Here is a story told by Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (page 274). Back in the 1960s when the world seemed to be changing and long hair on men was new and controversial there was an exchange between rock star
Frank Zappa and radio talk show host Joe Pine. Two facts about Zappa and Pine were that Zappa had long hair and Pine wore a prosthetic leg. Zappa had barely sat down at the interview table when the exchange went like this:
“Pine: ‘I guess your long hair makes you a girl.’
Zappa: ‘I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.’”
This is a famous example of a one-line comeback that illustrates something about negotiation.
Sometimes when we respond with a one-liner we are lucky! When we are lucky our quick response sets the tone for bargaining by either giving the discussion a new perspective or bringing the parties back to reality. If we are lucky our reaction might even be funny as well as helpful.
However, making a funny retort, or even one that puts you one-up on your opponent, does not usually promote successful negotiation. The chances of success in negotiation can be improved by cleverness, but this requires planning. Gregg Fisher recalls once when he was engaged in a very contentious round of labor negotiations with a union. While he had a reasonably good working relationship with the assistant business agent and other members of the executive board, he did not get along well with the union president. Following several very unproductive negotiating sessions, Gregg walked into the room one morning with an armful of rocks, which he tossed on the table. Members of the union’s negotiating team looked at him and asked, “What’s with the rocks?” He responded by saying that his arm was getting tired of throwing rocks and from here on out we were going to talk together rather than past each other. While the president didn’t think it was funny, the president’s negotiating team did. Something must have happened behind the scenes because they managed to get an agreement even over the objection of the president.
Gregg’s approach with the rocks was well thought through. It was a calculated move to break the logjam and promote respectful listening. Here is another example that didn’t work so well. Lee Lamb recalls a negotiation just starting out with a senior official. Just as an opening, he made an off-hand remark saying “How’d you get yourself in this situation.” This was not planned or calculated. It was a statement that just popped into his head. It did not work out well because it put the other guy on the defensive and signaled that this would be a difficult negotiation—just the opposite of what was intended.
Another key factor in a successful negotiating session is patience; especially when the parties have a long-standing relationship such an ongoing bargaining agreement. While there may be certain issues from an employer’s perspective that require an immediate solution, remember that there will always be a next time. Set your bargaining strategy to reflect your priorities. Your absolute “must haves” should be very limited in number. Your “desirable list” should include those items that would improve efficiency but are not detrimental to the organization if they are not obtained. Your final category is the “wish list”. These are concessions you do not expect to obtain but are put into your initial demands on the off chance that the opposition gets careless or an opportunity presents itself to effect the change.
It is important to think outside the box when you are faced with what seems like an unsolvable dilemma. Quick retorts or symbolic actions can be effective, but careful planning is always required as a foundation for success. The bottom line is to be certain you understand what you need as opposed to what you want. When you think outside the box—such as with one-liners—make sure you are supporting your strategy.
Gregg T. Fisher
Berton Lee Lamb
Negotiation Guidance Associates