What Can an Orange Teach You About Winning an Argument? Negotiation in a Non-Zero Sum Environment

“ T h e  m o r e  c l e a r l y w e  c aNegotiation can be nerve-wracking, and rightly so. Often the topic on the line is one that really matters to all of the people involved in a negotiation. Imagine the situation where you’ve been offered a coveted job, but the compensation package isn’t what you want it to be. Or a co-worker wants to take charge of an assignment that you think could make your career, if only it landed on your desk. Or you and your spouse disagree about how to share household chores, and neither one of you is budging about who cleans the toilets.

I want to share a shift in mindset that has changed the way I think about negotiations. Imagine that two women are fighting bitterly about who gets to have the last orange in the grocery store (Depending on my mood, I like to imagine that this story either takes place in a dystopian futurescape or in a romantic French village 150 years ago. In either case, oranges are rare).

Each woman lists the many reasons why she is the more deserving recipient of the orange:

“I have a family to feed!”

“My children haven’t tasted fruit in months!”

“Oranges are my husband’s favorite fruit and it is birthday!”

And so on.

After some minutes of this argument, one of the women shouts,

“If I don’t get the orange I don’t know how I am supposed to flavor my muffins!”

The other woman rebuts, “Well, how am I supposed to make juice?!”

Suddenly the two women stop fighting. They realize that they don’t actually want the same thing at all. One of the women needs the rind for baking, while the other wants the fruit for juicing. They are able to split the cost of the orange and each take the part she needs.

Obviously this story is a ridiculous oversimplification, but I think of it sometimes when I am negotiating with someone to remind myself that it’s important to probe on people’s motivations during a debate. If you don’t uncover what a person really wants, it’s much harder to arrive at a satisfactory outcome. On the flip side, I will sometimes back off my request during a negotiation and instead try to communicate what it is I really want. Instead of pushing for a specific assignment, I might say, “I am looking for a project that uses my expertise around patient engagement and includes writing for a general audience.” There may be another assignment that meets those parameters that I wasn’t aware of, but now my manager can direct me to it.

Another reminder from the orange story is don’t assume that a negotiation is a zero-sum game, or an argument that has only one winner and a loser. Once you uncover each other’s true needs, you often might find that they’re not in direct opposition. Your new employer may not be able to boost your salary, but is willing to give you a few extra vacation days or flexibility to work from home on Fridays. Your boss can find you a different assignment that stretches the skills you want to develop. Your spouse is willing to do the dishes, but only if you’re willing to wait until the morning to have them get done. Reminding myself that both parties may be able to win the negotiation helps me to be less emotional during the discussion and to keep a problem-solving mentality.

So how do you get to the bottom of what someone really wants? Especially when the person may not even be able to articulate that to him- or herself? One tactic I like is “the five whys,” often used in product management. As the name suggests, the tactic involves repeatedly asking a person “why” until they arrive at the irreducible answer to your question. Eventually, usually around five questions, you arrive at the real root answer to your question. In addition to being a logical trick to dig through information, I like this tactic because it offers an opportunity to let some humor into a potentially tense conversation. That’s because nobody asks “why” repeatedly better than a child. (But seriously, be careful with this tactic not to come across as accusatory or nagging–some lightness in your tone and an acknowledgement that you may be harping on a point can go a long way.)

Even if you’re not precisely negotiating, probing on people’s underlying needs and motivations can be a helpful tactic to understand how to best work together or help someone. There’s a reason why the five whys pop up so often as a product management tactic.

So the next time you find yourself in a negotiation, remember the story of the orange and ask yourself if there is a way that all parties can walk away from the table having won. Even if the answer is no, you can enjoy briefly daydreaming about warring housewives in a post-apocalyptic grocery store.

Additional Resources on Negotiation Tactics: