My Uncle Danny once helped me buy a new Corolla while I watched in awe. He was a relentless, negotiating beast. He threatened. He acted offended. He sat in silence and stared at the salesman. In the end, I paid nearly $5000 less than I expected. Negotiating is powerful. As a timid person, it’s not something that comes easy for me, and it might not come easy for you. Here are some of the best ways to do it, even when you dread it.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Why We Hate Negotiating
Whether it’s my salary or a new Corolla, I’ve always dreaded negotiating. I don’t like asking for things because I’m afraid I’ll be perceived as greedy. I’m afraid of confrontation and rejection and offending someone. Notice a theme here?
For most of us, that’s exactly what an aversion to negotiating is about: fear. The thing is, that fear is usually unfounded. For example, if you think you’re being confrontational, chances are, no one else thinks anything of it. Researchers from Columbia University conducted a study on assertiveness (PDF) and self-awareness. Subjects were asked to participate in mock negotiations and rate their own level of aggressiveness. Here’s what researchers found, in their own words:
Many people seen as appropriately assertive by counterparts mistakenly thought they were seen as having been over-assertive, a novel effect we call the line crossing illusion... In Study 3, for instance, of those seen as under-assertive, 57% thought their counterparts viewed them as appropriately assertive or over-assertive.
In other words, if you think you’re too assertive, you’re probably not. It’s worth pointing out that the study also found the opposite was true, though: super assertive people underestimated their level of assertiveness. However, if you tend to be a shy, timid person, chances are, when you’re “confrontational”, no one else considers it to be so.
The bottom line is that our fear of negotiating is often unfounded. And it’s important to ask, because the process of asking brings up accomplishments and highlights that are good to talk about, even if you don’t get that raise. Plus, every time you do it, it boosts your confidence. At the same time, I can remind myself of that over and over, and while it helps, at the end of the day, I still dread asking for more money. I have, however, found some tips that help drive this point home. If nothing else, they help me ease into the process a little better.
Arm Yourself With Research
After-school specials told us knowledge is power, and they were right. Being armed with the right information can make you feel much more comfortable and confident when you negotiate. Whether you’re asking for a higher salary or a better deal on a couch, it helps to know what you’re talking about.
First, research the numbers. If you’re negotiating a raise or a new salary, use a site like Glassdoor to make sure your ask is a reasonable one. It’s easier to let go of your fear of confrontation when you know what you’re asking for is fair. The same goes for haggling a better price on purchases. If you’re buying a car, research what other buyers have paid. My uncle really took the cake negotiating my Corolla down to $11,000 — the rest of us may not be that skilled, but researching a fair price is a good start.
Beyond that, it also helps to research what the other party wants. What does your boss want? What are her goals, and how can you help her get there? What does the dude on Craigslist selling you his couch want? Is he moving? Maybe you can negotiate a better deal if you offer to come pick it up and haul away some of his junk while you’re at it. For cars, research how much dealerships like to make off a vehicle’s MSRP. They’re not going to sell it for a loss, but you can find out what their average profits are, then use that information to understand how low they’re willing to go. Car Buying Strategies.com can help you find MSRP vs. invoice price vs. the dealer’s true cost. (The website gives US prices, but it should help give you an idea of where to start.)
These are specific examples, but the point is when you know what the other party wants, you have leverage. Plus, you can approach the negotiating process in a whole different way. Rather than it being a confrontation, it’s about both parties helping each other get what they want.
Approach Negotiating as ‘Joint Problem Solving’
For assertive people who aren’t afraid of confrontation, mustering up the confidence to negotiate comes easy. For a long time, I tried to change my personality in order to negotiate and speak up better. I tried to mimic assertive people and force myself to be as Mark Cuban-like as possible, even though that’s just not me. It didn’t work. Instead, it led me to overcompensate in some really embarrassing ways.
I found a better approach. Instead of trying to fight my own personality and behaviours, I learned to work with them. I reframed the way I thought about negotiating. It’s not about confrontation; it’s about being direct. And it’s not about getting one over on someone — it’s about joint problem solving.
Here’s how corporate negotiation consultant Jeff Weiss explained it to Harvard Business Review:
“If you frame the negotiation as adversarial, you will ensure it becomes adversarial,” Weiss says. Instead, approach it as an act of joint problem-solving: What are the critical issues at hand, what are my interests and their interests, and what are some different possible options for satisfying those various interests? “Negotiation isn’t about conceding, it’s about being creative,” Weiss adds. That positive, innovative approach is not only far more likely to lead you to a beneficial solution, but also to a place of trust.
Similarly, studies show that being affable can go a long way in effective negotiating. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, researchers had students negotiate over email. Some of them only shared their names and addresses, and those students reached deals less than 40% of the time. But when students shared a little bit of irrelevant personal information, like details about their hometown or hobbies, they reached a deal 59% of the time. The study’s overall point was that people are more likely to come to an agreement with someone they know. Over at LinkedIn, professor and negotiating expert Adam Grant calls this the “norm of reciprocity.” He basically means that, sharing info makes you seem trustworthy, and if the other party thinks you’re trustworthy, they’re more willing to open up, reciprocate, and give you a better deal.
Your own mileage might vary, of course. Some people score great deals by wearing down the other party and being totally disagreeable. However, for those of us who avoid negotiating out of a fear of confrontation, it can be a big help to simply reframe the way we think about negotiating in the first place.
Practice When the Stakes Are Low
With most intimidating tasks, the more you complete them, the less scary they become. The first time I spoke in front of a group of people, I was terrified and wanted to crawl in a hole and go to sleep. Now that I’ve done it a few times, well, I still get scared, but it’s not nearly as bad as that first time because I know what to expect.
The same is true for negotiating, and it helps to start with less intimidating tasks. So instead of walking into a car dealership and asking for thousands of dollars off of a car, start when the stakes are low: haggle a couple of dollars at a garage sale. Or, flex your haggling muscles while you’re on the phone with your mobile phone provider: “By the way, do you have a better deal you can offer?” Or at the farmer’s market: “Any way you’d knock off a couple of bucks?” It’s a low-stake setting; if they say no, it’s probably not going to affect you too much, but it helps you get comfortable with the process.
Rehearsing is helpful, too. Grab a trusted friend, mentor, or colleague, and go over the negotiation process with them. Ask them for feedback and advice.
Focus on Listening
It’s hard to be a shy, withdrawn person in a sea of squeaky wheels. Those wheels get greased while you struggle to be heard. To get around this, Monster.com suggests being direct, then focusing on listening:
What really matters is your ability to state precisely what you want — salary, benefits and bonus (if available) — in terms that make sense to the employer. This is where your introvert’s listening skills come in handy. During the interview, pay careful attention for the employer’s needs and wants. Then when you’re asking for more than the initial offer during negotiations, show how well you heard the interviewer by establishing how each request you make helps the employer.
This tip goes hand in hand with researching what the other person wants and approaching the situation as joint problem solving. Rather than beat yourself up over your lack of assertiveness, you can focus on your strengths, and for a lot of shy people, listening is a strength.
Similarly, don’t be afraid of silence. It doesn’t have to be an awkward, confrontational silence, like my uncle crossing his arms and giving that car salesman “the pained pause“. If that makes you uncomfortable, you can politely tell the other party you need a moment to think. It’s the same idea — you’re embracing a silent pause, which can be hugely effective in negotiating. It also gives you a moment to actually think about your next step.
The bottom line is, if you don’t have a bunch of haggling tricks up your sleeve, listening and silence will go a long way, and it’s easy enough to talk less.
Follow a Script
If all else fails, follow a simple script or specific technique to help you detach your emotions from the process and just get the job done.
It just comes down to repeating prepared words and actions, but of course, you don’t want to repeat them word for word and make it seem like you’re actually reading from a script. That would come across awkward and unnatural. Use your own words, though, and get the same point across.
Haggling comes easy for a lot of people, but for the rest of us, it’s downright scary. If negotiating isn’t your thing, these steps can help you come to terms with your fear, reframe the way you think about it, and gradually get better at speaking up and asking for stuff.