Five reasons to love ambiguity in negotiation

One of the least-liked features of negotiations is their ambiguity. In many negotiations, we say some things, our counterpart says some things, and then it’s totally ambiguous what anyone should say or do. But I’m here to tell you that ambiguity is one of the very greatest features of negotiation; indeed, a negotiation particularly mired in ambiguity is often a negotiation going well. In a word, ambiguity makes negotiations negotiable.

If that seems paradoxical, let me outline five unambiguous reasons to love the ambiguity of negotiations in general—and to particularly appreciate our most ambiguous negotiations. Ambiguity in negotiations allows you to:

  1. Make the first offer: In most any negotiation, both negotiators face major ambiguity as to the appropriate terms: what price to offer, what raise to request, which division of labor to propose. But that’s fantastic, as it allows the negotiator with slightly more courage and preparation to make the first offer and thereby set the tenor of the conversation.
  2. Move from positions to interests: The worst negotiations feature no ambiguity at all. Instead, the parties’ positions are crystal-clear, opposed, and set in stone. What could be clearer than that—and less productive? But if you’re experiencing ambiguity instead, chances are the parties haven’t yet locked themselves into intractable positions, meaning you still have hope of moving from positions to interests.
  3. Ask a lot of questions: If the options on the table seem clear, many people typically feel foolish asking a lot of questions. If it’s your way or my way, what else does anyone need to know? A pervasive sense of ambiguity about the viable options, in contrast, provides a beautiful justification for a multitude of questions. Blame it on your slow cognition or apologize for your embarrassing need to clarify, but query away! Since open-ended questions are one of the most powerful tools for ferreting out those critical interests, chances are your queries will help immensely.
  4. Explore creative solutions: Relatedly, people who seem to face clear agreement options tend to resist muddying the waters by proposing something entirely new and possibly a bit wacky. When nobody at the bargaining table knows what constitutes a viable solution, however, there’s no yardstick for judging what’s wacky and what’s not. And wackiness in the form of creative and unanticipated solutions is often all that stands between you and an impasse. Ambiguity lets you go there.
  5. Use ratification: In non-ambiguous negotiations, it’s kinda uncomfortable to ask for some time to think it over or check with someone else. If the possibilities are so straightforward, why would anyone need to? But the presence of lingering ambiguity, even as the deal seems done, affords ample reason to contemplate, crunch the numbers, or consult the various stakeholders. In a word, ambiguity provides cover for a strategy, ratification, that can dramatically improve your leverage.

In sum, as much as we might dread it, the ambiguity of negotiations is typically our friend, and particularly ambiguous negotiations tend to be particularly productive. To those points, let me hasten to add one thing: not all ambiguity. It’s obviously unhelpful if you or your counterpart has no idea what you’re trying to get from a deal, or has ambiguous authority to decide. More generally, ambiguity that obscures the negotiators’ own interests or authority probably won’t help. Still, I hope this post helps to highlight how many of the ambiguous moments in negotiation we should really appreciate or even stimulate in hopes of keeping the possibilities open—and our chances of satisfaction intact.

Three surprising advantages of negotiating with multiple people

Many of our negotiations feature several counterparts: It’s us on one side of the table and a couple of people across it. Faced with multiple counterparts, even the experienced negotiator quakes in their boots. How can we, our lone selves, contend with multiple opponents? But a recent multiparty negotiation at the dentist’s office reminded me that these types of negotiations do not necessarily redound to our disadvantage—they sometimes afford us, the lone negotiator, some interesting, information-related advantages.

Background for the story: One of my teeth is slightly chipped. On a recent trip to the dentist, I considered inquiring about the possibility of fixing it with a filling. Let’s review the rest of the story and thereby surface some benefits of negotiating against multiple parties, in the hopes of making life negotiable.

  1. You can compare the information offered by each party. Before inquiring with the dentist about the filling, I decided to inquire with the friendly hygienist. Specifically, I asked her whether, after sinking a boatload of load of money into an expensive filling, it would stay in for more than five minutes. “On that tooth, it’s hard to keep the filling in there for long,” she said. Then, after the hygienist had left the room and dentist had entered, I re-asked the same question. “Oh, that will definitely stay in for a long time,” the dentist assured me. Same question—two very different answers. Interesting.
  2. You can take action based on the information disparities. Hearing the discrepancy between the hygienist’s and dentist’s opinions, I started to experience some uncertainty as to its source. Did the discrepancy reflect the dentist’s advanced training or…eh hem…his other interests? So I asked him about the possibility of a contingency contract in which he would guarantee the filling for a certain period of time or give me my money back. He very begrudgingly agreed, suggesting the discrepancy reflected his advanced training, sort of.
  3. You can control the information you provide to each party. At this point, the hygienist reentered the room, and the dentist overoptimistically interpreted our conversation as indicating I was ready to schedule an appointment for the filling immediately. And before I could correct his overzealousness, he had shaken my hand and left. The hygienist, in turn, walked me upfront, repeated the dentist’s message to the scheduler, and wished me well. But before the scheduler had even opened her Outlook calendar, I seized the opportunity to tell her that I was actually only interested in learning more about the procedure—specifically, its price and whether my insurance would cover it. So I asked her whether she would call me with the price, at which point I would consider and call her back (a form of ratification). The introduction of this third counterpart, the scheduler, was all that saved me from an expensive and premature agreement.

In sum, the next time you find yourself on one side of a table and multiple people on the other, don’t panic. In many ways, you, the lone negotiator, have the informational advantage. Seize it!

The sound of silence—or successful negotiation

What does a successful negotiator sound like? Maybe you never asked. But if you ask now, I know the answer. Someone loud, aggressive, and potentially angry—right?

Well, I just finished teaching an executive education course on cross-cultural negotiation, and it struck me that the most effective negotiators sounded nothing like that.

Since understanding what a successful negotiator sounds like can afford some insight into successful negotiation, thereby making life more negotiable, let me share some observations. In particular, let me tell you why the most successful negotiators sound surprisingly silent throughout the negotiation process:

  1. Before a negotiation, the successful negotiator is quiet because they are wholly immersed in the preparation process. You might hear their pages turning or their keyboard clicking, but you won’t hear them clearing their throat and cracking their knuckles.
  2. At the start of a negotiation, the successful negotiator is quiet because they are listening rather than talking—processing all the overt and implicit messages their counterpart is sending rather than overwhelming them with rhetoric.
  3. In the middle of a negotiation, when the parties are exchanging offers, a successful negotiator is certainly making offers. But they are still surprisingly silent because they are trying to read the implicit messages buried in their counterpart’s concessions. If the counterpart concedes on issue A but not on issue B, does that mean B is more important? Only a silent negotiator would know.
  4. Toward the end of a negotiation, a successful negotiator is quiet because they are being patient. They know they haven’t quite achieved their goals. They’ve put the pressure on their counterpart and made an aggressive yet mutually beneficial offer, and they have the gall to wait out their counterpart rather than fold in a crumple of weakness.
  5. At the end of a negotiation, a successful negotiator is quiet because they’re not there. They’ve stepped away to use ratification on their counterpart’s supposedly final offer, thereby amassing leverage. Or to negotiate a concurrent deal, thereby amassing power. Or to sleep on it, thereby amassing wisdom.

In honor of the recent Oscars, then, let me tell you that the best negotiators in real life sound nothing like the best negotiators in the movies—at least the talkies. The best negotiators fade into the background, silently analyzing their way to a fantastic deal.

Don’t let them sell you! Disarming the aggressive salesperson through ratification

Do you remember the last 24-hour period in which no one tried to sell you something? Can’t say that I do. From ever-cheaper utilities to ever-faster Wi-Fi, it seems that everyone is selling. And while slamming the door or ending the call is often the obvious option, uncomfortable instances remain when—thanks to the salesperson’s guile or our own curiosity about the product—we allow the selling process to proceed.

Putting up with pushy salespeople is unpleasant…but negotiable!

Today I’ll describe a simple yet effective antidote to the aggressive seller. Ironically, it’s one of their own secret weapons: a strategy called ratification.

Consider the following situation. Eating your dinner in peace, a friendly neighbor knocks on the door. At least you think it’s a friendly neighbor until you find a slick man with enough cologne to wilt your flowers outside. “Hi there, I’m Ted,” he says before you can slam the door. “Would you like to save 25% on your electricity bill RIGHT NOW?” Caught off guard and still reeling from your last electric bill, you can’t help blurting out a “Maybe.” Well, now Ted’s off to the races. He has plan upon plan, each with illustrative figures and glowing testimonials from beautiful people. He has your current electricity usage in RED, next to a large GREEN number indicating your potential savings. He has a long list of sign-ups—allegedly from your neighbors, though you can’t read their handwriting. Most importantly, he has a pen in his sweaty palm and a dotted line on his clipboard, just waiting for your signature. Oh no, and now he’s smiling at you…

Now there’s no supercomputer on earth that could’ve processed all those figures and statistics in the time that Ted allowed, and you certainly couldn’t either. So you’re not really sure what he’s offering. But the red number DOES look pretty bad, and green number DOES sound pretty good. What should you do?

WAIT. And make Ted wait. Until you understand what you’re signing, there’s no way you should agree to his plan. Does that seem obvious? Maybe so, but decades of research on compliance suggest that relatively few of us will do it. More to the point here, even if we know not to sign, it’s not particularly clear how to resist Ted’s guile. This Ted’s a wily one, and telling him you’ve got to “think about it” probably won’t cut it. He’s likely to inform you that the deal “expires today” or some such gobbleygook, at which point you may be tempted to begrudgingly take the pen. So instead of telling Ted you’ve got to think about it, tell Ted that you have to check with X. Now X could be your spouse, your roommate, your landlord—whomever: 1) might actually have to approve such a deal before you sign it, and 2) is not actually present. Now, Ted may still insist that the deal expires today. But having publicly declared yourself incapable of deciding without a non-present party, you cannot credibly sign, and he cannot credibly protest.

This is a well-documented strategy called ratification. You’ve probably been on the receiving end at a car dealer. “You’ve sold me,” the dealer says, “but I’ve gotta check with the boss in back.” The truth is, it’s a tactic. They don’t usually “check with the boss,” say students with experience in car dealers. They grab a coffee, check the Orioles’ score, or use the bathroom. If they do talk to their boss, it’s probably about the Orioles’ score. Likewise, you don’t have to check with your spouse, your roommate, or your landlord (though in the case of your spouse, you’re strongly advised to). The point is to find an escape valve that Ted’s tactics cannot easily disarm. Only then, without his cologne poisoning your bloodstream, will you have the willpower to say yes if it’s a good deal and no if it’s not. So if you’re actually interested in Ted’s offerings, by all means take his card and check with X. As to Ted’s claim that the deal is expiring today? You can rest assured that if he’s that eager to sell it, it won’t disappear tomorrow (though you may have to ask for it).

Have you ever used this strategy to disarm an aggressive salesperson? Has an aggressive salesperson used it on you?