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How to negotiate over practically anything

There’s a better way to get the things you want.

Chris Voss had only been an FBI hostage negotiator for a year and a half when he was assigned to handle negotiations for a bank hostage at Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn in 1993. About 90 minutes after first picking up the phone with one of the hostage takers, Voss had struck a deal and was able to convince the kidnappers to leave the bank. Voss credits his success to non-adversarial confrontation and building trust.

“In any negotiation — business, personal — you have to find a way to gently show people reality,” says Voss, who teaches a Masterclass on negotiation, “without them feeling cornered or attacked.”

The stakes in most other negotiations are far lower than Voss’s brush with hostage captors. Asking for a raise, splitting chore duties, suggesting a different restaurant for date night — practically anything is negotiable. “It’s just not always worthwhile for us to try, and we’re not always going to be successful,” says Zoe Chance, a senior lecturer at the Yale School of Management, “but anyone should be able to ask anyone for anything.”

Negotiation is a collaborative conversation, a means of problem-solving, and an opportunity for transformation, according to negotiation and commercial consultant Devon Smiley. “Something isn’t working for me,” she says. “So how do I make it work for me? How do I transform it?” In the process of this transformation, all involved parties should get what they want; no one side should feel like the loser.

How to effectively leverage this balance of give and take requires skill and practice, but mastering the art of negotiation isn’t impossible. Through objective-setting, preparation, and curiosity, even beginner negotiators can equip themselves with the tools to get what they want.

Before you can get someone to say yes, practice saying no (and know what will make others say no to you)

A natural aspect of negotiation is rejection. Before you can feel comfortable asking for what you want, Chance suggests getting used to saying “no.” “As you become more comfortable practicing saying no, you get more comfortable with the idea of other people saying no to you,” she says, “and that helps you be more comfortable asking.”

At the start of one of her MBA classes, Chance instructs her students to reject every request or invitation they receive for 24 hours. This exercise allows participants to feel comfortable setting boundaries. Giving yourself permission to turn down others in low-pressure situations helps prepare you for the inevitability of denying requests in the future.

Notice how others react when you turn them down. For most inconsequential requests, your “no” hasn’t ruined their day or shattered the relationship. The same is true when the roles are reversed. If you’re on the receiving end of a “no,” depending on how important your ask is, you can either try to come to terms both parties are happy with, or you can decide to drop the request, Chance says.

There are certain non-negotiables, according to Brian Buck, the chief executive of Scotwork USA, a negotiation consultancy and training firm. Asking someone to change their opinions and principles isn’t likely to go over well. “If I were to go talk to another parent about how to raise their children,” Buck says, “they’re going to have very strong opinions.” There isn’t much you can offer the other party to help them see your way in these situations. Attempts at negotiating prices for certain goods, like the cost of a sweater at a department store or a bunch of bananas at a big-box grocery, probably won’t be successful either, Buck says.

Don’t take negotiating personally

Engaging in a back-and-forth over a personal request can feel like a referendum on your worth. Culture and gender influence norms and emotions around making requests, but very often people forgo asking for what they want because they don’t want to be seen as greedy or a nuisance, Smiley says. However, a negotiation has very little to do with you. (It should be noted that racial and gender biases impact the outcome of salary negotiation. Studies find these results are because of biased interviewers, not because the interviewer was a poor negotiator.) The other party’s goals, objectives, constraints, and budget factor into their offers. Not getting exactly what you want doesn’t mean the other person doesn’t like you or you’re not worthy. “That’s a terrible way to negotiate,” Chance says, “and it ends up creating a lot of bad vibes that make us not want to negotiate again in the future.”

In most negotiations involving money, you’re often bargaining with a representative of a company or organization. Asking a customer service rep for a discount on your cable bill isn’t an attack on that person’s character; negotiating a higher salary with a human resources manager doesn’t lower their pay. Just because you haggle with a human doesn’t mean the person on the other end will be directly affected. It’s okay to consider your own needs over those of a corporation.

To do this, Smiley says to consider the “ripple of impact” of how getting what you want can materially impact your life. The consequences of negotiating a raise, for instance, extend beyond the size of your paycheck; the extra money may allow you to enroll your kids in swimming lessons or to make a donation to a charity. “By you asking, there’s more benefit happening than just what’s going in your wallet,” Smiley says.

Making a negotiation less personal doesn’t mean removing the human element. Remain polite and professional in tone and pay attention to how the other party responds, Smiley says. Rudeness and aggression are red flags and you should consider how you might be treated down the line. If you’re haggling over the price of tomatoes at the farmer’s market, you may be willing to overlook minor brusqueness, but if you’re weighing signing a two-year lease with a landlord who doesn’t answer questions or who is disrespectful, how will they treat you later? Always be mindful of your reactions and avoid snarky or rude retorts in the heat of the moment.

Prepare as much as you can prior to negotiating

Before making a case for what you want, you’ll need to anticipate all the reasons another party might want to counter your proposal. Even for small negotiations, such as asking your friend to change the date of her birthday party so you can attend, there are three things you should be prepared to answer, according to Smiley: your main goals for the interaction, the potential pushback, and a few creative concessions or offers you could make.

Get creative with your goals, Chance says, because you may succeed by asking for things few people consider requesting. For example, if you’re buying a car, would you prefer higher-end floor mats, an extended warranty, or a lower financing rate in lieu of a discount on the price? “If you haven’t thought of it, you can’t ask for it,” Chance says. “It’s really hard to be creative when you’re stressed. So we should never expect ourselves to come up with great ideas when we’re in a stressful negotiation.”

However, only ask for what you really want and would be satisfied receiving, Voss says. Approaching with too outrageous an offer can come off as disingenuous or manipulative.

In her book Don’t Leave Money on the Table: Negotiation Strategies for Women Leaders in Male-Dominated Industries, negotiation strategist Jacqueline Twillie coined a preparation checklist called LATTE: look at the details, anticipate challenges, think about the walk-away point, talk it through, evaluate options. Twillie likens negotiation to a job interview. Before sitting down with an interviewer, you’ll want to know about the company, its goals, and who you’d be working with. Take a similar approach to negotiating: Who is the other party in the negotiation? What do they want? Then, consider all the ways you could be challenged — your proposed rate is too high, the rental car you want is unavailable, your partner has an important meeting on the day you need them to take your child to a doctor’s appointment — and how you will respond. “This prevents you from walking away from the conversation thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I should have said this or that,’” Twillie says.

At some point, you may get frustrated and need to take a breather. What are your signs of annoyance? Do you feel rage in the pit of your stomach? Be aware of these tells and remind yourself to take a break if they arise. Voss recommends ending every conversation, even if you’re frustrated, by reiterating how much you want to make a deal with the other person. “The last impression is a lasting impression,” Voss says.

Once you’ve thoroughly prepared your talking points, practice delivering your ask aloud. For important negotiations, it’s helpful to rehearse the entire scenario with a friend who can help point out your blind spots. Finally, consider other alternatives to your current situation. What other car dealerships, employers, phone companies could you choose?

However, not every negotiation will be anticipated, so you’ll need to think on your feet for creative solutions. Say the front desk staff at a hotel informs you that, due to an error, the room you booked is no longer available. While you could complain, think about your objective — to find a room to sleep in — and what might make up for the inconvenience, Buck says. Start by asking questions: When will the room be available? What other rooms are open? Are there any amenities that would compensate for the error? You could potentially negotiate a few days of complimentary meals in return for a room with a lower rate than what you originally paid.

Approach the conversation with curiosity, authenticity, and generosity

In order for both sides to come to an agreement, you need to take an interest in what the other party wants. Instead of getting angry, frustrated, or offended when someone counters your proposal, ask open-ended questions, Smiley says. She recommends inquiries like, “What are your thoughts on this?” “How does this align with what you were expecting?” and, “What are your top three priorities?” “A rather cheeky question that I’ve used a few times and I usually get a laugh, but usually a good response too,” Smiley says, “is ‘How can I make this feel better for you without making it worse for me?’” Chance’s magic question is, “What would it take to make this happen?” This invites collaboration and outlines a path forward for requests such as structural changes at work. Sometimes the most straightforward approach is most effective. Buck is a proponent of asking, “How can I get a better deal?”

Address any points of contention, Voss says, like high prices or feelings of frustration. If you’re attempting to set a rate with a new client but fear they will try to negotiate a lower price, try saying, “My price is high,” then, leave a few seconds for the other side to respond or give you the floor to proceed, Voss says. “Because calling out the elephant in the room is what gets rid of the elephant in the room, not denying it, not ignoring it,” he says. Then, let the other side respond.

Arming yourself with more information helps you unearth true holdups. For example, if you’re trying to negotiate with your boss a longer deadline on a work project, you might ask about workflow procedures and learn that your portion of the project must be completed before a coworker can begin their contribution. Understanding the bigger picture can help you collaborate on a solution. When the other side feels heard, the negotiation will progress smoothly, Voss says.

Once you’ve learned about your counterpart’s goals, think about what you can offer to facilitate an agreement. Smiley suggests using if/then statements, like, “If you can give me a 5 percent discount, then I could pay in cash.”

Accepting a good-enough offer is a win

Throughout the course of your research and preparation, and before you begin the negotiation, you should set a minimum of what you’re willing to accept. If you’re buying a car, what is the highest price you’re willing to pay for the minimum amount of features and amenities? Should you negotiate a better deal, great; if not, you’re still happy with the agreed-upon price. “Sometimes there’s nothing additional that happens that wasn’t already in the offer, and many times, it was already a really good offer,” Chance says. “Don’t take it personally.”

If you’re considering walking away, balance alternative options. Where else can you buy the car? Will their prices be comparable? Do the other cars’ specs match up to the one you’re currently considering? Or are you being a bit unrealistic in what you want? Smiley says this line of questioning can help negotiators decide if they want to continue working toward a deal or walk away.

Don’t be afraid to walk away

Negotiators have to be willing to turn down any potential deal, Twillie says. “When you are not willing to walk away, it doesn’t matter what you’re negotiating, you’ve already given away your power,” she says. Imagine what your life would look like if you didn’t accept this new job, buy this condo, or couldn’t get a discount on this product. There is usually a way forward without accepting a deal that won’t make you happy in the long term.

“That mental path will help you to make a better decision,” Twillie says.

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