Coalitions with co-travelers: Making delays negotiable

I’ve experienced a lot of flight delays, but never arrived at an airport seven hours before a delayed flight departed. Such was the case on a recent trip from St. Louis to Baltimore. Thanks to some substantial snowfall somewhere else, the plane that was supposed to return me to Baltimore was arriving in St. Louis two hours from 6 pm, 7 pm, 8 pm, 9, and 10 pm. Thanks, snow.

Clearing security at about 5 pm and receiving an email about the impending delay, I held out the distinct hope that this situation could be averted by standing by on an earlier flight that departed around 5:20. At the desk for that flight, however, I encountered another traveler from my own delayed flight trying every tactic in the book. “Can I pay you some money to get on the earlier flight?” she asked the agent. “Let me tell you why I need to be in Baltimore right away.” “My boyfriend is gonna be so sad!” Ten minutes later, seeing the conversation continuing, the agent growing beleaguered, the earlier flight boarded, and my own chances of getting on it falling by the minute, I realized that I had to break up this conversation to make life negotiable.

So what could I do? Well, I could’ve gotten angry at the annoying traveler or interrupted the conversation rudely, asking whether she was planning on letting anyone else talk to the agent ever. In other words, I could’ve formed a coalition with the Southwest agent, teaming up against the annoying traveler to make both of our lives more negotiable. But would that’ve gotten me on the flight? Probably not, as the traveler would’ve trained her monologue on me, delaying us all a lot longer.

So instead of forming a coalition with the agent, I thought, I need to form a coalition with the annoying traveler. Only by aligning myself with the force interfering with my goal could I hold out any hope of attaining it. And that is what I did. “Oh, are you on the delayed flight to Baltimore too?” I asked her, knowing full-well that she was. “Yes,” she opined woefully, “you too?” “Yes,” I opined in return. And then seized the opportunity, albeit brief, to address the agent: “May I get on the waitlist too?” And thus I did.

Now, full disclosure, getting on the waitlist did absolutely no good whatsoever. There was one seat available on the earlier flight, meaning that lucky #6 on the standby list (Mr. Gunia / BC) did not quite make it. (Nor did annoying #5). Still, had there been six seats available, this tactic of forming a coalition with the disputant rather than going to war with her—well, it would’ve paid off in spades. So I still think it’s worth recommending as a means of making life negotiable.

When we have to negotiate with multiple parties, we’re usually tempted to join forces with the person who seems most supportive—in this case, the friendly Southwest agent. By doing that, we think, we’ll be able to overpower any annoying impediments. In fact, when we do that, the annoying impediments often take exception, trying everything in their power to stymie our aspirations. So, assuming we have a serious but not a mortal difference of opinion with the people standing in our way, it’s often more effective to form a coalition with them. By doing that—by expressing empathy with another passenger’s plight, for example—we can often flip them from adversaries to supporters, or at least to less serious impediments.

With the airlines, it often seems that few tactics can make life negotiable. But forming a coalition with the co-passengers impeding us is one tactic worth a try, to practice our negotiation skills if not to arrive in Baltimore any sooner.

My family or yours? Using integrative negotiation to allocate holiday time

With the holidays fast-approaching, many of us face a decision: my family or yours? As anyone who has made this decision can attest, its consequences often stretch far beyond December.

Dividing up family time can be contentious. But it’s negotiable!

For this post, imagine you’re married or in a serious-enough relationship to worry about the division of family time. Imagine, further, that both you and your partner have already insisted that, “It’s my family this year!” Having one family in Chicago and another in San Francisco, having one week of vacation, and having both refused to back down, you’re now on the brink of crisis. Specifically, you can only see three options:

  1. 50/50 time split: You both spend two days in Chicago, two days in San Francisco, and about 3 days flying Reunited Airlines. Obviously a bad option, and not just because you have to deal with Reunited. Two days with each family is not nearly enough: both will feel slighted, and you’re likely to feel unfulfilled if not exhausted.
  2. 50/50 person split: You spend the week with your family in Chicago, and your partner spends the week with his/her family in San Francisco. But that doesn’t sound so great either – who wants to remember 2015 as the year they spent the holidays apart?
  3. 50/50 relationship split: You could actually see this discussion getting so heated that—in combination with other various and sundry disputes over the years—it strains the relationship itself. Though that might facilitate the second option, it’s obviously not preferred.

In short, you’re stuck in a holiday pickle. But why? Because you’ve assumed that the pie is fixed—engaging in what negotiation researchers call distributive or win-lose negotiation. In other words, you’re trying to slice one fixed resource—the week of holiday vacation—rather than entertaining the possibility that you and your partner could discuss multiple resources. The latter would imply that the pie can grow, which researchers call integrative or win-win negotiation.

Integrative negotiation is a HUGE topic that many researchers have studied for many decades, and that I will write about for a long time to come. The current point is not to describe integrative negotiation in all of its glory, as that would be a 1,589,230-word posting. The point is to highlight the difference between distributive and integrative negotiation and mention some of the many solutions to the holiday pickle that become possible when we assume that the pie can grow:

  1. Trade the holidays: We spend Christmas (for example) in San Francisco and Easter (for example) in Chicago. Come to think of it, that sounds better, as only a masochist would try to fly Reunited into O’Hare in December.
  2. Trade this holiday: We spend this Christmas in San Francisco and explicitly agree to spend next Christmas in Chicago. In other words, we recognize that this is a repeated decision, bringing time into the equation to develop a schedule. Come to think of it, that sounds better, as your brother will probably be able to make it next year.
  3. Introduce a new issue: Suppose that you love extreme downhill skiing but rarely get to do it, tethered as you are to the rolling hills of the East Coast. The sounds utterly irrelevant to the holiday pickle until your partner suggests five days in San Francisco and two in the Sierras. Come to think of it, that sounds awesome.

These are not earth-shaking ideas, nor do they come close to exhausting the possibilities. The point is only to emphasize the power of integrative negotiations. By assuming that there are many possible resources to discuss—multiple holidays, multiple iterations of this holiday, an extreme skiing trip—the holiday season looks a lot rosier.

How have you resolved your own holiday pickles?