Five negotiations in one short trip

I recently took a business trip up the east coast, and it amazed me how many negotiations I faced in a short day of transit. Since it never hurts (and often makes life negotiable) to remember how many daily situations qualify as negotiations, let me recount the five negotiations I faced in one short trip:

  1. Large cups: At my home airport, early in the morning and desperate for a cup of coffee, I ordered and paid for the largest cup possible. Only then, after collecting my money, did the employee notice they ran out of large cups. And believe it or not, she was prepared to offer me a small coffee for the large price! Despite my fatigue, you can bet I wasn’t willing to accept that. The interesting thing was what to do about it: Should I ask for the difference back in change (thereby getting less coffee and a whole lot of heavy change), or should I ask for a bottomless small cup? I did the latter and therefore got about two or three larges for the price of one.
  2. Shared space: My good luck continued through boarding, when I discovered that the flight wasn’t busy at all, meaning an empty middle seat. The fickle hand of fate struck back after buckling into the aisle seat, though, as I discovered that the passenger in the window seat was intent on claiming the middle seat and all its under-seat storage as her own. But then my luck swung back, as she got an important phone call that allowed me to covertly reclaim my own 50%.
  3. Seatbelt sign: Let me see if I can put this delicately: As a result of the 2-3 coffees in negotiation #1, I found myself with a visceral need shortly after takeoff. Unfortunately, I also found myself with one of those pilots who forgets to turn the seatbelt sign off. After about 25 minutes of blue skies and the notable lack of turbulence, I politely asked the flight attendant if I could use the bathroom anyway. “At your own risk,” she said. And believe me, I was ready to risk it.
  4. Engine trouble: The airport at which I landed was about 90 minutes from my destination, necessitating a car service through a rather isolated set of mountains. Unfortunately, halfway through said mountains, a loud clanking sound emerged from the engine. The driver dutifully got out, checked the engine, and somehow determined that he could keep driving up the mountain despite the clanking by reducing his speed to 30 mph. “I’m glad I’m going to get there (maybe),” I thought, “but now I’ll get there late (if at all).” So, I had to take the opportunity to ask my host for a schedule adjustment, which he generously granted.
  5. Wet weather: Ok, this negotiation wasn’t my own. But since it impacted me directly, I think it’s fair to include it: Several of us were visiting to give concurrent research presentations, but none had thought to check the Weather Channel before packing. Turns out we should have, as Mother Nature decided to drop a deluge. Luckily, one of my colleagues asked the hotel for an umbrella, then asked for an even larger one capable of shielding about four of us on the way to dinner.

These simple examples qualify as negotiations because, in all cases, I would’ve been patently displeased if I (or my colleague in the case of the umbrella) had failed to request someone else’s cooperation. The point is not to say that you should march around asking for everything in the world you want, nor would I expect every trip you take to necessitate quite so many negotiations. Still, let these stories offer a reminder that opportunities to negotiate are all around us—and seizing them is often the only way to avoid patent displeasure.

The five real meanings of “I can’t do that”

It’s your negotiation counterpart’s favorite phrase: “I can’t do that.” And it’s a discouraging phrase that most of us take at face-value, deeming our dreams as good as dashed. And sometimes we should, as it signifies the actual impossibility of our request.

But many times, we shouldn’t. Because, many times, it means something subtly but critically different. And here’s where we usually go wrong: We don’t recognize the many subtle meanings of the very same phrase, thereby rendering life less negotiable. So, the next time your negotiation counterpart says, “I can’t do that,” know that they might mean:

  1. I don’t want to do that. “Can’t” implies utter impossibility, total infeasibility, absolutely no way that could happen. Unfortunately, many of our negotiation counterparts actually mean “don’t.” As in, they don’t really feel like it. Since not really feeling like it is far less final than not being able, you’ve just discovered a golden opportunity to pry back the reasons for their reluctance. Are they concerned about the work required, precedents broken, approvals needed? Whatever it is, it’s possible you can address it (once you understand it).
  2. I can do that but don’t want you to know. It’s a sad fact of negotiation, and life more broadly. Sometimes people lie, or at least bluff. So saying they can’t is an exercise in flexible ethics meant to crush your dreams before they ever take flight. Luckily, a simple “Why?” is often enough to catch the underprepared bluffer red-handed and unable to answer convincingly.
  3. I won’t do that unless you do this. Sometimes, “I can’t” is less a lie than a gambit—an attempt to get something out of you before they comply. Luckily, a “What if I did X?” on your end can often turn the most non-negotiable issues negotiable.
  4. I can’t do that, but I can do this. Relatedly, negotiators sometimes say they can’t because they really can’t grant your super-specific request. But that particular can’t says nothing about their willingness to grant other, as-yet unmade requests. To see so for yourself, try an experiment the next time a wily HR negotiator tells you they “can’t” negotiate salary: Say ok, but ask whether they would give you something else you value for the given salary. Often, they will, which means they actually can negotiate salary—and have, by accepting your proposed tradeoff.
  5. I haven’t really thought about it. Sadly, some of our negotiation counterparts aren’t as astute or motivated as we are. We surface an idea, and it doesn’t sound much like the clunking of their mental machinery, so they reject us without really thinking it over. Here, your job as negotiator becomes to educate—to show them just how simple it would be for them to comply. Shown a simple way to say yes, many will, if only to be rid of you.

 The point is embarrassingly simple: “I can’t do that” is a popular phrase that you shouldn’t automatically accept at face-value. Maybe they really can’t—and so be it. But if it’s just that they “can’t,” then chances are you can find a way to eliminate the ‘t.

Small wins: Or motivating kids to eat

High-stakes negotiations often go south when the parties perceive a lack of progress. Think trade-related brinksmanship, abandoned mergers, and athletes who walk away from failed contract extensions. In such situations, the absence of progress is decisive. For the same reason, though, the presence of small wins—tiny victories offering at least a glimmer of hope—can help avert disaster.

More immediately relevant to most of us, though, are negotiations that happen closer to home: negotiations, for example, with children who refuse to eat their darn food.

Here too, the lack of progress can lead to negotiation breakdown. And here too, the presence of small wins can make life negotiable. An anecdote to illustrate:

Suppose that I had two daughters and the younger of the two—let’s call her Penelope—was taking forever to eat her food and typically leaving most of it uneaten, day after day. Not that I do or she is. What would a despairing parent do?

Well, an increasingly insistent set of demands wouldn’t work: Penelope would just dig in her heels in the face of escalating parental frustration, trust me.

But what about creating some opportunities for small wins? What if Penelope, on a nightly basis, was actually failing to eat because she saw so little chance of finishing her entire meal and thereby getting the coveted cookie for dessert? Would small doses of dessert scattered throughout the meal serve as a stronger motivator than one big dose at the end?

And such I would decide to do with Penelope, if she was real and really resisting her meals. Specifically, I’d say that for every five bites of real food, she gets one small bite of the coveted cookie. And, lo and behold, it mostly worked…eh hem, would work.

Importantly, the strategy doesn’t involve any change in the reward structure—Penelope gets a whole cookie for a whole meal, regardless. So the strategy is less about upping the ante and more about instilling confidence in Penelope—specifically, the confidence that she can in fact make it to the next bite of cookie, seeing as it only lies three bites of pasta away, rather than a whole bowl.

Just as a president’s subtly positive statement can get a trade deal back on track, a subtly subdivided cookie can help avoid disaster at the dinner table—at least until the little negotiator requests the cookie after two rather than three more bites of pasta.

 

Our own worst enemy in negotiations II: Rushing to do a deal

I recently discussed a common way we defeat ourselves in negotiations: by rejecting our own proposals before we ever present them. But there’s another, potentially more common way that most of us undermine our negotiating prowess: By letting the great press of daily to dos rush us into negotiations without adequate contemplation or preparation. Since rushing into negotiations is sure to make life non-negotiable, let me highlight five of the biggest risks you’ll run by rushing to negotiate at the world’s dizzying pace:

  1. You’ll act out of passion: We all know never to email when emotional. Well, you should never negotiate either! Negotiations fundamentally arise when people’s interests misalign. By commenting on that misalignment without adequate thought, you’ll probably drive an even larger wedge between the parties.
  2. You’ll seem desperate: The best negotiators are fully comfortable with waiting the other side out. They never lose their cool if other person takes their sweet time, requesting some progress and thereby signaling their acute desire for a deal. Rush into a negotiation, and you’ll send the unhelpful signal you need an agreement more than they do.
  3. You’ll prevent your situation from improving: Real-world negotiations are dynamic phenomena unfolding in the context of shifting alternatives. Rush into a deal, and you’ll inherently prevent yourself from watching a better alternative roll in—an even better job offer, a more attractive price from another dealer, a nicer yet cheaper house.
  4. You’ll get a suboptimal deal done: Most of us rush into negotiations because we feel an irresistible pressure to get something done. The risk is that we will. That is, we risk prioritizing action over reasoned action, settling for a deal that is worse than our alternative or worse than not acting at all.
  5. You’ll spend a long time regretting what you’ve done: If any of the above happen as a result of your haste, you’re likely to spend a great deal of time, post-negotiation, regretting said haste. And if the goal was to get a deal done and move on with the great press of daily to dos, you’ll find your rumination accomplishing just the opposite.

In sum, most of us face unending pressure from the unyielding world to get things done. What the unyielding world doesn’t realize is this unending pressure makes us unsuccessful at the bargaining table. Resist the pull of immediate deal-making, and you might get some grumbles over your pace, but you won’t get any quibbles over your results.

Are kids better negotiators?

Does older mean wiser and better? In negotiations, the answer is far from clear. Indeed, as most parents can attest, kids are often surprisingly adept negotiators, displaying a plethora of negotiation skills their elders have long since forgotten. So in hopes of making parenthood and adulthood more negotiable, let’s unpack some of the long-forgotten secrets of our precious little negotiators:

  1. Sticking to their guns: Most kids have shockingly firm aspirations. Come hell or high water, they are going to get that toy, eat that junk food, or watch that particular show. In other words, they know how to fixate on their aspirations until they win! Since fixating on firm aspirations is a foundational negotiation skill that most adults have long since suppressed for social harmony, kids often succeed where adults fall short.
  2. Asking open-ended questions: My six-year-old Petunia’s favorite word is “why,” and she often utters it immediately after a nonnegotiable decree: Clean that mess, put your PJs on, eat that cereal—now! But here’s the interesting part: I don’t always have a good reason why that mess, those PJs, or that cereal really requires immediate attention. And my Petunia’s “why” quickly surfaces as much, which she quickly exploits. Long conditioned to comply with authority, most adults quash their curiosity and suppress their open-ended questioning, thereby settling for a plethora of suboptimal situations.
  3. Bartering: There’s nothing more natural to a kid than trading their candy, swapping their chores, or bartering their Christmas presents. To their own tremendous benefit, kids innately barter. For some odd reason—probably the prominence of monetary thinking in our own adult lives—most adults have long lost touch with bartering, as well as the creativity it requires (as described in my new book). So, most adults ignore or never really perceive the possibility of many trades that would improve everyone’s lot.
  4. Understanding alternatives: Kids innately understand everyone’s alternatives, and particularly their relative strength. For example, they know that if they cause a ruckus in a restaurant, the parents’ alternative of paying for an uneaten dinner and settling for rotten leftovers is worse than their own alternative of going home for free and enjoying some Kraft. Put differently, kids inherently understand their leverage. Perhaps chastened for their overly aggressive maneuvers in the past, most adults don’t see or don’t act on the leverage they have.
  5. Developing alliances: Kids don’t see the existence of two parents as a hindrance; they see their dual counterparts as an opportunity to divide-and-conquer. They know which parent is more inclined to give them soda, less inclined to mind their sloppy homework, or more inclined to forgive their misdeeds. So they naturally build an alliance with the more conciliatory parent in a given situation, entreating that parent to convince the other. Adults, perhaps aware of the social and political risks of alliances, seem less comfortable in building them.

In my opinion as a parent and professor, these are just a few of the many ways that kids tend to outperform adults in negotiations. Of course, adults generally have a good reason for their behavior: If they acted like a kid indiscriminately and across situations, they’d be kicked out of every social circle and organization. So the message is not to become a kid completely and at all times. It’s to recognize the true negotiations we face and use our cultivated wisdom to consider whether a small dose of childhood audacity might help.

Negotiating against ourselves: Stop it!

In preparing to negotiate, most of us spend so much time worrying about our counterpart’s likely behavior that we forget to face down a far tougher counterpart: ourselves. That is, we out-negotiate ourselves even before we meet our real counterparts. We tell ourselves not to request that, not to think that, not to mention that idiosyncratic issue—so we don’t. But why? Since systematically shutting off our inner negotiator can make life negotiable, let’s unpack the issue.

In the moments before a negotiation, most of us implicitly engage in an inner conversation something like this:

  • “Should I ask for that? No, I don’t want to seem greedy.”
  • “What will she think if I raise that idea? That it’s crazy.”
  • “Should I say anything about that important but potentially weird issue? No, I don’t want to seem weird.”

Through inner conversations like these, most of us routinely convince ourselves to suppress what we really want and need before we ever ask for it. As a result, most of us just don’t get it—no critical adjustment to our work schedule, no support for our innovative but potentially wacky idea, no idiosyncratic but necessary amendment to our benefits.

But why? Why would we ever negotiate so hard against ourselves before the negotiation even starts? I’ve observed three, interrelated reasons:

  1. We’re afraid of uncomfortable interpersonal situations.
  2. We want other people to like us.
  3. We conclude that if we ask for what we really need, an uncomfortable interpersonal situation will ensue, and other people won’t like us.

But consider five, interrelated problems with these assumptions:

  1. As mentioned above and before, if we don’t ask for it, we won’t get it.
  2. Humans being human beings, we really have no idea how they’ll react until we ask.
  3. On average and over the long-term, other people will probably respect us more if we ask for what we need rather than acting as a human doormat.
  4. For some reason, we’re much more scared of a mildly unpleasant, short-term “no” than a highly unpleasant, permanently dissatisfying agreement.
  5. We don’t realize that a rejected request is often the gateway to additional creativity from both sides.

So what can we do about our dubious inner negotiator? I’d suggest a three-step response:

  1. Start calling yourself out the next time you hear the inner negotiator.
  2. Starting telling your inner negotiator to knock it off.
  3. Try a couple experiments in which you actually ask for what you really want and need. If it’s really so risky, the risks will appear quickly, and you can backtrack. But, in my experience as a negotiation researcher and teacher, you’re much more likely to find yourself finally getting what you need.

So should you just go out and ask for everything in the world? No. To be clear, I’m not telling anyone to get greedy or follow every frivolous desire under the sun. But I am telling those of us who routinely talk ourselves out of pursuing our true needs—most of us—to stop counting ourselves out before the match ever begins.

Just be quiet! Three beautiful benefits of silence in negotiation

“Negotiation” naturally connotes talking—and lots of it.

But if I’ve learned anything as a negotiation professor, it’s that the students who shine in our simulated negotiations are not the ones who do the most talking. They’re the ones who approach negotiations in comparable silence. Not an intense, brooding silence precipitating a calamitous impasse. But a pensive, respectful silence that lets their counterparts sound off.

Since a quiet approach can make even the toughest negotiations negotiable, let’s consider a few of the many benefits of keeping our collective traps shut at the bargaining table:

  1. They’ll start talking. What do most of us do when a conversation partner falls unexpectedly and utterly silent? Squirm in our chair, searching for something—anything—to say. I can easily demonstrate it in class by stopping smack-dab in the middle of a thought and looking sweetly at the students. They hate it! Someone always giggles, then someone coughs, then someone comments. The same is true in negotiation. If you can summon the courage to bite your tongue unexpectedly, chances are that your counterpart won’t bite theirs. Instead, they’ll probably launch into a monologue on their own situation, which just might reveal some interesting tidbits that you could fold into a deal.
  2. They’ll vent. Sometimes, in negotiations and especially in disputes, we find ourselves sitting across the table from someone angry. Maybe they’re peeved by our last offer, seething over a perceived slight, or simply having a bad hair day. Regardless, an angry counterpart should cue us to say nothing at all. Why? Because even the angriest angry negotiator can’t keep it up for long. They’ll vent, and eventually they’ll just run out of steam. Then you can finally return to the task of talking like adults.
  3. You’ll cool down. I hate to admit it after the last point, but sometimes we’re the angry negotiators. Sometimes we’re peeved about an offer, a slight, or uncooperative hair. In these cases, most of us like nothing more than to talk—to vent, just like our counterparts in the last point. But since our counterparts probably haven’t had the benefit of the last point, they’re unlikely to follow its guidance. Instead, they’ll let your anger feed into theirs, which may eventually trigger a radioactive explosion. So, on the off-chance you feel angry, that too is a wonderful time to summon your better angels and stay utterly silent. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, count to 10 if you’re angry and 100 if you’re very angry. Hard to do. But dig down deep for the willpower, and I think you’ll be amazed at how quick your jets cool (and how cool you can keep theirs).

So next time you hear “negotiation,” don’t hear talking, hear…

[Silence].