I lost a friend and mentor over a failed negotiation.
I was out of work then and turned to him for help. It so happened that he was looking for folks to write a large number of landing pages for a major marketing campaign. I was happy to contribute, but hesitant about one thing: the low pay. So, I tried to negotiate.
It didn’t go well.
I mangled the bargaining part, because I was such a noob.
He thought I should be grateful for the work opportunity. “Don’t you ever ask me for help again” he messaged. Then he blocked me on WhatsApp.
I never expected the conversation to blow up in my face like that. It hurt so much, coming from someone I once held in high regard.
After the dust settled, I realised that I needed to double down on my negotiation skills. If I want to strike out on my own someday, I must be comfortable with taking on negotiations of all kinds. I could save more deals from going bust.
Negotiation is “communication with results”
I learnt that from former FBI hostage negotiator Christopher Voss.
Life is a series of negotiations. Anytime we want something from someone, we go into a negotiation. With our family, our friends, our colleagues, our lovers, our business partners, our customers, our employers, our spouses, our sponsors, etc. There’s no escape!
To improve my negotiation prowess, I studied a lot about the art of negotiation from as many greats as I can. Besides Voss, I’ve learnt a ton from these folks too:
- Marshall Thurber, mentor to the likes of Tony Robins, Robert Kiyosaki, and Jay Abraham
- James Altucher, writer-entrepreneur-podcast host whose blog I enjoy reading
- Jennifer Dziura, Founder of Bullicorn whose blog helped me through some dark days
Today, I can’t say I’m a pro negotiator who closes deals without breaking a sweat. But I am MUCH more confident about how to approach and handle a negotiation.
So here are the five most important and powerful negotiations tips I’ve learnt so far. Distilled from my negotiation mentors’ teachings, plus some personal experiences of what works (and doesn’t).
Pre-tip: Don’t be terrified about negotiating
It’s a pre-tip because none of the five will work if the very thought of negotiation scares you.
First, like I said, there’s no escape.
Second, there’s not much to be afraid of. What’s the worst that can happen? How often is that “worst” something catastrophic?
Third, don’t worry about having enough experience or the right personality. Who you are is enough.
It’s OK to feel nervous, but don’t let the idea of negotiation petrify you. You can do it!
Moving on …
Tip #1: Be an “empthor”
“Emptor”: empathy + authority ~ Marshall Thurber
Many people fall into the trap of focusing on what they want and how to get it. They make themselves the star of the negotiation. Wrong! Make the other party the star. Show empathy.
You don’t have to agree with their beliefs or values. But you should listen to them and acknowledge their situation. That’s how you build trust and rapport, which are key to successful negotiations.
And authority? Articulate your value and wisdom with confidence. Demonstrate how you can help your counterpart achieve their goals. Thurber cited Yoda as a model example. You want to be the knowledgeable mentor who grooms your Luke Skywalker for greatness.
In short, give respect while giving people reason to respect you.
What to say:
- Ask questions about your counterpart in a curious, friendly, and non-judgmental manner
- Voss said that the best questions to ask are “what” and “how” questions. E.g. “how can we make this work” and “what about this is important to you”
Tip #2: Shut up and practice “partinence”
“Partinence”: participation + silence ~ Marshall Thurber
Related to the above point about showing empathy.
It’s hard to empathise when you keep trying to put across your point of view. Learn to keep silent as your counterpart speaks, and stay quiet while waiting for a response. But silence is not an excuse to tune out. Participate 100% in the negotiation by staying sharp and nimble.
When done right, “partinence” helps you build stronger emotional connections with your counterpart.
What to say:
- Instead, do these: detect clues to your counterpart’s worldview, assess motivations, and observe unguarded moments
- Squirrel away all the key information you pick up; you might have to revisit or address these later
Tip #3: Be brave about bargaining
“If no one ever says no to your rates, you’re undercharging” ~ Jennifer Dziura
Ah, bargaining. The inevitable money talk where so many folks stumble.
Too often, in a bid to avoid conflict, or in the face of conflict, we make awkward compromises. Like meeting in the middle: I want to sell at $1,000, you want to buy at $500, let’s settle with $750. Others bungle the whole thing up and lose friends, like me.
Break through the fear and embrace bargaining. In fact, Voss said “conflict is often the path to great deals” – for both you and your counterpart. When done in an honest and respectful manner, all parties should feel satisfied and confident about the deal.
So, prepare well for bargaining. It’s not just learning everything you can about your counterpart or putting up a strong case for what you want. Also learn how to take punches, like outright rejection or aggressive tactics. Often, it’s the emotional stuff that trip us up, so stay calm, sharp, and adaptive.
What to say:
- If your counterpart throws out an extreme number: Get them to reveal more. Voss recommended asking “how?” questions e.g. “how do I go along with the number you suggest when my industry peers are paid $X?” or “we don’t have that $Y, how can we raise that much?”
- If your counterpart accuses you of dishonesty by saying something like, “I’ve given you a fair offer”: don’t let the F-word rattle you. Voss advised saying “Fair?” back at them. Silence. Then say, “It seems like you’re ready to provide the evidence that supports that”
- If your counterpart gives you a tight deadline: don’t rush or you might make reactive decisions. Altucher recommended saying “Let me go over all of this. It’s a lot to take in. I’m really grateful for the offer. How about we talk in a day or so.” Your counterpart needs you as much as you need them. Otherwise, no deal!
Tip #4: Have a bigger list that includes non-monetary terms
“The side with the bigger list of terms wins. Because then you can give up the nickels in exchange for the dimes” ~ James Altucher
It’s not just about money.
What are the other terms and conditions? Any non-monetary benefits that are easy for your counterpart to give, but valuable to you? Work these out and include them in the deal!
Voss once accepted a training gig at a lower-than-usual rate because the client agreed to also do a cover story of him for their magazine. The magazine went out to a list that included industry bigwigs, so the feature was an excellent publicity opportunity.
What to say:
- If negotiating a salary, also ask: what’s the non-compete, vacation leave policy, flexible working hours, sabbaticals, career growth opportunities, etc.
- If negotiating freelance work, also ask: opportunities for future work, referrals to other clients, how many iterations of work, payment terms, cancellation policy, etc.
Tip #5: Don’t hope for only one outcome
“If you can’t walk away from a negotiation then you aren’t negotiating. You’re writing out the terms of your slavery” ~ James Altucher
Harsh but true!
Of all the negotiation advice I’ve received, this is my favourite. It’s also one of the top life lessons I learned in my twenties.
Never be needy, and never be aggressive. Both make you look desperate. Would you like to do business with, or enter into a relationship with, a desperate person?
Walk away from a negotiation if you have to. All the pros I’ve quoted in this post put strong emphasis on this.
Sometimes, I meet someone who thinks win-lose. Or I get a bad feeling about how a partnership or venture might turn out. In such situations, I have no qualms about declining the offer. Nothing personal.
By bowing out, I save everyone a lot of pain, tears, and bitterness further down the road.
Also, there are always other better deals that I can make!
What to say:
- Walk away, but don’t burn bridges. Say “I’m afraid that does not work for me” or “Sorry, it’s not possible for me to move forward at that rate”. And no, saying “sorry”, does not make you look weak
- Don’t get personal if something does not work out. Voss said it best: “The person across the table is never the problem. The unsolved issue is. So focus on the issue.” Don’t say things that might come back and bite you in the ass
- ALWAYS keep your options open. Work on your goal, but also stay open to other wonderful opportunities around you
Negotiating your way to success
I wrote about negotiation because I realised that there are many out there who want to learn how to “communicate with results”. There’s a lot of information out there but it’s hard to know where to start. Or what advice is worth listening to.
That’s why, for this post, I turned mostly to successful pros who’ve been in the trenches before. The tips I’ve got here have been consistent across a lot of negotiation literature I’ve read.
I still think of the friend and mentor I lost over that botched negotiation.
Sure, I could have bargained in a more effective way. But I’m also sad that my friend took it as a personal affront that I did not go with his price, and then cut me out of his life.
Negotiation is much more dynamic and emotional than we realise. Everyone is trying to survive, trying to keep up with a fast-changing world, trying to get the best for themselves and the people they love.
That doesn’t mean we leave things to chance and hope.
We actually have more influence than we realise, even if it seems like the odds are against us. So, go forth and negotiate! You might end up receiving more than you asked for.
I’ll leave you with some final words of wisdom from Voss:
“Every negotiation, every conversation, every moment of life, is a series of small conflicts that, managed well, can rise to creative beauty.”
Don’t you want a life that is rich in creative beauty?