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?

Using your BRAIN to negotiate with the doctor

Two of my most common refrains on negotiation are these: Much of life is a negotiation, and a negotiator’s success depends on what they do before negotiating. These two conclusions come together in a common negotiation we all face routinely: a trip to the doctor’s office. Simply put, understanding a doctor’s visit as a negotiation and preparing for it accordingly can make life negotiable.

But wait—why’s a doctor’s visit a negotiation? Because anytime we depend on others to achieve our goals, we’re negotiating. Since we surely depend on the doctor to achieve one of our most important goals—our own health—it’s a negotiation. And if a doctor’s visit is a negotiation, then you need to prepare for it for the same reason you’d prepare for any negotiation: because much of the outcome is predetermined by how well you understand the situation beforehand. But here’s the good news: the same acronym you’d use to prepare for any negotiation—BRAIN—applies to a doctor’s visit in spades. To see why, let’s consider each of the five letters in turn:

  • B=BATNA (best alternative): What’s your alternative to this particular doctor if you don’t get a satisfactory diagnosis or treatment? Seek another doctor, thereby spending more money, taking more time, and generating more incomprehensible bills in your mailbox? Unless you’re seeking to solve a serious medical issue, that doesn’t sound like a very attractive BATNA. So you’d better do what you can to achieve your objectives in this visit.
  • R=Reservation price (bottom line): What’s the least satisfactory outcome you’d accept from this doctor before seeking out another? If he or she suggests watchful waiting instead of active treatment, will you consent? If he or she is too busy to offer an adequate answer to your most important question, is that gonna work for you? Either way, you’d better ask beforehand to avoid walking out in a state of severe dissatisfaction.
  • A=Aspiration (goal): What’s the best possible outcome you could hope to obtain from this visit? Are you shooting for a particular medication, referral, or treatment plan? You need to know beforehand because the doctor may not think of it or be motivated to offer it unless you ask.
  • I=Interests (underlying motivations): What do you fundamentally need to achieve from this visit? Is it really the specific medication, referral, or treatment plan, or are you ultimately seeking to fix the aching shoulder, wobbly ankle, or elevated blood pressure? It’s important to keep your focus on the underlying problem rather than the surface-level solutions, as the doctor may well offer an even better solution. If so, you should probably listen rather than sticking slavishly to a suboptimal solution.
  • N=Negotiation counterpart (the doctor): How’s the doctor likely to answer the preceding questions? In particular, what’s their alternative to you? Probably to see the next patient. And what’s their bottom line in response to your requests? They’d probably refuse to offer you something risky, ineffective, or likely to require undue effort on your part or theirs. And what does the doctor hope to achieve in your visit? Probably to reach a quick diagnosis and make a simple recommendation that helps you our immensely. And finally, what’s the doctor’s underlying interest? For good doctors, hopefully to make you as healthy as possible. So you see, by putting these answers together, that the doctor surely wants to help but probably prefers to do so not just effectively but efficiently. And that should you immensely in framing your requests.

So visiting a doctor is not so different from buying a car or negotiating a raise. In all cases, you need something important from someone else. And in all cases, using your BRAIN beforehand is critical to achieving your objectives, be it fancy wheels, a fat salary, or a healthy you.

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.