Is my negotiation progressing nicely? What, why, and how

How can you know if your negotiation is heading in the right direction? Few complicated questions have simple answers, but let me try to make this one as simple as possible in hopes of making life negotiable.

If your negotiation is progressing nicely, the discussion should generally answer the following three questions, in the following order:

  1. What? Most productive negotiations start with an examination of the basic situation, the facts (actual, not alternative). As in, what are we actually discussing here, and what’s the context? Seems obvious to get the facts out of the way first, but surprisingly many negotiators don’t, preferring to launch into overt conflict before clarifying the premises. (Ask our friends in Washington.) If your negotiation doesn’t surface the facts first, chances are it won’t produce much of anything useful later.
  2. Why? Most productive negotiations eventually progress from a discussion of what we’re talking about to a discussion of why those issues matter to each side. Don’t get to the reasons for the facts as we see them—and surprisingly many don’t—and chances are you’ll get mired in a pointless debate over each side’s positions and their utter irreconcilability. We’ll get stuck at me wanting a raise and you giving me zilch without ever exploring creative ways to reduce my commuting costs, reimburse my education, or obtain a bonus when I bring in the promised business.
  3. How? Most productive negotiations eventually move on from each party’s priorities to a discussion of prospective solutions. Having understood what’s important to each side, the negotiators obviously need to consider how to reconcile those priorities. If your negotiation never gets there—and surprisingly many don’t—and you’ll have a great and deep understanding of the situation and each other. But that’s it. You’ll leave the room scratching your head about what in the world was just decided and what to do next. Ever leave a meeting with just that feeling?

Now, before taking this what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness too far, a clarification is in order: Negotiation, like any form of problem-solving, is an iterative process. You may move on to the why questions and then discover you didn’t understand the what well enough. That’s fine! As long as you eventually get back to why, your negotiation is still progressing nicely.

What’s not fine is skipping steps. Since understanding underlying priorities (why) is hard and often a bit awkward, for example, many people prefer to skip right from what to how. Do that, and you’re likely to surface a solution that seems to fix the situation but doesn’t really solve anyone’s underlying problem. Other people—the go-getters, solution-seekers, extreme Type-A’s—may try to jump right to solutions. Do that, and your solutions won’t even fit the surface-level situation, let alone the underlying problem.

With those clarifications in mind, I would humbly offer the what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness. Answer those questions in that general order, and you’ll probably find your negotiation progressing nicely. Skip some of those questions or don’t answer any of them, and you’re likely to get the personal equivalent of a shutdown.

Questions instead of concessions!

There comes a moment in most negotiations when we consider making a concession. Whether it’s reducing the amount of the requested discount on our cable bill, succumbing to a coworker who keeps asking us to do something, or accepting an organizational decision that we know to be flawed—opportunities to concede abound. And in many such situations, conceding is just what we should do.

Right before we do, however, let me suggest we all follow a simple heuristic: Ask a question before you make a concession! By at least trying to ask a question before you concede, I think you’ll find life growing successively more negotiable.

Consider the following questions, all of which can help to avert a looming concession:

  1. What if we…?” This question often surfaces new ideas that avoid the need for a concession. As in, what if we agreed to a multi-year contract in exchange for the requested discount on my cable bill? New possibilities often afford detours around costly concessions.
  2. “Why?” This question often surfaces underlying interests unbeknownst to the person preparing to concede. As in, “Why are you, my coworker, asking me to do that task?” Perhaps it’s sheer laziness, but perhaps it’s something more nuanced—a desire to solicit your ideas or put your name on the document, for example, both of which might pave the way for alternate solutions.
  3. “Why not?” This question often surfaces concerns unbeknownst to the person preparing to concede. As in, “Why does organizational policy not permit me to do X? Again, perhaps it’s pure bureaucracy, but perhaps it’s something more nuanced—a concern about setting precedents or creating perceived inequity, for example, which might highlight ways to assuage the concern and avoid the concession at the same time.
  4. “How can we make this work?” This question actually enrolls the respondent in the process of finding a way to avoid your concession. As in, “I want to go with your cable company, but I can’t afford it. How can we make this work?” No guarantees, but people generally like being asked to contribute their expertise, as well as solutions of their own making.
  5. “Can I think about it?” This question buys you the necessary time to identify an alternative to conceding, which is particularly useful if you’re a slow-plodding analytical thinker like myself. As in, “Can I think about your request to do that task, dear coworker?” With the benefit of some time, you can often take a guess at the interests underlying the request, as well as some alternative ways of fulfilling them. At worst, the time should buy you some courage.

In sum, concessions are good and necessary parts of any reasonable negotiation. By the same token, most of us concede far too often—and often when we don’t need to. Accordingly, the next time you consider a concession, I’d encourage you to consider a question first.

The power of why: What intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues

Our organizational colleagues and toddlers often have one thing in common: they seem opposed to whatever we support. Whether they “won’t back that idea” or “won’t eat that macaroni,” their intransigence is one in the same.

By learning to deal with stubborn toddlers, then, we can also learn to deal with stubborn colleagues. In a word, toddlers can help make our work lives negotiable.

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from toddlers is the power of three words: “why” and “why not”. Now, some toddlers say these words almost as often as they inhale, but that’s not where I’m going. Here’s where I’m going: A common pattern among toddlers (though certainly none that I know) is to eat part of their macaroni, then refuse to eat the rest. A common response from parents is frustration, followed by an escalating battle of wills. A better response from parents are the deceptively simple questions: “why?” or “why not?” A small assortment of the real responses that I would’ve really heard, had I really known such a toddler:

  • I’m not hungry
  • It’s yucky
  • I have to go potty
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy!

Now, these responses and the questions that precipitated them are critical, as they each pave the way for a different integrative solution that should still involve the macaroni:

  • I’m not hungry (Possible solution: Slow down the meal, try again later, or mention the implications of satiation for dessert)
  • It’s yucky (Possible solution: Mix in the chunks of cheese that she doesn’t like)
  • I have to go potty (Possible solution: Excuse her from the table, then try again)
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork (Possible solution: Help and/or teach her to balance it)
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy! (Possible solution: Take away the blocks and reiterate the need to focus)

Of course, none of these solutions is surefire, but all of them are better than an escalating battle of wills. But now let’s tie the toddler’s behavior back to the corporate world. Suppose you were proposing an organizational change to your colleagues; here are some corporate analogs of the toddler’s responses, along with some possible solutions from you:

  • I’m not hungry = My appetite for change is waning; these changes are coming too fast (Possible solution: Slow down)
  • It’s yucky = I just found something I didn’t like in your proposal (Possible solution: Probe that issue deeply)
  • I have to go potty = I’m distracted because of other priorities right now (Possible solution: Approach them later)
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork = I’m having trouble understanding how this will work (Possible solution: Walk them through the details, perhaps in a separate meeting)
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy! = I’m trying to distract or confuse you in hopes that you don’t succeed (Possible solution: Set the meeting agenda and ensure that everyone publicly agrees to it in advance)

Both the analogues and possible solutions are just examples. But I think you can see that the toddler’s behavior is surprisingly reminiscent of your colleagues’ behavior. So the three little words of “why” and “why not” can often prove useful at the boardroom table in addition to the dinner table.

Have you ever asked why (of an intransigent toddler or colleague) and been surprised at the response?