Negotiators Need To Fall In Love With The Number 3

There is a power associated with the number three
There is a power associated with the number three
Image Credit: Ines Hegedus-Garcia

We are all human. What this means is that for some odd and unexplained reason no mater which negotiation styles or negotiating techniques we are using, we all seem to like things that come in threes. In our world it seems as though all good things come in groups of three. Think about it, your childhood was filled with three bears, three kings, three little pigs, etc. It turns out that for negotiators, things that come in groups of three can be rewarding as well.

Learn How to Negotiate in Three Dimensions

I believe that most of us understand the importance of preparing thoroughly for our next negotiation; however, it is all too easy for us to focus too narrowly on tactics on the table: how to frame an initial offer, how to be persuasive, and so on. In contrast to what we do, professional negotiators are more likely to grasp the importance of negotiating in three dimensions rather than one. Negotiators need to learn how to move beyond the first dimension of “at the table” interpersonal skills and tactics to move on the two other dimensions: setup moves and deal design.

When we engage in setup this move means taking steps to ensure that the right people are at the right table, engaging in the right issues in the right sequence. All too often we assume that we’re talking to the right person in a negotiation. But what if we’ve overlooked someone with greater power to make a deal happen? The best negotiators set themselves up for success by scanning the environment to identify the most promising counterparts, options, setting, and so on. It’s equally important to focus on how you design a deal, a third dimension in negotiation. This includes identifying potential tradeoffs—issues that are relatively easy for one side to give and valuable for the other to receive. It also means thinking about how an agreement will be implemented after the deal is signed and comparing it closely to your other alternatives.

Always Follow the “Fall in Love with Three” Rule

When we are in a big negotiation, there is always the possibility that when the other side presents us with a offer, we may just fall in love with it. Just like other times in our life when we were buying a house, a car, or some piece of jewelry we may end up getting ourselves into trouble here. If you decide that you “just have to have” the offer that has been presented to you, then you’ve just made a mistake.

Negotiators understand that when they have several appealing alternatives, they gain the power they need to walk away from a negotiation without going below their bottom line (BATNA). Although it can sometimes be tricky to find multiple alternatives, such as several houses that you appreciate equally, doing so is likely to lead you to more satisfying outcomes.

Always Make Three Offers Simultaneously

As negotiators, our goal is to be able to create deals that will capture the interest of the other side and will make them want to agree with us. When we are negotiating, we can make a mistake and create a single offer that we will present to the other side. When we do this, what is going to happen is that the other side will turn it down or they will accept it on the spot. If they accept it, then you will end up haggling. Yes, this approach can sometimes work, but it often prevents us from identifying packages that both parties would prefer more.

So what should negotiators do when they find themselves in this situation? Negotiators should simultaneously present three offers that you value equally, but that vary across issues. Such “MESOs,” or multiple equivalent simultaneous offers, are likely to draw out your counterpart’s priorities and interests in a way not captured by direct questioning.

What All Of This Means For You

All negotiators are people first and this means that just like everyone else, the number three means something special to them. In our lives, there are a large number of things that seem to happen in threes. It turns out that the power of three can be carried over into principled negotiations in order to help us create better deals.

As negotiators, we need to learn how to negotiate in three dimensions. We need to learn how to stop focusing only on the issues that are on the table and instead start to include thinking about setup moves and deal design. A big concern of negotiators needs to be if we are going to fall in love with a proposal that is presented to us. We need to make sure that we always have multiple options that we can choose from. When we are making offers to the other side, we need to be careful to present them with three options so that we can get more information from them based on which deals they reject and why.

No, in the world of negotiating there really is no magic. However, you can’t argue with the fact that the number three sure does seem to play a big role in all of the things that we do. Keeping this in mind, make sure that the next time that you are involved in a negotiation you don’t allow yourself to get sold short – always do things in three!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Negotiating Skills™

Question For You: If the other side doesn’t present you with three options, what should you do?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

How good are you at predicting the future? Are you the person who can always guess who will win the Superbowl each year? Can you guess someone’s age when you meet them the first time? If you are like most of us, the future is a big mystery to you. That’s why a lot of negotiations grind to a halt – both sides think that the future is going to turn out differently and they are not willing to sign an agreement that doesn’t line up with what they think is going to happen. Is there any way around this problem?

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