Negotiation Blog

Why did the negotiator cross the road?

By Marianne Eby

Negotiations are serious business, which is why it is important to understand, and build trust with, the other party. Great negotiators know that no matter how serious the interaction, laughter is often one of the quickest paths to trust; it can relieve tension, create a bond, improve everyone's moods, and foster the creativity you want for mutually beneficial agreements to emerge.

Researchers in many fields, from medicine to psychology to communications, are increasingly interested in the social power of humor and the physical and emotional benefits of laughter. Public speakers are trained to open presentations with jokes or funny anecdotes. Political candidates are now expected to demonstrate their sense of humor on the talk show circuit to improve their likeability. In 2010 Comedian John Stewart was voted the "most trusted man in America." His social power derives from the fact that he is knowledgeable and funny, which makes him seem more trustworthy.  

A sense of humor is useful during all phases of negotiation as well -- to signal confidence or shift power, to change the environment, to soften bad news, to avoid answering a question, to respond to a ridiculous offer, or to save face.

Telling a funny story or acceptable joke can also help you gauge whether the other party is on the same page with you. If the other side is not laughing, or even engaging in a joking conversation, pay attention: they are not where you hope they are. Not laughing in response to a humorous gesture is a sign of discomfort or disconnection.

So prepare with ice-breakers -- anecdotes or jokes that get a group to laugh before you begin bargaining.

Try these tips for opening an interaction with humor:

Tell a story on yourself: People love to laugh at absurd but real events. Carol Burnett famously said "comedy is tragedy plus time." A story you tell about yourself makes you more human.

Don't take yourself too seriously. Keep the humor light, and your expectations for laughter down. Nothing kills an attempt to develop rapport more than someone who can't laugh at him or herself. Mildly self-deprecating jokes imply trust.

Collect a few jokes that work for you. They're easy to find or to collect. Good storytellers and comedians prepare material in advance, to avoid hitting the wrong note, and to be ready to hit the right one.

What to avoid:

  • Stories and jokes about race, culture, gender, religion, politics, or hometowns
  • Offensive material
  • Sarcasm
  • Targeting something sensitive about them you discovered by being empathetic (don't overuse empathy!)
  • Stories or jokes that require long, complex setups, or special insider knowledge
  • Telling a joke if you are not good at it
  • Jokes that rely on an exact understanding of your language

Sometimes puns (ambiguous play on words with multiple meanings) can be fun – just make sure your humor is understood. Let’s say you’re in a tense negotiation and everyone is frustrated. You might say:

“Does any one feel the way I do? Trying to figure out a solution that satisfies us all is like getting ready for a root canal – it’s unnerving!”

Keep these guidelines in mind for successful humorous stories and jokes:

  • Make them modest, not ambitious
  • Keep them short -- avoid a long setup!
  • Try to be topical -- find a story or joke that's relevant to the negotiation at hand, a recent press story, your travel, etc.
  • Be yourself!

Be real. Leverage your own style and personality. Be willing to laugh. See how it changes your negotiation results!

Negotiating Tip

Always thank them.


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Negotiation Blog

Use the Power of "Just Asking" in your Negotiations: Robert Pattinson Does!

By Thomas Wood

Sometimes just asking can save you hundreds of dollars, or hours of negotiating. And unlike Robert Pattinson, you don't have to be acting as a quidditch team captain, a vampire, or a young billionaire to have the confidence to pull it off.

The idea made the news last week when Robert Pattinson, multimillionaire actor known for his roles in the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series and the just released Cosmopolis film, explained the way he negotiates on Jimmy Kimmel Live:

Pattinson confirmed that he is an habitual negotiator who "buys everything on Craigslist." His most recent bargain was for a 2001 Silverado listed for around $2500. He recounted bonding with the seller over gas prices, then simply asking for $300 off the price. The seller agreed, he said, and didn't really understand the concept of negotiating. "The guy's comeback was "what about $50 bucks more?"

Pattinson's "just ask" strategy was news because we don't imagine a multimillionaire celebrity haggling over $300. But it is not news for procurement professionals in big business across industries, who rely on asking for a greater discount, a changed term, extended service, faster delivery, etc. They "just keep asking," regardless of whether there is anything to justify the ask, not because they are obnoxious or uninformed, but because this tactic works. If a sharp company sales rep appropriately pushes back, an experienced procurement professional might say with light laughter, "Well, I had to ask!"

Remember that if you are "just asking" and can justify your Ask, it's strategic. But if you are "just asking" for no other reason than that it might work, you are using a tactic, which unlike strategies, are non-collaborative moves to gain short term advantage. Like any negotiating tactic, if you overuse then or use them in the wrong situations, expect to erode trust and your own credibility. 

"Just asking" in the right situations, however, does in fact work most of the time. Recently, when billed $2700 for the treatment of an infected blister, of which my insurance paid only $1800, I called the private clinic's billing department. I started with a joke ("you know I didn't have heart surgery, right?") and then simply asked: "I was hoping you could help me out." They cut my bill in half.

An easy, efficient way to practice "just asking" is when you are shopping. A client told me that they had gotten $300 off the mattress they wanted simply by walking around the desired mattress for awhile, chin in hand, saying nothing.

Thoughtful silence is a kind of probe that can work miracles, especially in flea markets and antique stores. The key is to show genuine interest. Don't point out all the problems with the merchandise (i.e., it looks damaged, it's too big, etc.) hoping the seller will see it as less valuable. Sellers, like most negotiators, would prefer a positive interaction with someone likeable who respects their business and merchandise. Complimenting the piece, and the seller's taste or selection, helps a seller invest in you as a customer and try to find a way to get you to buy that piece.

Tips when asking -- or probing -- for a quick and simple bargain:

  • As in more involved negotiations, build a little rapport with the seller first. Make small talk -- about the shop, the merchandise, the weather.
  • Treat the seller with the utmost respect -- don't badmouth the store, the the business or the merchandise. Often in antique stores the seller chose everything in the place.
  • Show genuine interest in what you're considering. If you can, know something about it. If not, ask "dumb" questions about it to show your interest and let the seller talk about it.
  • Don't try to get to the seller's "bottom" price in smaller negotiations. If you can get $300 off in a few minutes or with one question, you're getting great value for the time you've invested.
  • Keep it light. Ask "is there any flexibility on that?" Or "Can you help me out on this?" Or just look at the object quietly, with appreciation.
  • And remember, "just asking" is applicable to a lot more than price, in selling, buying and everyday negotiations that help you get what you want. Just ask!

Negotiating Tip

What does it mean to be an emotionally intelligent negotiator? It means your brain controls your mouth, not your-out-of-control emotions.


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