Almost everyone has met a natural-born negotiator. You know the type: The person who can drive away from the car lot with a bargain well under the sticker price, or go to a flea market and get an 18th century armoire for a quarter of its tag price, or walk into the boss’s office and walk out with a raise. These people seem to have an inborn gift. Everyone else is doomed forever to pay sticker price on cars and antiques and to shy away from tough money talks at work, right?
Wrong. We all negotiate all the time without even realizing it. Take steps to improve those abilities, and you can change your life.
Let’s say your boss comes to you with a problem. An important team member on a big project you’re working on has unexpectedly left the company. Because there isn’t time to find and train someone with all the necessary skills, the boss asks you to pick up the slack—which means a lot of late nights for you until the project is complete.
If you aren’t comfortable with negotiation, you’ll probably say yes without asking for anything in return. If you’re a strong negotiator, though, you’ll see an opportunity. You might tell your boss that you’ll be happy to put in the extra hours to make the project a success. In return you’d like the company to pay for your certification training as a project manager, making you a more valuable—and marketable—employee in the long run.
In doing so, you’ve negotiated a better outcome for yourself than you would have gotten had you not spoken up. And you’ve made your boss happy because he gains a successful project and gets a more highly-skilled employee whose knowledge will be useful in the future.
Becoming a better negotiator can help you get a larger share of what you want, attain more of your goals, and improve how you spend your days on this earth. Read on for a few tips for developing your negotiation skills:
Know what you don’t want, what you do want, and what’s even better. One of the most important things a negotiator can do is figure out what she is trying to achieve. As simple as it sounds, many people don’t truly know their own motivations. So, what does a really good outcome look like? It tends to leave you with most of the things you want, both substantively and with regard to the people you are negotiating with. When you don’t know what a good outcome looks like for you, you can end up agreeing to terms that aren’t good for you or the other party. Imagine coming away from a negotiation feeling that you “won” but getting nothing that you value. Now think of a situation where you didn’t particularly win but, on the other hand, you got all the things that were really important to you. Which is better?
Harness the power of BATNA. In negotiation, power comes from alternatives. You must identify your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). The beauty of your BATNA is that it provides you a powerful floor to support your negotiation effort. You will never accept a deal unless it is better than your BATNA. It forms a minimum acceptable level for you.
Don’t settle for win-win. As you begin to hone your negotiating skills, you might be tempted to seek out “win-win” solutions. Doing so might seem like a great way to keep your relationship with your negotiating partner positive, but the approach can actually backfire, causing you both to settle for the first plausible solution that improves everyone’s position. Rather, be sure to set high but realistic goals for yourself to help ensure maximum effort toward best possible results.
Make sure your interests come first, but make sure others’ interests are served, too. Good negotiators pay a great deal of attention to underlying interests. They seek a deal that meets their own interests very well, satisfies the interests of other parties sufficiently, and adequately addresses those important players who are not part of the actual negotiation. To do otherwise is a mistake.
Don’t get distracted from your real goal. Some people pride themselves on a competitive tenacity that leaves nothing on the table. If possible, they take the table as well. But research has shown that many of these winners end up regretting their victories.
Competition is a natural and necessary motivator, yet it does not always bring a happy ending. Avoid hurting your own efforts by keeping your eyes firmly fixed on where you really are trying to go. And give some thought to the ways in which the person sitting across the table can help you get there.
Insist on both a fair process and a fair outcome. Good negotiators refuse to be part of a process, or outcome, that is anything less than fair. Just as a skilled negotiator will never agree to a deal that does not do a good job of meeting her interests or that is not better than her best alternative, so, too, she should decline one that is observably unfair.
Pay attention to power dynamics. In situations where the power dynamic in place is neither a necessary consequence of established roles and relationships, nor a good one for advancing your interests, you should try to change it to your own advantage. Don’t be rude or inappropriate, of course, but also don’t be afraid to question anything that seems unfair or disadvantageous. Always own your power and politely decline any part of the negotiation process that makes you feel uncomfortable, disadvantaged, or manipulated.
Don’t trust imprudently. The mere fact that you have insisted on forthrightness, and unwaveringly offered it, does not mean you should entirely trust the other parties. The best advice is to always act in a trustworthy manner but do not assume that others will do the same. Be extremely cautious about placing too much trust in others. Better to allow your confidence to build slowly as it is earned. And never trust anyone whose incentives and interests suggest strong motivation for them to defect.
Ask lots of questions. The best negotiators ask a lot of questions. The key is to prepare questions in advance and, just as important, listen well enough to pose precise follow-up questions. Strong listening skills, along with good preparation habits and the ability to express thoughts clearly, are among the top traits of the most effective negotiators.
Prepare and practice. Do your homework. As a general rule, the more prepared you are, the better your outcomes will be. Life will offer you many opportunities to sharpen the manner in which you prepare and plan. Take advantage of such situations to practice and try to improve your skills. As you do so, you’ll become a more agile negotiator, able to work around tough situations and in the end create much better outcomes for yourself.
Negotiating is a part of life. When you pay close attention to this fact, you can make yourself much better off. You can come to better financial decisions. You can get more bang for your buck. You can make relationship-improving decisions. You can protect yourself against unfair business practices. Improving your negotiating skills is an effort worth making.