How An Imaginary Sidekick Can Help Your Negotiation

According to the book Getting To Yes, “The reason you negotiate is to produce something better than results you can obtain without negotiating.” You want to go into the negotiation with a clear sense of what you can do if you don’t reach an agreement, in other words, what is your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). 

Think of your BATNA as your special invisible sidekick reminding you that you don’t have to agree to unfair or unfavorable terms in your negotiation. It serves as a reminder of when to walk away. (My BATNA definitely wears a red cape.)

There are four steps to discover and use your BATNA:

  • Use vigorous exploration to list all the possible actions you can take in this situation. 
  • Develop the most promising ideas into realistic alternatives. 
  • Evaluate your ideas and tentatively select the alternative that seems like your best option, which may be to do nothing. This is your BATNA.
  • Once in your negotiation, compare all potential negotiated outcomes to your BATNA.

Here’s what that looks like in action:

I recently produced a day of women’s programming for a conference client. If next year I am asked to produce the event again, I’d want to reflect on my interests and ensure that I know the qualities I’m looking for in a client. Just because I liked working with the conference client this year doesn’t mean they’ll be my jam a year from now. 

1. Use vigorous exploration to list all the possible actions you can take in this situation. 

I’d consider all of the alternative contracts I could pursue if the conference didn’t work out. While I might want to go on tour with Hanson (who I’ve loved unconditionally since 1997), it’s not a realistic alternative for more than a few reasons. Instead, I would consider the other clients I could work with in that time frame, looking at other past clients and my prospect list. I’d also consider doing nothing. 

2. Develop the most promising ideas into realistic alternatives. 

For each of the prospects on my list, I’d evaluate how likely I thought it was I could land the client, how much time the project would take, and what it would likely pay. 

3. Evaluate your ideas and tentatively select the alternative that seems like your best option, keeping in mind it may be to do nothing.

If I knew I wanted an additional contract, the one client that best matched my interests and whom I was optimistic would hire me again would become my BATNA. Notice that my BATNA is not all of my potential alternatives in the aggregate. It’s a specific option that I could pursue. After all, it’s always going to be more appealing to have a bunch of different choices (that include a Hanson road trip!) than it is to look at a single realistic option. 

4. Compare all potential negotiated outcomes to your BATNA.

Once I’m in the negotiation with my secret BATNA sidekick, I would judge all negotiated agreements or outcomes in terms of how they meet my interests as compared to how well my BATNA meets them. I want to recognize the point at which my BATNA meets my interests better than the current option on the table. Having something specific to compare an agreement to makes it easier for me recognize a good offer and to know when to walk away.

While you’re investigating your own BATNA, consider what your counterpart’s BATNA is, which can help you understand your own bargaining power.

One final note on your BATNA: remember, it’s ok to walk away. Women are socialized to be relational, so ending the conversation without a negotiated agreement may feel daunting or may not even occur to us as an option. There can be an instinct to continue with the negotiation or try to come to a happy conclusion because you’ve already put so much energy into it. Use your BATNA as an anchor to life outside of this negotiation.

You don’t have to leave on bad terms like the kid that shouts “Fine, I’ll just take my ball and go home” and storms off. If it was merely a situation in which you couldn’t reach an agreement but would like to work with them in the future, you can graciously thank them for their time and ask them to let you know if anything changes. 

That said, there may be times when you don’t want your counterpart to contact you again. As I was sharing apprehensions about someone I was dating, a friend once told me he didn’t hear any red flags, but there were a lot of orange ones. Don’t ignore those orange flags. Consider them data points. Particularly if your Spidey Sense is going crazy that your counterpart may be dishonest or treating you with disrespect, entering into an agreement with them may not be the wisest decision.

When you start with clear goals and mind, a clear sense of your deal breakers, and your BATNA sidekick, you’re walking into the negotiation prepared to make a strong agreement and walk away if that’s not possible.