When you hear the word “negotiation,” your first thought might be high-stakes corporate deals or the occasional salary discussion with your boss. However, the truth is that every day presents opportunities to learn how to negotiate, whether you’re attempting to secure a refund on a hotel booking or having it out with your spouse about whose turn it is to do the dishes. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions are running especially high, and you might find yourself faced with more aggressive counterparts who make finding common ground seem almost impossible. To help you get started, here are some expert-backed tips on how to negotiate, especially with people who refuse to play nice.

Before the Negotiation Begins

Before you ever begin discussions with the other party, take some time to consider the following.

Explore Possible Solutions

One of the most important parts of the negotiation process happens before it even begins: thinking through possible solutions so that you arrive at the discussion prepared. To take it one step further, anticipate how the conversation could go and how you’d like to respond. For example: If my boss says it’s too soon to consider a promotion, I’ll highlight my contributions to our team and the value I’ve created. By doing your homework ahead of time, not only will you feel more confident, but you’ll also signal to your counterpart that you’re invested in the outcome. Before difficult negotiations, Susan Hackley, Managing Director of Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, recommends running through the following questions((Harvard Law School: Dealing with Difficult People)):

  • What are your hot-button issues?
  • What is essential to you?
  • What is unacceptable?
  • What you are likely to hear from your opponent?
  • How will you react?

It’s like golfing: Jack Nicklaus recommends that golfers take lessons on the most basic skills like grip and alignment. As Hackley writes: “[I]f your setup is sound, there’s a decent chance you’ll hit a reasonably good shot.” Make sure you’re prepared before you set foot on the golf course.

Be a Giver

It’s natural to head into a negotiation focusing on what you stand to gain. Negotiating tends to feel adversarial, and we worry about winning or losing. Take as much as you can, right? Research, however, has shown that being generous while negotiating may be a sign of intelligence. Furthermore, these smarter people, who New York Times contributor Adam Grant calls “givers,” tend to make their counterparts better negotiators, too. Grant writes, “The most successful negotiators cared as much about the other party’s success as their own.”((New York Times: In Negotiations, Givers Are Smarter Than Takers)) Beginning from a place of generosity — focusing on how you can meet your counterpart’s needs and not just satisfy your own — can prove beneficial for both sides of the negotiation, and not to mention, help form stronger, more harmonious long-term relationships.

During Negotiations

Once you’re in the middle of the process, focus on the following to help it move in a positive direction.

Ask Questions to Uncover Hidden Motivations

Heading into a negotiation, most people focus on their objective and what they’re going to say. However, according to experts, listening is even more critical to discovering the best solution for both parties. Former F.B.I. negotiator Chris Voss explains: “We like to say that the key to flexibility is don’t be so sure of what you want that you wouldn’t take something better. If you’re focused on the number, you’re not seeing the other possibilities.”((The Atlantic: Ask a Hostage Negotiator: What’s the Best Way to Get a Raise?)) Let’s say you’re taking on additional childcare duties and want to ask your supervisor for more flexible hours. At the outset, your supervisor refuses. You might assume she’s being unfair, but only asking questions and listening can you discover her reasoning and try to find an alternative solution that’s mutually satisfying. Maybe she trusts you the most to handle a certain responsibility; or perhaps she’s run into problems with giving employees increased flexibility in the past. It might be worth it to dig a little deeper before you throw your hands up and walk away from the negotiating table, figuratively or IRL.

Involve Your Counterpart in Finding a Solution

In his book, Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People, William Ury, co-founder of Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, offers a brilliant method for dealing with hard bargainers. He proposes changing the game “from face-to-face confrontation into side--side problem solving,” restructuring the alignment of a typical negotiation. Imagine there are two teams working toward the same goal: an agreement. When you deal with a hostile negotiator, they’re likely to reject any initial proposal. However, if you offer them options and the opportunity to find a solution together, you might be surprised at how they let their guard down and participate in the problem-solving process. For example, say you want to convince your boss that your company should change its software, and your sights are set on a particular option. If your boss tends to stonewall change, especially when suggested someone else, try presenting a few options and working through the reasoning for each. Focus on the big picture and emphasize how your proposal will advance the organization’s goals. Instead of presenting a single idea, which can be knocked down with a simple “no,” allow your counterpart to come to a solution on his/her own — with some gentle nudging towards the one you previously chose.

Keep Aggression at Bay

There’s a big misconception in the business world, and it’s this: you have to be a hard bargainer to get ahead. If your counterpart is aggressive, then you better be even more aggressive. But guess what? Research has shown that aggression, in fact, doesn’t help either party in a negotiation at all. A recent study found that anger — both interpersonal anger (when the other party is angry at you) and intrapersonal anger (being angry at the other party) — led to less profitable outcomes in the negotiation process. In other words: neither party negotiates as well when one person is angry.((New York Magazine: The Shy Person’s Guide to Dealing With an Aggressive Negotiator)) Instead, try to keep your calm, or as William Ury describes it: Go to the balcony. That means “[taking] yourself mentally to a place where you can look down objectively on the dispute and plan your response.” By removing your emotions from the situation, you can proceed more productively and, hopefully, diffuse a high-stress situation.

Last-Ditch Efforts

If nothing seems to be working and it looks like all is lost, use these techniques to get things back on track.

Loop in Others

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our negotiation counterpart refuses to play nice. Maybe they’re a deliberate hard bargainer or just plain obstinate. That’s when it’s time to loop others into the process. You might be wondering: how will this help? For starters, oftentimes, a difficult person is likely to be on better behavior when held accountable more than one person. What’s more, whether you cc: relevant people (but taking care not to over cc: anyone) or invite third parties into the meeting, you’re creating a record of your good-faith efforts to come to an agreement.

Preserve the Relationship

Whoever you’re negotiating with, chances are they can have an impact on your life — whether it’s the trajectory of your career, the success of a business deal, or simply the hotel room you’ll be staying in for the weekend. It pays to conclude a negotiation, even an unsuccessful one, reminding your counterpart of your respect for them. A genuine sentiment of appreciation, or even a little light-heartedness, can go a long way. As former F.B.I. negotiator Chris Voss advises: “Never be mean to someone who can hurt you doing nothing. If you’re good, they’ll be delighted to do for you whatever they can. A playful, enjoyable attitude gives you latitude.”((New York Times: A Former F.B.I. Negotiator and His Tips for Travel)) You might not get the raise or the hotel room, but maybe something else can be done, even if that means just a more favorable outcome next time. Hopefully, these strategies can help you make your next negotiation more successful and less stressful for both parties.

More Tips on How to Negotiate

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