How to Become a Better Negotiator

Photo by: Tim Gouw

Photo by: Tim Gouw

First, a confession: I didn’t negotiate my salaries until about seven years into my career.

Then, I had an unusual wake-up call.

My boss, who was preparing transfer to a new role, told me that I wasn’t making as much as I should. Before he left and I got a new boss, he gave me a 25-percent raise.

I was stunned. 

On the one hand, I felt thrilled, grateful, and excited by the ways that this extra money would make my life easier.

Yet at the same time, I felt ashamed. Another way of looking at it was that I had been under-earning by 25-percent for who knows how long.

My chagrin only deepened as I started to discover the enormous amount of money a person could lose over the course of their career by not negotiating their first job offer. (Upwards of $1 million, says Salary.com!)

That's when I resolved to become a better negotiator.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want – But You Should Still Ask

Most of us feel uneasy about entering into negotiations with others about the things we really want.

A survey by Careerbuilder.com, for example, found that 49 percent of workers do not negotiate job offers, even though 45 percent of employers expect it.

When someone offers us a job, especially one we really want, it’s a high-stakes, nerve-wracking moment. 

There are a lot of reasons why we feel afraid to negotiate. Maybe:

  • They’ll take offense at something we say or do.
  • They’ll retract their offer and we’ll be left with nothing.
  • We doubt our experience/value and don’t feel entitled to ask for more.

Any of these factors (or a mix of all of them) keep us from speaking up.

Something similar happens in our lives. Maybe:

  • We’re not happy in a relationship but don't say anything, afraid that the other person will get angry or leave us.  
  • We’re dissatisfied with the rental agreement on our house, but feel like the landlord has the upper hand.
  • We’d like to make a big change in our lifestyle, but are afraid of our parents’ or others' disapproval.

What happens when we don’t get clear about what we really want and bravely articulate that to others?

We stay stuck in our dissatisfaction. We don’t make progress. We don’t test our assumptions and see if it's possible for our needs and wants to be fully met – or if we need to face up to the fact that we need to move on and find a new situation. 

Becoming a better negotiator does not have to be about being more selfish or greedy or steamrolling over others and their needs.

Fundamentally negotiation is about communication. It’s a skill that entails that we become more self-aware, more empathetic about others’ interests, and more courageous about truly asking for what we want.

Simple ways to become a better negotiator

The way to become a better negotiator is fairly easy. All you have to do is start practicing.

1. Identify one area of your life where a negotiation stands between you and an improvement you’d like to make.

This could be a conversation with your boss, your spouse, a neighbor, a landlord, a bank or business, or a family member.

2.  Make a list of what you want in this situation.

Before the negotiation, reflect on exactly what you’d want to ask for.

For example, with a new job offer, you might want:

  • $$$ salary per year
  • Full healthcare and dental
  • Three weeks paid vacation
  • Remote working two days a week

Now go through and weigh the importance of these things. Articulate for yourself why you want these things, and get a sense of their meaningfulness for you.

3. Do your research.

There is so much great information out there. Use it! Only a few hours of research or reading a single book could vastly impact the outcome of your negotiation.   

Once, as a friend of mine prepared to start interviewing for a new human resources position, I encouraged her to first do a quick investigation into average local salaries for similar jobs.

After spending only $30 on a salary bench-marking report, she felt empowered for the first time to negotiate her salary, and start talks with a much higher number. She eventually took a job she loved with $15,000 increase over her previous salary. She was elated!

Two of my favorite resources: 

1) The internet

So obvious and yet so often overlooked! Type any negotiation question into the search box and you’ll get some great ideas.

For example, “How to negotiate job offer” turns up a great overview article, as well as one more specifically on salary.

Tip: If you have access to a good city library, you likely also find a great selection of books specifically on salary negotiation.

2) Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury with Bruce Patton, editor

This the quintessential handbook on negotiation.

While the Harvard University-affiliated authors of this book used their techniques with world leaders on negotiations involving apartheid in South Africa, nuclear war threats and the U.S.-Iranian hostage conflict, anyone can use the principles here to improve their negotiations in their everyday lives.

What I find most valuable about their approach is that it:

  • Separates the people from the problem. Instead of seeing the other party as your enemy or taking their position personally, you view them as partners with whom you’re working to find a solution to a problem.

  • Focuses on interests, not positions. If two parties arrive at a negotiation with a hard position and neither are able to give the other what they want, they get nowhere. Instead, the first step in negotiation is to make an effort to understand the other party’s interests and to articulate your own. This way you can begin to come up with a variety of solutions that could possibly meet all the interests at stake.

Getting to Yes might seem like an overly dry read for your spare time, so I recommend the audiobook. After only six hours of listening, you’ll have all the techniques of world-class pros.

4. Role play negotiations with a trusted friend. 

Let’s face it, these conversations can be nerve-wracking. The best way to ensure that you know what you want to say and how to say it (under pressure) is to practice saying it aloud.

A friend can also help you understand what kind of effect your words may have, or suggest angles, concerns or possibilities you might not have thought of yet.

If a friend isn’t available to role play, write down your key talking points and practice saying them aloud.

5. Learn from your mistakes (and forgive yourself).

We’ve all walked away from conversations where we wish we had said or done something differently – or where we felt misunderstood.

Negotiations will sometimes end the same way.

It’s okay. This is complicated stuff. Do what you can to learn from your experiences. Take a minute afterward to write down what you did well and what you’d do differently next time.

Then allow yourself to move on. Don’t keep beating yourself up if the outcome wasn't ideal. Our relationships – and thus, our negotiations – are dynamic. If you can keep communication lines open, you often have a chance to readdress issues and work toward better solutions.

When you negotiate, you’re working on a valuable skill. Finding win-win solutions in our lives, and in our world, is really an inspiring ideal.