Tolerating uncertainty is a difficult but necessary part of negotiation. Self-reflection is one way to avoid an impulse reaction that could be disastrous to your deal.
For example, let’s say your client has just announced changes to their priorities that are now threatening your ability to finish an important project on time. The announcement has come from their CEO, so you know the changes are important to them. Do you risk negotiating with the client, or would it be better to avoid conflict? This relationship is valuable to your company, but if you miss the deadline it’s going to cost more and impact your performance review. Knowing how well you tolerate uncertainty can impact what you do next.
Margaret Neale, the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, writes in her book, “Getting (More of) What You Want: How the Secrets of Economics and Psychology Can Help You Negotiate Anything, in Business and in Life,” that when people feel overwhelmed by uncertainty, they turn back to their most familiar routines. Personally, I start focusing on minutia so that I can control whatever is within reach. I know from experience that this is exhausting and ultimately not very productive.
There are a few factors that influence how you choose to move forward in a negotiation when you have incomplete information. One is how much you need closure. According to Neale, those with a strong need for closure are more likely to make a decision quickly to eliminate uncomfortable uncertainty. In our example scenario, you could tell your client that you need to stand by the project’s original scope and there’s no room for changes. The downside is that you may not gather all the information needed to make an informed decision and regret your impulse move later.
Another issue is how much time you have — or perceive that you have — to reach an agreement. If you feel rushed, you have less mental resources to process new information. Neale references a study demonstrating that negotiators who felt intense time pressure made less valuable agreements than those who did not feel time pressure. Interestingly, this happened even though both groups in the study had the same amount of time to negotiate.
The opposite of deciding too quickly is becoming paralyzed with indecision, like a deer in headlights. Neither is ideal. Try self-reflection before deciding what to do. If your first impulse is to go with your gut, discipline yourself to pause before coming to a hasty conclusion. Gather research from a few sources and validate those findings with another trusted colleague or mentor.
Perfectionists will have the opposite struggle: a need to gather all the data and learn everything possible before moving on. How can you make the best choice with incomplete information? Unfortunately, you can’t know in the moment. What you can do is gather knowledge to prepare yourself for multiple outcomes and be ready to adapt quickly to a new situation.
To gather knowledge, think back to previous interactions both specifically with this client, and more broadly in your career and life experience. Have you had negotiations with similar elements that you can draw on for insights? You can also call on the experiences of your colleagues. Include anyone who may have useful information — if your intern has been involved with the project, she or he may be able to provide insights that you wouldn’t have access to in another way.
Finally, you’d be surprised how making a few different short term plans that take into account different potential outcomes can reduce the weight of uncertainty. Use what you know about your counterpart’s priorities to imagine several possible scenarios. It may seem like more effort up front, but looking a few steps down the path will give you peace of mind that you’re not going in completely blind. But remember to leave yourself plenty of room for flexibility: a new opportunity may arise, or you might wind up with an outcome you hadn’t anticipated.
Finding the balance between gut instinct and complete indecision in the face of uncertainty in negotiation is extremely challenging. Balance those impulses by increasing your information and creating a few flexible options can help you choose your next step in a thoughtful and productive way.