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.

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.

The unreliability of our gut: Intuitions in negotiation

The recent summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un has brought the issue of intuition in negotiation to the fore. The North Korean dictator reportedly spent years planning for such a meeting, trusting little to his gut and everything to his analysis and preparation. President Trump, in contrast, is widely known to rely on his gut, for example by saying that he would simply intuit whether a deal with Kim was possible within the first minute.

Given these two divergent approaches, each with its own appeal, it’s probably worth considering the reliability of our intuitions in negotiations. Unfortunately, I’m here to suggest that they are not very reliable at all.

In the spirit of making life (if not world events) negotiable, consider the following five ways that our intuitions can fail us. Our intuitions often tell us…

  1. To avoid making the first offer. Seems intuitive to let the other party move first. That way, we can learn about their preferences and maybe get a great deal. Right? Well, often wrong. As I’ve suggested often before, if we do that, we miss the golden opportunity to focus the other party’s attention on our own goals and desires, making us counteroffers very much in line with our own thinking. Instead, we end up making offers very much in line with theirs.
  2. To deal with one issue at a time. Seems intuitive to agree on each issue in turn, and probably the easiest first. Right? Typically wrong again. If we do that, we treat each each issue as a competitive fight, losing the opportunity to link and trade issues. Accordingly, we leave ourselves with a tremendous problem when we come to the truly contentious issues, typically at the end.
  3. That if I want something, you don’t. Seems intuitive that two negotiators want two opposite things. Right? Wrong more often than you’d think. People do want the opposite of some things, typically money or other quantitative issues. But, as I’ve suggested often before, they often want the same thing on qualitative issues—or at least care less about some qualitative issues than others, paving the way for tradeoffs. Intuition fails us again, precluding the possibility of a win-win.
  4. To focus on our bottom line. Seems intuitive to focus on our bottom line, and especially whether the deal under discussion is better than said line. Right? Wrong or at least woefully incomplete. If we focus exclusively on our bottom line, chances are that we’ll settle for something just better than that line, which is often not very good at all. Instead, we need to focus on our target, only coming back to our bottom line when we need to, at the end.
  5. That everyone negotiates pretty in much the same way. Seems intuitive that everybody around the world pretty much thinks about and approaches negotiations the same that way we do. Right? No, totally wrong. Mountains of evidence now indicate that negotiators from different cultures very markedly in their strategies, interests, and the ethical or legal standards they bring to the table. Intuition fails us again, and this time with a bang.

So you see that, appealing as our gut may be, it’s not particularly reliable in negotiations. And now that we all understand as much, maybe we can collectively convince our political leaders.

Declaring yourself a negotiation superhero—By considering your plan B

Worried about an upcoming negotiation? Dreading the back-and-forth? The fast ones your counterpart is sure to pull when you’re not looking? Well, don’t fear: here’s a research-based suggestion that can make negotiations negotiable: actively thinking about your BATNA.

I’ve repeatedly discussed the importance of BATNA: your Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement, or simply your Plan B. As noted by me and countless other negotiation researchers, having and knowing and improving your BATNA lets you walk away from an unproductive negotiation. Less appreciated, I think, is the way that actively thinking about your BATNA before a negotiation can steel you for some upcoming bargaining—at least when your BATNA is decently attractive.

To see what I mean, imagine you’re about to talk to a flooring contractor who is likely to quote you an unattractive price. Imagine further that you have another decent quote in-hand, and you’d like to get your flooring upgraded but really don’t need to. You detest negotiation in general—and especially with pushy salespeople. Accordingly, you’re dreading the upcoming interaction and secretly hoping he calls to cancel.

In this situation, most people are so consumed with worry that they simply forget about their BATNA. Somewhere in the back of their brains, they know that they can always walk away from an overly pushy contractor, but they don’t actively focus on the fact that this guy is just one minor blip in a long list of potential next steps.

But why not?

Why not stop, forget about the pushy contractor, and refocus on the fact that you don’t really need this guy’s flooring, or really any flooring at all? Thinking like that, you’ll realize that it’s the pushy contractor who should be nervous: It’s he who stands to lose a large chunk of change if you don’t like his proposal—he who’d better fear the formidable you and your ability to bolt. Thinking like that, you can confidently place your hands on your hips, puff out your chest, and declare yourself a negotiation superhero.

So the next time you’re fearing an upcoming negotiation, stop thinking about it! And refocus on the fact that you don’t really need it, that you have a plan B.

It’s a powerful strategy but comes with two obvious caveats: First, it obviously falls flat if your BATNA is bad. If your foot is falling through to the basement and all alternative quotes are unbearably expensive, it clearly won’t really help to consider them (though we often vastly overestimate the unattractiveness of our alternatives). Second, it’s not a great idea to keep thinking about your BATNA when the guy actually appears at your doorstep. Instead, as noted elsewhere, you should shift your attention toward your target when negotiating and only return to your BATNA at the end.

So let this be the beginning of the end of your negotiation fears! Our alternatives are often far better than we think, if we really think about them—and we should.

Preparing to negotiate? Use your “BRAIN”!

Most people know to prepare before a negotiation. If not, then negotiation instructors like me frequently remind them. So the problem is not a lack of awareness about the need to prepare. It’s the lack of a framework describing what to prepare. What exactly should negotiators ponder before arriving at the bargaining table?

Since knowing what to prepare is pretty much a prerequisite for preparing itself, and preparing itself a prerequisite for a negotiable life, let me suggest you use your BRAIN (via the following acronym):

  • BATNA. All good preparation starts with a consideration of alternatives—specifically a negotiator’s next-best alternative if the current negotiation fails (i.e., their Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement or BATNA). Otherwise, they’ll never know how much power they have or how far to push the envelope.
  • Reservation price. Great negotiators transition directly from their BATNA to their bottom line, walk away point, reservation price. Otherwise, they don’t really have the foggiest idea whether to get to yes or get to no and go with their BATNA.
  • Aspirations. BATNAs and reservation prices are great, but negotiators who spend too much time pondering their alternatives or minimally acceptable agreements (i.e., their reservation prices) tend to get them. To get something better, great negotiators also define their goals, targets, aspirations—actively considering what they really want when their counterpart demurs.
  • Interests. The acronym might as well stop there (and consider the acronym if it did), but the preceding letters alone tend to elicit a very competitive negotiation. Great negotiators know that spending the whole time competing to attain their aspirations, clear their reservation price, or avoid their BATNA results in a competitive scramble over the crumbs of a very small pie. Instead, they know they need to identify and find creative ways of fulfilling both negotiators’ overall objectives (i.e., their interests), and thereby “grow the pie.”
  • Negotiation counterpart. So why not BRAI then? Because that makes very little sense as a word and even less sense as a preparation strategy—the latter because it completely omits the other party. Negotiators who BRAI, and most negotiators do, fail to anticipate their counterpart’s situation and thus find it immensely hard to understand or respect that situation while negotiating. So great negotiators repeat the preceding letters for their counterpart, taking a wild albeit educated guess as to their counterpart’s BATNA, reservation price, aspirations, and interests.

So the next time you sit down to prepare for a negotiation, don’t just use your mind—use your BRAIN! Doing so can’t spell the difference between a smart negotiation outcome and an outcome that everyone deems dumb.

To negotiate or let it go?

My posts have consistently highlighted our many everyday opportunities to negotiate—the fact that negotiations surround us, and that negotiating makes life negotiable. But if you buy that advice, which I believe and hope you do, then you should immediately spot a challenge. Most of us have many ways to spend our time—too many, in fact, for the 24 hours in each day. So, if we ever hope to sleep, we need to identify the situations that would most benefit from a negotiation—and the situations to just let go.

When to negotiate? It’s a tough question with many possible answers—see, for example, my earlier post on gratitude. And it’s especially tough for a negotiation professor, whose natural inclination is to say “whenever possible.” But that’s not realistic when you’ve got a lot of potential negotiations on your hands—when you’re buying and selling a house, for example, as I am now. The costs and complexities of: electrical repairs, roofing upgrades, plumbing repairs, termite inspections, radon mitigation systems, flooring updates, chimney service, painting service, cleaning service, closing costs. These are a small smattering of the many potential negotiation opportunities I’ve spotted in the last week.

Realistically, when we’re all this busy, we all have to choose. And ultimately, we’ll all have to use our best judgment. But here three guidelines I’ve found myself using, in hopes that they aid your judgment too. You might want to negotiate if:

  • The likely benefit of negotiating outweighs the likely time cost. Practically-speaking, this means that big-ticket items are more likely candidates for negotiation than mundane items. Of course, that conclusion depends on the value of your time. Whatever that value, you probably shouldn’t negotiate if there’s no hope of at least recouping it.
  • Negotiating would send a neutral or even positive signal. Sometimes, negotiations are expected: title companies are well-acquainted with buyers and sellers shopping around, for example. Other times, negotiations are admired: many employers are impressed by desired candidate taking their needs seriously. So, you should probably negotiate if it’s part of the “game.” If not–if negotiating would send an adverse signal–you should probably refer to the criteria above and below, making the decision on that basis.
  • You’ve come close to your goal. If you set a stretch goal and achieved an outcome that satisfies it, you might as well savor your success and plan your next negotiation. If you didn’t set or achieve a stretch goal–and especially if you achieved an outcome equal to or worse than your bottom line–it’s probably well-worth your time to try and right the ship.

If these rules seem a little too simple for the complexities of real life, that’s because they are. Deciding when to negotiate requires judgment, wisdom, and maturity in addition to simple rules-of-thumb. But hopefully they at least help you to wade through the murkiness of real life, as they have with the murkiness in mine!

Three responses to a perilous question: What’s your bottom line?

The world is full of people who want to know your “bottom line.” Real estate agents are immensely curious about “your budget.” Car salesmen are sure to ask how much you can afford, in total or each month. That company you hope to work for? They’d love to know your minimum salary requirements.

These are all attempts to ascertain your bottom line, i.e., your reservation price (RP). Though not necessarily malevolent, these are questions that you probably shouldn’t answer, at least not directly. If you do, you’re likely to get an outcome that’s just barely better. So if you admit your minimum salary requirements are $30,000, what’s your probable salary? Somewhere around $30,001.

But suggesting you shouldn’t reveal your RP, as I did in the linked article above, is not the same as saying what you should do. Indeed, I’ve found that having some readymade responses to this omnipresent question can make life substantially more negotiable. So here are three strategies for responding to RP questions, along with some advantages and drawbacks.

  1. Don’t answer: Perhaps the most straightforward way of answering the question is not answering it. Everyone gets a little distracted now and then, and the moments after the RP question might be a great time for you to take an immense interest in the sunroof on this car or the tinted windows on that one. If the questioner takes the bait, this strategy can effectively avoid the issue. And it’s a good “strategy” if no other strategy comes to mind. The downside, of course, is that they’ll likely ask again. And this strategy is unlikely to work twice.
  2. Respond with your target: My favorite strategy is to answer a different question. They asked about your RP, but there’s no law saying you can’t answer about your goal, i.e., your target. So when the real estate agent asks your budget, you can certainly tell them what you’re hoping to achieve. And when they scoff and grumble about how hard that will be, well, that’s great…it means you’ve motivated them. So the upside of this strategy is that it motivates the other side and actually provides them with useful information. But the downside is that the agent may then avoid showing you a few houses that you would actually consider. So if you use this strategy with a real estate agent, combine it with some judicious Trulia searches on your own.
  3. Ask theirs: Experienced negotiators know that it can be morally “squishy” to ask about a counterpart’s RP. But they often ask anyway since so many people answer. So it’s worth considering the most aggressive response to the RP question, which is to ask about theirs. When the car dealer asks what kind of a monthly payment you can afford, for example, you might ask the minimum price for which they’d sell you the car. They probably won’t answer, but they probably will start respecting you and stop asking RP questions. That’s the upside, but the downside is that this strategy can create some momentary hostility that you’ll have to overcome.

There are certainly other approaches, and the right one certainly depends on the context. So you wouldn’t want to aggressively ask a future employer about their own RP, for example. Combined with your own good judgment, though, these strategies can be immensely useful for responding to other people’s immense interest in your RP.

Have you used any of these strategies—or others—to deal with the RP question?