You probably know by now that while I go by the name Penelope today, it didn’t start out as my real name. It was a pen name. My editor at Time Warner gave it to me, and the first time I saw it was in a contract. It looked like a good place to start negotiating.
But when asked about writing under a different name my editor said, “When you’re Dominick Dunne you can negotiate with Time Warner.”
And herein lays the problem with most negotiations. You are in a great position if you have something to leverage, like, another person willing to give you the same type of deal. This is called your BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement). But in most cases, one party has an especially terrible BATNA. In the case of me and Time Warner, if I said no to them, they would have ten million people who would love to write a column for them. If they said no to me, I would not have a column.
Yet most advice about negotiating assumes you have a good BATNA. In an interview I did with William Ury, the author of my favorite negotiation book, Getting to Yes, he said that negotiation is all about knowing your BATNA and knowing the other party’s BATNA and then helping both of you to get what you want.
If you think about negotiating from this vantage point, then you can understand why job hopping is okay in today’s market: the BATNA for young people is stronger than the BATNA for hiring managers. Hiring managers are scrambling to hire young people and the young people are quitting faster than human resources can replace them. Meanwhile, the alternatives for young people are increasing – they can live at their parents’ house, they can start their own company, and they can travel. All great alternatives to getting a job at a company.
That said, sooner or later each of us finds ourselves in a situation where we have a really lousy BATNA. I find myself in this position a lot, as a writer. For example, a very large syndicate asked me to write for them. It would have meant having my column run in 400 newspapers at a time when I had about ten newspapers. I sent the contract to my lawyer, thinking he’d just take a quick look and say yes. But he told me that there was a clause that made me essentially unable to write for anyone else. Ever. We tried negotiating and they wouldn’t budge. Of course they wouldn’t. Millions of people want to write a syndicated column. So I had to say no. It was a very hard decision. In hindsight I am thankful for that lawyer, but for years after that, every time I found myself struggling, I worried that I did the wrong thing with the syndicate.
When Yahoo offered me the chance to write for them, they gave me a difficult contract. I gave it to the lawyer and the lawyer was very frank: It’s not a great contract, but it’s a great opportunity, and you should take it. So we talked about some things I could try asking for that would not be that hard for Yahoo to give on, just to be nice. I gave Yahoo a short list, they picked a few things, and I signed.
So what have I learned from all this? If one person has a great BATNA and the other has a terrible one, it’s not really negotiations; it’s trying to get a little something extra. It’s asking for a favor. If you approach negotiations from this perspective then you are much more likely to get a little bit of what you want.
Figure out where your counterpart might be willing to give a little. Even if your BATNA clearly stinks, most people you negotiate with will be willing to give a little just to create some good will for the working relationship you are establishing.
So you can read all the negotiation advice in the world, but if you have a terrible BATNA, what you really need is advice about how to ask for a favor. And, ironically, the advice for asking for a favor is the same advice for negotiating: Know what is most important and least important to both parties.