You Don’t Get What You Deserve—You Get What You Negotiate

In today’s brutally competitive business environment, being a skilled negotiator is more important than ever.
November 07, 2011

How often do you hear people complain that something isn't fair? Probably pretty often. But who said life had to be fair? It doesn't, and it isn’t—at least it isn't the majority of the time. Those who expect everything to be nicey nice and still win in today’s brutally competitive business environment are living in a dream world.

All of life is a negotiation. Anyone who is married knows that a lot of negotiation goes on in the best of marriages. Teenagers negotiate for the family car or some extra spending money or permission to go to that rock concert. The world of business is no different.

In corporate life, the annual budgets, business plans, goals and objectives against which success or failure is measured are all the result of a series of negotiations. So the prudent thing to do is to become an effective negotiator.

Negotiation is a learned skill. Some people are naturally better at it than others, but everyone benefits from learning the principles of good negotiation. One way to do it is by participating in role-playing workshops similar to the ones put on by negotiation expert Chester Karrass. Karrass, who earned a doctorate in business administration from the University of Southern California, started holding negotiation-training seminars decades ago.

Here are a few of the negotiation tips that Karrass teaches in his seminars.

  • Aim high. The more you ask for, the more you’ll get, unless your demands are totally unreasonable. This has been confirmed by extensive research. Make a list of your goals and aspirations and set them high. (Just leave some room for concessions.)
  • Do your homework. Whoever is best prepared has a big advantage. Study your negotiating “opponent,” background material, and evaluate the possible options—yours and his both. What are your opponent's aspirations, fears, desires? What are yours? Calculate several outcomes so there is no guessing at numbers.
  • Know and control deadlines. Deadlines can work for you or against you. Know yours and your opponent’s and manage them. Make yours as flexible as possible. Avoid hasty conclusion of negotiations to catch a flight—you’ll lose, and you may miss the flight too.
  • Try not to make the first concession. Whoever makes the first one usually gives away more than the other party. Make concessions small, and make them slowly. The opponent should really earn them with lots of persuasion. Never make a concession without getting one back in return.
  • Be prepared to walk away. Sometimes the desired outcome is just not achievable, so unless you have to make a deal, know that you can walk away or try again another day. Strive for a win-win versus a win-lose outcome. Then both parties are likely to stick to the negotiated deal without lawyers to assure it.
  • Document what you agree on: Document what you agree on, but go over the key points one last time to avoid “informed misunderstandings”—that’s where you both know you really have not agreed, but neither wants to admit it. Offer to write the agreement—it gives you more control over how agreements are stated.

There are lots more where these came from, but these are a good start. Two final admonitions are very important.

  • Make sure the person you are negotiating with has the authority to commit to what you want; if they don’t, don’t negotiate. You can only give and they will take whatever you give, but cannot commit to what you want. Discuss as little as possible, until the person who has authority to make commitments is present.
  • When in doubt, shut up! No one ever made a concession or gave away valuable information when they weren’t talking. The Russians were legendary negotiators because they simply wouldn’t say much. While the American negotiators kept filling the silence, they were giving away small (and sometimes large) concessions and valuable information.

Also, in today’s global economy never assume the other side doesn’t understand your language—Americans are one of few global powers who are not multi-lingual. English is taught in most other countries as a required language, so your international negotiating opponents likely understand it, even if they do not speak it well or choose to use interpreters.

There is a lot more to becoming a skilled negotiator. So take the time to learn how to negotiate. Remember: You don’t always get what you deserve—you get what you negotiate!