Published in, The Negotiation Society, Issue Three, November 2018.
My first semester at the University of Baltimore, I taught masters students the negotiation strategies I had learned from the Harvard Business School and from my decade-long career as a senior global advertising executive. Students enjoyed the lectures, discussions, and simulations.
During individuals meetings and after reading their reflection papers, however, I started to rethink the course. The financial precarity of many of their lives concerned me, causing me to ask myself, what good is it to help people save $5,000 on a car, if they don’t have a retirement account or any savings? That money will disappear in a month.
A deaf student who worked in construction, for example, had no health insurance. Without health insurance in the United States, one broken leg will eat up anything saved in a car negotiation. His vulnerability put him as well as his loved ones at great financial risk. Students also did not understand the nature of school loans. In the United States, even personal bankruptcy cannot free one from these loans. People can be haunted by them their entire lives.
Knowing many students had taken on these loans to be in my classes, I felt a responsibility to help them find a way out of debt.
Taking Stock as Preparation
Over the winter break, I quickly redesigned the course. Now early in the semester, we talk about building a strong financial ship. Students figure out their net worth, which requires calculating their credit card debt, home loans, etc. They also look at their retirement plan and think about their health coverage. Then, a financial advisor speaks to the class about financial basics and explains the difference between a fiduciary and a stockbroker, the former being required by law to make decisions which serve the client before themselves.
This ought to be the first step in any negotiation class. You have to first know what you have.
Adding this personal financial component to the class had immediate results. One student turned down a job offer promising her an easier commute and greater vacation time. She said no because the salary would not be enough to pay off her school loans while also covering her monthly expenses. She said learning about the loans helped her make this decision.
The idea of preparation is a standard in any negotiation book or seminar. By “preparation” the negotiation experts mean taking time to figure out what you are willing to pay, your alternatives and your counterpart’s interests and alternatives. What many negotiation resources neglect to discuss is how you know. You need to know where you are and where you are going.
This is as true for companies as it is for individuals. When salespeople understand, for example, their company’s operating costs, they can feel more confident when negotiating with potential customers.
Negotiating helps you cover your costs while securing money to invest in your future. So, how do you know your future?
Knowing what you really want
The course now adds a second component to “preparation” rarely addressed deeply in negotiation classes. Course participants spend time clarifying not only what they want, but why they want it. When they think about the why they consider how the acquired object or resource will contribute to their lives. Unless grounded in what matters most to us, we can too easily find ourselves in caught up in ego-based negotiations in which we try to capture more of whatever happens to be on the table, whether or not we really want it.
Getting to Yes with Yourself, negotiation guru William Ury’s latest book, talks about the importance of taking time for this introspection. After decades of helping people acquire what they thought they wanted, only to find they still were not happy, inspired him to write this book. He now urges political leaders, business owners and individuals to really stop and think about what fulfills them.
Students like Ury’s book, but often tell me they need more help figuring out exactly what they want. A decade working in advertising, helped me understand how marketers work to tell people what they should want. Few can be totally immune to how culture and marketing shapes us, but we can stop and consider the kinds of messages we receive.
People receive far more marketing messages, for example, to acquire something new than to say, pay off their debt. In January 2018, Experian estimated the average American carries at least $6,375 in credit card debt. This is a 3% increase from 2017. With a U.S. national average of 17% interest on these loans, many folks can barely pay off the interest each month. But people continue to buy. Advertising encourages consumers to that whatever they are selling will be worth the expense. At the very least the new acquisition can be distraction from the uncomfortable feeling of the debt at their heels.
One of our students described well the trap of consumption,
“I used to spend my money buying all these fancy things to impress my friends. Then I became annoyed they did not come over very often and when they did they did not seem sufficiently impressed with what I acquired. I worked all week earning money to acquire possessions I spent my weekends taking care of. Eventually, I cleaned it all out and started taking care of myself.”
It might be a shock to accept that our ‘wants’ may actually not even be our own. How do we know if what want came from ourselves or was planted in our minds by advertisers, parents, colleagues, our religious community or even by a business competitor? In class we do some of the difficult work of disentangling that. I remind students of psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s profound observation,“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
Yes, we go deep. But by thinking critically about what influences us, we have a better chance of being fulfilled when we succeed.
So now, in addition to thinking about their financial situation, students also write an essay about what they want and why they want it. They continue to think about and refine their goals throughout the semester. Their efforts culminate in the last class which is held in my home. Their final assignment is to prepare for and attend a “Come As You Will Be” party. Students come as they will be in five years, dressing up and bringing props like business cards, book covers, and wedding rings. They try to stay in character for four hours and ask each other questions about their personal and professional lives. Students have created fascinating consulting companies, talked about their improved health and shared funny stories about their children, partner and homes. The goals is to be as convincing as possible.
This celebratory event can be challenging because it puts everyone back into the driver seat of their own lives and disrupts the unconscious chasing of something “out there” that will presumably increase their happiness.
While this discussion has largely been about individuals, the same strategies are useful in business or in politics. Businesses also need to know who they are and what matters most to them. “Money” as a single answer is a lazy and will not be enough to inspire the best out of employees. This is why some companies invest so much time in quality mission statements.
A salad shop, sweetgreen, has the mission to “inspire healthier communities by connecting people to real food.” Patagonia, an outdoor equipment and clothing company, goes even further with mission to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
These are goals big enough to inspire employees of all levels to move through the occasional drudgery of the day-to-day of production and delivery of their products. Notice that being wealthy and number one were not the mission; they may be the outcome of fulfilling their mission, but it is not the primary goal. Without being grounded in a deep knowing of who they are and what they want it, businesses may find themselves mindlessly pursuing the competitor which can lead them in the wrong direction. Business leaders can miss untapped markets when too focused on capturing their competitor’s clients. Additionally, focusing solely on beating the competitor can distract from creating innovative solutions, leading companies to be effectively knock-offs of one another.
A simply sailing metaphor can help negotiators get on the right track. Know the status of your vessel and be clear about the destination. Then, use negotiation tactics to move you swiftly along your way.
 Ury, William. Getting to Yes with Yourself: (And Other Worthy Opponents). HarperCollins, 2015.
 Dickler, Jessica. “Credit card debt hits a record high. It’s time to make a payoff plan.” CNBC.com Published January 23, 2018. Accessed August 28, 2018.
No one can deny that Paris is filled with many joys. Paris is also the birthplace of existentialism for a reason. When it rains, is cold, crowded and cranky, Paris can suck delight away as quickly as it gave it over.
Tragic Paris in the Rain
Yesterday offered unseasonably cold day of rain. The weather offered a perfect, if unpleasant, context in which to spend the day with a Holocaust survivor visiting Drancy, France’s largest internment camp in a suburb just outside of Paris. She took me and a couple friend around the site, told us how the camp — now immigrant housing — held 100,000 mostly Jewish deportees while they awaited their trains to Auschwitz. She also talked about her regular post-war visits to the site to see if her mother was among the returning survivors. “For years, I thought she may have had amnesia and been living somewhere.” The government just labeled her mother as “disappeared.” Only in the 1990s was she able to acquire a death certificate.
Even though we did our best to bring some humor and levity to the day, the rain and tragedies of WWII loomed heavy. After the visit, I met a friend for an aperitif at the Paris-London brasserie where discussed the Greece’s looming debt crisis–the modern economic war in Europe.
When I learned that my 8pm dinner plans would take me on another two trains — I had already ridden several to reach the camp– and more traipsing through the cold rain I struggled to find the whimsical joy I had experienced during Paris’ fête de la musique that occurred the night before.
On the crammed metro, people looked tired, irritable and wet. I was just about to add my own fatigue and bedraggled state to the sorry looking lot when something shifted in me.
“No,” I thought “No, I’m going to find the joy. I’m going to find my happiness in this moment.”
So I closed my eyes and just focused on feeling happy and excited for no particular reason.
The sound of a crying infant lurched me out of my isolated zen moment. I looked at this adorable, cranky 1-year-old and decided that we would have a good time. My focus became cheering him up. I started making faces at him and then he at me. His mother, also tired and irritable at first tried to quell his every move. Once he started reaching out for me I told her he seemed to be kind of a flirt– a drageur. Then she laughed and softened too. She also began to play with her son instead of whacking his hand away from his face.
We all three started having a good time. He started trying to explain something in his not-yet-quite-a-language and I listened with attention, agreed with him and used hand motions to encourage further clarification.
Together we did not cheer up the whole metro we only the ride transformed for us. Instead of following what I affectionately named during my years in Paris, “the Paris Crank” (caused by cold, fatigue, crowded metros and a sour attitude) we chose joy.
Maybe I gained perspective from my research– no train ride could really be worse than those cattle cars to Poland. Even more simply, joy is more fun than being cranky. I was able to catch my mood and the child’s discontent early enough enjoy to turn our emotional train around. On the one hand, this was just 7 minutes on the other hand, life really is just an accumulation of moments, so why not make the best of each one?
In this photo is “Fluff” (Mary) Capua and my mother.
Fluff died last week and now that she’s gone I’m willing to share her. When she was alive, I almost wanted to keep her to myself.
That was a mistake though, because this woman ironically named “Fluff” had a love much bigger and fiercer than her little frame reveals in this photo. She had enough room to love us all.
She came into my life and my mom’s life at a very challenging time. She made me feel loved, perfect, and brilliant no matter how twisted I felt inside. Never once did I feel wrong for not living like everyone else. It didn’t matter that I lived in an apartment with a friend and not in a big house with lots of kids.
She was too busy giving and loving to judge. She gave in many old-timely ways.
She left us Italian food at our door, sent us cookies when we lived far away and has sent me birthday cards for over twenty years.
This year I received this birthday card a week after she lost consciousness.
Fluff wouldn’t let a little thing like death get in the way of your birthday.
My birthday this year landed on the same day as the terror attacks in Paris. It was a hard birthday. I spent the day checking on friends in France and holding my breath for the hostages.
All I wanted to do was have a cup of coffee and some soup with Fluff that day. I didn’t know she had already had a massive stroke.
She died in the best way. One stroke and then out. She lived right and died right. Rather than getting old in a way that required everyone to take care of her, she lived for taking care of others. She asked for so little and would flip over with glee when you had time for tea. I want to be like her. If I have the luxury to grow old, I want to be loving on everyone too. I know how good it felt to experience unconditional love.
April 10th, in the bustling student center of Grinnell College, over 100 students, faculty and staff gathered for a seder. A visiting faculty, I found a seat next to another visiting professor– Kostek Gerbert, a Polish journalist and Jewish activist well known for his war correspondence, most notably during the war in Yugoslavia.
I wanted to write about this rare opportunity to chat for several hours with Kostek as part of a forthcoming “Never Eat Alone” series of posts.
Never Eat Alone
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi came out with a business book called Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. Now in its second edition, the book talks about the power of relationships to get you where you want to go. The book sparked an idea in me. What would happen if I started to avoid eating alone? What kinds of incredible conversations might I have? The intention for me was not to win business contracts, but simply to see what I might have been missing out on during those solitary meals. A conversation with Kostek showed me just what I had been missing…
Hopefully, summer in Siberia”
When Jack, the psychology major sitting to my right, asked Kostek what he might be doing for the summer, Kostek replied,
“Hopefully, summer in Siberia.”
I said usually the words summer and hopefully are not near the word Siberia. Then he explained why,
“Of course, you know, everyone reads on the metro. This is not unusual. But in Siberia, they double read.”
He paused and said,
”You see, historically, all the great writers got sent to Siberia…they were exiled there. So they have a very rich culture of reading and writing!!”
I am so glad someone benefited from all those writers being sent away.
And, You Don’t Want to Miss Winter in Siberia Either
We could then understand why an activist/writer would want to be around a rich intellectual culture, but we could not understand why experiencing -50 in a Siberian winter was on his bucket list.
“My daughter explained that at negative 50, life leaves a trail. People warm the frozen air as they walk and then it re-freezes as they move forward, but in a different shape. The light then picks up the crystals and leaves a golden trail. I want to see this before I die.”
He also was told that at -50 anti-Semitism freezes. He has been told by locals that people cannot hate each other. At that temperature everyone relies on everyone else for survival.
“So, what you’re saying is that hate and conflict is a luxury?” I asked.
We paused, that gave us something to think about.
What World War II Heroes Have in Common
In between Seder prayers, the conversation continued with Jack and Kostek. Jack, now a second-year student, told us he was going to spend the summer learning how to operate an MRI machine studying the brains of young women who might be prone to social anxiety disorders. He was thrilled to be doing real research and in his hometown of Madison Wisconsin.
Somehow, probably due to the intercession of prayers, bitter herbs, and horseradish, we got from there to what wartime heroes had in common.
Kostek, an expert in World War II Poland, said he had spoken to many people who had saved Jews during the war. He noticed something so curious about what they had in common. He said, after the war, they were all over the place politically. Some of these people were on the far-right (many of them, in fact), some where on the far left, some where professors and others were uneducated peasants.
“Do you know what they all had in common?” he asked.
We shook our heads.
“They all did not believe that the problem was someone else’s business. They are the kind of people that cannot leave well enough alone. They make terrible co-workers,” he explained laughing a bit, “because they are always involved in everyone else’s business.”
He talked to people who knew people who took similar risks in the Bosnian war, the attribute was the same. The people who saved others at the risk of their own lives were nosy people who wouldn’t wait for others to fix things.
Astonishing. We have totally undervalued these folks! Or at least I have. In 2015, Psychology Today wrote an article on how to handle nosy people. But, I’m starting to think maybe we need more of them.
I suggested to Jack that maybe his future research could be studying the brains of people who do this. Maybe their brains are different. Maybe nosy people have a bigger this or a smaller that. He really liked that idea….lets see where young Jack lands.
As for never eating alone, I am so glad I spent the evening with Kostek and Jack. I won’t ever look at Siberia or nosy people the same way.