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How To Negotiate Almost Anything
Are you the only thing limiting yourself to getting what you want?
When I was a few weeks into business school at Stanford, one of my professors asked us, as an exercise, to go negotiate something that was completely non-negotiable. This was, needless to say, extremely intimidating. The prevailing idea in America is that things have fixed prices with very little flexibility. The point of the exercise, however, was to teach us that things are more negotiable than we could ever have imagined.
I ended up negotiating two things. First, I went to Target and managed to get a significant discount for something that was on display as a floor sample. Later, after having a poor experience on an airline flight, I was also able to negotiate substantial compensation over the phone.
Each negotiation was incredibly hard. My palms were sweating, and I was extremely nervous. I was terrified to ask for something that I was, in my own opinion, not reasonably entitled to. The strange thing, though, was that both times, the other person didn't even bat an eyelash. They went back and forth with me for a little bit, but ultimately relented and offered me close to what I had originally asked for, without getting angry or taking it the wrong way.
When we returned to class, my classmates and I shared our experiences, and I realized that mine was fairly tame in the grand scheme of things. I was actually shocked by how brazen some of my classmates’ negotiations had been. What surprised me even more, however, was how much success we all had. We were a bunch of twenty-something-year-old students who had gone out there and gotten what would have otherwise been unattainable.
That exercise really struck a chord with me, and to this day it’s a powerful reminder of a simple but important lesson: You can negotiate more things than you think, and in many ways, getting what you want is limited only by your own mind.
Acknowledge the baseline
Once I was negotiating with someone who was struggling to come to terms with the ask. The problem was that they had started from a totally different place than I had. They arrived with a completely different base set of assumptions, which complicated the negotiation, because it meant that what I was asking for was not a compromise. Instead, it would require them to reset their expectations altogether.
I've also been on the other side of this issue. I remember when we moved to California for the first time. We had come from Atlanta, and while we expected California to be a little bit more expensive, we were in for a wake up call. The housing prices were three to five times higher than the ones in Atlanta, and the rents were astronomical. We couldn't understand how anyone could afford to live here. Now that we've been here for a while, the costs have become commonplace for us, but that initial shock really tripped us up. If we hadn't been determined to make it work, we easily could have thrown in the towel.
The key to a successful negotiation is for both parties to show up with the same expectations and perceptions. If these get miscommunicated early on, it can cause problems when you get to the table. Someone who doesn't start with the same set of assumptions or baseline information is difficult to negotiate with until you get on the same page. Often that requires taking the time to get everyone in alignment as to where the starting point is and what the expectations are on all fronts. Make this your first priority before you even start negotiating, and you can avoid misunderstandings further down the line.
Focus on what is important to you
Sometimes people try to have a "kitchen sink'' negotiation: they ask for a ton of small things instead of a few key big things. It's easy to get sidetracked by lower-priority requests, but this can set you up for trouble. There are no guarantees in a negotiation, and you will likely have to make compromises. When that happens, you need to be able to identify which things are your biggest requirements, and which you can afford to leave on the table.
Instead of asking for everything up front, it's important to prioritize. That means making a list of the things you care about the most, as well as the things you are willing to compromise on.
I once got a consultant to help me while I was negotiating for a job. I was confused as to what was even negotiable, and I needed advice. He told me, "Pick the one or two things that you really care about, and put all your eggs in that basket. Don't focus on the small things, because those are easy gives, especially if you value something completely different."
I took that to heart.
Pick your battles and prioritize your requests. Your priorities aren't always the same as someone else's, so finding a zone of possible agreement means pushing for what you really want and letting go of the things you can live without. This makes it much easier to align and find common ground.
Understand the pressures and perceptions
There are multiple stakeholders in a negotiation, beyond just the person on the other side of the table. It's worth your time to understand the pressures they are under, as well as the pressures they will face if they compromise with you.
There was once a team that pushed back against ours because they were upset about being forced to integrate our product into their front end. They were the only team with the audience to provide that distribution. Their resistance had nothing to do with whether or not the product needed to be built; their problem was that they felt like they were being forced to do the integration. I sat down with the leaders and explained that I wasn't there to impose a product on them. Rather, I was offering the product to deepen their customers' engagement. Overnight, the relationship completely changed, and we were able to successfully work together to integrate the product. I didn't just make the request; I sought to understand the dynamics behind their reaction. When I realized that they didn't like feeling pressured, I was able to reframe the ask in a way that felt like an offer, not a demand. This changed everything.
Requests and compromises don't exist in a vacuum. Behind the scenes of any negotiation are countless relationships, expectations, and emotions. Understanding this context will allow you to negotiate in a more empathetic and effective way.
Build the relationship
Our team was once in a heated negotiation with another company, and things got pretty contentious. My manager at the time, one of the best negotiators I have worked with, said something that stuck with me: "Ultimately, this comes down to trust. We can document everything through lawyers, but in the end, this is a relationship. After we leave, this stack of papers will end up in a drawer somewhere. If we ever have to pull it out to review every detail, we will have failed to build enough trust to be successful partners."
He was right. So many times we're fighting for exactly what we want, but we forget that there's so much more on the line. The relationship doesn't end when the negotiation is done. That's when it actually starts.
Focusing on the bigger picture is incredibly important in any negotiation. Most negotiations are not one and done; rather, they are ongoing relationships that require the same level of respect, insight, and empathy as any other workplace dynamic.
I once had a candidate negotiate an offer really hard. He wavered, backtracked, and was constantly changing his requests. This naturally caused a lot of stress for the hiring manager, who had to go back each time to see if he could get what the candidate wanted. It got to the point where he was so fed up that he wanted to rescind the offer. He worried that the candidate's fickleness was a sign of how he was going to function in the role, and he asked me if it was okay if he could politely back out.
When you enter a negotiation, you have to remember that this relationship is one that will likely be ongoing for many years. As easy as it is to get caught up in making demands and changing your mind, you also have to be aware of the impression you're making and the expectations you're setting. Being careful not to burn any bridges by negotiating in a confusing or unfair way is important to all parties.
Most people think they can go into a negotiation and wing it, but this is a mistake. Preparation is one of the most—if not the most—important parts of negotiating. Power means doing your due diligence. It means knowing what you're going to say and what you're not going to say, knowing what the other person wants and what they don't care about. The more knowledge you have going in, the better your position will be when challenges arise.
Before you start a negotiation, get in the habit of asking yourself these questions:
What do I hope to get out of this negotiation?
What do I think the other person hopes to get out of this negotiation?
Who are the counterparty's external stakeholders? What pressures are they facing?
Who are my external stakeholders? What pressures am I facing?
How important is this relationship going forward? What am I willing to sacrifice in order to get more out of this?
If this fails and we both walk away, what happens? (This is often referred to as the BATNA: best alternative to negotiated agreement.)
When I was in business development negotiation, I always had a list of exactly which points we were negotiating, and what we were willing to give on. Because we kept the live negotiation dynamic, I was also able to check in with my stakeholders about what they were expecting me to say and what I needed to land. A good negotiator is always prepared, and is willing to huddle with their team to ensure they are on the same page.
A note on negotiating as a new hire
I've been a hiring manager for nearly two decades, and I negotiated many of the PM offers at Facebook over seven years. Recently, I helped several people in negotiating their offers. Twice, the recruiters told them their last offer was the final offer. I coached the candidates to negotiate in spite of this and gave them the scripts to do so. Both of them ended up getting more than the "final offer".
My advice to new hires is this: always negotiate. Few companies ever make their first, or even second, offer their final offer. Many expect you to negotiate, so leave something on the table to ask for, just in case.
Many of the students who negotiated the non-negotiable in that business school class shared the sentiment that they would rather spend the extra money than negotiate something like that ever again. We have a natural discomfort about asking for things that don't seem to be realistic or within reach. However, compromises are almost always possible, so pick your battles and decide what is worth fighting for. Then put the time and effort into getting it.
More things in life are negotiable than you might think. The first step is being willing to ask. The second step is being willing to follow through. Learn this lesson well, and it will be as valuable to you as it has been to me in the twenty years since I took that class.