Q: I have attended negotiation training sessions that have stressed the importance of thorough preparation. I can see why this is valuable, but I have difficulty following through on this advice. Whenever I am facing an important negotiation, I resolve to gather information and plan my strategy beforehand. Yet amid all the other demands and distractions in my life, I inevitably fall behind and end up feeling underprepared. Do you have any advice to help keep me on track?
A: Whenever you find yourself breaking resolutions and generally acting against your own long-term interests, you are engaged in a negotiation with yourself. Scholars Drew Fudenberg and David K. Levine use the metaphor of “dual selves” that reside within each of us. Specifically, it can be helpful to think of the part of yourself that considers your long-term goals and well-being as your “should” self and the part that is drawn toward short-term pleasures (or away from short-term pain) as your “want” self. The temporary urges of our “want” selves often overwhelm the lofty long-term goals of our “should” selves: junk-food cravings crowd out plans for a healthy diet; we avoid getting a painful flu shot despite our best intentions. The “want” self’s dominance results from the common tendency to give much more weight to present concerns than to future ones when making decisions.
You can prepare to give your “should” self a stronger voice in negotiations with your “want” self by considering the following suggestions.
1. Create an appealing choice so that honoring your long-term goals meets your short-term interests. Try to distract your “want” self (and your colleagues) from the hard work of preparing to negotiate by making the task more enjoyable and sociable. Instead of meeting around a conference table, go offsite to a trendy restaurant or hold a contest to see who can brainstorm the best ideas.
2. “Tie yourself to the mast.” In The Odyssey, Homer’s protagonist Odysseus comes up with an ingenious solution to avoid temptation: He orders his men to tie him to the mast of his ship so that he will be physically unable to pursue the luring calls of the Sirens. Similarly, you can reduce the availability of alternatives that commonly distract the “want” self away from your goal. Devote a set time each day to prepare, during which you turn off your phone, work from a location without an Internet connection, or lock your door so no one can interrupt you. The point is to predict what usually distracts you and make it impossible for the distraction to intrude.
3. Increase the immediate negative consequences of failure. Negotiators usually try to increase their ability to walk away from a subpar agreement by taking steps to improve their alternatives. When negotiating with yourself, however, you may actually want to worsen your own alternatives by imposing an immediate penalty on yourself for failing to achieve your goal—something that will catch the attention of your “want” self. Suppose you find the costs of not preparing to negotiate—namely, somewhat worse negotiation outcomes—to be so vague and distant as to be minimal. What if the choice to not prepare would instead result in immediate embarrassment with possible career repercussions? You could schedule a meeting to present your negotiation strategy to your organization’s senior leadership for a few weeks before your external negotiation. Knowing that your bosses will judge you harshly if you do not have a stellar, data-based plan should convince your “want” self to prepare to avoid the embarrassment.
4. Set firm deadlines. Firm deadlines are crucial to make the threat of negative consequences credible. When your “should” self selects a deadline, ensure that your “want” self cannot alter it.
Lecturer in Public Policy
Harvard Kennedy School
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