Negotiation: What it is and how to do it well

The idea of negotiation can seem scary—the word makes us think about navigating a job offer, making a large purchase, or settling a legal dispute. But we’re actually involved in different forms of negotiation every day, from the mundane (getting your dog to drop that slipper) to the complex (setting a timeline for a project at work). 

Good negotiation skills can help you in all areas of life, from having a difficult conversation with your roommate to conflict resolution in the workplace. No matter the circumstance, knowing you have a good negotiation strategy in your back pocket will bring you confidence and peace of mind.

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Table of contents

What is negotiation?Why engage in a negotiation?3 Ways to prepare for a negotiation4 Strong negotiation tacticsWhat if negotiations don’t work?

What is negotiation?

At the most basic level, negotiation is a conversation between or among the parties involved with the aim of reaching an agreement that satisfies everyone. Unlike conflict resolution, which is more open-ended and often spontaneously arising, the negotiation process tends to be planned, more narrowly defined around one central issue, and follow a more formal back-and-forth structure. 

That being said, negotiation can also masquerade as everyday issues; for example, deciding who’s going to do what in the next deep cleaning is a great example of a negotiated agreement among roommates.

Why engage in a negotiation?

Though it can sound formal or stuffy, negotiation is a very useful tool. It might seem strange to create distance among the people involved in the negotiation by calling it what it is instead of keeping things more informal and loose. But approaching dispute resolution this way can also be freeing: Since negotiations require a certain amount of transparency, it can be easier to plainly state your desired outcome and understand more clearly where the other parties are coming from. The goal is not to win, but to find a solution that is acceptable to everyone.

3 Ways to prepare for a negotiation

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses as well as varied communication skills. Leveraging yours can help you figure out how to approach a negotiation, which will, in turn, give you confidence. Here are three steps for effective negotiation preparation.

1. Know where you stand. 

Sometimes issues of major importance in our lives come along with major emotions that can take some time to untangle. Before you enter a negotiation, make sure you take some time to understand your own position. 

If you’re interviewing for a job and you know the topic of salary negotiation will come up, make sure you fully understand your personal budget and what you can and can’t afford. If you’re meeting with your roommates to decide how to split chores, spend a little time thinking about which chores you hate and which you don’t mind doing.

2. Anticipate the other party’s position. 

Next, devote some time to understanding the other party’s point of view and their desired outcome. Again, if you’re interviewing for a job and you’re about to negotiate the salary, think about what industry the job is in, how big the company is, how profitable they are, and how old you are, and try to guess what kind of number they might throw out. Then practice potential ways to handle the different scenarios you might encounter. 

Same goes for doling out chores: If you already know your roommates a little bit, imagine what types of cleaners they might be and prepare potential responses so that you can answer from a place of strength and confidence versus stress or defeat.

3. Open your mind. 

Negotiations aren’t just about deal-making; they’re also about learning to understand the other party. You won’t reach a win-win deal unless you truly take the time to empathize with the other side, and doing so can help you find a solution that not only satisfies, but brings you to some sort of common ground.

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4 Strong negotiation tactics

While everyone has their own negotiation style, there are a few strategies that work in most situations.

  1. State your needs and wants clearly. Nothing derails a negotiation faster than wishy-washy rhetoric, so make sure you know what you want, state it simply and without fluff or apology, then stick to it throughout the conversation. This isn’t to say you can’t ever change your mind—in fact, you’ll likely have to compromise in one way or another—but staying on-message can help the conversation flow smoothly and prevent people from feeling overwhelmed.

  2. Summarize what the other person is saying. Let the other person know you extend their point of view the same courtesy by showing empathy and practicing active listening. Everyone should be clearly understood and taken seriously, and restating what they’ve told you indicates you value that.

  3. Give the problem a name. To avoid finger-pointing and promote teamwork, it can help to point out that the problem is almost a third party in the negotiation. You and the other party involved may want different things, but you’re both united in that you’re trying to solve the same problem. Naming that problem can help you feel more aligned.

  4. Take time to think it over. You don’t have to agree to anything immediately. As long as you don’t slack off and take too long to get back to someone with an answer, there’s no harm in asking if you can mull something over.

What if negotiations don’t work?

If the negotiation has been ongoing for a while and you haven’t reached an agreement, it may be a good idea to table the conversation for another time. Usually with some space and time comes more clarity. Make sure you schedule a follow-up time to discuss, though, so the issue doesn’t fall by the wayside. 

It can also help to have an alternative to a negotiated outcome. For instance, if your roommate isn’t willing to make walking your dog a part of the weekly chore rotation, ensure you have the funds to hire a dog walker.

We face negotiation constantly. By embracing it, we can better our understanding of others, our interpersonal skills, and our own self-knowledge.

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