Many negotiations in a Mexican restaurant

It never fails to amaze me how many of our daily interactions involve negotiation. Such is the point of this blog! But a recent trip to a Mexican restaurant really drove home the point, so I thought I’d relay it in the spirit of making life negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations, all from a single Mexican dinner:

  1. With a busy host: On our way into the restaurant, I saw a sign offering free bowling coupons to patrons. But I saw no bowling coupons upon entry. So I had to negotiate with the host by asking where I could find the elusive coupons. And the harried host looked none too pleased to track them down. But eventually, we got them. And this illustrates the principle: if you want something, ask for it!
  2. With a busy waiter: In the process of scarfing down her chips, my younger daughter seemed to get a crumb stuck in her throat. It was nothing major, but she did feel uncomfortable. So I had to flag down the first waiter I saw for some water. Unfortunately, he was carrying seven margaritas at the time. And he looked none too pleased at my interruption. But he brought the water, and pronto, when I explained. This illustrates the principle: don’t back down from your most important needs.
  3. With my older daughter: My older daughter, during the chip incident, had gone to the bathroom with mommy. That left daddy to order the drink I thought she’d like – a delicious cup of apple juice. But inevitably, daddy was wrong. What she wanted was pink lemonade. Of course! So I decided to suggest a contingency contract: If you’re still thirsty after the ginormous apple juice, I’ll buy you a lemonade. (Inevitably, she wasn’t.)
  4. With both daughters: Both daughters like to put 12 shakes of salt on each chip. Unfortunately, that’s a ticket to the cardiologist. So I had to negotiate over the salt, specifically by promising to dispense a moderate amount of salt over the entire chip basket if they would promise to drop the salt shaker. This illustrates the topic of concessions: I was willing to make a small concession in service of a greater good (my daughters’ long-term health and wellbeing).
  5. With my wife: I wanted a second margarita, as I usually do. My wife didn’t want her first, as she usually doesn’t. But I forgot my wife’s preferences and started to order my second. Luckily, she interrupted my order by offering hers, thereby illustrating an integrative solution: she saved us $15, and I got entire margarita minus one sip.

Through these somewhat silly and mundane examples, I hope you see how common negotiations can be. While few of our meals involve five negotiations, most of our lives involve negotiation in some way or another. So here’s to making life negotiable!

Friday night fights: Choosing negotiation instead of persuasion

Where to go? What to do? Where to eat? At least once a weekend, most of us discuss at least one of these questions with someone else—a friend, a significant other, a spouse.

But what happens when we disagree? It’s difficult, but negotiable.

To make it negotiable, however, is to understand the difference between negotiation and persuasion. Specifically, it’s to treat differences of opinion as opportunities to negotiate, not invitations to persuade. This post will discuss why and how to do that.

To make this real, imagine it’s Friday night. You’re dead-set on visiting your favorite gastropub, but your significant other is just as dead-set on visiting her favorite Italian restaurant. Seeing a stalemate in the cards, what will you say next?

If you’re like most people, you’ll start to extoll the gastropub’s virtues (the beer selection! the TVs! the burgers!). If that doesn’t work, you’ll probably start to subtly trash the Italian restaurant (the grumpy waiters! the tiny bathroom! the runny sauce!). In short, if you’re like most people, you’ll start to persuade. But wait, “most other people” probably includes your significant other, right? What’s she likely to do? Seeing you start to persuade, chances are that she’ll do that too. Where’s this likely to lead? Another Friday night eating stale Trader Joe’s burritos in front of Dateline NBC.

But imagine for a moment that you instead saw the situation as a chance to negotiate. What would you say then? Well, you wouldn’t just drop your taste for the gastropub, developing a sudden interest in spaghetti. To clear up a basic misconception, negotiation does not mean surrender. No – what you’d do is share your fundamental reason for wanting to visit the gastropub, which often has surprisingly little to do with the arguments you would’ve used to persuade. Perhaps the real reason underlying your gastropub preference, for example, is its proximity to your house—you’ve had a rough week and want to walk somewhere close, not drive to the Italian place three suburbs away. Next, after sharing your fundamental reason, you’d ask hers: why do you want to go to that Italian place? “Because I want somewhere quiet so we can talk,” she might say, “and we always have to shout at that gastropub.”

Well now you’ve opened up a world of possibilities. You want somewhere close, and she wants somewhere quiet. There are about five quiet restaurants within walking distance. Just by negotiating rather than persuading, you’ve avoided a nasty dispute and all of its ramifications for your Friday night.

The critical point is that negotiation is not the same thing as persuasion. Negotiation may involve some element of persuasion—you may still have to persuade your significant other than one of the five restaurants is better than another. But negotiation is much broader than persuasion, and it starts much differently—with both parties sharing their fundamental reasons.

Have you ever selected a restaurant this way?