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Negotiating, most of the time is something that requires significant prep: Doing research, practicing your lines, giving yourself the requisite pep talk, and finally wiping sweaty palms before walking into the boss’s office or the car dealership to make your case. This is a high-stakes battle of wits, and you want to be as ready as you can possibly be.
Or at least, that’s how most people think of it. Really, though, negotiating isn’t an isolated activity to be stressed over and meticulously planned; it’s something you’re doing all the time, with everyone around you, in ways large and small — figuring out how to share expenses with a partner, making vacation plans with a friend, or splitting up a project with a colleague.
“Literally every part of our day is somehow spent negotiating,” says negotiation coach Mori Taheripour, faculty member at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “Most people are good negotiators. They just don’t recognize that they’re negotiating.”
One reason there’s so much anxiety surrounding negotiation, Taheripour says, is that people tend to define it as a transaction where one person wins and the other loses. But done right, negotiating doesn’t have to be something that pits you against anyone. In fact, it can even strengthen your relationships, helping you learn to communicate more effectively with the people you love. Here’s how to reframe the way you think about it to get better at asking for what you want in day-to-day life.
Remember that you have a common goal
When you’re haggling with your significant other about what to do for dinner, or with your parents about holiday plans, it can sometimes feel like the precursor to an inevitable argument. Kathleen O’Connor, an associate professor of management and organizations at Cornell, says you’d be better off approaching the negotiation as a problem to be solved jointly.
“People often assume that negotiation is about making clever arguments, applying pressure, or strong-arming the other side to give in,” she says. “But when you realize that both sides need to agree to reach a deal, then you can see that to get to a deal faster, you need to understand what the other side wants.”
O’Connor cites an experiment she and a graduate student did years ago, where they told participants they were either having a “negotiation” or “an opportunity to solve a shared problem.” Participants were more optimistic about getting their desired outcome in the problem-solving scenario, and more likely to want to work together again. “Use the situation as an opportunity for brainstorming options, and then deciding among the options that appeal to both of you,” she says.
Tune into details
When you’re negotiating at work for more money or other perks, everyone understands that it’s just business. But when you’re negotiating with the people you care about, it’s necessarily going to feel personal. In those cases, a good outcome isn’t as simple as getting your way; it’s also about keeping the relationship intact and avoiding hurt feelings. That means going back to fundamentals, paying attention to things like body language and word choice.
“The most important skill of conflict resolution is learning to listen and understand the other point of view,” explains psychotherapist Mindy Utay, “You don’t have to agree with the other person to find a satisfying resolution. Compromise is a win if both people feel they’ve been heard.” Utay encourages negotiators to not assume they know what the other person is thinking, even if you know them well and suggests taking time and space before responding.
Similarly, conflict-resolution coach Hans Kohler recommends avoiding what he calls “red flag” words, including “should,” “but,” “always,” and “never.” These words, he says, can make a conversation feel contentious or accusatory. Instead, he suggests changing your language to include “recommend,” “suggest,” and “will or will not,” to keep emotions in check and soften any harshness while still being direct.
You can also use body language to your advantage. “Physically, rather than sitting across from someone, what might it do to your approach and attitude, if you sat next to them as you would in any kind of problem-solving situation?” suggests O’Connor. In other words, don’t have a stand-off on opposite sides of the kitchen table. Instead, arrange yourself so you seem, and feel, open and friendly.
Put down the phone
This is where the timid among us — who use smartphones to buffer the terror of confrontation — might cringe. Taheripour isn’t a fan of using texts or emails for hard conservations; it can muddle tone and meaning. “You’re giving them much more room to mistake what it is you’re communicating,” she says, pointing out that even details like exclamation points and talking in all capital letters can be misconstrued. “It’s so much easier to just actually have a conversation with somebody and decrease the chances of your intentions not being clearly communicated.”
Talking face-to-face can also foster the sense of personal connection that spurs you both to search for a shared solution. “If you go into it thinking, ‘We’re going to connect, we’re going to problem-solve, let’s find a way that’s going to make us both better off,’” Taheripour says, “then that becomes a process of human contact, engagement, conversation.”
Try to relax
When you’re negotiating with someone close to you, O’Connor says, it’s easy to feel like there are really two negotiations occurring: One is what you’re actually talking about, and the other is the relationship itself. Unlike a negotiation at work, these discussions are less likely to stay contained; in the moment, you may feel some fear of a disagreement rippling out into other areas of the relationship. “Some people go into a negotiation afraid that their request will somehow damage the relationship with the other person,” she says.
To combat this, take a deep breath and tell yourself that this is just a question-and-answer session, one that will help you figure out your shared next steps. You’re there not just to get what you want, but also to understand the other person’s needs and wants. In a way, this conversation is a way of showing how much you care about the other person.
“If we think of negotiation as just a way of talking and solving problems,” O’Connor says, “then there’s no threat to the relationship.”