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What if you change your mind halfway through a negotiation?

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Inconsistent decision making sometimes leads to a crummy result.  Here’s a thought-provoking, quantifiable example from real life.

Two of us were preparing to drive from Boston to New York City.  We both wanted to go there, and if we didn’t drive together we would have gone separately.  We could take his car, a mid-size sedan that gets so-so mileage, or mine, a compact sedan that gets good mileage.

There’s this system we use to determine who takes on the burden of driving without switching up, without putting a driver in an unfamiliar car.   (I have to explain it quickly here with a single paragraph and a table, and then I can give you today’s story.)  One person drives the whole way, and the other pays a set rate per mile.  Any gas, tolls, or tickets paid have to be covered by that set rate.  The payer pays on only half the miles, because if we weren’t doing this complicated auction we’d be splitting costs.  This also prevents the suboptimal result that we don’t carpool. The table below shows a 100 mile trip, where Person A will drive.  His car will incur costs of $50.

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Person B pays A half the costs at $0.60/mi, or $30.  Person A’s “hassle premium” is therefore $5 ($5 saved over a 50-50 split of costs, where each pays $25).

Whatever profit may be left over for the driver is compensation for their labor.  If the rate doesn’t cover half of the baseline expenses ($gas/mile plus depreciation) then the driver is paying more than half and doing all the work besides.  So there’s a floor below which a potential driver shouldn’t bid.

Here’s how it worked last time:

He said, “I’ll drive for half the costs at 80 cents per mile.”

That meant, if I agreed, then he’d do all the driving and I’d pay him 80 cents per mile, times all the miles there and back, divided by two (like the table above).

I generally don’t choose to drive in New York if someone else will do it, but I didn’t want to pay 80 cents per mile to get there.  So I said, “78 cents.”  (There’s a rule that you can only bid in increments of two cents.)  I add, “Remember that your car has GPS in case we get lost.”  What I’m doing here is bidding his price down while encouraging him to bid again.  He could accept my bid, in which case I’d be stuck with driving.  But if he wants GPS, he’ll bid lower.

It works.  He wants GPS for the drive, so he says, “76 cents.”  I’ve saved myself four cents per mile.

I think the price is still too high, though, so I say, “74.  Remember your car also has an audio input, so we can listen to podcasts.”

He says, “72.”

We continue like this for a bit.  I’m successful at driving down the price of his driving to 64 cents per mile.  Then suddenly I think to myself that maybe driving isn’t so bad, and I could use the lunch money.  So I change my mind and the kinds of things I’m saying.

I say, “You know, it’s a bit of a hassle to drive around in the city.  Sometimes drivers really cut you off.  I’ll drive for 62.”  Now I’m sincere.

He sees the change that has come over me and knows that I’m bidding now because I actually want to drive, not because I want to lower the price of his driving.  And he knows that my floor is lower than his.  In this situation, he can bid us all the way down to his floor and, if I really want to drive, the auction will stop when I bid just below his floor and he accepts.

This is just what happened.  It was facilitated by more unhelpful commentary from me, in which I reminded him how awful it would be for him to drive.  We settled at my driving for half the costs at 48 cents per mile.

The last time we held an auction to New York, the driver didn’t say anything manipulative to let on his true intentions and got $0.58/mile, over 20% more than what I had just won.

So The Moral Is

Before you enter a negotiation, know what you’re aiming for.  And don’t try to game it, because in some circumstances, it just drives your price to the floor.

Positivity

Today I was at a management meeting to solve some specific problems, and at the end of the meeting, as often happens, we allowed for some off-topic suggestions and comments.  (People should have a chance to say what’s on their mind.)  One of the managers recommended that we devote some time during our “all hands” meeting to let attendees get up to a microphone and share something that they’ve learned recently, maybe just for a minute, just quickly, and then they’d sit back down.  Call it a “Member Minute.”  I thought that was a great idea.  I’m often coming across random tidbits that I’d like to share with folks, and I think I could contribute something in less than a minute to the general audience.

Another manager also liked the idea, and they supported it by saying so and then launching into their latest gripe.  They said that there was a “major problem” negatively affecting them, and “get this” there was no solution yet, and they wanted everyone else in the business to know about it.  Fortunately the manager who suggested the “Member Minute” thanked the griper for their support and then emphasized their vision for the sharing of positive messages.

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As problem fixers, we often want to focus on the problem, and among a friendly audience, sometimes we want to vent a little.  There can be a place for venting to a group, and there absolutely is a need to talk about problems.  But negativity is ultimately an organization killer: no one wants to hang around a sourpuss, and not only that, even if people don’t shut down or leave, your group’s ability to perform towards a positive outcome will be greatly diminished.

Ever been in the grocery store looking for something?  Ever notice how much faster you can find it if you think about what you’re looking for, if you envision its color or its shape or a word on the box?  And if they change the branding, notice how you can’t find it?  The same can be said about your work.  Envision a positive outcome and all your abilities converge towards it.  Envision a quagmire and that’s where you end up wallowing.

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As managers, we can coach or remove team members that are a drag to work with.  For everyone else, especially in volunteer organizations, we need to check ourselves and others:

  1. Recognize that habitual negativity is career-threatening and organization killing.
  2. End a gripe with a suggested solution and always always (even if there is no suggested solution) offer to take suggestions or advice from others.
  3. Try to “break frames” and get people thinking differently with jokes or humor.  (More on this later; never use sarcasm.)
  4. Watch your tone and use words that are even-handed or fair-minded.  If the situation is more gray than black-and-white, this leaves people open to possibilities and makes it easier for them to help you.

It’s true, your attitude determines your altitude.  Aim high.

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