What Traveling as a Vegan Has Taught Me About Business Negotiation

Negotiating for a vegan meal is like a business deal: You're aiming to get what you want without looking like an ass.
What Traveling as a Vegan Has Taught Me About Business Negotiation
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As the CMO of a global domain registry (.CLUB), I’m always traveling. Whether it’s for a check-in with a local registrar or a quarterly industry meeting, my travel schedule could put me in Buenos Aires one week and Beijing the next.

Related: 5 Negotiation Tactics You Can Learn From Kids

There’s so much to enjoy about travel, but nearly anyone who does it a lot will insist that one of the biggest perks of going abroad is the global fare. I could be one of the few outliers to that rule.

In fact, for me, eating out comes with a setback: I’m a member of the vegan club. I haven’t had meat, fish, dairy or eggs for more than a decade.

About 2.5 percent of the U.S. population is vegan, and as that life choice becomes more common, so have the animal-free options and even entire vegan menus that are popping up at restaurants up all over the nation. But international travel is something different. Many countries aren’t as vegan-friendly, so finding a meal that’s convenient, appetizing and aligned with my diet isn’t always easy.

That's where negotiation comes in.

Bargaining for meals and deals

Eating vegan when you're abroad is tough, but I’ve turned it into a bit of a game -- I know that getting a meal I can eat won’t come without a little work (imagine explaining “no butter” to a French chef). So, what actions have I learned to take to ensure I’m eating vegan and still eating well?

As it turns out, negotiating for a vegan meal looks a lot like negotiating for a business deal. In both situations, I’m aiming to get what I want without looking like an ass. Specifically, I want the outcome to meet my needs without ruining my rapport with the other party. So I've gotten good at this task.

In fact, my quest to eat vegan across the globe has actually sharpened my negotiation skills. Here are just a few of the business negotiation lessons I’ve learned:

1. Plugging your ears only limits your options.

At a recent conference in Hong Kong, I got together with another herbivore who wanted to grab a meal at a vegan restaurant he had heard about. My colleague thought the place was just a short walk away, so we gathered about 10 non-vegans to dine as a group. A “short walk” turned into a 40-minute journey, our destination being a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with no air-conditioning -- not to mention that we were in the middle of a heat wave.

Our non-vegan friends were irritated and started to complain long before we even sat down. But when we finally got our food, it was outstanding. Everything was fresh and unlike anything they were used to. Even the carnivores had to admit they enjoyed the food, in spite of the long walk and heat.

Keeping the focus on what you’ve set out for (and becoming frustrated when things aren’t working out as expected) is easy, but successful negotiation requires an open mind. Had our non-vegan friends given up, as they threatened to do numerous times en route, they would have never experienced the wonderful meal we shared. That’s true in business, too -- everyone involved must be receptive and flexible to reach a satisfying deal. Sometimes, an unexpected option will be the best one.

Related: 3 Negotiation Strategies From a Former FBI Hostage Negotiator

2. You won’t get what you don’t ask for.

“A vegan walks into a steakhouse” sounds like the opening of a bad joke, but I’ve actually had some of my best dining experiences at high-end meat-centric restaurants. When ordering, I politely explain to the server, “Look, I’m a vegan -- no meat, dairy or eggs. Tell the chef I will eat whatever he or she wants to make, as long as it’s vegan. Anything they want to prepare is fine as long as it’s vegan.”

In saying that, I’m giving the chef complete creative control. He or she can make anything. I’ve found that when presented with that challenge, good chefs whip up amazing off-menu dishes. I’ve had incredible vegan meals all over the world at fine steakhouses where chefs will often come out of the kitchen to see how I enjoyed the final creation (an occurrence that surprises and impresses my meat-eating companions).

If I walked into a steakhouse and limited my choices to only what’s on the menu, I’d wind up with a sad salad. But by politely asking for what I’m really after, and giving the chef a gentle challenge, I’m usually rewarded. A tried-and-true rule in in negotiation is, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” so go ahead and ask for what you want, even if it’s not an immediate option.

3. You don’t eat jerky, but don’t be a jerk.

Vegans get a bad rep for sounding pompous about their lifestyle. I never want to be that guy. I know veganism is a choice that works for me, and I make a point to respect others’ diets. My colleagues won’t ever hear me complain about a restaurant’s menu or what I can choose from, even if the menu is meat-heavy.

Instead, I approach my task from the middle ground. The restaurant wants my business, and I want a meal that fits my diet. So, I'll say, “Unfortunately, I don’t eat these dishes. I don’t eat meat. Would it be possible for the chef to make something that’s vegan?” I aim for kindness and understanding. After all, I’m asking the chef to go out of his way, so my relationship with that restaurant is important.

Being a good negotiator means not steamrolling over the other party. It requires a lot of strategic finesse, but emotion plays a key role, too. Negotiators need to build a relationship before attempting to strike a deal. Approach the conversation with both parties’ perspectives in mind, and use inclusive language -- “we” over “I” -- to put everyone on the same team.

Related: 5 Important Lessons 'Shark Tank' Teaches Us About Negotiation

It doesn’t matter whether you’re vying for a plant-based lunch or a crucial business contract -- a great outcome requires thoughtful, respectful negotiation. Veganism isn’t the likeliest of teachers, but the lessons I’ve gained from it put me in a better position to settle the deal (and the meal) every time.

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