6 Ways to Sharpen Your Everyday Negotiations Skills

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People are often surprised, and a little intimidated, when they learn that my research expertise is in negotiations. They remark, “but you are so personable … transparent… straightforward.” And I think, “It’s too bad that’s a surprise. . .”

This is probably because most people think of negotiators, and by extension negotiations, as showy and cut-throat, a game where one side wins and the other loses. So it’s not surprising that many people dread having to negotiate, whether for a car, a house, a new job or a business.

But I see negotiation from another lens, as part of every social interaction. We are all different. That’s what makes life wonderful. So, in order to live and work together, we need to learn to resolve our differences in productive, generative ways. That’s what great leaders do.

As a social scientist, I’m fascinated by how people think and act in reaching agreement (or not). Everyday people resolve differences in many ways – both explicitly and implicitly. Whether it is a non-verbal understanding of who will walk through the door first; a breakfast dialogue to decide what a family will eat for dinner; the ebb and flow of a deep problem-solving discussion at work; or who gets credit for ideas and who gets a bigger bonus. The list goes on and on, ranging from mundane to monumental.

From all my years of studying and practicing negotiation, here are my six favorite tips. The first three can equip anyone to be a better negotiator. The second three are for those who want a bit more nuance.

The basics:

1)    Know what you want. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to negotiate with someone who doesn’t know what they want. They either can’t agree, or they just keep changing their minds. The most successful negotiators start with self-awareness, figuring out what they most want, prioritizing that, and deciding what they can live without. No one gets everything they want in life, but to paraphrase the Rolling Stones: if you try, you can get what you need.

2)    Do your homework. If a negotiation really matters to you, you need to know all you can about the other parties involved – their experiences, values, networks. People are flattered when you’ve taken the time to do your research on them, and it saves you from making the wrong assumptions about how they operate. You also need to know what’s possible (and not) from a market perspective. For example, you may think your house is the most beautiful in town or that you deserve to earn $1 million per year, but if the market doesn’t agree, you’re going to waste a lot of time, energy and good will trying to convince the other side. Great negotiators know that 80 percent of their work is done away from the table, researching the other parties and identifying relevant comparables.

3)    Listen more than you talk. Contrary to popular myth, once they get to the table, great negotiators focus on listening, not talking. They seek to learn from the other side first. One of the biggest rookie mistakes is to give away ground or reputation by making a wrong opening offer too quickly. The best way to deepen your understanding of the other person and what is possible to achieve with them is to ask questions and listen carefully, with an open mind, to the answers.

And for a deeper cut:

4)    Embrace conflict. Unlike in some other cultures, many Americans prefer to avoid conflict. It’s been implicitly understood, in many circles, that conflict should not to be publicly called out or addressed. Those norms may be changing in the current political climate – and to the extent that they do, in respectful ways, that could be good. Research shows time and again that disagreement is the best source of new ideas and new understandings. Only by constructively engaging in conflict do we find the common ground between differing points of view, catalyze new insights, and uncover creative synergies. Getting to a shared vision in any relationship, community or organization requires embracing conflict and thoughtfully resolving it – not shying away from it.

5)    Be contentious only in self-defense. Coupled with the point above, be mindful that contentious and disrespectful behaviors create ill will and erode trust. The world hardly needs more of that. Most executives I know start by assuming good intentions and only shift to more guarded or aggressive tactics if there is no alternative. Unfortunately, some people seem to treat every negotiation as a judo match. But that doesn’t make them successful, at least not in the long-run, as most experienced executives, including myself, will simply avoid working with them in future.

6)    Don’t cave on price for the sake of a relationship. That’s just naïve and simplistic. Good relationships can’t be bought. They can only be built through shared values and meaningful discussion. If price is an issue, agree to work together to negotiate a shared definition of fairness; to determine what market data or other comparables suggest would be a fair deal for both of you. Fairness, respect and trust are the relational currencies you can and should bank on in every interaction, whenever possible.

Hire people who FAIL interviews ! – here is why.

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I have heard so many times in the last 25 years – “this candidate does not fit into the role”.

Nobody fits exactly into anything. We are not square pegs to be fitted into square holes.

Most candidates get rejected for the wrong reasons.

“Does not fit” is one of the worst reasons. It says we do not believe a candidate can learn fast enough, adapt fast enough, be flexible enough. How do we determine that exactly ?

Of the worst reasons for rejection, it is the most cruel one. It sounds polite but tells the person you do not believe in their abilities to learn and adapt.

During an interview, you are not interviewing a person – you are interviewing your own ability to get this particular candidate to the level needed for the job.

I beg you, when you reject a candidate, please do not say s/he does not fit.

Please say instead, “I am not likely to be able to motivate this person and/or to get him/her to speed quickly”. If you put it like that, you may actually decide to give them and yourself a chance -a chance for yourself to do something really good.

I ask various questions on the interview. I hired a few people in the past several years that did NOT answer any of my questions. I saw a potential in each one of them. All of them did really well.

1) Many qualified people do not do well on interviews.

2) Answering theoretical question has very little to do with actual on the job performance.

3) Recognizing the potential is very difficult, but not impossible. I try to ask questions these days that go after the potential, in addition to skills and experience. I am trying to establish the willingness and ability to learn new things, creativity and adaptability. I am looking not only for the answer, but the way the person thinks and learns. It is not what you know, it is how you think – that matters most. One can have the skills, but ability to apply them in non standard situations is key.

In fact when you hire someone who did not do well on the interview, you are motivating them already. It is a very powerful motivational message.

If you have not read my related article, you really should – The best people will QUIT !

In particular, please pay attention to the notion of the temple. Once an employee knows what the temple is, the productivity rises many-fold.

A motivated employee can do so much and learn so much so quickly.

Do not hire the skills, hire the potential skills !

Better yet, hire a person, not a skill set.

Everyone deserves a chance.

Do not hire the UNEMPLOYED if ..

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Here are 3 reasons why you would not hire the unemployed:


1) you always follow the crowd

2) you do NOT want to go for the best talent available – which could be in someone currently out of work.

3) you are shortsighted

The crowd mentality makes us, the humans, do stupid things.

We buy stocks when everybody else is buying at the top of market – when we should be selling. We also sell at the bottom of the market, because everyone else is selling.

People always want what other people want. They do not want what nobody else wants.

They think that if nobody hired you, you can not be good. Even if you do a headstand on the interview, they will still not be impressed.

I always had a tendency to question the wisdom of the crowd. The road most traveled is the road of mediocrity.

I hired people who have not been employed for a while, and they ALL did well. Of course, I would interview them and make sure that they would do well.

One of them is now a head of HR at a major company, another is in charge of a product management function at a major publisher. Yet another now owns his own company and has 20 people working for him.

The fact that they have not worked in a while NEVER entered my mind during the interview.

People who are not working are very eager to get a job and to keep it. They are highly motivated, and will give you their utmost loyalty, dedication and hard work.

Give them a chance, please !