How to negotiate at work to get what you want and be happier

Learning how to negotiate is one of the most basic, yet critical workplace skills to have.

For employees (and yourself), it should be an arrow in your quiver of other primary skills, including:

But what, really, is a negotiation? And what are the best practices for successfully negotiating to achieve your goals while maintaining key relationships?

Negotiation is everywhere

So, what is negotiation?

It’s the process of persuading someone to adopt your position or goal as their own. Neither party wins or loses – it’s more about each person walking away satisfied with the outcome.

What is negotiation not? It’s never about intimidation, domination or bullying. You want to be fair, knowledgeable and reasonable, and always maintain good relationships for the inevitable next round of negotiations.

Through this lens, you’ll realize nearly every aspect of your working life and yes, even personal life is impacted by negotiation at some point:

  • Job offers
  • Project or team assignments
  • Changes to deadlines
  • Changes to work schedules
  • Customer sales
  • Vendor procurement
  • Contracts or budget resources
  • Conflict resolution
  • PTO requests (especially those during busy periods or when everyone wants to take time off)
  • Changes to benefits packages
  • Promotions
  • Salary increases
  • Exit deals

Negotiations occur with:

  • Managers
  • Colleagues and peers
  • Clients
  • Partners
  • Vendors and service providers
  • Family members (and other parties outside of a work setting)

If you become a skilled negotiator at work, it’s a powerful tool to help you get more of what you want – and probably become happier and enjoy more successes as a result.

Negotiation skills certainly aren’t limited to the workplace either. In all types of life situations, we constantly engage in negotiation. Consider how you use these skills in your personal and family life as well – from divvying up chores and picking a restaurant for dinner to making major purchase decisions and selecting vacation destinations.

Let’s review the process, techniques and skills associated with positive, productive, and effective negotiation.

The negotiation processes

What happens is very simple:

  1. One party makes an initial offer.
  • The other party either accepts or declines it, with or without a counteroffer.
  • If the offer is declined with a counteroffer, the offeree may accept it or present their own counteroffer. If the offeree declined without a counteroffer, the offeror can present a new, adjusted offer.
  • This cycle continues until both parties reach a mutually acceptable arrangement or agreement that no deal can be formed.

You’ll notice that the cycle doesn’t end abruptly when someone says no. Actually, the first no is when any real negotiation kicks into gear.

Overcoming the first “no” in negotiation

This is what a negotiation is all about – going back and forth to identify a solution that works for both parties. In most cases, yes won’t happen immediately.

So, don’t be afraid of the word no. This is simply a learning opportunity in which you discover more about the other person’s position and confirm why your offer doesn’t work for them currently. It doesn’t mean that they dislike you personally or think you’re unworthy of what you’re asking for.

Don’t forget the human element at play here. Be empathetic – other people have their own needs, motivations, concerns, and external pressures you should consider. You don’t need to agree with them, but you do need to understand them and how to potentially address them.

Overcoming the fear of no frees you to explore a wealth of opportunities you may have never considered.

The result should be that both parties are satisfied with the outcome. Perhaps they each feel they had to compromise on a few points, but they both also feel like they won something that was important to them. A negotiation isn’t successful if someone feels unhappy about the outcome or feels as they were coerced into it.

Basic negotiation strategy

Before you enter any negotiation, you need to prepare and chart your strategy. This will help you seed the path toward a favorable deal before any ask is made.

This involves researching and engaging in careful consideration, and ultimately determining:

  • Your objective
  • Your limits
  • What the other party is solving for
  • What’s important to them
  • Their concerns

Some concepts that are useful starting points in formulating your strategy, clarifying your limits, and shaping potential deal conditions:

1.      Best alternative to negotiated agreement (BATNA)

If you don’t get the precise result you want, what’s your fallback? What alternatives are acceptable to you? What is the lowest offer you’ll accept versus as a seller or your highest offer the buying?

2.      Zone of possible agreement (ZOPA)

 There will be overlap in a range of potentially acceptable deals between what you want and what the other party wants. This is called the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA).  Defining these points – gained through research, active engagement and expertise – helps  establish not only maximums and minimums but possibly where non-monetary factors could play a role.

Here are eight easy negotiation techniques you can leverage to support your strategy:

1.      Seed and drop breadcrumbs.

Be pro-active and begin laying the groundwork for an ask, days, weeks or months in advance by talking indirectly about benefits, needs or observations related to an upcoming negotiation or ask.

For example, if budget season is starting in six months, subtly lay the groundwork to request additional resources.

To do so:

  • Build an underlying premise such as: Driving productivity and efficiency is a departmental top priority in the new fiscal year in order to stay ahead in this rapidly evolving competitive landscape.  
  • Tie simple productivity drivers and your efficiency focus into business conversations with decision makers at every opportunity. 
  • Don’t wait to ask for things when you need them. Allow leaders leeway and time to see things your way.
  • If you leave them a nice trail to follow, they should ask: “What do we need in order to be more efficient?”  You might just have a few ideas.

2.      Anchor a potentially negative situation.

Proactively get likely reservations or valid objections out in the open and address them up-front so they can’t be used to counter your proposal later.

3.      Always ask for more than you think you’ll get to avoid selling yourself short.

During salary negotiations, start with an expected range instead of a single number and anchor to the high end – potentially 30% to 35% above the figure at which you think you’ll settle.

Have reasons ready to justify your request and support your claims. Of course, if you’re on the flip side of this negotiation, you’ll want to start off at a lower figure than what you expect to be agreeable.

4.      Don’t use round numbers.

In salary negotiations, using more precise figures can indicate that you’ve performed extensive research and due diligence to arrive at a figure, rather than something you pulled out of the air.

5.      Move in increasingly smaller increments.

If you budge closer to the other party’s offer in a negotiation, each of your counteroffers should take smaller and smaller steps in their direction until you reach your lowest limit.

6.      Include things of value to the other party in your offer.

Consider what’s valuable to the other party. What is your leverage?

It may not seem important to you, but it can make your offer more attractive to that person and move the needle in your favor. Remember: Both parties should feel satisfied with the outcome of a negotiation.

7.      Get comfortable with, and better manage, silence.

Someone else’s silence indicates an internal struggle. If you sense that the other party might be stuck in an emotional part of their brain or is resistant to what you’re suggesting, engage in “emotional labeling.”

Articulate what you think they might be feeling or paraphrase what you’ve heard them say. Reframe the situation in a way that communicates that you’re empathetic, but also move the other party and the conversation forward.

“I know you may be feeling that…”

“What I think I heard you said was…”

8.      Allow the other party to feel a sense of control over the negotiation.

You can do this by asking “how” and “what” questions to focus their direction toward your solution.

“How can we put together a deal that achieves…?”

“How can I (or my company) do that?”

“What does a good deal for this partnership look like?”

It’s not enough to be prepared and have a negotiation strategy and techniques ready.

To be most successful, you must execute your strategy and techniques in a way that demonstrates thoughtfulness, professionalism and consideration of the other party.

Some must-have negotiation skills:

1.      Patience

Don’t rush any decision or try to push the other party to decide on an issue faster than their comfort level permits.

  • Aim to move the other party in increments toward your goal.
    • Take your time to consider what they offer you.

2.      Active listening

Active listening is important because people want to know they’re being heard and validated.

  • Demonstrate that you’re listening and acknowledging their concerns by repeating what the other person has said to confirm your understanding.
    • Don’t talk over people or interrupt.
    • Focus on what they’re saying in the moment. If you’re too busy planning your response, you’ll miss important information.
    • If you’re feeling frustrated or angered by the other party, pause before your response to let those feelings pass. Emotion shouldn’t be part of the negotiation process at work.

3.      Ability to ask good, open-ended questions

Based on what you hear, ask questions.

This is how you can uncover more insight into the other party’s position and get a clearer picture of what an acceptable agreement looks like to them.

4.      Mindfulness about your body language and tone

Did you know that more than 70% of communication is non-verbal? People can tell a lot by your reaction to them. That’s why your body language and tone should always convey engagement with and respect for the other person.

  • Maintain eye contact.
    • Lean into the conversation.
    • Mirror the other person’s gestures and language to create bonding and a feeling of being in sync.
    • Smile. This will automatically relax both parties and ease any tension.
    • When you do speak, always be mindful of your tone – don’t indicate frustration or anger.

5.      Ability to build rapport

Body language also plays an important role in increasing camaraderie and a sense of belonging. This is why in-person negotiations are preferred.

To further enhance rapport, perform background research on the other party and find out their interests. See what you share and can talk about to break the ice.

6.      Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to express empathy for others and understand where the other party is coming from.

7.      Ability to pivot to other techniques in an agile way

A negotiation is a dynamic situation. As you learn more information about the other party from their cues (language and actions) or external conditions prompt a change in circumstances, you need to be able to shift to a new plan of action.

8.      Knowing when to walk away from a bad deal

Sometimes you and another party just can’t reach a suitable agreement and it’s not worth it to continue in endless negotiations. Recognize when you’ve reached that point and move on. It will save both parties frustration and time.

Negotiation pitfalls to avoid

Here’s what you don’t want to do if you want successful negotiation outcomes:

1.      Lack any strategy or a plan for enacting that strategy.

You’ll look unprepared and unknowledgeable, and that won’t impress the other party.

2.      Bring your own biases into negotiations.

We all have our own perspectives and preconceived notions based on our experiences and backgrounds. However, these can sometimes lead to blind spots. Keep the potential for blind spots top of mind staying in discovery mode looking to learn what you haven’t considered,  the other party’s perspectives or secondary needs.

3.      Be a poor listener.

You’ll never learn what’s important to the other party and effectively address those concerns in a negotiation if you can’t listen well. This also indicates a lack of respect.

4.      Become adversarial.

Remember earlier how we talked about the need to maintain good relationships for future negotiations? Getting emotional and aggressive is a surefire way to ruin relationships.

Summing it all up

Life is full of negotiations. Therefore, understanding how to negotiate most effectively – in a way that benefits you while preserving relationships – is important, especially in a workplace setting where job titles, money, career progression and overall satisfaction are on the line. Remember:

  • Enter any negotiation with a strategy prepared, techniques planned out and an understanding of the other party’s motivations and concerns.
  • Don’t give up simply because you heard no.
  • Cultivate patience, empathy and strong active listening skills.
  • Maintain awareness of your body language and the non-verbal cues you send.
  • Recognize when to shift techniques – have a back-up plan ready – or when to walk away.

As you work your way further up the organizational ladder, the need to have good negotiation skills become even more important. To learn more about all the skills required of strong leaders, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.

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