Negotiating the open middle seat

If you’ve flown in the past, it might seem impossible. But if you’re flying in the present (age of the virus), it’s actually becoming probable: an open middle seat. Indeed, I’m looking at one as I type this.

Find yourself and your row-mate with an open middle seat, and you find yourself with a negotiation. Since effectively hammering out the division of this and many other resources can make life negotiable, consider the following alternatives to winging it:

  1. Define your primary interest: An open middle seat is not just one but a bundle of resources, among them its tray table, under-seat storage space, floor space, seat space, seat-back pocket space, and entertainment system (if it happens to have one). Before this (and any other) negotiation, the first and most important step is defining which resources are most valuable to you. Doing so prepares you to…
  2. Make the first offer: Say it’s the under-seat storage space you covet, so as to free up your own under-seat space for your feet (or legs, or, on “Reunited Airlines,” your elbows). If so, say so! More specifically, ask your row-mate, “Do you mind if I put my bag under here?” How many times I’ve asked! And how many times I’ve received! As many negotiation researchers have noted, first offers powerfully anchor the conversation.
  3. Don’t ask for everything: Even as you request whatever you really want, however, be prepared to offer whatever you don’t. If you demand and receive the under-seat space, for example, it’s only fair to offer the seat surface itself for their bulky coat. And offering it explicitly is actually a win-win, as the unprompted concession should facilitate far friendlier skies during subsequent negotiations (e.g., over where to put the drinks and snacks).
  4. Explore a seat switch: Thanks to the nickel-and-diming instincts of the U.S. airline industry, the middle seat doesn’t always start off free. You start out sitting in it, your row-mate next to you in the aisle (for example). What to do if the window fortuitously remains free when the door closes? If you like the window, you could obviously move there, and your row-mate would probably appreciate it. But what if you like the aisle? The absence of a third passenger offers an unmistakable opportunity to reimagine the possibilities: “Looks like we have an empty seat here. Would you like the window, or do you prefer the aisle?” The worst they can say is the latter, even while appreciating your generosity.
  5. Adjust as contingencies arise: Any flight introduces innumerable contingencies. Your row-mate becomes incapable of using their laptop thanks to someone else’s severe recline. You find yourself with a towering collection of trash in the aftermath of the snacks. Or, personal story from my last flight, your headphone jack literally snaps off in your own headphone hole, and you can either use the middle seat’s hole (while sitting at the window) or be supremely bored. Perceptive negotiators, in-flight or on-ground, adjust to changing circumstances rather than slavishly sticking to outdated agreements. For example, in the case of the headphones, I simply inquired: “You mind if I plug my new Reunited Airlines headphones in over here?” It’s not rocket science, but many people don’t for fear of disrupting the status quo.

The point is incredibly simple: Open middle seats are invaluable resources that we would do well to treat as such—by negotiating. Do that, and you might actually experience some friendly skies.

Picking the right (and wrong) time to negotiate

As I’ve noted repeatedly before, one of our biggest challenges as negotiators is overcoming misguided mythology about negotiation. The way we imagine negotiations is simply not the way many real-world negotiations happen. A prominent aspect of that mythology, in turn, is the idea that negotiations happen at pre-appointed places and times—two people staring at each other across a large oaken table at the time indicated by their Outlook calendars.

Some negotiations happen that way, but many of the most important ones we face in organizations—particularly discussions of goals, proposals, and plans with key constituents—just don’t. They happen at unanticipated times and places—unexpectedly opportune moments when a fortuitous opening arises.

Since learning to identify the most opportune (and inopportune) moments for an intra-organizational negotiation can make life negotiable, let’s identify three prominent examples of each.

It might be opportune to initiate an intra-organizational negotiation when:

  • An important decision or change is imminent: In normal organizational times, decision-makers may see your attempt to disrupt the status quo as distracting or annoying. In unsettled times, on the cusp of critical decisions or changes, your proposal may help them make sense of ambiguity and forge a clearer path forward.
  • You discover you can fulfill a key need: Most of us need and want a lot of things from our organizations. But, as articulated in my book, we’re more likely to get them—indeed, more likely to get anything from any counterpart—when they need something from us too. The best negotiators are highly attuned to situations when they can unexpectedly solve someone’s problem.
  • You or the issue gets unexpected airtime: Sometimes we unexpectedly encounter an important person in the elevator. Other times, we unexpectedly hear an important issue mentioned in a meeting. Assuming a long enough elevator ride or flexible enough meeting (coupled with a pressing enough issue), the best negotiators seize the opportunity.

To this list of opportune moments, however, I would hasten to add three caveats in the form of factors that make a situation—and sometimes the same situation—inopportune for negotiation. It might be inopportune to negotiate, for example, when:

  • You’ve been asking for a lot: Don’t ask the person on the elevator or the people in the meeting for anything if you’ve recently been asking for a lot. Do that, and they’ll likely take the stairs or exclude you from the meeting the next time—not to mention ignore your current request.
  • The other party is flustered or annoyed: If they come back from a meeting about the unsettled times in a state of distress—as is common in a state of unsettlement—now’s not the time for a negotiation.
  • You don’t yet understand the situation: Simply detecting you can meet an unmet need doesn’t justify a negotiation on its own—not until you really understand the need and its context. Seemingly opportune moments can still be extremely premature.

Reflecting on the examples above, it becomes apparent how wrong our mythical image of negotiation really is. Many of the most important negotiations happen in the absence of any Outlook invites, in locations more likely to feature floor buttons than oaken tables. I sincerely hope that recognizing the happenstance, ad hoc, scattershot nature of negotiations makes your life more negotiable.

Five non-deceptive reasons that negotiators don’t tell the full truth

One of the biggest challenges any negotiator faces is getting the full truth from their counterpart—in particular, learning the real interests lurking behind their positions. Why’s my coworker really pushing that proposal? Why’s the homeowner really delaying that inspection?

Facing a less-than-fully forthcoming counterpart, most of us draw a simple conclusion: They must be concealing something. Or, taking it a step further—they must be a liar.

I’m here to tell you, however, that negotiators fail to disclose their full interests for many reasons that have nothing to do with deception. Since understanding those reasons can make life negotiable, let me outline five of the most common:

  1. They don’t understand their interests: It’s much less intriguing that than the hypothesis you’re facing an ethically-craven knave, but it’s probably more likely: Your counterpart simply doesn’t understand themself. Be it time pressure, an overabundance of issues, or a shortage of self-awareness, a plethora of factors conspire to place many negotiators at the table without a full understanding of their own interests. If so, then the best recourse is not to suspect them but to stimulate some introspection.
  2. They’re too close to the problem: Conversely, some negotiators understand their situation quite well—so well they’ve got a set of blinders glued to their faces. They’ve been in the organization so long, know the business so well, etc. that they’re just sure their position is right. Only problem is they can’t tell you why—and don’t see the need to. If so, the best recourse may be to ask a series of open-ended questions that progressively unglue their blinders.
  3. It’s too sensitive: Sometimes, negotiators hesitate to disclose their interests—or at least write them in an initial email or state them in an initial phone call—because those interests are simply too sensitive. Maybe they’re pushing that proposal because the boss has threatened them if they don’t. Maybe they’re delaying that inspection because they’re too busy grieving for the person who lived there. In these situations, the best recourse may be to win their trust over an extended period of time, then ask.
  4. Telephone game: Sometimes, the person across the table is not the person with the problem under consideration. They’re just representing the person with the problem, in which case they could’ve easily fallen victim to the telephone game. Maybe the problem owner didn’t reveal their own interests, or maybe they did and something got lost in translation. Either way, your counterpart’s reticence may amount to garden variety communication breakdown. If so, the best recourse may be to send some questions back to the problem owner or request their presence at the next meeting.
  5. High-context communication: Sometimes, the person across the table thinks they’re sharing their interests, plain as day, but you’re not hearing them. This may or may not happen in married couples, but excellent research suggests it’s quite common in cross-cultural negotiations. Whatever the setting, here’s the issue: One negotiator is using high-context communication—embedding the message in facial expressions, tone of voice, and other subtle hints—whereas the other is receiving low-context signals—looking largely to the words. If so, the best recourse may be for the low-context negotiator to play back what they’re hearing and ask the high-context negotiator to elaborate.

What’s the point? It’s really simple actually: When you encounter a negotiator who seems less-than-fully forthcoming, resist the temptation to diagnosis their behavior as deception or their demeanor as deceptive. Instead, consider that something about the situation may be prompting their seeming evasiveness, and focus your attention on discovering what it is.

“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.