How to Learn Negotiation

Negotiation is a soft skill that enables you to find an acceptable middle ground between two parties in disagreement.

Before learning how to negotiate, you must first convince yourself that anything can be negotiated, no matter how firmly someone says it cannot. Final decisions are rarely actually set in stone, and if someone indicates that a decision cannot be changed, know that this is most likely not true. This mindset is the cornerstone of negotiation. If you believe that you can only negotiate if you are explicitly invited to negotiate, you will rarely – if ever – negotiate anything at all.

The first step in negotiation is understanding what both parties want and what they are willing to compromise on. For example, if an executive demands that a project must be done in 3 months, but every reasonable estimate puts the required time at 6 months, what do they actually want? 

  • Perhaps they want to show progress before the end of the fiscal year.
  • Perhaps they want to reallocate resources to another project.
  • Perhaps they want to meet a contractual obligation with a customer.

Once you figure out what they actually want, you then need to figure out where they are willing to compromise:

  • Maybe they are OK with resources being reallocated early.
  • Maybe all they really want is to have a product that only looks mostly finished so that they can show it to customers.
  • Maybe they only want to meet the exact terms of the contract and don’t care about any other aspects of the product.

Learning what people want and what they are willing to compromise on is a delicate conversation. How well this conversation is navigated is a critical differentiator between a good and a bad negotiator. 

Next, knowing what both parties want and are willing to compromise on, the process is then facilitating the back-and-forth of offer and counter-offer:

  • If resources are needed for another project, perhaps some non-critical resources can be pulled off the project now to get a jump-start on the new project in exchange for more time.
  • If progress needs to be shown by the end of the year, perhaps giving a demo of the product in a test environment before it is thoroughly tested is sufficient in the short term, buying more time for testing.
  • If there is a customer contractual obligation, perhaps we can prioritize only the items that meet the terms of the contract and ignore others.

Expect that there will be several exchanges of offer and counter-offer until an acceptable agreement is reached. There is no way to short-cut this back-and-forth, as it is the only way to find an acceptable middle-ground. You must never get frustrated this process “taking too long.” A good negotiator is a patient negotiator, and if more time is available, take advantage of the extra time. If time is limited, there is less time to figure out what people want, where they are willing to compromise and to make enough offers and counter-offers to find an acceptable middle ground.

If you find yourself in a situation where there is no time for a lengthy negotiation, a crude but often effective technique is to simply ask for far more than you need and then compromise to what you actually want. For example:

  • If you are told to do a project in 3 months, but you actually need 6 months, say that there is absolutely no way the project can be done in less than 9 months. Then, after a prolonged argument about why 9 months is unacceptable, offer a compromise of 6 months
  • If asked to come into the office at 8am, but you only want to get into the office by 9am, say that it is impossible for you to get there before 10am. After you are told repeatedly that you absolutely must be in the office by 8am, offer a comprise of getting into the office by 9:30am. When that is rejected, provide another compromise of 9am as the best you can possibly do. 
  • If you are told you cannot work remotely but want to work remotely 1 day a week, explain that you need at least 3 days working from home to be productive. When that is rejected, begrudgingly say that at least at a bare minimum, you need 2 days working from home. When that is refused, throw up your hands and say, “Fine – I’ll only do 1 day working remotely.”

While this technique may seem like the only one you will ever need, it runs a high risk of failing entirely. However, if your back is up against the wall and the alternative is you getting none of what you want, it’s often worth a try.

It is important to remember that you will always be more effective negotiating as a dispassionate 3rd party than negotiating for yourself. If you are negotiating on behalf of yourself, you must be able to walk away from the negotiation, or you will not be able to negotiate effectively. For example, to negotiate effectively for a promotion and a raise, you must be willing to walk away from the job. If you are not, you will compromise everything you want just to keep your job and may end up with very little if you get anything at all. This particular negotiation is one of the most challenging yet most critical types you will face in your career, so it is a good idea to master negotiation first as a dispassionate 3rd party before attempting to negotiate for yourself.

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