Know Thy Self-Help

One of the books I read when I was on vacation was Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In. I negotiate contracts at work sometimes, so I thought I should verse myself on the way businessmen get everything they want.

I’m biased against self-help books, how-to books and business books, so Getting to Yes represented a kind of perfect storm of low expectations. I assumed it would give monosyllabic, bullet-pointey instructions for dominating a negotiating opponent through trickery, theatrics and graft. Dress nicer than him! Speculate on the unattractiveness of his wife and children! Arch your back to appear larger!

Somewhat disappointingly, the book is basically an instruction manual for how to be an adult. The core recommendation is to negotiate not from positions (‘I’ll give you $50 for that vase.’ ‘I won’t take less than $200’, etc.) but from interests (‘I’m asking for a raise because feel like I’m not appreciated enough at work.’). Negotiating from positions just makes everyone louder and stricter to avoid losing face, whereas revealing interests allows everyone to separate themselves from the situation and come up with a mutually beneficial agreement.

Even in negotiations over things like the best price for a home, the book says everyone loses out when the buyer and seller each name an arbitrary price (‘$75,000!’ ‘Never! $500,000!’) and split the difference. Instead, they should use objective criteria (‘What did the house next door sell for?’ ‘What was the property appraised for?’) and together decide which criteria is most fair.

Instead of telling you how to dominate an adversary, the book asks you to turn them into a teammate.

My first reaction throughout the book was that negotiation is far from the only area where these skills come in handy. In a million work and personal situations that aren’t negotiations as such, it would probably be a good idea to ask, ‘Why do you want it this way?’ and ‘How can we work together to make everybody happy?’

My second reaction was, Ugh this is fucking hard. It’s so much more satisfying to get a win than a mutually beneficial compromise. It takes work to find an objective price standard. It’s fucking boring to do research on the criteria applied to solving a similar problem. Regarding a work-adversary as a person rather than a role takes energy.

The times when I’ve acted like history’s greatest monster in my professional life aren’t when I was angry or avaricious, they’re when I was lazy. I can’t be bothered to regard you as a person at the moment, I implicitly decided, so let’s just put our hierarchy roles in the ring and let them dogfight.

The book won’t necessarily prevent me from ever doing this again, but at least it makes me aware of when and why I do.

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One response to “Know Thy Self-Help

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