Strengthening your best alternative is the surest way to increase your negotiating power. This concept may seem counterintuitive; after all, our best alternative to the current deal is the offer we anticipate turning down. We hope instead to fashion the deal currently being discussed into one that best meets our needs and interests. Why work hard on improving the substitute choice we don’t expect to take?
An experience my son had in the lunchroom can help clarify the matter. It seems he was accidently sent to school with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Adam is allergic to peanuts and knew he could not eat the thing. He quickly decided his best move would be to trade with friends for something else.
Adam’s pal Bob was dismayed to find a sardine sandwich in his bag. Bob did not want to eat sardines (yecch!) no matter how many Omega 3 oils they supply. He quickly offered to trade the sardine lunch for Adam’s PB&J. Adam asked for a minute to think about it.
Adam knew he would make the trade unless he could find something better. After all, he could not even take a bite of the peanut butter. Although he is not too fond of sardines, he now knew he would not have to go hungry. He hoped, however, to find a superior trade than the sardine sandwich. So he kept soliciting his lunchroom friends.
Charles stepped forward with a turkey sandwich. Adam likes turkey quite a bit. Sensing that, Charles decided to drive a hard bargain. He offered only half the turkey sandwich for the entirety of Adam’s PB&J. Now half a turkey beats a sardine sandwich, any day, but Adam wondered if he could negotiate his way to a better solution. And he decided, based on something his Dad had written, that finding a way to improve his Best Alternative would help him do it.
Adam knows that there are two basic ways to strengthen your BATNA; you can improve the alternative you already have, or you can find a new best alternative better than your previous one. He decided to pursue the former method first and went back to Bob insisting that a simple PB&J for Sardine trade wasn’t good enough. If, however, Bob would throw in one of the chocolate chip cookies in his sack then some serious conversation could take place. Bob agreed and Adam understood that his best alternative to the turkey sandwich deal was now stronger than it had previously been.
Adam’s hungry ambition spurred him on, though, and he decided to attempt strengthening his BATNA further by replacing it with an even better one. He sought out Donna and asked what it would take for her to exchange her salami sandwich for the PB&J. The young lady indicated that if he would throw in a kiss, she would trade her salami for his peanut butter. Now Adam was not too keen on the kiss, and everyone knows that baloney is inferior to turkey, but still he though his situation improved. As Adam saw it, baloney (even with the required kiss) was better than sardines and a cookie. So his best alternative was now the trade with Donna.
The best potential outcome for Adam remained the turkey sandwich and he still hoped to strike a deal for it. He began preparing a strategy to pursue his discussions with Charles. How, he wondered, had strengthening his BATNA given him more power in his attempts to get Charles to trade away the turkey sandwich?
At first, it had looked as though Adam would spend the afternoon hungry. His alternative, at that point, was to wait until dinnertime to fill his belly. After talking with Bob, though, he knew that he would at least be eating a sardine sandwich. (Not good, but better.) At the time he began negotiating with Charles for the turkey, trading for the sardine sandwich was his best alternative (and, thus, worst possible outcome). When Bob was convinced to add a cookie to the deal, Adam’s situation was improved; the worst that could happen now was that he would eat sardines sweetened by a cookie. When he improved his BATNA further by replacing it with Donnas’ baloney sandwich, he knew he would be eating something he enjoys in any event.
Now Adam would negotiate for the turkey sandwich with much less to lose. He could be bold, or insistent, or stubborn. He could bluff, or demand, or take chances. No matter how badly things went with Charles, Adam would be eating reasonably well this noon.
So Adam returned to the bargaining table with the power that comes from knowing that, even if no agreement could be achieved, he would be fine. As a result, he did not need the deal too badly. He now had the luxury of being able to “walk away” with only slight diminishment. With all the self-confidence that flows from such a strong back-up plan, Adam tried a bold ploy. He proposed to Charles that in exchange for the entire turkey sandwich he could offer not only his PB&J but, also, the possibility of a kiss from Donna. Charles agreed to that sweet deal on the spot.
Not only does this story illustrate the added power that comes from improving one’s BATNA, but it also has a happy ending. Adam feasted on the turkey sandwich that he wanted. Charles happily ate a PB&J. And Donna went for a stroll with Charles out to the old apple tree. We’re still waiting for them to return.