Eyes OFF the prize

“What? Now you’re just confusing us. First you say eyes on the prize, now eyes OFF the prize. Which one is it?!” 

First of all, I wish to apologize for the confusion. It was completely intentional 🙂

Here is what is going on. In negotiation there are very few insights that are always right. Rather, as we discuss in the book, we need a situational approach that acknowledges that the situation and context determines which negotiation insights will be most relevant at any particular point in your current negotiation.

So the previous blog entry highlighted how keeping a relentless focus on the prize can help parties move negotiations along despite feelings of regret, resentment, hurt, blame or desire for revenge.

But sometimes the other party’s relentless focus on their prize is the problem. Specifically when their prize (or “desired outcome”) is for you to lose the negotiation.

Consider the playful tug of war over a tennis ball with your dog. The more force you put into getting your prize, the more force your dog will put in. Does your dog want the tennis ball? Yes. But perhaps your dog specifically wants the tennis ball because you want it, or because it enjoys the game. It is simple, primitive and innate competitive behaviour. So what happens when you act uninterested and walk away? That’s right, sometimes your dog will walk up to you and leave the ball at your feet! The ball is now yours… until you want it… and now the competition resumes!

And what happens if you in the middle of the tug of war let go of the ball and instead pet your dog and rub it behind the ears and on the tummy. Your dog’s internal dialogue instantly changes from “Must have ball!” to “What ball?” Its eyes are off the prize, and again the ball is yours – this time without the dog knowing (or caring about) what happened.

So how is this relevant for negotiation? Well, in circumstances when the other party is ultra-competitive and specifically uses the success criteria that you have to lose, we may actually wish to avoid negotiating head-on. We specifically do not want their eyes on the prize.

Imagine going to a gym and trying to negotiate to get 2-3 weeks free trial training instead of the regular 1-3 day pass. Any attempt to increase the number of free days is very likely to be met with resistance.

But what if you change the interaction? What if you e.g. share that you are prepared to join, but later share your apprehension because you fear that you might discover that you not like the gym. Chances are that the sales person, now focusing on closing a sale (not the free trial), will try to get you to sign by offering a sweetener such as: “Ok, would you sign now if we offer a guarantee that if you don’t like the gym after 2-3 weeks you get your money back”.

Isn’t that funny? Did you get what you want? Yes. Can you train for free for 2-3 weeks? Yes. Do you have to commit to more? No. Does the sales person think he or she lost the negotiation about the free trial? No. So were you met with resistance? No. Instead the salesperson gave you exactly what you wanted. And you didn’t even ask for it!

Note that the lesson in this blog post is not really about negotiating gym memberships. It is about dealing with ultra-competitive negotiators by having them not realize that they are in a competition. So… where else can you use this insight…?

Relationship trumps power

One of the most common requests that I (initially) get from clients is: “Help us develop more power!” In negotiation, power refers to the ability to get (or make, or force, or coerce…) someone else to do what he or she doesn’t want to do.

When clients make this request it usually signals that the negotiation is presently not going their way. So akin to bringing your older brother as support in a kindergarten playground fight, clients hope that building power will allow them to start controlling the negotiation.

But power is the negotiation equivalent of brute force and ignorance. While it initially looks like the panacea that will resolve the situation in our favour, keen readers of this blog and our book now understand how power in negotiation causes more problems than it solves.

Instead there are much more elegant, and powerful ways to get what we want. In fact, sometimes even friendliness, kindness, love, understanding, charisma, humour and wit can disarm even the most antagonistic and power-wielding counter-parties.

There is perhaps no clearer (and more entertaining) illustration of this than when reverend Wade Watts found himself pitted against Johnny Lee Clary and the Ku Klux Klan.

After watching this clip, ask yourself the following:

  • Which party had most power?
  • Which party achieved their objective?
  • If reverend Wade Watts was able to neutralise the power of Ku Klux Klan, then what excuse can I (the reader) possibly have for resorting to using power in plain vanilla commercial negotiations?

Removing the need for negotiation

“You pay $150 dolla!!”
“No, I’m not paying anything!”
“Your fault, you pay $150 dolla!”
“No, it was your fault. I’m not paying anything!”

I move over to the curb as my friend and an enraged taxi driver continue their dialogue in the middle of the street. Cars on either side are incessantly using their car horns to signal their frustration with the gridlock. Some try to slowly squeeze past in the small gap that is not taken up by the taxis. Meanwhile the line of cars is rapidly growing in length.

“You open door, you pay me $150 dolla!”
“Forget it. You’re the one who overtook us!

As my friend had exited our taxi, another taxi had overtaken us, resulting in a small collision. While our taxi was scratch free (well, no additional scratches from the collision), the side mirror assembly of the other car was now in pieces on the ground.

“You pay me $150 dolla!”
“Hey, there is no way that mirror costs $150 dollars!”

This move was a mistake. By engaging in the conversation about cost, my friend could be perceived as accepting responsibility for the accident and now the question is reduced to “how much will he pay”. The taxi driver quickly picked up on this.

“Ok, you pay me $120 dolla!”

How are they negotiating now? Yes, old-style bargaining over money. This battle of attrition continued for about 10 minutes. So please picture 10 minutes of standing in the middle of the road, emotions running high, and with cars passing within centimetres, in the dusty, hot and humid air of South East Asia.

Eventually my friend turns silent, disengages from the dialogue, walks up to the damaged taxi, leans forward, and picks up the pieces of the side mirror. While he slowly inspects the mirror, the taxi driver continues their negotiation:

“70 dolla. You pay me 70 dolla!”

And then we all hear a *CLICK*. Was that… Could it be… Yes, as I look over I see that my friend have successfully put the side-mirror back together.

“But it is not working. You pay me $70 dolla!”
“How do you know it’s not working? Try it!”

The taxi driver reluctantly tries the electric mirror control. And voila, it’s all working and no visible scratches!

What begun as a clumsy bargaining process was resolved using masterful negotiation. My friend had snapped out of the traditional “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “I want XYZ from you” mentality, and instead removed the need to have a negotiation altogether.

In our book we named this technique preventative options – options (or solutions) that allow us to prevent the need to have particularly difficult negotiations. While our example here was quite trivial, this technique becomes a very powerful option for values-based negotiations where parties will never change their mind or accept being “wrong” (e.g. on abortion, religion, global warming, gun control, etc).