Negotiation Lessons from the Barter Kings

One of my guilty television pleasures is the reality series Barter Kings. (Survivor and Storage Wars also fall into that category, though I draw the line at Big Brother and The Bachelor.) Barter Kings features Antonio and Steve – co-owners of a consignment/trading hop. The producers describe the show as follows:

“In each half hour we’ll follow two “trading strings,” the dramatic chain of events as items of little value are traded up for items worth thousands. At the heart of every trade is the art of the deal. It takes a ton of strategy, charisma, and all out manipulation to close them. It’s a world filled with amazing characters, fascinating items, and most of all, surprising, unpredictable journeys. When it comes to Barter Kings, anything can happen.”

In most of the trades shown, Antonio or Steve encounter resistance – usually because the “estimated cash value” of the item they are offering in trade is less than that of the item they are seeking. Not surprisingly, our heroes come out on top in almost all their trades and make it look easy. If we can sift through the oversimplified examples that mark “reality” television, themes and lessons can emerge. Antonio and Steve are masters at reframing the transaction from “what is this worth” to “what is this worth to you?” They do this by building rapport and eliciting their trading partner’s story by asking one of two questions:

  1. “What is the reason you are looking to get rid of [your electric guitar]?” or
  2. “What motivated you to want to trade for [this log splitter]?”

Here are some of the typical motivations they uncover by those questions:

  • Family harmony (“my son broke his arm after an accident with his motor-bike and my wife told me to get rid of it”)
  • Efficiency (“how long will it take you to sell your item and find something exactly like what I am offering?” )
  • Ego (“I’m going fishing with my buddies and want to impress them with a new casting reel”)
  • Financial needs (“I got laid off my job and figured I could make some money from the log-splitter you’re offering”)
  • Urgency (“if I don’t get an air conditioning unit soon, I start to lose staff”)

Those familiar with Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury may recognize the concept of WATNA (Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) at work. In other words, what is the consequence of not making a deal? (Imagine the reception the husband would receive from his wife if he came home without having disposed of the hazardous motor-bike referred to in the example above.)

Because Antonio and Steve are usually interested only in the cash or trade value of an item, they are not as constrained by consequences of not making a given trade – they simply move on to the next potential trading partner. As such, they are able to leverage the needs of the other party to conclude a trade in which they significantly increase their cash value. By repeating the process in the “trading string”, Antonio and Steve are eventually able to turn something small (a car radio) into something bid (a car).

While our negotiations are seldom as dramatic (or well-orchestrated) as those of the Barter Kings, the curiosity they display will serve us well in our own, more mundane negotiations. Remember, it’s not necessarily “what something is worth”, but “what something is worth to them right now.”

About Gary Harper, The Joy of Conflict Resolution

Gary Harper is the principal of Harper and Associates. He is a trainer, writer and facilitator who specializes in conflict resolution. Through his unique blend of experience as a personal injury lawyer, general manager, insurance regulator and retail store owner, he learned the value of clear communication and conflict resolution skills. Since 1991 he has trained and mediated in a wide variety of organizations - from health care to the film industry to many levels of government. He is a member of the instructional team of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of B. C. and recently authored The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home.
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