Two common refrains that you are “always selling” and that “everything is a negotiation” are often stated as facts, but they’re not facts, they’re points of view, and I don’t happen to subscribe to either of them.
That doesn’t make these perspectives wrong, just unhelpful—to me, anyway. One or both of these views might be helpful to you, and if so then it makes sense for you to go through life treating every human interaction as a sale of some kind and every decision made with another human being as a negotiation. You won’t be right and you won’t be wrong, but you will have a model for understanding your interactions and, likely, a related framework for how to act. That can be very helpful.
I’ve previously quoted statistician George P. Box on the value of models, which are views of the world that allow us to make sense of it: “All models are wrong but some are useful.” Box’s point is the value of a model is its utility, not its veracity. I don’t find these models of the universality of selling and negotiating useful. But that’s just me.
Another profound statement I would add to the discussion is the observation that “all strategy is autobiographical.” (anon) Who thinks we’re always selling? Salespeople, of course, and other high-drive individuals whose natural disposition is talking people into things. And who thinks everything is a negotiation? Every author of every negotiation book ever, apparently. (I’m making my way through the canon now.)
The salesperson who thinks we are always selling and the negotiator who sees every multiparty decision as a negotiation are both the proverbial carpenter to whom every problem looks like a nail. But that’s the problem with models, or more specifically, that’s the problem with having just one model. It’s helpful quite often, but if it’s the only club in our bag, we go to it too often. It’s best to have multiple models.
Sometimes we simply seek to understand someone else, not so we can tailor our pitch to them or extract more from them, but so we can learn something about them and maybe even ourselves. It’s okay to just be listening, learning, helping, doing what’s right, creating a new connection or deepening an existing one—all without thought of a tradeoff, with no consideration for what might be in it for us. Where is the negotiation in being a trusted friend? What is it that we are selling to our spouse?
I recognize that the frameworks of selling and negotiating can be helpful in our personal lives and I draw on some of these tools myself, but my personal view is that, in the most important relationships in our lives, much is lost when we see ourselves as salespeople and negotiators. I think this extends into many of our business relationships as well, including some of those with clients and suppliers. Yes, there are times when we are selling and there are times when we are negotiating, and sometimes we are doing these things in our personal relationships. It’s still too big a leap in my own mind however from having some helpful tools to being the always-on salesperson or negotiator. I think the latter is a path to alienation, divorce and a transactional life devoid of richness. But that’s just me.
The ideas that we are always selling or negotiating may be helpful to some of us, but just as helpful might be the ideas that we are never selling and never negotiating, that we are human beings trying to learn and grow and that we can’t do that without the help of others.
These models are wrong, of course, but you might find them useful. Or not. Find one that works for you. Don’t be held hostage by someone else’s view of the world, especially if it leans on a word like “always” or “everything,” and certainly don’t mistake it for fact or universal truth. It’s not.