Assurances from an adult: A stopgap strategy for negotiating with kids

I’ve written often about the importance of trust in negotiations. Unfortunately, little children don’t always display an abundance of it—for example, when a sibling or friend wants to play with their preferred toy. To make the lack of trust negotiable, we need something more. Luckily, there’s a device that can help at least on occasion: assurances from an adult.

Consider the following three examples from my own household:

  1. Whenever my younger daughter is playing with something and I ask her to do something else like brushing her teeth, she reliably responds: “But someone will take it!” And, with that prospect looming, good luck getting the teeth brushed. Indeed, the teeth might have remained forever coated in plaque had I not discovered a way of offering an assurance—and bear with me because it sounds stupid: “hawk eyes.” I offer to watch her toy with my very own “hawk eyes,” at which point I dramatically widen my eyes and focus them on the toy in the manner of a deadly serious hawk. Somehow, it seems to work.
  2. The same daughter, while dilly-dallying at the end of a restaurant meal that lasted 12 times longer than any dinner should, expressed disdain when we unilaterally decided to box up her food. “But someone else will eat it!” she insisted. I should’ve seen that coming. While the hawk eyes might have worked in this case too, I decided to try something new: borrow her crayon and write her initials on the to-go box, such that no one else would even dare to dip their paws in her mac ‘n cheese. It calmed her down, eventually.
  3. Finally, my older daughter sometimes worries when leaving for school or summer camp that the younger one will play with and proceed to lose or warp her puzzle pieces. It’s only when I personally promise to preside over the puzzle, placing responsibility for the pieces squarely on my own person, that she musters the will to leave.

And so, when trust is lacking, assurances can offer a powerful stopgap—in the case of toys and food and puzzles but really in any case when a kid distrusts someone else’s intentions. Of course, none of this is to undercut the importance of trust itself; assurances offer a supplement rather than a substitute. But it’s a supplement that may well prevent WWIII.

Giving away freebies: An “irrational” business strategy

Business 101: When a customer asks you to do some service or provide some good, find a way to charge them. Right? Wrong. Well, not entirely wrong, but let me tell you about an important set of situations in which giving away freebies can actually make selling more negotiable.

First, a series of stories:

I seem to have a lot of problems with my tires. A front tire was recently deflating constantly, causing me to spend more time at the air pump than the dinner table. I took the car to the local Goodyear, who informed me that the valve wasn’t positioned correctly, causing air to escape. They fixed it, they said, and even replaced the valve just in case. “How much do I owe you?” I said, reaching for my wallet. “Nothing,” they said. “It was quick, and valves don’t cost much.”

Then, about a month later, my hubcap randomly fell off. I went to the same local Goodyear, asking for assistance in installing a new one, as the process seemed about as simple as a differential equation. “Sure,” they said, “We’ll take care of it.” And they did, in about a minute. Then they again insisted on charging me nothing.

Perhaps these stories seem the epitome of stupidity. Goodyear offered their valuable time twice to assist me with some silly tire problems. And each time, they insisted on charging me nada. How could that possibly represent sound strategy?

Because they knew well enough that I was a new customer who would eventually need a very expensive full tire replacement. And they knew that when I did, I’d think of the local Goodyear instead of the slimy local dealer who is more than happy to charge a hundred dollars for a wingnut. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. I needed a full tire replacement on another car very soon after, and my appreciation for the freebies turned into nearly $600 in revenue.

So what’s the negotiation principle? That people choose to engage with counterparts they trust—and avoid those they don’t. And that people especially choose to engage with those they not only trust but feel beholden to, as I did to the generous Goodyear. So part of any negotiation is eking out the biggest possible profit right now. But another and potentially more important part is generating enough goodwill to keep the counterparts coming in the future.

In sum, to all the rational thinkers who advise us to monetize as much and as often as possible, I’d say this: That may be a smart strategy in the short-term—the very, very short-term. But research on trust and reciprocity would suggest that it’s likely to shoot you in the foot in the medium term, by which I mean anything longer than the very, very short term. The pursuit of self-interest, it seems, may involve at least a short stop at the way-station of generosity.

Saving time by learning to trust yourself

In a world where work-life balance seems like a quaint anachronism, most of us have to find every possible efficiency just to get our jobs done—especially when working on difficult tasks that require multiple rounds of revision: detailed reports, complicated analyses, complex pieces of software code. Though efficiencies on such tasks are often hard to come by, I’ve gradually learned to appreciate the relevance of an important lesson from negotiation research: the importance of trust.

Whereas negotiation research urges people to trust their counterparts, though, I’ve learned that complicated tasks make it equally important to trust myself! Indeed, I’ve come to realize that trusting myself—and especially the work I’ve already completed—can make even the hardest tasks more negotiable. Here’s hoping a short blog post can convince you too.

So imagine yourself working on a long and difficult task requiring multiple rounds of revision. A few lessons from the research on trust in negotiations that transfer to the inherent negotiations with yourself:

  • Assume trustworthiness: Negotiators are advised to assume their counterpart is trustworthy, and thus give themselves at least a fighting chance of starting a virtuous cycle. Likewise, when you have to work and rework the same difficult document, you might want to assume that the you who typed the prior version was just as trustworthy as the you who’s reading it now. In other words, make the necessary corrections when you reread, but don’t spend an inordinate amount of time second-guessing yourself over minor judgment calls.
  • Build trust over time: Even if they start with low levels of trust, negotiators are advised to intentionally build trust with their counterparts over time. Likewise, as you labor through numerous difficult professional tasks over the course of a career, try to give yourself increasing amounts of latitude each time. That is, cultivate an increasing appreciation for your own level of trustworthiness (see #1), trusting your initial intuitions more and more through time.
  • Don’t do anything untrustworthy: Negotiators are advised to avoid doing anything that would destroy the trust of their counterparts. Likewise, as you build your trust with yourself (see #2), take care to avoid any actions that would undermine your subsequent self-trust—by typing an important document while sleepy or suffering the influence of strong emotions, for example. Trust only builds when people are consistently trustworthy.
  • Incorporate any priors: Negotiators are always advised to incorporate any prior knowledge about their counterparts into their trust decisions. If a counterpart has lied before, chances are he hasn’t suddenly decided to reorganize his entire life around the categorical imperative. Likewise, if you increasingly trust yourself but start to identify some situations in which you yourself are not very trustworthy—sections of a document you know you struggle with, for example—distrust yourself enough to know that you’re going to have to focus your revision efforts there.

Over time, I’ve learned that trusting myself not only helps me complete high-quality tasks much more efficiently. It also feels a lot better than doubting myself constantly and redoing my own work for a negligible benefit and a considerable time cost.

How do you decide whether to trust your prior work?

Negotiating with neighbors by planting the seeds of trust

If you’ve ever owned a house, you know that much of your happiness inside the house is attributable to people who live outside the house: namely, your neighbors. The fate of every homeowner is at least partially in the hands of their neighbors. Good neighbors—nice people who will work with you to resolve any neighborly issues—make you never want to leave a place. Bad neighbors? They make you want to call the moving company today.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to place all of your happiness in the fickle hands of fate? If you could exert at least some control over this particular corner of your life, thereby making it more negotiable? There is: by building a trusting relationship before you ever meet your neighbor at the negotiating table.

We all tend to think that negotiations start when you sit at a long mahogany table, casting a steely glare at your wily counterpart, sitting all the way at the other side. They don’t. First of all, and as I hope you’ve gathered from my posts, most negotiations don’t involve long mahogany tables; they happen every day whenever we depend on someone else. Second, and more relevant to the current post, negotiations start long before you start “negotiating,” or at least they should. Indeed, negotiations start when you become aware of someone who will eventually become your negotiation counterpart. Consequently, the best negotiators don’t wait for chairs or mahogany tables; they start building a trusting relationship as soon as they possibly can.

What does this have to do with your neighbors? Well, every homeowner eventually has to negotiate with their neighbors. Have you? From constructing new fences, to felling old trees, to mitigating noisy teenagers, to driving a piece of construction equipment across their yard, to borrowing a tool—opportunities or even necessities to negotiate abound. Your negotiation will go a lot better if you’ve planted the seeds of trust beforehand. And, by the way, getting along with your neighbors is the right thing to do.

For the purpose of this post, though, let’s focus on the initial, instrumental goal of planting the seeds of trust, in the interest of promoting a successful negotiation. Supposing that was your primary goal, how would you do it? Here are five tips for building trust before you even start negotiating, based on a paper Jeanne Brett, Amit Nandkeolyar, and I published in Harvard Business Review:

  1. Assume they’re trustworthy from the start. Even before you meet people, you can assume the best, the worst, or somewhere in between. If you immediately assume that best, that tends to start a reciprocal cycle of trust, as I’ve said before. I’d encourage everyone to at least give that assumption a try.
  2. Take their perspective. There is a lot you can glean about a person before you know anything about them. If they’ve been living next to a bunch of renters who didn’t take care of the house you now own, wouldn’t they be interested in hearing about your intentions to overhaul the place (not that this has happened to me)? Take a guess at what’s important to them, and frame the conversation with those interests in mind.
  3. Act consistently and reliably. People trust others whose behavior they can reliably anticipate. It’s amazing how much trust you can build by consistently taking in the trash can and never letting your lawn reach the length of the African savannah.
  4. Signal your trustworthiness. People also glean your trustworthiness from the signals you send—particularly any similarities you might choose to highlight or signs that you lead an upstanding life. So if you share a common (passionate to the point of obsessive) interest in the Baltimore Orioles, for example, make sure to mention that. If you have a respectable career, there’s no need to brag, but it wouldn’t hurt to signal your occupation as a sign of trustworthiness.
  5. Show a genuine interest. It’s amazing and sad at the same time, but the number of people who show a genuine interest in each other seems to plummet all the time. So even if you came in with the initial, instrumental goal of priming them for your major construction announcement, ditch that goal once you get to know them, and try to show a genuine interest in who they are what they’re all about.

As I suggested before making this list, it would be good to treat your neighbors well even if you never had to negotiate with them. But since you do, you might as well kill two birds with one stone.

How have you built trust with neighbors?

Work-life balance as a negotiation with yourself

In today’s hurried and harried age, almost everyone has a hard time with work-life balance. The fundamental reason is obvious: the constantly increasing demands of work and life continually crash up against the fixed 1440 minutes in each day.

And while it’s technically true that we can’t expand the clock, negotiation research has spent the better part of 50 years exploring how to unfix fixed resources. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that we can make life more negotiable by treating work-life balance as a negotiation with ourselves.

The prototypical negotiation study gives two people a seemingly fixed resource like money, then lets them fight it out. Yet, it studies the steps they can take to avoid fighting it out—how they can “expand the pie” rather than simply carve it up. By analogy, what if the fixed resource was time, and what if the two negotiators were our work self and our life self? In that case, five classic negotiation principles would apply:

  1. Don’t assume a fixed pie. The fundamental reason that negotiators fail to expand the pie is they assume it’s not expandable. Thus, two sisters fighting over an orange cut it in half rather than discovering that one sister wants the inside for juice, while the other wants the outside for garnish. They assume the orange is fixed rather than exploring how to “squeeze” more value out of it. With respect to work-life balance, perhaps we could start by assuming that time is not as fixed as it seems? By looking hard enough, most of us can find ways to squeeze more value out of our time—to take that conference call from the car instead of listening to talk radio, to do more web surfing during lunch and less during story time.
  2. Build trust (with yourself). Exacerbating the tendency to assume a fixed pie is the tendency to assume that of our counterparts are nefarious demons. But when negotiating with yourself, you should pretty much assume that’s not true. So take the time to validate both sides of yourself. Remind your life self that your work self is a good and worthy soul—a valid self that only wants the best for the rest of yourself. And remind your work self that your life self is equally trustworthy—that it’s out to maximize your happiness, not tank your career. By explicitly trusting both sides of yourself, you’ll be able to…
  3. Communicate your core interests. Negotiators often fail to expand the pie because they don’t explicitly share their priorities, nor ask about their counterpart’s priorities. Instead, they engage in positional battles in which each tries to grab as much of the fixed pie as possible. If work-life balance is a negotiation between our work self and our life self, might it help for each self to be honest with the other about what is most (and least) important? Might our work self admit to our life self that’s it really important to rock this project but less important to visit the company picnic? Might our life self admit that our daughter’s soccer game is much more important than fixing that squeaky bathroom door?
  4. Insist on your priorities (but only). Contrary to popular belief, negotiation research does not tell people to “compromise,” nor to demand the world on a silver platter. It tells people to hold firm on the things that matter most, but relinquish the things that matter less. If the report is critical, buy yourself an hour by forgetting the squeaky door. But if the soccer game is critical, skip the picnic, and only retrieve your phone to take a picture.
  5. Define and enforce a clear agreement. Negotiations are worthless unless they result in a clear agreement that gets implemented. Similarly, an agreement between our work self and life self is worthless unless we’re explicit about its terms and judicious in enforcing them. So if you decide that 12-5 pm on Saturdays is family time, write it down or at least repeat it often enough that you don’t let 12 slip to 12:30. In a word, draw boundaries and be ruthless in enforcing them.

This is not rocket science, and I don’t pretend that it is. But I hope that thinking about work-life balance as a negotiation helps you to actually attain it. Signing off in search of my own balance…

Dealing with the distrusted: To schmooze or not to schmooze?

At some point, most of us need to work with someone we don’t particularly trust. It’s not that we distrust them; it’s just that we have no basis for trust, along with the vague heebie-jeebies.

Dealing with a potentially distrustworthy person is difficult—but more negotiable if we at least try to schmooze, defined unscientifically but accurately as shooting the [stuff].

Now, schmoozing gets a bad name, in part because most of us associate it with the greasy-haired man who sold us our last car. Indeed, the word itself—schmoozing—sounds a little greasy. And, in the context of the car salesman, schmoozing should have a bad name: that kind of schmoozing is inauthentic, manipulative, and excessive.

But schmoozing doesn’t have to be that way—and it does serve the critical purpose of humanizing two people who wouldn’t necessarily treat each other as humans. And thus, when done in the right way, schmoozing serves the critical goal of building trust. But what is the right way? Here are five tips for schmoozing ethically and effectively with your next potentially distrustworthy counterpart:

  1. Make it authentic. In order to work and “feel right,” your schmoozing has to be consistent with your personality. So I’m not urging you to adopt the manner of the greasy-haired man; I’m advising you to find a personally-comfortable way of making a little more small-talk. So if you’re a shy person, maybe that just means asking people how they’re doing today.
  2. Make it well-intentioned. In addition, I’m not advising you to adopt the goal of the greasy-haired main: to sell you. I’m advising you to personalize people for the purpose of building at least the vestiges of a relationship where there was none.
  3. Focus on true commonalities. Also don’t adopt the greasy-haired habit of whipping out the same schmooze with everyone. “Cold day, eh?” “How about dem Sox?” “Nice tie!” Even if it is a cold day, dem Sox are winning, and his tie is stunning, these are not effective schmoozes. Effective schmoozes focus on a true point of commonality. So if your kids play soccer and you see a picture of her kids playing soccer, a good schmooze has something to do with kids and soccer.
  4. Tailor it to the medium. Our workplace interactions differ from our greasy-haired interactions in numerous ways—one is that they’re not necessarily face-to-face. This matters for schmoozing because the more “barren” the communication medium—the fewer visual, vocal, and nonverbal signals it provides—the harder it is to build trust. So pay even more attention, and devote even more time, to schmoozing when emailing or talking on the phone. It helps.
  5. Tailor it to the culture. Notwithstanding the greasy-haired man, Westerners often like to “get down to business.” Coldness, Sox, ties, soccer—we generally see these topics as distractions from the matter at-hand. They’re not, as I hope this post suggests. But they’re especially crucial in many Latin American and East Asian cultures, where the construction of a strong relationship is all but essential before anyone talks “business.”

Bottom line: We should try to separate the act of schmoozing—which can help build trust—with the image of a schmoozer. Otherwise, we may well lose by choosing not to schmooze.

The hidden benefits of trust

Managers among us, wouldn’t it be great if the people we manage were happier and more motivated in 2016? Wouldn’t that immediately make life more negotiable?

Well, here’s a deceptively simple path to a better 2016: trust your employees a little more than you were planning to. “Yeah yeah,” you say. “I’ve heard that before, I’ve read Good to Great, sounds like more business school gobbledygook. Look what happened the last time I trusted too much—disaster!”

And you’re absolutely right…about the risks of trusting too much. But what you won’t find in Good to Great, and what most of us completely miss is the hidden benefit of extending a bit more trust: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Picture the following: You’ve managed Jane for the last three years. She’s proven herself reasonably competent at her straightforward clerical tasks, but she hasn’t shown any particular penchant for assuming more responsibility. Then again, you’ve haven’t stretched her too much, ever concerned about the quality of the product. And yet, with the new year upon us and Jane looking distinctly unmotivated for another year of admin, it’s time for a change. What kind?

Well, imagine you decided to trust a bit more. Specifically, you thought to yourself: “Self, although I wasn’t planning to entrust Jane with anything new, she’s been trustworthy enough with the work I’ve already given her.” And so you told Jane: “Jane, you’ve been doing a great job, and I’d like to help you grow. So you know that important project I was planning to lead? I’ll be here to support you, but I want you to take the wheel instead.”

Now, how will Jane respond? With panic, perhaps, never having seen the wheel before. But after the shock subsides, and as she sees you continuing to support her, what will Jane do? Well, no guarantees, but many Janes will eventually react by thinking, “Gee, it seems like my boss is trusting me with something big here. I guess I better step up my game.” And step up she would, arriving earlier, working harder, asking tougher questions, giving better answers, and showing a notable reduction in the hourly need to visit www.dailymail.co.uk. In short, many Janes would react to your trust by trying harder.

Now you probably have heard that before, and you probably could find that somewhere in the golden pages of Good to Great, but here’s the part that most of us miss: How would you react to Jane? Seeing her immediate improvement, what would you think about her? Chances are, you’d look at her performance and think: “Gee, I guess I was right—she’s trustworthy.”

Now, stop and process what happened here: you assumed she was trustworthy enough to entrust her with something big. Perceiving your trust, she stepped up her game. Perceiving her game, you realized she was trustworthy. In sum, you made her look trustworthy by assuming that she was. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, I’m not naïve about trust, and I wouldn’t advise you to be either. There’s a risk that Jane will mess up royally, miss your trust completely, or simply see your gesture as a sign of increasing workload. There are projects you should handle yourself; there are Janes you shouldn’t trust. And of course, these situations are better handled by your managerial intuitions than this post.

But here’s the critical point: if you have a reasonably competent employee, and if you trust them enough that they notice but not so much that they panic, you will often or even usually discover the completely hidden benefit of trust: it not only makes them try harder, it makes you trust them more. So yes, beware the risks of trusting too much, but also attend to the opportunity costs of not trusting enough: the lost engagement and motivation of your employees, and the missed opportunity to create an ever-more trusting relationship. I think you’ll be amazed by the result—I have.