Making negotiations fun: Five lessons from the outliers who actually like them

Ask a person their favorite activities, and they’re not likely to say “negotiation.” Most of us dislike negotiation, and some utterly despise it.

But does it really have to be that way? Isn’t it at least conceivable to enjoy negotiation?

In my role as negotiation professor, I’ve had the pleasure of observing at least a few students who seem to genuinely enjoy negotiating, in the classroom and beyond. In hopes of helping the rest of us make our negotiation-filled lives more fun and negotiable at the same time, let me recount a few of their common characteristics.

People who enjoy negotiation tend to:

  1. Understand the worst they can do is the same. Many of us dread negotiation because we fear a phantom calamitous outcome. We imagine ourselves getting a salary reduction or a higher price on the car. People who enjoy negotiation know that’s not likely to happen. In the face of a respectful and reasonable request for something that genuinely matters, some counterparts will say no but few will retract their offers. And assuming your request is in fact respectful and reasonable, few will fault you for trying—some may even respect you that much more. People who enjoy negotiation know that the worst possible downside is often the status quo.
  2. Understand the other side needs them too. Many of us dread negotiation because we assume we’re the only one who needs something. But if we’re in a negotiation rather than a command-and-control relationship, we’re not! The car dealer needs our purchase and trade-in. The employer doesn’t want to interview additional candidates after choosing you. Even the cable company needs our business, sort of. Those who enjoy negotiation know that dependence runs both ways.
  3. Treat the negotiation more like a puzzle than a problem. Many of us dread negotiation because we hate dealing with interpersonal problems, and negotiations seem like yet more of those. People who enjoy negotiations don’t see them that way at all. They see negotiations as puzzles to be solved by two smart and motivated people. Sure, they recognize that those two people may not be entirely aligned, but they don’t confuse partial misalignment with total opposition.
  4. Think beyond money. Many people hate negotiation because they fixate on money—and specifically on the risk of losing it, e.g., by paying too much for that car. As suggested in my book, The Bartering Mindset, those who enjoy negotiation know that money is typically one of several issues to be negotiated—and often the least negotiable. So they don’t shy away from the ever-important monetary issues, but they also don’t hesitate to consider the many non-monetary issues that are often substantially more malleable. With the car dealer, for example, they’re talking not just about price, but financing, floor mats, servicing, the value of their trade in, etc., etc., etc.
  5. Don’t knock themselves for trying. Many of us hate negotiation because we’re mortified at the prospect of failure. We can’t stomach the prospect of asking for something, getting denied, and walking sheepishly out the door. The best negotiators know they won’t always succeed—and they don’t expect to. If they try their best to no avail, they learn from whatever might have happened and congratulate themselves for trying, knowing they won’t have to wake up at 4 am questioning the salary they “could have had” if they’d asked. And sometimes they even high-five themselves vigorously for the failure, knowing as they do that “no” was actually the right answer in light of the better deal they just got elsewhere.

So consistent are these assumptions that I can usually identify the people who verbalize them as the outliers who enjoy negotiation. Here’s hoping the rest of us can learn a few lessons from the outliers that make negotiations—if not fun—at least negotiable.

Five reputations no negotiator wants

Many of our most important negotiations happen at work. We negotiate job offers, reconcile competing strategies, allocate limited funds. So it would really behoove us to understand the drivers of our success in such situations—the factors that will determine whether we walk away happy or sad.

If I asked you to name just one such factor, what would you say?

Chances are, you’d name a negotiation strategy. Aggressively insist on your demands! Persuasively plead your case! Creatively seek a solution! Or some other behavior to display in the negotiation itself.

While none of these answers is inherently wrong, I’d suggest that your success in a critical organizational negotiation is often determined long before the negotiation itself—in the many less-critical negotiations and non-negotiation situations that crystallize your reputation. Critical negotiations become substantially more negotiable, in other words, when you’ve developed the right reputation beforehand.

It’s easier to see what the right reputation is if you first consider the opposite—the type of reputation you really don’t want to bring into a critical organizational negotiation. At that point, you really don’t want to be known as the:

  1. Constant negotiator: We all know someone who negotiates every flipping, last thing. Why do I only get 10 pencils? I need at least 12! Do we really have to go Applebee’s? I’m really hankering for the Olive Garden. Constant negotiator is not the type of reputation you want to carry into your critical organizational negotiations, as everyone will think this important negotiations is just another in your never-ending string of demands.
  2. Selfish negotiator: We all know someone who, though they don’t necessarily negotiate everything, they approach every negotiation (and non-negotiation) with exactly one objective: themself. Would it cost three jobs to guarantee my 12-pencil minimum at all times? No matter, as long as I get my pencils. You obviously don’t want to develop this reputation either, as everyone will come into the critical negotiation ready for battle.
  3. Pushover negotiator: Conversely, kind of, we all know someone who never ever sticks up for themself. Want to reduce my pencil allocation by two pencils a month, ultimately leaving me with pens alone? No matter, I’ll just buy some pencils myself. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as everyone will approach the critical negotiation with the demeanor of Jaws in the presence of a bleeding beluga.
  4. Reactive negotiator: We all know someone who, despite the “manager” in their title, sits around and lets the world conquer them. They seem utterly incapable of steering the course of events, and they often respond bitterly when the world steers them. Oftentimes, they just fade into the background. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as someone else in the critical negotiation will steer the negotiation in their own direction before you have the chance to, well, react.
  5. Incoherent negotiator: We all know someone who can never seem to collect their thoughts. Their statements are jumbled, and their requests tend toward the internally inconsistent. Thought 1: We should all get more pencils! Thought 2: Management should really cut costs! Developing such a reputation may well keep the other party on their toes. But you’re unlikely to get what you want from a critical organizational negotiation, for the simple reason that neither you nor they has a clue what that is.

So if you shouldn’t cultivate any of these reputations before a critical negotiation, what type of reputation should you to develop? A reputation as someone who confidently negotiates when they have to, but only when they have to. And when they do, as someone who confidently or even insistently sticks up for their true needs but also gives in on their non-needs, particularly when the other side truly needs the opposite. And someone who doesn’t react to negotiations as they happen but leads the way, typically by initiating and coherently guiding the discussion.

Do all of that in the small situations before your critical organizational negotiation and, dollars to donuts, you’ll walk away with the critical outcome.

Negotiating by reminding: “We’re playing for the same team!”

Two people who work for the same organization should theoretically have the same goals. Some even define an organization that way—as a set of interdependent people working toward a set of common objectives. So when two people from the same organization meet in the same negotiation—a discussion about how to allocate resources, carve up a project, tackle a difficult problem—they might have differing information or perspectives, but they shouldn’t have differing ends.

Sadly, many people who work in organizations quickly realize that at least some of their colleagues—how shall I put this delicately—sure seem to. At least the occasional organizational colleague appears to bring dramatically different objectives to the same intra-organizational negotiation.

That being the case, it’s important to consider our response carefully. In particular, should we meet such colleagues with the same competitive response we’d deliver to a difficult outsider? Or does our common organizational membership call for a different approach? My experience teaching negotiators and observing such negotiations, coupled with insights from negotiation research, argue for the latter. In particular, I’ve observed that spending less time “negotiating” with difficult insiders and more time convincing or reminding them that you’re playing for the same team can make life negotiable.

Want to see so for yourself? Consider tabling your “negotiation” tactics and responding to a difficult insider by:

  1. Reminding them of the common goal: Sometimes people in organizations simply forget they’re working for the same organization. They get so hung up on their departmental or personal objectives that they forget the common source of their paychecks. If you encounter such a person, you might simply remind them that all of us here at Acme Corp., at some level, want to deliver the best widget. No guarantees this small step will move their needle—for many, it won’t—but occasionally a small nudge is all that’s needed to help people see and shed their more parochial objectives.
  2. Invoking a common enemy: If you can’t identify a common objective, you might at least happen upon a common “enemy.” Research suggests that even when people can’t rally around a common cause, they can sometimes rally around a common dislike, e.g., for a competitor their company consistently wants to best in the marketplace. This approach, while significantly less tasteful than the first, is probably better than not getting back on the same team at all.
  3. Identifying isolated points of agreement: If you can’t find a common goal or even a common enemy, well, your task is considerably harder. Still, you might be able to find an isolated point of agreement on a small issue, or at least on the process. Sure, you can’t understand why they’re focusing on the quarterly vs. the long-term implications of their budgetary recommendations, but can you perhaps identify a small budget-worthy project with both short- and long-term potential? Or at least agree that the budgeting process should be more data-driven and transparent? If Kennedy and Khrushchev could agree they didn’t want nuclear war—if Trump and Kim Jong-un could agree they wanted a photo op—I’ll bet you can. If so, and even if the agreement has little to do with the negotiation at hand, you might at least establish enough team spirit to tackle the negotiation later.

So here’s the point: The next time you negotiate with an organizational colleague with a vastly different objective, consider tabling the tendency to strong-arm them into submission. Instead, spend more time—even most of your time—reminding or convincing them that you play for the same team. Do that, and you’ll probably come up with a solution that will make the coach substantially prouder.

Anchoring indiscriminately: An ill-advised alternative to not offering at all

People commonly have one of two intuitions about whether to make the first offer in a negotiation. Many people’s intuition is simple: Don’t. Wait to hear what the other side says and try to learn from it. While appropriate in certain situations, this approach has major problems that I and others have detailed before.

But today, let’s explore the other common intuition about first offers. The more brazen among us tend to assume the opposite: Always move first. Always drop an aggressive anchor that will force the other side to play on your home turf. To that point, haven’t we all worked with someone who anchors indiscriminately on everything—who always suggests allocating themself the most staff, biggest budget, or smallest amount of work?

We’ve all worked with someone like that.

And so we should all know that this approach is just as ill-advised as the first—all but certain to make life non-negotiable. Since many people haven’t gotten the memo, though, let’s consider a few serious downsides of this strategy in the workplace. To all those who consider anchoring indiscriminately a wise tactic, consider the risks that:

  1. You’ll develop a reputation: Perhaps the biggest risk of anchoring indiscriminately is that everyone will associate your name with the tactic. When I mention the person who asks for the most staff, biggest budget, or least work, you’ll personally pop into everyone’s brain. And if the image sticks in their mind, they’ll probably start…
  2. Using the same tactic on you: If it was just you anchoring indiscriminately, the tactic might work. But there’s a whole world of savvy or at least cynical and battle-scarred negotiators who, observing you anchoring indiscriminately, might start anchoring just as indiscriminately against you in all future confrontations. And an ongoing war of indiscriminate anchors is not gonna end well. Alternatively…
  3. They’ll walk away: A deal anchored around your hopes and desires is great as long as it happens. But research suggests it may not if the recipient is offended by your offer. Instead, they’ll get mad and march away. This is not a justification for not moving first in an isolated situation, but it’s a consideration when considering whether to anchor indiscriminately, as those who detect the tactic are likely to get offended more easily and often.
  4. You’ll have to live with yourself: If you happen to work at a particularly pliable organization, you might get lucky and find others assenting to all your indiscriminate requests. But then you’ll have to live with an accumulating mass of guilt associated with a series of unnecessary requests, if not a groundswell of derision from your colleagues.
  5. You’ll lose touch with your real priorities: Less appreciated but no less important is the risk that you’ll get so fixated on anchoring indiscriminately that you’ll forget to consider your real priorities. In the process of dropping anchors wherever you can—and often it’s the quantifiable stuff like staff numbers, dollar amounts, and time commitments—you’ll forget to consider whether those issues matter most in a given situation. And since the qualitative stuff often matters more, you’ll miss the opportunity to anchor where it counts.

So if both anchoring indiscriminately and avoiding anchors entirely are problematic, what would I advise? Choosing your anchors carefully: identifying the negotiations that matter most and the issues that matter most within them, and anchoring unabashedly on those. But also identifying the less critical negotiations and less consequential issues and demonstrating the willingness to be a team player. Here’s to anchoring intelligently rather than indiscriminately!

Can we all merge later?

If you’re traumatized by traffic, the following claim may strike you as controversial if not downright sacrilegious. So let me apologize in advance for any offense. But then let me direct you to the common situation in which one of two lanes on your side of the roadway ends, necessitating a merge into the other. And finally, let me claim that waiting a bit longer to merge is a win-win driving strategy that can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Much like the drivers currently taking offense, I’m generally of the mind that merging as soon as possible is the best and most courteous thing to do. If you saw me on a road in a lane about to end, you’d quickly see me merging. And then, looking a little closer inside my window, you’d see me taking a very dim view of the guy in the huge pickup truck—and it’s always a guy in a huge pickup truck—who waits till the very last minute to merge and inevitably cuts everyone off. So rest assured that the views expressed here do not reflect some odd idiosyncratic opposition to merging—or some secret life as the guy in the pickup truck.

Instead they reflect a realization borne of a recent construction project. You see, there’s a road in my area in which the right lane gradually comes to an end, necessitating an eventual merge into the left. Until recently, this merge has been unremarkable, with courteous drivers weaving together naturally and continuing on their merry way. But then came construction on another area road that forced everybody and their brother onto this one. And then I observed the tendency of approximately 90% of drivers to do what I do—to get into the left lane as soon as humanly possible, leaving the left lane totally jammed and the right lane free of all traffic except the occasional pickup truck.

And then I got to thinking: Is this really the best outcome for all of us do-gooders on the left? Here we are, just twiddling our thumbs in frustration. And there we are, watching the pickup guy whizz by on the right, now boiling mad. Wouldn’t it be better for some of us to loosen up our do-gooding by staying in the right lane a little bit longer, thereby reducing our own wait time? And here’s the critical part: Wouldn’t that also be better for the people who were in the left lane already or are dead-set on remaining do-gooders and merging right away? With our departure, their wait time would certainly go down too. And here’s the best part of all: If enough do-gooders were to merge a bit later, wouldn’t that gleefully stymie the devious designs of the pickup guy, who planned to leave all us do-gooders in the dust? In short, isn’t it a win-win (and possibly a win-win-win) for some of us to merge later?

Turns out, my realization is reasonable in the eyes of the construction company, which subsequently installed a sign urging people to “use both lanes” (including the one that ends). So, much as it pains my do-gooder inclinations to say so, I suspect that a few of us merging a bit later—not dangerously late and not just the guy in the pickup truck—would produce a win-win outcome for all of us. A better use of all available roadway, just like a better use of all available resources in any negotiation, typically leads to a better outcome for everyone.

When and why to pick your battles: The hidden connection to logrolling

We’ve all heard the hackneyed organizational advice to “pick your battles.” But there are two interrelated and semi-obvious problems with this (and much other) advice: No one can clearly say when or why it applies.

Luckily, negotiation research has something indirectly but highly relevant to say about picking your battles. Since understanding what it is can make organizational life negotiable, let’s unravel these cryptic comments further.

The negotiation literature has not, to my knowledge, directly investigated picking your battles. But it has often investigated the negotiation strategy of logrolling, in which you make a concession on a relatively trivial issue if (and only if) your counterpart concedes on something of critical importance to you. You accept the silly financing plan if the dealer gives you the coveted discount. You agree to work on the task you secretly sorta like if your coworker relieves you of something onerous.

As you might suspect from the examples, the ability to effectively logroll is central to the ability to effectively negotiate in general. The logic is simple: It’s often considerably more satisfying to get everything you want on a really important issue (and nothing on something trivial) than is to get half of what you wanted on both.

Now what (in the world) does this have to do with picking your battles? Quite a lot, actually. Because what does it mean to pick your battles if not to let someone have their way on an issue that doesn’t really rock your world (but might rock theirs), in expectation that you’ll demand your way on a future issue capable of making your own world shudder? Put like that, the connection to logrolling is obvious: picking your battles is simply logrolling spread over time—conceding on the unimportant issues of the present in exchange for someone else’s concessions on the critical issues of the future.

If you buy the analogy, then you should find it easier to detect the situations when the advice really applies: when you’re dealing with an issue that’s trivial to you and critical to them, as well as a person you expect to depend on in the future. (If any of these conditions don’t apply, battle away!) Additionally, you should find it easier to motivate your own battle-picking since you can now see the benefits looming down the line. Most importantly, you should increasingly find yourself waging and winning the critical battles at work rather than belaboring and losing the continuous war.

College as negotiation

People don’t typically think of college as a negotiation. Just like other aspects of life, though, it is—actually a bunch of them. And just like other aspects of life, thinking of it that way can make life negotiable.

With the back-to-school season approaching, let’s unpack what in the world I’m talking about and why it matters. In particular, let’s consider the following five situations commonly faced by a college student and why it might help to think of them as negotiations, defined here as discussions with interdependent parties to resolve partially conflicting goals:

  1. Dividing the labor: The seemingly omnipresent group project almost automatically necessitates a discussion about who will do what. Though students might think of such discussions as purely collaborative—and hopefully they are!—they’re negotiations insofar as anyone’s preferences don’t perfectly align—and typically they don’t! Thinking of these discussions as negotiations should help you, the college student, build on points of disagreement, particularly by finding ways to ensure everyone’s at least sharing the load through tasks they find manageable or worthy of learning.
  2. Setting the rules. Anyone who’s ever live with a roommate—or several—knows that a common room or house does not guarantee a common set of assumptions about appropriate behavior. An open discussion of the obvious flashpoints before they flash, however, should help to prevent any flashing from happening—or at least provide a common reference point when it does.
  3. Negotiating work-life balance. College students are notoriously stressed by the competing demands of work and life. But as I’ve mentioned before, achieving work-life balance really involves negotiating thoughtfully with yourself. Thinking of it that way can prevent you from driving yourself crazy.
  4. Negotiating fair terms. Fellow professors, please forgive me. But you, the student, should consider yourself entitled to certain basic benefits from all of us (or at least our TAs). A non-exhaustive list might include an accurate syllabus, clear teaching, assistance with tough concepts, explanations of grading decisions, and referrals to additional resources if needed. (Please note the conspicuous absence of “the grade you want”.) If you’re not getting what you reasonably deserve, though, you might consider the situation a negotiation, though you also might also omit that term from the conversation with your professor.
  5. Requesting course assistance. The bad thing about college is that some courses seem impossible. The good thing about college is that different students consider different courses impossible. If you need some help from a particular course guru, don’t miss the opportunity to ask. By the same token, if you happen to be the course guru yourself, don’t hesitate to help. In the first case, they’ll surely make a reciprocal request later. In the second, you’ll make the request—or at least you’ll make yourself a friend or earn yourself a root beer. You might not think of such requests as negotiations. But trades like these actually lie at the heart of negotiation, as described in my negotiation book, The Bartering Mindset.

To conclude, it’s probably reasonable to think about college as a big bundle of negotiations. Since you go to college to educate yourself anyway, why not treat your college years as one big opportunity to learn negotiation too?