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Let’s Make a Deal

When it comes to negotiating my way through life, my strategy can be summed up in one word: utter failure. OK, that’s two words—but one of them was inserted by someone else, and I couldn’t talk him out of it. … Read More

By / March 19, 2007

When it comes to negotiating my way through life, my strategy can be summed up in one word: utter failure. OK, that’s two words—but one of them was inserted by someone else, and I couldn’t talk him out of it.

Not that I even bothered trying. I’ve always been hesitant to ask for my pound of flesh, which may explain why I haven’t fulfilled my mother’s dream of becoming a lawyer. It’s also why—as my father, the lawyer, loves to point out—I didn’t make my first dollar until I’d reached my late twenties. If I was so determined to be a Person of the Book, he wants to know, why I can’t write at least one bestselling blockbuster, like his favorite writers Herman Wouk and Leon Uris?

As I write this, my first collection of short stories is the 1,161,399th best-selling book on Amazon.com. So I have written a bestseller, technically. But my book netted just a four-figure advance, and last year I earned a total of $8,500 as a freelance writer and teacher. Now that my son has arrived, tearing locust-like through formula and diapers, I wonder how I am ever going to give him what he deserves—which is, of course, everything.

If you believe the popular stereotype, Jews are supposed to drive hard bargains, especially when money is concerned. But when my wife and I bought our first home, we immediately settled on the asking price, afraid we might lose our dream house if we put up a fuss. I’ve given away short stories simply for the privilege of publication, traveled at my own expense to do free book readings, and, when I do get paid, I’ve waited with the patience of Job for the check to appear in my mailbox. I know I’m never going to earn a lot of money, but I should at least know how to cut a decent deal.

Clearly, I needed someone to unleash my inner macher. So I went to see Moshe Cohen, president of The Negotiating Table, a Boston-area company specializing in mediation skills and conflict management. Cohen teaches a course on negotiation at Boston University’s School of Management and has advised many large corporations. He charges a hefty fee, but I stood my ground and refused to pay it—at least I would have, but it never came up.

Much to my relief, Cohen insists that I’m not alone: he has seen plenty of Jews like me, Jews who are not good at getting what they want. This might have something to do with growing up in North America, says Israeli-born Cohen: “Anywhere outside of the US and Canada, people are always negotiating everything.”

As immigrants, previous generations of Jews brought that wheeler-dealer mentality with them from their home countries. It had long been a survival skill. The fact that Jews historically could not own land drove them into professions such as banking, money-lending and commerce, all of which consisted mainly of prolonged haggling. And of course Jews have been negotiating with a silent God for thousands of years praying for Redemption. The Torah even encourages a view of an Almighty who can be pushed around, if not over. Yes, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah got completely obliterated. But must that overshadow the wrangling Abraham did on their behalf? "The idea that you are allowed to question authority in Judaism, that you are allowed to push back is a cultural idea that promotes negotiation," says Cohen.

In a typical Jewish household, particularly at mealtime, opinions, questions and challenges fly back and forth with ferocious intensity, creating a sort of minor-league negotiating table where all family members are free to take a stance and swing. And do, often simultaneously. I think back to the Passover Seders of my youth. When the family elder asked how much I wanted for finding the Afikomen, it was a signal to me that a battle of wills was underway. My opening—and only—gambit: shrug my shoulders and proclaim that I haven’t got a clue.

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn.

Determined to toughen me up, Cohen leaves me with this challenge: find ten people who will say “no” to me. It may seem counterintuitive, but it turns out that it is much easier to get a "yes" than a "no." People are often afraid of conflict and would rather give in than make an enemy. He tells me, if there is something I want, firstly, I must be willing to ask.

Getting what you want, I soon learn, sometimes requires little more than a healthy dose of chutzpah: I ask a former teacher to read a manuscript I've been struggling with, I ask several synagogues for a speaking fee that could keep my son in diapers for months, I call a small publisher and ask him to take a second look at a revision of my novel that he had previously rejected. I ask my editor for 300 extra words to write this column (Ed. Note: How can I turn you down?) To my amazement, everyone complies, without question. I realize suddenly that all of life is a negotiation. I find I'm able to ask for and receive an extra potato with lunch at IKEA, a lower rate at a Washington hotel, free babysitting passes at my gym, erasure of my small library fine. It may be literally small potatoes, but for now, I'm a winner. I can feel my confidence grow by the dayI can make things happen simply through sheer force of will. So far, nobody has turned down any of my requests. It is even more difficult to get someone to say no than I had imagined.

But eventually, I discover that "no" can be used as just a starting point for negotiation and that patience and persistence is critical. When I try to return a dangerous baby gift—a mobile of tangled fishing wire, sold under the insane logic that it’s safe as long as the baby doesn’t play with it—I discover that the surly store owner is my biggest challenge yet. At first, she flat-out refuses me. But I’m not intimidated.

A successful negotiator must go back again and again, Cohen counseled, adding that by the third request, the person being asked is either really annoyed or says yes. I take Cohen's advice to remain silent after making a request, challenging her to speak first; the first to speak is likely to capitulate. I am even prepared to manage my emotional response to her answer; righteous indignation doesn't get you very far in negotiation. I persist, make a counteroffer, hold my tongue, suppress every instinct to tell her off, and wait. Commitment, after all, comes in small steps. I am not leaving until she gives in. It takes only thirty minutes to return the German-made killer mobile.

I have won, and I feel like a superhero, only with a better fashion sense. I can accomplish anything using Cohen's rules. Well, almost anything. I can’t say “No” to my baby son, and my mother still calls me ten times a day. Oh, and there’s no negotiating with my hard-headed dad. I can use every one of Cohen’s tactics on them, and they won’t budge. They’ve got my unconditional love, after all, and they aren’t afraid to use it against me. *** Related in Jewcy: Our Jewish guinea pig tries wearing a kippah and visiting a mikvah.

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