Dear Negotiation Coach: Are You So Nice It Hurts?

By on / Negotiation Skills

Q:

There have been a few times recently when I felt like others, including family members and colleagues, took advantage of me in negotiations. Most recently, a coworker asked me to take on some extra work but then didn’t reciprocate when I needed help. I feel it’s important to be considerate in negotiations, and it’s disappointing to me when others don’t seem to feel the same way. Shouldn’t I expect others to be nice when we negotiate, or are my expectations too high?

A:

In negotiation, being nice can mean offering your counterpart something to drink, giving him plenty of time to speak, or recognizing constraints on his time and resources—that is, behaving courteously. Such niceness has benefits: People often reciprocate considerate behavior, a positive cycle that can improve outcomes all around.

By contrast, it sounds as if you are conflating niceness with making unnecessary and unwanted sacrifices or concessions. You may need to think about why you have repeatedly given more than you’ve received. Are you uncomfortable advocating for your own interests? Does the prospect of conflict scare you? Do you try to protect your reputation for niceness at all costs?

Fortunately, you can take the following concrete steps to meet your negotiation goals without sacrificing the relationship:

  1. Keep talks businesslike. When we negotiate on the fly—in the break room at work or in the family car, for example—we are more likely to cave in to requests because we’re rushed and don’t have time to think clearly about our needs. In addition, we tend to make more concessions to those close to us because of our desire to protect the relationship.

For these reasons, resist the urge to make immediate commitments when others ask you for favors. Instead, set up a formal time and place to discuss the issue. Arrange to meet a family member at the dining table at 8:00 p.m. and show up with paper and pencils, for example. By establishing a businesslike atmosphere, you cue the other party to expect a formal negotiation in which each of you will advocate for your interests.

  1. Know your limits. When we give away too much in negotiation, it’s typically because we have lost sight of our BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Before your meeting, take time to think about and improve, if possible, the alternate path you will take if you can’t reach agreement with your current partner. During the negotiation itself, cite facts rather than allowing yourself to be swayed by appeals to your generosity. “I wish I could help you,” you might say to an unreasonable request from a colleague to take on new work, “but I’ve already set my schedule for the fall.”
  2. Capitalize on your cooperative instincts. Sometimes when we feel we’ve been a pushover, we overcompensate by becoming rigid and unyielding. Neither extreme is productive in negotiation. Instead, draw on your natural capacity to cooperate by engaging the other party in a discussion of how you can enlarge the pie. For example, you could offer to help your coworker brainstorm a solution to her workload problem—without committing to being part of that solution. In dealmaking, concerns about being “nice” become largely beside the point when we focus on working together to create value that we can then divide.
  3. Correct the past. We can’t always request a “do over” in negotiation, but often we can renegotiate an informal agreement that we regret. For example, if you feel you made a mistake in agreeing to drive your child to high school every morning, tell her that you need to revisit that decision and set a time for a family meeting. Even business clients may be amenable to taking a closer look at a signed contract if you can support claims of unfairness with solid data.

If the other party is used to getting his way, you may have to deal with his expectations and work through conflict. Your natural niceness should help you here: Treat the other side with respect, and acknowledge his disappointment. You should find that others will respect your newfound assertiveness—even if they don’t always like it—and that your relationships will continue and even grow.

 

Katherine Shonk

Editor, Negotiation Briefings

Program on Negotiation

Harvard Law School

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