far too often—and often when we don’t need to. Accordingly, the next time you consider a concession, I’d encourage you to consider a question first.

What’s up, doc? Negotiating in healthcare

Most of us spend more on healthcare than we’d like to—more, in some cases, than our annual car or mortgage payments. That being the case, why do we spend so much time negotiating the terms of our cars and houses, and so little the terms of our healthcare?

Frankly, the negotiation professor in me just doesn’t know. From my perspective, a few simple principles from the research literature on negotiation can make our healthcare much more negotiable. Just a few illustrative examples:

  1. Setting high aspirations. Negotiation research consistently shows that those who set and stick to aggressive goals tend to achieve better outcomes. With respect to our own bodies, though, I suspect many of us are dissuaded from our goal of ideal health when a well-intentioned doctor tell us “there’s nothing wrong,” or “you’re just fine,” even when we know there is and we’re not.
  2. Reiterating our core interests. Negotiation research shows that the most effective negotiators are those who hew to a consistent script—reiterating their core problem or motivation as consistently and repeatedly as possible. This seems particularly important in healthcare, when we often have to answer the very similar questions of a seemingly endless series of people. On a visit to the ER, for example, we might have to state our symptoms to the front desk, triage nurse, attending nurse, doctor, radiologist, and so it goes. The more consistent our message to each person, even in response to slightly different turns-of-phrase, the better our chances of proper treatment.
  3. Cultivating an alternative: The best negotiators always develop an alternative possibility—another car or house they’d be willing to buy, for example. Negotiating the terms of an alternative affords them power in their primary negotiation but also, importantly, helps them learn about whatever they’re negotiating. What price should I really offer for my preferred Corvette? Some of us cultivate an alternative in healthcare by obtaining a second opinion. But I suspect that some of us don’t because we think the doctor will get offended. Assuming we’re at least as motivated to learn about our health as our cars, I’d suggest we should.
  4. Asking questions: The best negotiators ask a lot of questions. Indeed, they probably use their listening ears more than their speaking lips. Well, few contexts are quite as rife for questions as the cryptic explanation of benefits. $392.54 for an octowhatgraphy with Dr. Whosehisname? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that calling the insurance company and asking about it not only helps me mitigate confusion. It also turns up quite a few clerical errors that end up saving me money.
  5. Just asking: Asking a lot of questions is great, but even more basic is asking in the first place. The best negotiators are those who simply ask for whatever they need or want rather than expecting their counterpart to guess. But I suspect that few of us really ask for what we want in healthcare, mainly because we think we can’t—especially with a high-status doctor across the table. Lower prices, less invasive procedures, fewer unnecessary appointments: it’s all worth an ask if it matters.

In short, few aspects of our own lives are more important than our health. So why not do what we can to negotiate a healthier deal?