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.