When Everything is Negotiable

A friend of mine was laughing at how his father negotiates the price of practically everything.  Recently, they had gone to a hardware store, where my friend watched in bemused horror as a negotiation commenced over the price of a few nails and screws. 

“You have to realize,” my friend said, laughing, “these cost like fifteen cents each.  Yet my dad wanted a better deal!”

To most people, this doesn’t even seem worth the time.  And maybe it isn’t.

But after giving it some thought, my friend acknowledged a few things.

First, his father does shop at this store on a frequent basis, where he purchases both small and big-ticket items, alike.  And this sort of banter is just part of the routine.  It’s how he and his buddies interact.  It’s a function of their relationship, and they have fun with it.

More important is this: for some people, there’s no cost-benefit analysis with this sort of thing.  For them, this approach ─ where everything is negotiable ─ is simply a way of life.  It’s the sort of thing one just does automatically, like holding the door for the person behind you or putting your blinker on when you go to make a turn.

A couple other points…

If you’re preparing for a large transaction, it can help to consult with a person like this ahead of time.  They’ll often see angles you’d fail to notice, approaches you wouldn’t have considered.

And if you find yourself on the other side of a transaction with this type of individual, consider treating it as an opportunity to sharpen your own negotiation skills. 

Just make sure their way of life doesn’t control yours.  I’ve said this before: there’s a hierarchy to every negotiation.  And if you’re not prepared when dealing with people who enjoy hammering out every last detail, you could find yourself hammered down like a fifteen-cent nail.

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Your Most Important Bargaining Chip

Often, the most important bargaining chip you hold in a negotiation is the willingness to walk away.  To simply say “No thanks” and leave, either to look for a better deal elsewhere, or to simply do without (at least for the time being).

But with a lot of people, a strange thing happens when they start to negotiate: they forget that simple fact, and allow their focus to shift.  Now, instead of crafting a smart agreement in due course, they define success as crafting any agreement ── so long as it’s done right here, right now.

Depending upon the situation, some deals do need to be handled immediately.  However, for all the ones that don’t, it’s important to retain every advantage possible. 

Sometimes, the best deals of all are the ones we never make.

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How to Lose Hundreds of Dollars In Under a Minute (Without Going to a Casino)

A mechanic once told me that a customer had recently come to his shop and said, “My car is making a weird clicking sound.  I don’t care what you do to fix it, just don’t charge me more than $300.  If it’s going to be more than $300, call me before you do anything.”

The customer left, and the mechanic inspected the vehicle.  He immediately diagnosed the problem and was able to fix it within a matter of minutes.  “It would normally be a $20 or $30 job,” he told me.

Instead, when the customer returned, the mechanic charged them $280.  Which they gladly paid.  In fact, they were thrilled.  “They thanked me for ‘saving them’ $20!” he said. 

“How often does something like this happen?” I asked.

He grinned.  “All the time.”

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Why You Shouldn’t Fall In Love With Your Own Ideas

One of the most common mistakes people make when negotiating is also one of the most debilitating, and that’s when they become emotionally invested.  You know who I’m referring to: the homebuyers who can’t imagine living anywhere but that house they just toured; the guy who MUST have that shiny red convertible; etc.  We’ve all done this to ourselves at one time or another. 

Once you fall in love with the idea of something (and that’s all it ever is, an idea of what your life would be like if you were able to obtain that house or that car or that whatever), you’re automatically at a disadvantage when it comes time to negotiate.  Like all social situations, negotiations have a hierarchy.  If you let your feelings run roughshod over sound judgment, all you’re doing is handing the power to the other party.  Now they’re in charge.  Of you.

Someone recently told me that their son and daughter-in-law had been house-hunting and were determined to make a very sensible offer on a very sensible house.

“And then they ‘fell in love’ with one of the homes,” the parent told me, shaking their head.  “I told my son not to do that!  I told him and his wife that it was just a house and that there are plenty of them out there, so don’t fall in love.  And what did they do?  They started dreaming of how they’d decorate each room, and where they’ll put the Christmas tree, and the next thing you know ─”

“They completely overbid?” I asked, not really asking.

“Exactly!!!” said the exasperated parent, throwing their hands up in frustration.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to negotiations.  It manifests itself everywhere, including the workplace.  Many people fall in love with their own ideas of how their organization should act, and if these ideas aren’t embraced, they take it personally.  Which is so weak and insecure.

On the other hand, the most valued colleagues are the ones who are passionate about their contributions, yet aren’t emotionally attached to them.  They know that people want their professional judgment on how problems should be resolved ─ not some emotional dilemma that will need to be managed if a different path is chosen.

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The Ground Floor

Around 1993 or 1994, you could have picked up the phone, dialed information, and gotten the number of a law office in Illinois.  You could have called this office and asked to speak with one of their young associates.  And he would have taken your call.

What happened after that would have been up to you.  Perhaps you could have invited him to come give a talk to your organization.  Maybe you could have offered to help him with a charitable initiative near and dear to his heart.  Or, maybe you could have just asked him to be your lawyer.  Over time, though, it’s quite possible that you could have developed a genuine relationship with this person, one that would exist to this day. 

If you had reached out to him at that point.

Because just a few years later, this man would become a United States senator.  By then, for you, it would have been too late to get to know him.  The walls would have been up.  The gates, locked.  By then, everybody was calling, everybody wanted something, and access was nearly impossible.

And not long after that, he’d be president. 

Some of the most famous bands in the world today were playing college student centers and church basements before anybody cared who they were.  Ten years ago, you could have bought them a round of beers.  You could have offered them a place to crash.  And they would have been grateful.

Which brings us to now.  There are people out there, right now, practicing their jump shot, or learning an instrument, or appearing in some soon-to-be-forgotten play, and you can reach out to them.  And more importantly, they would respond

Right now, they don’t have agents or managers or personal assistants.  They don’t have sycophants and handlers.  And they certainly don’t have fans.

Today, right now, many of these people are struggling to make it.  For some of them, every day is a challenge, and there are things you can do to help them.  Things this person will remember for the rest of their lives.

Today, right now, they’re accessible, and you’re in a position to help. 

But the clock is ticking.

Because, in just a few short years, they’ll become whoever it is they’re going to be.  At that point, they’ll be shaping the world, and will be sought after in every way imaginable.  The walls will be up.  The gates will be locked.

It’s amazing to think that you could help this person before they become whoever it is they’re going to be.

What’s even more amazing is this: you could be one of them.  You could be one of the people that the rest of us will one day regret not reaching out to.

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The First Face a Baby Sees

A former colleague (and skilled family therapist) once told me that when a parent looks at his/her baby for the very first time, it greets the newborn with one of two expressions.

Either, the newborn sees a face that says, “I’m here to make your life wonderful!” or, it sees a face that says, “You’re here to make my life wonderful!”

The same could be said about the face your colleagues see when you show up to work, or that your customers see when they walk through your door.

Where people run into trouble, though, is that this kind of thing can’t be faked. 

Except it is, all the time: businesses that act like they’re doing their customers a favor; celebrities who can’t be bothered with fans; the list is endless.

It’s not a crime to be self-centered (lame, for sure, but certainly not a crime).  Yet it is unfortunate how often we count on people who pretend to have our best interests at heart, when all they really care about is what’s in it for them.

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Remember Who You’re Dealing With

At the very first mediation training I ever attended, the instructor posed a question to the class.  He said, “What do you think is the first question I ask when I sit down to mediate a case?”

Keep in mind: this was a veteran mediator who had handled a wide range of cases, including complex business agreements, multi-million dollar personal injury settlements, and international custody arrangements.

Knowing his experience handling such weighty matters, hands shot up throughout the room.

One person said, “You ask the parties to identify their respective positions?”


Another person said, “You ask them when the dispute first arose?”


“You inquire as to whether there have been attempts at settlement, and if so, why those attempts failed?”

Wrong again.

After a few more tries, the class gave up, and he revealed the answer…

“I ask them if they’d like something to drink.”

Remember, no matter how complex the matter is that you’re trying to resolve, one thing always remains the same: you’ll always be dealing with people.  Regular human beings, just like everybody else.

Yes, they may be “corporate representatives.”  Yes, they may be “adverse parties.”  And yes, they may be at each others’ throats.

But they’re still human beings.

And the more you treat them like human beings, the more likely they are to act like human beings.

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