Choosing When to Choose

By on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from Focus Your Negotiations on What Really Matters by Susan Hackley in the September 2006 issue of the Negotiation newsletter.

When it comes to negotiation, the more choices on the table, the better your outcomes will be – right? Not necessarily. An excess of options can stand in the way off efficient agreements and, moreover, prevent you from being satisfied with the final result.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz argues that, paradoxically, the myriad choices pervading modern life – where to live, what career to pursue, even whom to marry – have made us less happy overall rather than more so.

Why can it be so difficult to mkae a pleasing choice? In negotiation, as in life, our choices are accompanied by opportunity costs; one choice made is another choice forgone. The many options that confront us at the bargaining table, Schwartz argues, can lead us to agonize too long about which one to choose – and then later regret the choices we have passed up.

Choosing When to Choose

When Schwartz advises us to “choose when to choose,” he’s counseling us to take control of our decisions, increase our self-awareness, and narrow our scope. The following guidelines can help you commit to focusing your negotiations on the choices that truly matter:

1. Review Past Decisions and Prepare for Future Ones

Reflect on a recent, important negotiation. How did you choose among multiple options? How did your choice turn out? Did you spend too much time weighing issues that ultimately didn’t matter, or did you stay focused on your goal?

You can avoid vacillation and regret by carefully thinking about your choices before talks begin. What will happen if you make a certain choice, and what won’t happen if you make that choice? Also consider your best alternative to a negotiated agreement or BATNA. If you don’t make the deal, buy the house, or form the partnership, what will you have left? A strong alternative will enable you to make tough choices – and to walk away if those choices aren’t good enough.

2. Avoid Making Social Comparisons

It’s tempting to compare your choices and outcomes to those of people around you. But does it matter if another executive earns slightly more than you do, or if another company is expanding more quickly? Focus on what makes you happy and your company successful then decide which battles to fight – and which aren’t worth the effort.

3. Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude

According to Schwartz, “Gratitude does not come naturally to us most of the time.” Yet feeling a sense of gratitude and expressing appreciation can foster empathetic listening on both sides, establishing a trusting relationship, and ultimately, generate productive and satisfying outcomes. Rather than obsessing about the deal that got away or an appealing choice that you passed up, consider “how much better things are than they might be.”


Learn how to negotiate like a diplomat, think on your feet like an improv performer, and master job offer negotiation like a professional athlete when you download a copy of our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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