“What’s the worst that can happen?” A simple question to make life negotiable

The situation’s more complicated, but I’ll first state it simply:

If I had to pick just one way that people go wrong in negotiations, it’s that they don’t negotiate. Facing a dissatisfactory situation, they just live with it. And if I had to pick just one reason that people live with it, it’s that they don’t ask a simple but immensely powerful question of themselves: “What’s the worst that can happen?” By asking that one simple question routinely, I think you’ll find your life becoming more negotiable.

Now the more complicated version: When we encounter crummy situations, we can’t always negotiate our way out of them. In particular, we’re sometimes stuck with a situation no one else can control—a difficult past, a chronic disease, weeks of icy rain in Maryland. But other times, we’re stuck with a situation another person could resolve: A crummy schedule the boss could resolve with flexible hours, a ridiculous price the dealer could resolve with a discount, a relative’s annoying habit they could resolve by just stopping it (!).

In the former situations, negotiation’s not going to get us far (though this post might help). But in the latter, the question we need to—and often don’t—ask ourselves is this: “What’s the worst that can happen?” For example, will the request of our boss really lead her to fire us, will the ask of the car dealer really cause him to kick us out of the dealer, will the huddle with the relative really drive her to the eggnog, never to utter our name again?

If the answer to such questions is yes, then kudos to us for living with it. The costs of negotiation are just too high.

But here’s the problem: Many of us don’t know the answer since we never ask the question. Instead, we implicitly equate the worst that can happen with the worst outcome in the world. But how accurate is that assumption? Will our boss really fire us for requesting some flexibility? Will the car dealer really forgo our business entirely? Will our family member really slosh away our entire relationship past and present in the eggnog? If we never ask the question, we never know the answer.

In sum, by never asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”, we often vastly overestimate the costs of negotiation, which makes any benefits pale in comparison—which makes us suffer through a wide array of solvable situations. It’s an exceedingly common situation, and thus an exceedingly common mistake. Consider some other common examples:

  • Fees from service providers: What’s the worst that could happen if we ask the bank or the airline or the cable company to waive the fee? They won’t, in which case we’re right back where we began. But they’re not going to send us to a different bank or different airline or different cable company unless they’re exceedingly irrational (no comment). And they might just make a “one-time exception.”
  • Creative ideas in meetings: What’s the worst that could happen if we raise a new and creative and slightly oddball idea in a meeting? Generally, people will ignore it and move on. But unless we’ve developed a thorough reputation for irrelevance or insanity, they won’t immediately put our career on the slow-tack. And they might just consider what we said.
  • Family preferences: What’s the worst that could happen if we suggest a different restaurant or alternative family vacation? They’ll decide against us, and then we’re stuck with the same Applebee’s or Disney getaway we were. But hey—maybe they’ll at least consider our dislike of overcooked burgers or overpriced opportunities to wait in line next time.

These are just a few of the innumerable situations where failing to ask what’s the worst that can happen leaves us with the worst that’s already happened. I’m certainly not saying that you always have the ability to ask, nor that you always should. But I’m certainly saying that when you do have the ability, you should always at least consider the worst-case.

Better meetings now: Agendas as first offers

As I and many other negotiation researchers have observed, it often makes sense to make the first offer in negotiations—more sense than most of us suppose or most of the random websites on negotiation suggest.

As I’ve argued throughout my writings on negotiation, however, the lessons of negotiation research are far from confined to formal negotiations. Instead, much of life becomes more negotiable when we construe it as a negotiation and apply the appropriate lessons. Here, let me tackle one particularly nettlesome aspect of organizational life—the meeting—suggesting that we can reasonably construe meetings as negotiations and apply the research on first offers to make them more negotiable.

If you define negotiation simply, as strategically managing situations in which you depend on others to achieve your goals, it’s easy to see why many meetings are negotiations. We go into many meetings with a purpose (if not, we might want to find a way out). And we presumably approach that purpose through a meeting because we depend on the other attendees to achieve it (if not, we might want to spend our time meeting with someone else). So at least when we go to meetings to solicit other people’s cooperation or participation, our meetings are negotiations.

Likewise, if you conceive of first offers simply, as opening gambits and not necessarily dollar amounts nor wild and aggressive demands, it’s easy to see meeting agendas as first offers. An agenda is simply the gambit that attendees use to understand the topics under discussion and plan their reactions. And that’s exactly what first offers do in negotiations—inform the other side what’s being negotiated and anchor their responses.

With that background in mind, could the features of effective first offers help us devise more effective agendas? I’d venture they could. Consider the following five features of an effective first offer in negotiations, all of which apply analogically to agendas:

  • Ambitious: The best first offers are not outrageous, but they’re ambitious. They map out the best-case scenario from your perspective. Likewise, the most effective agendas map out the full set of topics you’d like to cover, in the right order, and none of the topics you don’t. The meeting will go where it goes, but your agenda should anchor how much it covers and how far it strays.
  • Precise: The best first offers are not round numbers but precise figures (with some important caveats). That way, the offerer looks smart and the offer justified. Likewise, the most effective agendas don’t list vague topics like “status update.” They list precise topics to be covered by specific people.
  • The product of careful preparation: The best first offers don’t fly off the lips of the offerer in a flurry of over-exuberance. Rather, they reflect the output of a very deliberate plan born of very careful preparation. Likewise, effective agendas are devised slowly, through a process of careful deliberation and often preliminary consultation.
  • Firm then flexible: The best first offers are not wishy-washy nor presented in the form of a range (again, with some important caveats). In particular, they’re firm during the offering and flexible later, as the need for concessions or conversations about other issues becomes apparent. Likewise, the most effective agendas are very specific as to the intended topics, but their creators harbor no illusions that the meeting will go exactly as listed, nor do they want to. Rather, they appreciate and anticipate the importance of flexibility and improvisation as the discussion evolves.
  • Offered first: As implied by the name, first offers come before anyone else’s offer (though not necessarily “first thing,” as people sometimes suppose). That’s why they anchor the discussion that follows. Likewise, the most effective agendas aren’t whipped up and sent out in the minutes before the meeting. They’re distributed far enough in advance to preclude the possibility that anyone co-opts the discussion or proposes a counterproductive agenda instead.

Meetings are undoubtedly among the hardest features of organizational life to negotiate. So no guarantees that treating meetings as negotiations and agendas as first offers will suddenly make them negotiable. But I hope that conceiving of meetings as negotiations and agendas as first offers starts to anchor your meetings around productive conversations rather than unproductive status updates.

An underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations

I have previously argued that treating the important issues in life as negotiations rather than rules can make life negotiable. But of course, if you do that, the person on the other end and will have to decide whether to accept your attempt at negotiation or refer back to the rules. And herein lies, in my experience, a vastly underappreciated reason to avoid being a jerk in organizations: Jerks are likely to see their negotiation attempts rejected in favor of the rulebook, making life distinctly non-negotiable.

Now, no one reading this post is probably “a jerk.” But since we all have to work hard to suppress our moderately-quasi-jerk-like impulses at times (or at least deal with others who seem to be working distinctly less hard), it’s worth anyone’s time to consider this underappreciated cost of jerkiness.

Allow me to explain.

When people interact in organizations, they obviously make a variety of judgments about each other. One of the most important judgments, however, is simple and dichotomous: jerk or non-jerk? And at a later point in time, when the person deemed a jerk or non-jerk comes back to the person who did the deeming—the perceiver—to try and negotiate around the rules—an exception to the approval process, a benefit not conferred to others, a faster-than-normal turnaround time—chances are the perceiver will revert back to their initial judgment. Jerk or non-jerk?

If the former, then the requester has a problem. But it’s not the problem you might think—it’s not that the perceiver will negotiate vociferously against them. It’s that the perceiver won’t even entertain the idea of a negotiation. They’ll refer back to the rules—the approval process as described in the handbook, the benefits as listed in the offer letter, the turnaround time listed on the intranet.

But what if the same request comes from a person previously deemed a non-jerk? No guarantees on the easiness or success of the ensuing negotiation for the requester, but the point is that they’re more likely to get one. The perceiver may at least consider the possibility of bending the approval process, extending an extra benefit in the interest of non-jerk retention, lighting some fires to get the critical document turned around early.

And herein lies a vastly underappreciated reason to avoid even moderately-quasi-jerk-like impulses in organizations. Only by doing so can one preserve even the possibility of solving problems through negotiations rather than rules—the former of which can make life negotiable, the latter of which won’t. It’s a simple point but one worth considering in the most trying workplace moments, or at least when the jerks seem to be outpacing the non-jerks. In the end, they’ll probably run into the rulebook.

In defense of the quid pro quo

There have been better historical moments to advocate for the quid pro quo. And I’m certainly not supporting its usage in the circumstances being considered by Congress (see below). But the recent, public demise of the quid pro quo is all the more reason it deserves a public defender. Since seeing and approaching negotiations through the lens of a quid pro quo can make life negotiable, let me try my hand.

The essence of the argument is this: Understood appropriately, as giving something in exchange for getting something, the quid pro quo is a far better way of approaching negotiations than the way we usually do. Consider three of the quid pro quo’s finest features:

  1. Balance: Implicit in the quid pro quo is the idea that both parties to a negotiation must benefit, ideally in equal measure. That’s exactly what we spend most of a negotiation class teaching the students to appreciate, as opposed to nearly everyone else’s assumption that the goal of a negotiation is to trounce the other side royally. And once the students appreciate that one simple fact, they suddenly find negotiation substantially more fruitful and substantially less hostile.
  2. Difference in kind: The literal meaning of quid pro quo is “something for something.” The beauty of the double somethings is that they allow for the two sides’ benefits to differ in kind. In other words, quid pro quo’s inherently allow for tradeoffs in which each party gets something different from a deal—ideally, whatever they want the most. This is yet another foundational lesson we seek to impart to aspiring negotiators, as opposed to nearly everyone else’s assumption that the goal of a negotiation is to focus on just one issue—typically money. Understood as the opportunity for mutually-beneficial tradeoffs across multiple issues, negotiations suddenly start spitting out many intriguing and unexpected possibilities. (More on this in my book, The Bartering Mindset, if you’re in the mood for a quid pro quo).
  3. Separation in time: As we’ve all learned from our TVs or streaming devices of late, the two parts of a quid pro quo do not necessarily happen at the same time. When that becomes possible—when negotiators entertain solutions in which each delivers when they’re ready or best equipped as opposed to right now—the range of potential agreements expands exponentially. The parties can agree, for example, to pay up when one side has the money, to update an agreement in response to a future event, or to reciprocate at a specific and crucial moment in the future. Those possibilities pretty obviously expand the solution set.

These are just a few of the quid pro quo’s finest features. Appreciate and implement them, and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll negotiate far better. But if quid pro quos are so fantastic, why have they suffered such a precipitous public demise? Let me play the part of Switzerland on the specifics but simply observe that the debate has revolved around the way the quid pro quo was used. In particular, some have argued that the specific quid pro quo in question:

  1. Was unethical or illegal: Some would claim that one or more of the somethings in question violate widely shared societal norms, ethical principles, or laws.
  2. Involved a power imbalance: Some would claim that the quid pro quo in question didn’t meet the balance criterion above because one of the parties was vastly more powerful than the other, crowding out the other’s ability to reject an imbalanced deal (and possibly any deal at all).
  3. Created unacceptable collateral damage: Some would claim that the potentially win-win quid pro quo at the bargaining table created an unacceptable win-lose for parties away from the table—parties like ambassadors and citizens of small Eastern European (or large North American) nations.

So here’s the key point: The problem with a quid pro quo is not the quid pro quo per se. The quid pro quo, in veritas, is actually a commendable negotiation philosophy, de facto. The problem with the quid pro quo, as with most philosophies in life, is when it’s applied in the wrong circumstances. Ergo, say what you will about recent public events, but please don’t knock the quid pro quo.

Setting your sights in a negotiation: The stars or the floor?

In any given negotiation, a negotiator must at least implicitly answer two questions.

The first comes at the beginning: What’s my goal?

The second arises near the end: Am I satisfied?

Answering each question requires a metric—a standard of comparison. But I’m here to tell you that many negotiators adopt the wrong metrics—indeed, precisely the opposite of the metrics they should. Since adopting the right metrics and answering the questions appropriately can make life negotiable, let me explain what I mean, with thanks to the research that has examined these issues.

  1. Question 1: “What’s my goal?” In debriefing in-class negotiations, I often ask my students what their goal was. The resounding answer is clear: I set out to do better than my bottom line. For example, I sought pay less than the maximum I could afford, or earn more than the minimum I could stomach. Negotiators who offer such answers—and it’s far from just students—are essentially saying that they shot for the floor. While reasonable, the serious and semi-obvious problem is that doing so almost inevitably lands them just above the floor. Floor-shooting negotiators actually pay pretty much their maximum or earn pretty much their minimum. Research is unequivocal: Negotiators who shoot for the stars instead of the floor perform far better. That is, negotiators who set an ambitious and optimistic target far-removed from their bottom line, knowing that reality will probably make them back away from it, almost inevitably achieve better outcomes—primarily because they try harder but also because they sometimes motivate their counterparts to do so.
  2. Question 2: “Am I satisfied?” When considering whether they’re satisfied with an emerging or sealed deal, negotiators go back to their goal (i.e., the floor) and evaluate the outcome accordingly—right? Well, some do, but many surprisingly don’t: The grass being greener, many negotiators late in a negotiation or shortly thereafter suddenly set sight on a star and get remorseful that their rockets didn’t carry them there. What if I could’ve gotten the product for $X (low number) or negotiated a salary of $Y (high number). Unfortunately, having such thoughts retrospectively is counterproductive as everyone’s rocket fuel is spent—it’s just too late. Additionally, by fixating on a newfound star, negotiators stand to make themselves abjectly unhappy, or even to reject emerging deals they shouldn’t. Instead of retrospectively wishing upon a star, negotiators are advised to retrospectively evaluate against the floor. That is, when reflecting on an outcome as opposed to bringing it about, it’s time for negotiators to consider whether a deal clears their bottom line, and thus whether they should probably accept it. By doing so, they’ll probably walk away happier and resist the gnawing temptation to reject good deals in a flurry of frustration.

In sum, many negotiators shoot for the floor at the outset and evaluate against the stars at the end. But that’s exactly the opposite of what a productive and healthy negotiator should probably do, which is to shoot for the stars at the outset (particularly by setting their sights on an aggressive goal), then evaluate against the floor at the end (particularly by comparing a deal against their bottom line). Do that, and I think you’ll find yourself approaching the stars without ever losing sight of the earth.

Meetings devouring your life? Contingency contracts to the rescue

It’s a common organizational problem—probably one of the MOST common: the proliferation of long meetings and inability to get anything else done. Here as in other areas, however, negotiation research can help. Indeed, I suspect a negotiation concept called contingency contracts might actually make many meetings—and thus much of organizational life—more negotiable.

There are really two interrelated problems with meetings: their number and their length. Let’s deal with the second, and specifically with the fact that it seems like many meetings should really last about half as long. The problem, of course, is convincing our colleagues: WE know our meetings don’t need to last that long, but the people around us are just as sure they do. For example, we’re certain a discussion of the company’s new widget strategy requires no more than 30 minutes, but the widget strategizer thinks we’ll certainly need an hour.

How do many people respond? By scheduling an hour-long meeting in the interest of avoiding unnecessary conflict and wishing on their lucky stars that it takes less. But of course, it never does.

So consider an alternate strategy: What if you said to the widget strategizer, “Widget strategizer, you think we need an hour, and I suspect we need a half-hour. I don’t know which one of us is right, but what if we scheduled a half-hour right now and then regrouped for an additional 30 minutes later if necessary?”

And then, what about scheduling the initial meeting such that you and—even better—the widget strategizer have a hard stop after a half-hour?

Assuming your initial estimate was accurate, I think you’ll miraculously see the widget strategy requiring no more than 30 minutes of discussion.

What does this example have to do with negotiation? The basic situation is all too common in negotiations: Two negotiators are deadlocked on their differing expectations of the future. A wholesaler thinks a holiday sweater is going to sell like hotcakes—a retailer’s not so sure. A used car dealer is sure the aging transmission is just fine—the buyer’s dubious.

When negotiators get stuck on differing expectations of the future, they usually fight and quite often impasse. But negotiation research and theory urges them to sign what’s called a contingency contract—a bet about the future—instead. They agree that if the retailer doesn’t sell 15,000 sweaters by December 31st or the transmission dies within a year, for example, the wholesaler or car dealer pay a rebate. If the sweaters sell like hotcakes or the transmission runs just fine, the retailer or car buyer pay a surcharge. The nice thing about such agreements is that, assuming no one’s bluffing, everyone thinks they’re right at the outset. They’re not, and the winner will eventually shine through, but their universal confidence makes a deal possible now.

Although your meeting proposal doesn’t involve rebates or surcharges—it’s more about time than money—time IS money in organizations, and the structure of the deal is quite similar. As in negotiations, contingencies contracts can make our organizational meetings more negotiable.

Of course, contingencies contracts aren’t a cure-all. In negotiations, for example, you wouldn’t want to reach such an agreement with a used car dealer who will move his entire operation to an undisclosed location after selling you a clunker. And in an organizational setting, you wouldn’t want to make such an arrangement with someone who has the supervisory right to tell you how long to sit in a room, or someone who knows a great deal more than you do about widget strategizing.

Still, bets about the future are not always seedy arrangements confined to the Las Vegas Strip. Sometimes, they can make your negotiations and meetings more negotiable. Give it a try—I bet you’ll agree!

What should we expect from a negotiation?

What type of outcomes should we expect from a negotiation? Since decades of research suggest our answer dictates both the behaviors we’ll display and the deals we’ll reach, it’s critical to answer carefully. In particular, I’d argue that calibrating our expectations appropriately is one of the most important waystations on the road to more negotiable negotiations.

To call the right type of expectations for negotiation into relief, let’s first consider three common but inappropriate expectations negotiators bring to the bargaining table. It’s typically inappropriate to go into negotiations expecting to get:

  1. Everything in the entire world. The most aggressive among us (and apparently most members of Congress) go into negotiations assuming it’s appropriate to expect everything in the entire world. That is, they assume they should get literally everything they want on all issues—or at least they talk that way. That’s not only inappropriate—it’s silly. As we all learned in kindergarten if not before, we can’t have our way on everything all the time. Assuming we can in a negotiation is sure to produce an impasse or worse.
  2. Nothing in the world. Conversely, the meekest negotiators go into negotiations assuming they won’t get and don’t actually deserve anything at all. Rather, they somehow assume their dominant counterparts’ most unreasonable whims and aggressions—the car dealer’s outrageous sticker price, the bank’s ridiculous fees, the cable company’s unbelievable markups—must be justifiable somehow. Beyond the reality that expecting nothing is going to get us just that much, this expectation is inappropriate because it makes inappropriate expectation #1 appropriate for your counterpart. And if you’re actually negotiating with that counterpart—if they need your cooperation just as you need theirs—it’s not.
  3. Half of everything we each request. If expecting everything and nothing are equally inappropriate, doesn’t it follow that expecting half of what we each request is wise? No, for the simple reason that we and our counterparts tend to value the issues differently. There are some things we absolutely need from a deal—all-wheel-drive to handle those icy roads, a job that allows for some virtual work—and there are some things we don’t. And of course, the same is true for our counterparts. If we simply take the average between our random demands and theirs, we’ll end up with more than we need on some issues and less than we need on others—as will they. It’s woefully inefficient for everyone. And that’s the problem with an overly simplistic view of compromise in general: it leaves everyone unhappy.

So what should we actually expect from a negotiation? Everything we really need. We should (and in fact must) go into a negotiation expecting to achieve our true needs—lest we guarantee ourselves a set of unmet needs. But note that everything we really need is not the same as everything in the entire world, nor none of it, nor half of whatever we and they happen to ask for. It’s everything we want on our most important issues, often in exchange for everything they want on theirs (i.e., an integrative tradeoff).

In sum, many negotiators set their sights too high by expecting everything in the world, too low by expecting nothing, and too inefficiently by expecting half of whatever everyone happens to request. So the next time you go into a negotiation, make sure you’ve differentiated what you really need from what you really don’t, then committed yourself to getting all of the former—and nothing more or less.