Did you have a “good negotiation?” Fatigue, not frustration

How do you know you’ve had a good negotiation—you’ve gotten the best deal possible without obliterating the relationship? In the real world, outside the confines of a negotiation class with everyone’s agreement posted for everyone else to see, the truth is: you won’t. You’ll never really know how well you did versus however well you could’ve done. Sure, if you happened to slam-dunk it or bankrupt your company, you’ll probably have a sense. But in most negotiations, whose outcomes lie somewhere in the mushy middle, you’ll always walk away wondering.

So should we all utterly abandon the effort to assess our own negotiations post hoc? Before we go quite so far, let me suggest a simple heuristic that can still offer some clues to your success, thereby making the post-negotiation process negotiable.

The heuristic, surprisingly, is this: Fatigued, not frustrated.

What in the world could I mean? Fundamentally, a “good negotiation” entails sticking to your aspirations, pushing for your interests, and creatively attacking a seemingly intractable set of positions. That’s tiring! If you’ve really done all that, you’ll probably feel quite fatigued—and you should.

But wait, does that mean that the best negotiations are the most unpleasant ones—that we should experience our most successful deal-making as a flurry of frustration? No! Fatigue is far from a synonym for frustration—we can all walk away from social situations feeling sleepy but willing to sleep it off and send a thank-you note. Instead, frustration is probably a sign somebody obliterated the relationship.

But wait #2, why shouldn’t we walk away from our best negotiations feeling happy, wanting to high-five our counterpart and buy them a beer? Because if you feel that way, chances are you folded too quickly and easily relative to your aspirations or interests—or didn’t define them well in the first place.

But wait #3, does all fatigue = a good negotiation and all happiness = a bad negotiation? Of course not. You might feel fatigued because your neighbor’s dog was howling all night or, more germanely, because you just got schooled by a counterpart who totally outsmarted and exhausted you at the same time. And you might feel happy because your neighbor’s dog finally shut up at 10 pm or, more germanely, because you somehow found a magical counterpart who was shockingly amenable to your wildest dreams.

So I’m not suggesting a 1:1 relationship between fatigue and successful negotiation. I’m simply suggesting a heuristic than can help you play Sherlock Holmes on your own post hoc feelings and reactions. So the next time you walk away from a negotiation feeling fatigued, relish the feeling! Or at least entertain the possibility that you performed quite well. But don’t confuse frustration for fatigue and somehow elevate relationship obliteration to a virtue. And don’t assume that overwhelming feelings of joy necessarily flow from the very best deals. They don’t.

Three cheers for fatigue!

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Negotiating with neighbors by planting the seeds of trust

If you’ve ever owned a house, you know that much of your happiness inside the house is attributable to people who live outside the house: namely, your neighbors. The fate of every homeowner is at least partially in the hands of their neighbors. Good neighbors—nice people who will work with you to resolve any neighborly issues—make you never want to leave a place. Bad neighbors? They make you want to call the moving company today.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to place all of your happiness in the fickle hands of fate? If you could exert at least some control over this particular corner of your life, thereby making it more negotiable? There is: by building a trusting relationship before you ever meet your neighbor at the negotiating table.

We all tend to think that negotiations start when you sit at a long mahogany table, casting a steely glare at your wily counterpart, sitting all the way at the other side. They don’t. First of all, and as I hope you’ve gathered from my posts, most negotiations don’t involve long mahogany tables; they happen every day whenever we depend on someone else. Second, and more relevant to the current post, negotiations start long before you start “negotiating,” or at least they should. Indeed, negotiations start when you become aware of someone who will eventually become your negotiation counterpart. Consequently, the best negotiators don’t wait for chairs or mahogany tables; they start building a trusting relationship as soon as they possibly can.

What does this have to do with your neighbors? Well, every homeowner eventually has to negotiate with their neighbors. Have you? From constructing new fences, to felling old trees, to mitigating noisy teenagers, to driving a piece of construction equipment across their yard, to borrowing a tool—opportunities or even necessities to negotiate abound. Your negotiation will go a lot better if you’ve planted the seeds of trust beforehand. And, by the way, getting along with your neighbors is the right thing to do.

For the purpose of this post, though, let’s focus on the initial, instrumental goal of planting the seeds of trust, in the interest of promoting a successful negotiation. Supposing that was your primary goal, how would you do it? Here are five tips for building trust before you even start negotiating, based on a paper Jeanne Brett, Amit Nandkeolyar, and I published in Harvard Business Review:

  1. Assume they’re trustworthy from the start. Even before you meet people, you can assume the best, the worst, or somewhere in between. If you immediately assume that best, that tends to start a reciprocal cycle of trust, as I’ve said before. I’d encourage everyone to at least give that assumption a try.
  2. Take their perspective. There is a lot you can glean about a person before you know anything about them. If they’ve been living next to a bunch of renters who didn’t take care of the house you now own, wouldn’t they be interested in hearing about your intentions to overhaul the place (not that this has happened to me)? Take a guess at what’s important to them, and frame the conversation with those interests in mind.
  3. Act consistently and reliably. People trust others whose behavior they can reliably anticipate. It’s amazing how much trust you can build by consistently taking in the trash can and never letting your lawn reach the length of the African savannah.
  4. Signal your trustworthiness. People also glean your trustworthiness from the signals you send—particularly any similarities you might choose to highlight or signs that you lead an upstanding life. So if you share a common (passionate to the point of obsessive) interest in the Baltimore Orioles, for example, make sure to mention that. If you have a respectable career, there’s no need to brag, but it wouldn’t hurt to signal your occupation as a sign of trustworthiness.
  5. Show a genuine interest. It’s amazing and sad at the same time, but the number of people who show a genuine interest in each other seems to plummet all the time. So even if you came in with the initial, instrumental goal of priming them for your major construction announcement, ditch that goal once you get to know them, and try to show a genuine interest in who they are what they’re all about.

As I suggested before making this list, it would be good to treat your neighbors well even if you never had to negotiate with them. But since you do, you might as well kill two birds with one stone.

How have you built trust with neighbors?

Dealing with the distrusted: To schmooze or not to schmooze?

At some point, most of us need to work with someone we don’t particularly trust. It’s not that we distrust them; it’s just that we have no basis for trust, along with the vague heebie-jeebies.

Dealing with a potentially distrustworthy person is difficult—but more negotiable if we at least try to schmooze, defined unscientifically but accurately as shooting the [stuff].

Now, schmoozing gets a bad name, in part because most of us associate it with the greasy-haired man who sold us our last car. Indeed, the word itself—schmoozing—sounds a little greasy. And, in the context of the car salesman, schmoozing should have a bad name: that kind of schmoozing is inauthentic, manipulative, and excessive.

But schmoozing doesn’t have to be that way—and it does serve the critical purpose of humanizing two people who wouldn’t necessarily treat each other as humans. And thus, when done in the right way, schmoozing serves the critical goal of building trust. But what is the right way? Here are five tips for schmoozing ethically and effectively with your next potentially distrustworthy counterpart:

  1. Make it authentic. In order to work and “feel right,” your schmoozing has to be consistent with your personality. So I’m not urging you to adopt the manner of the greasy-haired man; I’m advising you to find a personally-comfortable way of making a little more small-talk. So if you’re a shy person, maybe that just means asking people how they’re doing today.
  2. Make it well-intentioned. In addition, I’m not advising you to adopt the goal of the greasy-haired main: to sell you. I’m advising you to personalize people for the purpose of building at least the vestiges of a relationship where there was none.
  3. Focus on true commonalities. Also don’t adopt the greasy-haired habit of whipping out the same schmooze with everyone. “Cold day, eh?” “How about dem Sox?” “Nice tie!” Even if it is a cold day, dem Sox are winning, and his tie is stunning, these are not effective schmoozes. Effective schmoozes focus on a true point of commonality. So if your kids play soccer and you see a picture of her kids playing soccer, a good schmooze has something to do with kids and soccer.
  4. Tailor it to the medium. Our workplace interactions differ from our greasy-haired interactions in numerous ways—one is that they’re not necessarily face-to-face. This matters for schmoozing because the more “barren” the communication medium—the fewer visual, vocal, and nonverbal signals it provides—the harder it is to build trust. So pay even more attention, and devote even more time, to schmoozing when emailing or talking on the phone. It helps.
  5. Tailor it to the culture. Notwithstanding the greasy-haired man, Westerners often like to “get down to business.” Coldness, Sox, ties, soccer—we generally see these topics as distractions from the matter at-hand. They’re not, as I hope this post suggests. But they’re especially crucial in many Latin American and East Asian cultures, where the construction of a strong relationship is all but essential before anyone talks “business.”

Bottom line: We should try to separate the act of schmoozing—which can help build trust—with the image of a schmoozer. Otherwise, we may well lose by choosing not to schmooze.