Anyone who’s watched or read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” will know the famous exchange where Alice asks the Cheshire Cat an important question and gets a life lesson in return:
"Cheshire-Puss," she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where---" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
We would do well to take this advice to heart when thinking about negotiation. If you don’t know what you want, it’s impossible to know when you’ve been successful. Before you enter into any exchange, you need to know what you want, specifically. And you need to know what’s critical (as in, a “must-have”), and what’s not.
For instance, a client has purchased a consulting package worth $2000 that is non-refundable. She’s decided to change her business plan and no longer wants the package. You may be willing to let her transfer the package to someone else, but you are not willing to give her a full refund.
In discussions with your teenage daughter about curfew, you may be a bit flexible on the time (11:30 versus 12 midnight), but it’s an absolute requirement that you or another adult do the driving.
Knowing what’s critical to your definition of success and what isn’t allows some leeway to make concessions to the other person without feeling like you’re giving away the store. It also protects against making an agreement that isn’t in your best interest.
In the heat of the moment, there’s a tendency to react emotionally rather than logically; you back down because you don’t want to upset someone else, or you hold your ground because you feel threatened. Deciding beforehand – and sticking to it – protects against these emotional reactions.
If you find yourself in a negotiation before you know what’s happening, remember that you can always take a minute to gather your thoughts or ask to delay the decision. We can feel pushed into a corner, like we have no choice but to respond, but that’s rarely the case.
Try saying, “Let me call you back in five minutes,” or “I’m not sure – I need to check my schedule/give this more thought/check with my spouse.” If the person you’re in discussions with doesn’t want to let you take the time to think things through, that’s a strong signal that you’re dealing with someone who does not have your best interests at heart. You may want to avoid dealing with them altogether.
The biggest mistakes in negotiating come from responding emotionally rather than logically. Take the time beforehand to ask yourself your true desires before you get wrapped up in a discussion when you’re not even sure what you really want.