Timing is Everything in a Negotiation

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Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, that our brains become especially lazy when we are tired or hungry. On the other hand, a well-rested, well-fed brain is generally more primed for listening and critical thinking. Understanding this simple aspect of human behavior can help you better prepare for a negotiation. Knowing when the person across from you might be most ready for a conversation or most susceptible to an idea can be the difference between a “yes” or a “no.”

Even if it is not a conscious decision, legal mediators use their awareness that we all wear down over time to push the parties in a dispute to reach a resolution. There is a saying that nothing gets done until the end of the day. That’s because, by then, everyone is exhausted. People lose sight of their anger, stubbornness, and rigid adherence to principles when they become tired and distracted. A less jaded perspective would be that people start to realize the futility of a protracted dispute by dinnertime. Either way, timing helps get to a resolution.

Indeed, timing is critical for every negotiation. The best time to enter into a negotiation can depend on the type and substance of the dispute and understanding who is on the other side. Thinking about the mindset of the person you are dealing with will help determine the most opportune moment to engage. For example, in a salary negotiation, you may not want someone tired and cranky on the other side of the table. In a purchasing negotiation, knowing the end of a monthly or quarterly sales cycle could be useful in negotiating price.

My six-year-old daughter learned the importance of timing during the pandemic when both of her parents were working from home. If she wanted to watch a show on TV or avoid doing work, she would wait until one of us was on an important call or video chat, quietly open the office door, and firmly request her demand, “Pause your call. Pause your call. Can I watch a show? Can I watch a show? Can I watch a show?” She understood both timing and perseverance. If I was lucky, the call could be put on hold and a firm “no” would be delivered. But more than once her method was successful. After begging her to stop, I caved and said yes—anything for 20 minutes of uninterrupted work time.

Timing is everything, especially when you are starting from “no” and expecting more of the same.