Stubbornness, pride and general pettiness in our negotiations

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

Let me begin today’s entry by clarifying two points:

  • Yes, I am, in fact, a professional negotiator. Really.
  • While I introduce four separate approaches to negotiation in my book, we all revert to the least productive approach from time to time; the one where parties seek to develop power in order to make the other give in.

Girlfriend: “Can you please hold my bag for a second?”
Negotiator: “Sure.”
Girlfriend: “Ha! Now you carry it!”
Negotiator: “No honey. You insist on bringing all this unnecessary stuff with you on our walks, so you carry the bag.”
Girlfriend: “Well I’m not going to carry it.”
Negotiator: “Ok, I’ll just leave it here on the ground then.”
Girlfriend: “Fine. Go ahead. I know you will break before I do.”

This is 10pm at night. In the bag my girlfriend has her phone, money, keys, ID, (and probably two bricks, a tent, scuba diving gear, a coffee machine…). We start walking away. About 50m away I look over my shoulder to make sure the bag is still there. My girlfriend smiles. She smells victory. She knows that I’m too uncomfortable with the risk of someone stealing the bag. 100m away. 150m away. The bag is now a small dot in the distance. As we pass a man walking in the opposite direction, I seize my chance to influence my girlfriend.

Negotiator: “Honey, doesn’t he look a bit shady? I reckon he might steal your bag.”
Girlfriend: “I guess you better go get it then.”

Damn. She countered my tactic. Very uncomfortable with the risk and stakes in this negotiation, and not being able to take my eyes off the bag, I stop walking.

Negotiator: “Ok, well I’m too uncomfortable with this. I’m not going to get your bag, but I will stay right here and watch out for anyone stealing it. You better hurry up and go get it before anyone else does.”
Girlfriend: “I’m not going to get it.”
Negotiator: “Hey, that car just made a U-turn and is pulling up next to your bag. They most definitely saw it.”

No reaction from my girlfriend as she stands her ground. I start running towards the bag. Halfway there, red and blue lights start flashing from the dashboard, indicating that this is in fact an undercover police car. While running, I wave with both hands, signalling that it is my (girlfriend’s) bag.

Police (with a stern voice): “Is this your bag?”
Negotiator: “It’s my girlfriend’s bag.”
Police: “Why did she leave it here?”
Negotiator: “ Because she is a stubborn, stubborn girl and she has to win.”
Police: “So why don’t you carry it?”
Negotiator: “I can’t give in. If I do this for her then she’ll start making all the rules in the relationship.”

At this point the two under cover police officers smile and give each other a knowing look. I tell myself that this is because they understand what I’m going through here.

And then she arrives, walking slowly towards us. I recognise that smug grin. It now extends from ear to ear.

Girlfriend: “I won!”
Negotiator: “No you didn’t. I’m still not going to carry your bag. I was just not prepared to lose your bag to make a point. We both know that you will do anything win. So I’m just going to sit here, next to the bag, until you pick it up.”
Girlfriend: “Well then we’ll be here for a while.”

The cops drive away. I feel good about giving them something to talk about on their otherwise uneventful night shift.

Negotiator: “Just… pick… the… bag… up! I’ve had a long day and I’m tired.”

At this point the negotiation changed from negotiation game 1 to game 2, the one where we seek to understand and satisfy the needs of both parties.

Girlfriend: “Awww, yes you look very tired. Here, give me the bag and let’s go.”

On the walk home, it took all my willpower to not tell her: “I won”… ☺

Why we don’t know what we want

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

It is two days before Christmas, and I realize that my fridge is empty. I take a trip to the supermarket to get just enough groceries to get me by until Christmas (by which time my girlfriend and her family will feed me).

When I get to the fresh fruit and vegetables section I observe two older women frenetically checking each of the scraps of available red capsicums (or “ peppers” in American English) on display. Each capsicum is picked up, inspected from all angles, squeezed, and then put back into the crate. Eventually both women eye the one capsicum that is clearly the nicest of the bunch. After a bit of a scuffle, one of the women ends up the clear winner. I sense tension and bitterness in the air.

I thought this scenario was a b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l analogy of how most of us approach negotiation. Specifically, the story clearly illustrates the process by which we establish our success criteria. This is one of the earliest points where we can identify whether negotiations will go off track – and most of us will take the wrong turn.

Let me explain. Did either woman establish for herself what a desirable, or even acceptable quality capsicum would look like prior to going to the supermarket? E.g.: “This size, this hue, and no more than X number of spots” ? No, instead both women showed up with the intention of getting “the best available deal” (B.A.D.), whatever that deal was.

We think in this manner all the time. How do we decide what is a fair price for a car? Well, most people will estimate what the average price is, treat that as “fair”, and then decide that “success” is getting something that is better than “fair”. Now, replace “car” or (“capsicum”) with anything else, and there is a good chance that we follow exactly the same process.

Note that this way of determining success has nothing to do with what we actually want, and everything to do with wanting to feel good about getting a better deal compared to what others get. For negotiators, knowing what we (or our clients) want is critical. Unfortunately we all suffer from cognitive biases and mental traps that interfere with logic. (Yes, all of us. That means you as well.) The mental trap we are discussing today is called “relative valuation”, and is one of 30 covered in my upcoming book.

It is a simple as that. And this is why buying a business suit at 50% off feels so good, because we are convinced that a bunch of suckers out there paid twice what we paid! So our deal must be good. Of course, it is possible that this particular suit has never been sold at 100% of the list price. And, as soon as we see that same suit advertised at 60% off we suddenly don’t feel very good about our 50% off deal anymore.

Ironically, this is exactly what happened to the two older women. As soon as the women started to walk away from the fresh fruit and vegetables section, a store employee arrived to top up the crate… with newfreshluscious capsicums.

Of course, neither woman stopped to appreciate and reflect on the inherent irony, and instead launched straight back into checking each and every new capsicum in search of “the best available deal”.

Unethical influence and manipulation

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

“Isn’t this stuff just manipulation?”. I look over toward the participant who just asked me this question. I’m not sure whether his tonality was indicative of a genuine question, or an accusation (which is why negotiators don’t phrase questions this way). So I explain: “Well, I would say that influence and manipulation both make use of the same tools, but I personally distinguish the two by viewing the former as ethical and the latter as unethical”.

So yes, the unfortunate result of this is that the insights in my upcoming book could theoretically produce both ethical and unethical negotiators. But I’m not worried. The good news is that the book also helps readers develop a healthy negotiation mindset. This involves educating the reader on the consequences of both ethical and unethical behaviours in negotiation. And once we understand the positive and negative flow-on effects from each approach, it becomes abundantly clear that an ethical approach is tremendously more valuable over the long term.

And while I don’t recommend unethical approaches to negotiation, I do encourage readers to keep their eyes and ears open to spot unethical negotiators out there. You can start doing this today.

In my book I share five approaches to influence. One of these is called “misrepresentation”. This involves leading the other party to believe that they are going to get what they want, when in fact they won’t. This is no different from lying, so this approach is then clearly unethical.

The sad realisation is that this is seems to be the predominate approach used in advertising today (And yes, advertising a subset of negotiation). We will see a headline that appeals to us, but we know that asterisk hides information that we won’t like. And while we can’t make out what the rapid and inaudible voice says in the last 1.5 seconds of a TV commercial, we know it is something that the advertiser would prefer that we don’t hear. And when we look at property advertisements we never read “a crappy, cramped and noisy unit for first time buyers on a low budget”, even when this would be the only accurate description. And we know that the models used to promote that new weight loss product or protein gainer don’t look like that as a result of the product. In fact, considering today’s digital enhancements we know that the model doesn’t even look like the picture! And let’s not forget the spiel in thousands of job interviews every day: “Just give us 5 years in this underpaid role that you don’t want, and then you will get everything you are looking for”.

Lies, lies and more lies…

So why did I pick today towrite this blog entry? Well, yesterday I spotted 7-Eleven’s ad for “Slurpee season, 13 flavours, 13 weeks”. The huge font at the top of the ad said: “NEW PINEAPPLE”. There was also a sizeable image of half a cup of slurpee on top of half a real pineapple.

Ironically, the relatively tiny font at the bottom read: “Fruit shown is illustrative of flavour only and is not an ingredient of the product”.

Power and prevention in negotiation

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

One of the beautiful things with negotiation and influence is that many insights are transferrable and just as applicable in commercial, hostage, and romantic relationship negotiations. And while professional negotiators get excited about the complex, high stakes, international and crisis negotiations, most of us relate better to examples of everyday negotiations. So let me share one.

At the time of posting this entry in the blog, I have connected with 51 negotiators (professional and academics) worldwide. Recently one of the very experienced old school negotiators shared the following tip with me on the importance of balancing power in negotiations.

As an example, when you go to the dentist, the first thing you need to do is to grab him by the ba**s, and then calmly say: “We won’t hurt each other, will we?”

Power negotiation is certainly a valid approach to negotiation, and it is very common in business today. But for some reason it doesn’t sit well with me. Perhaps it is because my dentist is a woman. Or perhaps it is because my dentist is such a kind and caring individual and I know she has my wellbeing in mind?

There is also something else. If we simply frame the negotiation around how much pain will be associated with fixing our ailing tooth, then we don’t actually have much scope to manoeuvre in the negotiation. At one extreme tooth will be fixed and it will be painful. At the other extreme the tooth won’t be fixed. No win/win outcome in sight.

But if we instead take a systems view of the negotiation, then we realize our tooth is aching because we haven’t taken care of it properly. The current situation was thus completely avoidable (i.e. preventable)! By instead viewing our dentist as a collaborator, she can help us ensure that our teeth stay healthy, and every visit will be short and painless.

So at the end of today’s visit I asked her the same question I ask after every visit: “From what you’ve seen today, what are the two specific things that you recommend I change (e.g. diet, behaviour) to ensure that we continue having these pain free visits every 6 months?”

Prevention is much cheaper, easier, more powerful and less painul than intervention. It is also one of the reasons why “professional negotiator”, from one perspective, is one of the most unrewarding jobs on the planet ☺ If we do our job well then the problems never occur, and people don’t realize the disaster we saved them from.