I moved every year in college. It was easy, because I barely had anything to move from apartment to apartment. I was dating Em through all that, then we got married, and then we had kids.
More than a decade and half a dozen places later, I dreaded moving when the prospect came up. We had so much stuff! Could we afford a 3-bedroom? How long would it take me to get accustomed to a new home office?
Lucky for me, Em did all the work. She wanted to move badly. She did the Zillow research. She booked reasonably priced movers. She found a place that fit my sensibilities too. She put money away for months so we could make a down payment and afford our new mortgage.
All I had to do was say yes (or no).
My emotional response was to say no. Once I really thought about it afterwards, I didn’t have a good reason to. All the objections were already removed. So I agreed—or, more accurately, I didn’t object—and I love the new house we’ve been in for the last 2 years. It’s so much better for our family in every way.
We have a saying in our family: “Whoever wants it more does the work.” Em wanted to move more than I did, so she did all the work. If I had to work on it—putting money away, looking for houses, etc—the effort probably would have been short-lived, because I didn’t really want it in the first place (regardless of the fact that it ultimately turned out to be something that benefitted me). I probably would have stopped my effort because “it was too difficult,” when the real reason was actually that I didn’t have enough motivation to see the effort through.When you want something, working hard towards it is sustainable, because it’s a goal that you’re intrinsically driven to achieve.
In any relationship, the one who wants the least has more leverage, and, therefore, more power. One way to have healthy relationships—between partners, colleagues, friends—is to identify and call out the power dynamics as early as possible. In a healthy relationship, the goal is not to exploit that power dynamic but to flatten it in a way that each party gets what they want and can put forward appropriate effort to that end. Too many times, we employ an inappropriate level of effort due to secondary factors: guilt, fear, ignorance, inexperience, lack of information, and so much more.
This line of thinking has many benefits in a work context. When I’m pitching a new client, I think, “Do I want to work with them more than they want to work with me?” If I understand that they want to work with me more than I want to work with them, then why I am spending weeks writing a proposal unpaid, just to have them potentially opt for a cheaper service provider? If they want to work with me more, they should be working harder than I am!
It cuts both ways too: for my dream client, I’ve gladly cut my price to a fraction of what I’ve charged others, because it’s my version of ”doing the work.”
For service providers, understanding this dynamic and acting appropriately to it is a major benefit in getting paid appropriately, especially when value pricing. For employees, understanding power dynamics are a helpful aid in upholding your boundaries at work.
The great thing about this approach is that doing and demonstrating your work is powerful equalizer. Typically, people who have more power in any given situation don’t do much. They don’t really have to; they can just say something and trust that it will be done. When you do the work, you put the work up against the words of the person in power.
For example, your boss might say in a meeting, “We shouldn’t invest in an usability lab because it would cost too much.” If you showed up with a handout showing that a usability lab costs less than the company’s annual software budget that largely goes unused each year so you propose reallocating that software budget to the usability lab instead, costing the company no more money than was already allocated, that’s a pretty solid case. There’s also a pretty high chance that your boss did not come to the meeting with a handout of how a usability lab would cost too much. People in power generally want to maintain the status quo (because they have power in the status quo), and it’d be a bit ironic to do extra work to maintain the status quo. This works in your favor. If it was their word against yours, the power dynamic indicates that they win every time. But when it’s your work against their word, the odds even a bit more, especially to bystanders, and sometimes, even to the person in power themselves.
In their bestselling negotiation book Getting to Yes, authors Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project reveal many tips for winning negotations. Among them:
Since success for you in a negotation depends upon the other side’s making a decision you want, you should do what you can to make that decision an easy one. Rather than make things difficult for the other side, you want to confront them with a choice that is as painless as possible… People usually pay too little attention to ways of advancing their case by taking care of interests on the other side… Without some option that appeals to them, there is likely to be no agreement at all.
One of the most common reasons for denying a request is that it disrupts the status quo. You’re asking for a change, and change is risky. A common unstated risk is, “If I say yes, then I have to do a bunch of work.”
The easiest way to negate that risk is to already have taken care of the associated work for them. This has an added bonus of making the other person feel like you anticipated their needs.
Even if you buy this logic, you may be wondering what “the work” here is when you want something more than the other person. In short, the work is turning open-ended requests into closed-ended requests.
Open-ended questions allow for a range of possibilities, which is why they’re great for brainstorming, exploration, and other divergent thinking activities. Closed-ended questions only have two possible answers—“yes” or “no”—which is why they’re more well-suited to convergent thinking. Generally, closed-ended questions are easier to answer, conceivably because there are fewer acceptable answers.
As you’re trying to both get what you want and create accountability with another person, do the work of trying to discourage any divergent thinking by doing it yourself ahead of time. The more you address the “what if” responses in your pitch, the more closed-ended your request becomes.
All that’s left for the other person to do is decide “yes” or “no.”
Here are some examples of “doing the work” in both work and non-work environments where you might want something more than the other person:
So, the next time someone’s asking something of you or you’re asking something of someone, first think, ”Who wants this more?”
If it’s you, do the work to remove every perceived obstacle before they arise. Then ask for what you want.
If it’s them, see if you can find a way answer, “Yes, under these conditions.”
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