Effective Negotiators Keep It Simple Despite Complexification Trend

"Being simple is the most complicated thing nowadays.” - Ramana Pemmaraju

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” - Confucius

"If you accept life in all its fullness and ambiguity, it’s not complicated; it’s only complicated if you don’t accept it.” - Marty Rubin

In the textbook Essentials of Negotiation, authors Roy Lewicki et al compare the behaviors of effective negotiators to average negotiators. Of the behaviors, one is,

Behaviors of Persuaders and Communicators Average Skilled

Argument dilution (use of many reasons to support) 3.0 1.8

This means that average negotiators will cite many reasons, maybe five to ten, to justify their argument, their idea, or their option. In contrast, a skilled negotiator will outline one to three reasons why their plan of action will work. Effective negotiators keep it simple despite the societal trend towards complexification.

Complexification Trend

Here in the United States, maybe the “western world,” there is a trend towards making all issues complex.

Smartphones: It is estimated that most Smartphone owners use only about 10 percent of the capacity of their phones which are essentially like “minicomputers.” There are those who purposefully study and learn to use more-maybe up to 20 percent of the functions. It is estimated that 80 percent of Americans have access to smartphones with about one-half being Apple iPhones.

(There is a good reason why AARP magazine promotes “the simplest smartphone ever: jitterbug.smart2. Simple menu, large screen….)

Credit Card Agreements: Most of the credit card “agreements” consist of approximately 18 pages of rules and regulations in type four font. “Agreement” is in parenthesis because rarely does a holder read the rules and actually agree to them. Embedded in most of these agreements is a mandatory binding arbitration agreement. The company chooses the arbitration firm.

Over the decades, courts have generally upheld these hidden arbitration clauses in the name of settling cases quickly, but recently a few courts are acknowledging that these provisions are hidden and not really agreed to by the users.

Health Care Plans for Employees: Today, most corporations, national non-profits, and governmental entities offer a wide variety of health care plans. The intent is to tailor these plans to the needs of the individual employees. The result of these scores of offerings is that most employees are completely confused and wind up choosing one just to get over the process.

(Recently, retired executive Travis relocated to Texas. He researched the web of health care options and called the process “Hell!”)

Complex Taxes: The IRS tax code consists of 2,652 pages totaling over one million words. What is the intent? Maybe the intent is to make it so complex that no one becomes a total expert, that most need to hire assistance, and so there are many ways to take advantage or disadvantage of this process (aka, gaming the tax system).

Taxes are so complex that corporations hired outside agencies such as BDO.

Governmental Laws-Federal, State and Local: These laws and codes are ever-growing, so hardly anyone knows how many laws there are. There is a pocket guide that totals 272 pages simply reviewing the DC criminal laws. DC has 99 titles to their Code with sections numbering up to 38-302. The DC Council, like most city councils throughout the nation, pass hundreds of laws annually and the existing laws never sunset. It is a maze.

Recently, DC voters passed a ballot initiative. Most knew that it revolved around decriminalizing psychedelic plants like “magic mushrooms,” but they had no idea about the ballot statement:

INITIATIVE MEASURE NO. 81 INICIATIVA NO. 81 ENTHEOGENIC PLANT AND FUNGUS POLICY ACT OF 2020: If enacted, this Initiative would: (1) Make the investigation and arrest of adults for non-commercial planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, possessing, and/or engaging in practices with entheogenic plants and fungi among the Metropolitan Police Department’s lowest law enforcement priorities; and (2) Codify that the people of the District of Columbia call upon the Attorney General for the District of Columbia and the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia to cease prosecution of residents of the District of Columbia for these activities.

(Bill Maher on Real Time often complains about the complexification of California laws. He cites that there are 395,000 legal restrictions ranging from how high one can fly a kite, to garage use restricted to only cars, or not being able to carry bread in an open basket….)

Xfinity/Comcast Cable: Xfinity customer went online to purchase booster pods at the cost of $100 each. They were received, but even the Xfinity contractor could not get them to work so they were returned. Return receipt was acknowledged. For the next 3 months, the customer called Xfinity to get the replacement pods. Each call lasted 35 minutes with four transfers resulting in the operator claiming they would contact their Senior Manager and call back. The call back never happened. Based on this typical experience, one might choose another provider but they all operate the same complex way.

Xfinity/Comcast Number of Channels: The Channel line-up might total 288 contained in the “Super Package.” Channel lineups include channels 1000-1899. How many channels do must subscribers use? Five.

Legislation: Most bills which are introduced into state, local, and federal legislatures are so complex and convoluted, legislators don’t really know for what they are voting.

Example: The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, is 5593 pages. The lawmaker voters had three hours to read such. Some may say all of these pages are to safeguard; others might say this is too long for people to read to catch all of the “add-ons.” These add-ons included $110 billion in tucked-away breaks for the likes of liquor producers and motorsports entertainers.

Corporate Annual Reports: Most corporate annual reports are over 100 pages. HSBC’s report = 600 pages; Barclay’s = 444 pages. Two-thirds of readers say they are too complex. 20 percent of analysts say these annual reports are “not fit for purpose.” Most of these reports consist of “marketing spin.” Generally, the most important part of the report is several pages where the directors say the corporation can pay its debts, profit numbers, the balance sheet, and the cash flow.

They may be complex because accounting is complex.

They may be complex because the federal regulations are complex.

They may be opaque because they are facing litigation.

Reasons for Complexification

Obfuscation: Regrettably, this is a major reason for complexification. In the area of laws, legislation, IRS code, and employment, look for this reason first. This is the reason that negotiators and conflict managers really need to avoid being caught in this trap.

When it comes to legislation and laws, most would hope that the intent and the implementation would be clear. Instead, most legislation is an amalgamation of issues so that some are hidden. For example, in the COVID legislation, raising the minimum wage was included. Minimum wage could be connected to COVID, but…. most would advocate for simple, understandable aka “clean” bills. This would mean a separate bill for the minimum wage.

In the IRS Code, many would say that tax preparers have a vested interest for continuing the complexity of the code.

Example: Former President Donald J. Trump’s taxes are often called “a complex maze” (Former Prosecutor David Aaronberg). This is most likely deliberate, so he qualifies to pay few taxes ($750=2019) and yet qualifies for large loans.

Negotiators and conflict managers want to avoid complexification. Their fellow negotiators do not want to be tricked. Negotiators generally do not want information to be hidden.

Most negotiations are not a one-shot deal. Negotiators often need to deal with each other again and again, either to implement the agreement or for other transactions in certain areas of the law.

Accommodation: Of the above examples, the one that best characterizes the “accommodation” justification would be the offering of workplace health plans. People’s lives are so varied. There is an increasing number of people living single or living back with parents or shared housing. Fewer folks are having children and more people seem to be taking care of their parents.

Nonetheless, when there are more than 30 choices, workers have a challenging time to read and understand them.

In contrast, DCHealth Alliance, a version of Obamacare, has some good features. The user answers five questions and the program makes 2-5 recommendations. Helpful? Most people think so.

Retired management executive Jill has this take on complexification and accommodation:

“One of the things that has led to complexification is the desire of retailers to individualize their products, or tailor them to meet the needs of various individuals. Rather than create products that meet the needs of a few, they have tried to create products that serve individual needs of the multitudes, hence the numerous functions or options available on products. Individuals can then pick those functions or services that they want. It’s cheaper than tailoring the product to each individual, and allows for mass production.”

Issue-Complicated: Some issues are simply not simple. For example, the human body and health. To be effective, doctors need to think simply and complexly. There is that old saying, "When one hears hoofs, think horses, not zebras." At the same time, the media is full of stories where a person has been ill from a little-known ailment, which demands that health officials be on the alert. The hoofs could be a zebra.

Culture of Choices: The western world, especially in the United States, equates choices with value. Smartphones have hundreds of features. Most users only use 12. So with the Smart TV. The DC Apple Store has entire classes on using the phone or their Smart TV. The smartphone is often referred to as “having an entire PC and entertainment system in your pocket.”

How many functions does the smartwatch have?

Inattention: Legislators may fit into this reasoning category. They often tout their success by the number of bills they introduce, sometimes not caring if they pass or not. There is no sunset to most of the bills and laws so they simply accumulate. In most jurisdictions, people can still be fined for allowing their horses to make deposits in the streets or miss-parking your carriage.

-You can’t throw rocks at trains in Wisconsin.

-No clothes lines in Vermont.

-No blasphemy in Michigan.

The Complexity Bias

The complexity bias is a reason why we humans lean towards complicating our lives rather than keeping things simple. When we are faced with too much information or we are in a state of confusion about something, we will naturally focus on the complexity of the issue rather than look for a simple solution. In a recent article, the author explains, when “we succumb to complexity bias, we are focusing too hard on the tricky 10% and ignoring the easy 90%.”


To be the most persuasive and most effective, negotiators must work diligently to avoid complexity in each stage of the problem-solving process.

The principle of Occam’s Razor should guide the problem solving process. Britannica: Occam's razor is the principle that, of two explanations that account for all the facts, the simpler one is more likely to be correct. It is applied to a wide range of disciplines, including religion, physics, and medicine.

Stage 1-Introduction: Each negotiation participant needs to have simple and memorable introductions of themselves, so all at the table know what to call each other and knows that each person has a clear reason to be there.

Meeting ground rules or guidelines need to be set. There is no need for 15-20 guidelines; probably, 3-5 will be enough to create an orderly discussion.

Stage 2-Facts and Perspectives: KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) needs to be the mantra. The facts should be clearly laid out along with the perspectives and opinions. These should not be conflated, but clearly discerned.

Stage 3-Issues Clarification: Issues to be dealt with during the session should be clearly delineated. There should not be 15-20 issues but often 3.

Example Issues: Long term contract; short term contract; and dispute resolution clause.

Stage 4-Creating, Discussing and Selecting Options: This stage starts out with brainstorming-posting all the ideas on the White Board. Then there is a discussion of each issue. Each person then places these issues in priority in terms of viability.

Stage 5-Agreement or Resolution: It is an art to tailor or create a simple agreement. Simple agreements are easier to implement.

Frank Robinson once declared, "You have to have a short memory as a closer." Oxford Dictionary defines a closer as, “a person who is skilled at bringing a business transaction to a satisfactory conclusion.” Usually a lot has happened before and during the negotiation.

During the closing negotiation stage, negotiators need to review all that has happened, but forget any of the negative. Instead, an effective negotiator needs to focus on the simple elements of the agreement.


SNL (Saturday Night Live) had a great skit: Does Anything Work in America (1/21/21 aired). They examined government, social media, stock market, etc. and concluded nothing works except for football player Tom Brady. One reason: Complexification.

So, negotiators want to avoid complexification. They want the negotiation process to work and result in a workable agreement.


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Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray