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Getting A Good Deal

Why my husband keeps me away from the bargaining table.

All my life, I have been a terrible negotiator. I overpaid for everything, even though I have long understood, in principle, how a negotiation should be conducted. I know that you need to "drive a hard bargain" and "be willing to walk away from the table" if you want to get the best possible deal. I just never seemed to be able to do it, ever.

It's reached the point that my husband forbids me from speaking whenever we are negotiating the price of a car, a home, or even a used toaster at the flea market. And while I wouldn't usually take too kindly to being silenced, I have to admit that I see his point. In a negotiation, I am the weakest link.

In the past, I've always chalked it up to one fundamental problem: I fervently and rigidly conform to the social norm of reciprocity - that kindness should be repaid with kindness. Which sounds noble, but in my case it's borderline dysfunctional. For instance, if the salesman shaved $100 off the price of a car, I felt that we should reciprocate his nice gesture by buying it. Somehow, the fact that the car remained overpriced by a few thousand dollars didn't quite enter into it for me.

A recently published paper, however, has made me question this explanation, and realize that there may be more to my problem than just pathologically wanting to appear nice.

This set of studies showed that when people know that they are about to negotiate, they see that looming negotiation as either a threat or a challenge. People who see a negotiation as a threat experience greater stress, and they make less advantageous deals. Their poor performance is caused primarily by the fact that stressed negotiators behave more passively, and are less likely to use tough tactics aimed at gaining leverage, compared to the hard-ballers who feel negotiation to be more of a challenge than a threat.

This makes so much sense to me. My husband absolutely sees negotiating as a challenge. He believes he has the knowledge and the ability to succeed. He looks forward to a good haggle. I do not. Reading this paper, I realized that I have always seen negotiations as threatening, believing that I lacked whatever abilities good bargainers have. I believed I was doomed to fail, and just wanted it over with as quickly as possible. Why prolong a stressful, threatening situation, when you can throw in the towel and move on?

This is, of course, ridiculous. When I stop and really think about it, I see that I am perfectly capable of negotiating as well as the next guy. There's nothing wrong with me. I'm not missing the bargaining gene. I've just always believed I wasn't good at negotiating, and saw it as threatening, without ever really questioning whether or not that was actually true.

So, what do you do if, like me, you see negotiations as threats and opportunities for failure? Well, the first step is to realize that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy - believing that you lack the ability to succeed pretty much guarantees that you won't. But now ask yourself, is it even true that I lack the ability to succeed in a negotiation? What do your fellow bargainers have that you don' t have? The answer is almost certainly: nothing. They don't have special abilities. They just believe in themselves. They believe they can drive the hard bargain. That's what matters.

So whether he likes it or not, I'm joining my husband in our next negotiation. I see now that believing that I am a lousy negotiator has made that belief a reality, and I refuse to accept this lie any longer. Wait and see - I am going to get a great deal on our next toaster.

K. O'Connor, J. Arnold, & A. Maurizio (2010) The prospect of negotiating: Stress, cognitive appraisal, and performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

More from Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.
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