There are many myths in negotiation. Among them: effective negotiators are born, not made. Experience is all you need to be a good negotiator. The strong negotiator never exhibits empathy. And perhaps the most stubborn myth? That having a Plan B makes you weak and gives you an easy out, preventing you from ever achieving your Plan A.
In their iconic bestseller Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, Roger Fisher and William Ury coined the term “BATNA” – or “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” – to describe what is essentially a Plan B. Of all your possible alternatives, your BATNA is the option that best meets your goals and that you will most likely take if your ideal outcome remains out of reach. (The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School also offers some important insight on BATNA and other negotiation topics – it’s worth checking out.)
Skilled negotiators understand that thinking through the possibilities and deciding on a Plan B won’t prevent you (or your attorney) from negotiating hard enough to achieve your desired result. Instead, they know that coming to the negotiation table with a well thought out BATNA is empowering – not a weakness.
Consider the following scenario: the party your restaurant is hosting this weekend just doubled in size. Jackpot! But as you’re reviewing ingredients, you realize you’re running low on quite a few things. You call your supplier; sensing your desperation, he has little incentive to give you a bargain. Is that his cash register you hear in the background?
Now imagine you call that supplier after you’ve already spoken to a couple of other suppliers. Sure, you may still be desperate to get your hands on the ingredients – but now, you can negotiate with your preferred supplier to lower his price, throw in some freebies, offer free shipping, or whatever the case may be, because now you have BATNA – an alternative. You can use the price or whatever favorable deal terms the other suppliers are offering as leverage to negotiate with your preferred supplier for what you want. And if he won’t budge, you have options besides either overpaying or having to tell your customer you can’t accommodate her.
Indeed, having a well thought out BATNA also helps you know whether to keep negotiating or walk away. If the sticker price on your desired new car is $38,000 at your local dealership but you saw it at a second dealership for $36,000, the second dealership’s price becomes your BATNA. Your ideal outcome is to negotiate with the first dealership to match or beat the lower price. If they won’t, you’ll buy the car from the second dealership. Putting in the effort to do your research and come up with your BATNA before walking into the first dealership arms you with the knowledge you need to determine when to walk and whether you’re getting a good deal.
The myth that having a Plan B will keep you from negotiating your way to Plan A should be filed away in the “debunked” category. BATNA also serves as an important reminder that as with everything in negotiation, preparation is key.