On Relationships and Being Helpful


We seem to live in an age where negotiation has become about bullying. About winning and losing. Even our public discourse, and I'm guilty of this myself at times, is often more about winning an argument than about really understanding the other side.

Former British diplomat, speaker and author of The Cartography of Negotiation, Scott Wayne was the first person I heard use the phrase "The Death of Empathy." He says empathy is the number one trait of a good negotiator, and that the goal is to find common interest rather than focusing on one's own position. He's right.

We often forget that a successful negotiation ends in something called an agreement.

In business, and certainly in voiceover, nothing is more often negotiated than price.

My Dad, rest his soul, was an avid yard saler. He was a small child during the Great Depression (he was almost 50 when I was born), and as an adult, if something was on sale or discounted, well then Bill Schmidt was probably going to bring it home, much to my Mom's frustration.

He went to a lot of yard sales. And as it turns out, it seems people who go to yard sales tend to go to a lot of them and people that have yard sales have them somewhat regularly. So there's a bit of a sense of community within a community, or at minimum a sense of identification. 

I remember going with him once to a yard sale. Dad loved a discount and loved to haggle. We came upon a disembodied push lawn mower engine for sale, and I think the man wanted $10 for it. Dad wanted it for $5. The gentleman told Dad about the engine and the mower it had come from, and the fact that is was in working order but the mower deck had rusted out, etc. and they went back and forth for a couple of rounds.

They settled on $7. 

So I asked Dad, "Why didn't you get him down to $5?" and he taught me my first lesson about negotiation. He said, "It's about next time."

"It's about next time."

"It's about next time."

To him, it was more important that they were able to shake hands and do business again, than it was about getting the price down to $5. They both had to win.

The optimal price for an item or service is not the lowest price for the buyer, nor the highest price for the seller. The optimal price is the price that preserves, or ideally advances, the relationship between the buyer and the seller.

As I've said before, the relationship is more important than the job

Occasionally, either side can agree to an otherwise suboptimal price for the same reason, to advance the relationship. Let's say your client requests a lower than normal price for a very valid business reason, for example, they're doing work on spec. 

It makes sense to agree to a lower than usual price in light of the relationship as long as

  1. Special requests don't become a regular pattern (see the diagram below),
  2. The requester has a frame of reference for what is normal and reasonable and understands that the other party is making a special accommodation, and
  3. The requester sees the value in buyer and seller being flexible with each other and is likely to reciprocate when appropriate. 

This requires ongoing transparency on both sides. And trust. And most of all, empathy.

If the frequency of special requests, and therefore of suboptimal pricing, gets too high, the relationship becomes less stable because either buyer or seller is too often not getting fair value.

As the frequency of suboptimal pricing goes up, the sustainability of the relationship can very often go down.

As the frequency of suboptimal pricing goes up, the sustainability of the relationship can very often go down.


Relationships, and therefore negotiations, are a two way street. So, when we're looking to establish sustainable relationships, both sides should benefit most of the time, and both sides should benefit over time. 

If more often than not the same side is winning, the relationship will become unsustainable.

Here's the neat thing: if someone accommodates a special request for us, we are automatically, more likely to return the favor. Robert Cialdini calls it the Principle of Reciprocity.

Simply put, people want to help each other, and if you can help someone else when they need it, they'll be more likely to help you when you need it.


I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.