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.

“My computer is slow today”

I don’t know about you, but every time I call customer service, there seems to be something wrong with their computer. “My apologies, sir—my computer seems to be slow today.” Now, if it happened just once in a blue moon, I wouldn’t think twice. But since it happens nearly every time I call, I’m starting to draw one of two conclusions:

  1. Everybody has a crummy computer
  2. Everybody is trained to say their computer is slow to buy themselves some time

Now, I’m not sure which one it is, but let’s assume for a moment it’s the second, asking ourselves whether we might learn something from this tactic, thereby making our own lives more negotiable.

I have argued here and there for the benefits of procrastination, suggesting that we’d all do well to take a little more time when negotiating. The benefits of pausing and taking our time during critical moments in negotiation are manifold: with the benefit of a pause, we can think, calculate, check with others, catch our breath, or simply let your nerves settle. Is it possible that our friendly customer service representatives are more sophisticated than they seem? Is it possible they’ve been trained to report a sluggish computer anytime they need to ponder our requests further, check our customer records more carefully, or even call their superior over to take a look? I think it’s at least possible, and I think we can learn from it.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should all start lying about the performance of our computers. What I am suggesting is that there are numerous ways to buy yourself some time in a negotiation, and when we face a difficult moment in any negotiation, we should all make the effort to find one that is honest and authentic for us. If your computer really is running sluggishly, by all means, tell that story. But if your computer is running just fine, I’d strongly suggest finding some other credible way to slow things down. Is it possible you drank a little too much coffee and need to visit the facilities, really need to run the proposal by your spouse / boss / pet before deciding, or simply want to sleep on it?

In sum, our friendly customer service representatives either have really unreliable computer systems or a keen sense of how to negotiate. I’ve given both them and their computers the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they’re actually canny negotiators with excellent computers. While I would never advise you to lie about anything in a negotiation (and explicitly advise my students not to), I would advise every negotiator to find an honest way to put on the brakes when they have to. If you happen to own a crummy computer and can lay the blame accordingly, so much the better.

Are the best negotiators bees or sloths?

The rest of the world often seems to be in a great big hurry. Cars zip by. Pedestrians charge past. Commuters race up the escalator. Everyone, it seems, had to finish something yesterday.

Yet, all this urgency masks an important fact about negotiation: Waiting is often the best negotiation strategy available, particularly when we’re in search of a deal. Resisting the urge to be urgent, it seems, can make life negotiable.

We’re often desperate for a deal—a cheaper data plan, a bigger discount on dryers, a better financing plan on cars. Despite our exhaustive search, however, it’s just not available. If our data plan is expired, our dryer is on fire, or our car is suddenly stalled, we obviously have to act. But if our data is still active; our dryer’s just beginning to creak; or our car would make it another 5000 miles, we may have the luxury of time. In those instances, it often pays to wait.

Consider three fairly obvious yet frequently-overlooked benefits of waiting:

  1. A deal might magically appear. Verizon’s or Best Buy’s or AutoNation’s management, in their infinite wisdom, might grace us with an unexpected data discount, dryer clearance, or big tent sale if we only give them time. Or a holiday with no particular relationship to cell phones, dryers, or cars might inspire a special deal. You won’t know unless you wait.
  2. You might develop an alternative. Even if no deal magically materializes on your coveted good or service, there’s always the chance that a deal might appear on an acceptable or even preferable alternative. If Verizon’s not playing ball, maybe Sprint will decide to get generous? You won’t know unless you wait.
  3. You’ll have time to think and research. Even if no deal nor alternative arises, the extra time will afford the time to consult that impressive bodily organ, the brain, or that impressive modern technology, the computer. It’s not rocket science, but often we’re in such a hurry to act (and/or so beholden to the salesman smiling sweetly in our direction) that we miss the benefits of our own logic or the internet—both promising the possibility of overlooked opportunities for savings. A waived upgrade fee on phones? A washer-dryer combo? An unnecessary feature that could be unbundled from the car? You won’t know unless you wait.

Bottom line, the best negotiators often detach themselves from the great mass of humanity and their irresistible tendency to buzz around like so many bees. Instead, they act the sloth, piecing together a deal ever-so slowly and methodically as to almost escape notice.

Putting on the brakes: Negotiation via procrastination

We’ve all heard Ben Franklin’s advice to never “put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” And many of us probably even try to follow that advice. But is procrastination always bad? Not necessarily in negotiation. Indeed, it’s often flat-out strategic to halt negotiations rather than resolve them right now.

Be it with kids or coworkers, most of us encounter differences of opinion daily. What if we resisted our natural tendency to fight through these differences, and instead just waited? Facing differences of opinion, procrastination can often make life more negotiable.

Why? Consider the following five arguments for procrastination:

  1. They may forget about it: Many disputes can seem earth-shaking in the moment but forgettable soon after. Rather than fight about earth-shaking issues today, why not wait for them to fade away tomorrow? So when your three-year old absolutely insists on applying an assortment of expensive Doc McStuffins Band-Aids to a non-existent cut (not that mine has ever done that), you might suggest we sort it out after dinner, by which point you’re sure she won’t give a rat’s behind about Doc McStuffins.
  2. You may learn more: Many business negotiations get hung up by differing expectations about the future. Will the amazing new leptons we’re selling command the 50% market share we claim (thereby justifying our high price)? Or the 10% market share you claim (thereby requiring a discount)? We could fight through it. But we might as well agree to see how the leptons are doing in six months, then settle our accounts based on what we learn.
  3. Their emotions will cool: The two arguments above emphasize what’s going on in our heads while disputing, but negotiations often involve our hearts too. The basic reason for a dispute may be no particularly good reason at all: elevated emotions. The nice thing about emotions, though, is that they tend to fade with time. You might want to give them some, in hopes that the sands of time will wash away their affect (even if they don’t forget about the issue itself).
  4. Your emotions will cool: It’s easy to blame our irrational counterparts for their uncontrollable emotions, but the truth is that one person’s emotions often spill over into the other person’s emotions. So even if we bring a rational mind to such matters, our own emotions may, we must admit, occasionally flare. In these situations, Thomas Jefferson’s advice is appropriate: “When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” After a few repeats of the Doc McStuffins dispute, you may have to make that 1,000.
  5. You’ll be more likely to discover a creative solution: Negative emotions are not helpful for discovering the innovative, out of the box solutions that would so often solve a dispute. Two angry sisters, for example, are more likely to slice their one orange down the middle than discover that one needs the inside and the other needs the outside of the orange. Even if it does nothing else, the sheer passage of time increases the probability that a creative solution may happily cross someone’s mind.

In sum, I’m not contracting Ben Franklin. But I am suggesting that, in the context of the disputes we face daily, Thomas Jefferson was probably on to something.

Have you ever waited to solve a dispute that could as well solve now?