Maybe a year ago I decided to do something about my negotiation skills.
I needed better outcomes distributing tasks and resources for my teams at work, and I certainly wasn’t great at negotiating pay rises. As women, it seems, we often hold back at such times — and that doesn’t help with the gender pay gap, does it?
I started in on some reading, and found five great books, books that gave me the confidence I needed to navigate my own negotiations. I also completed an 8 week negotiation training course, Wies Bratby’s Women In Negotiation. Discussion and practice were key to developing my skills, so the course was great way to move beyond just thinking about the new skills I was learning.
Using the insights from the books and the course, I now have a set of principles that I use and recommend for all medium to high importance negotiations:
1 — preparation is your key to good negotiation outcomes. At a minimum you need to carefully consider your own and your counterparts’ negotiation goals and why each of you wants what you want. You also need to know the value of what each of you brings to the negotiation.
2 — listening is where you get your power. Listen a lot more than you talk. Listen to test assumptions you made in your preparation (what does the other side want and why), listen to develop real empathy and help the other person to feel like you are on the same side. Listening carefully can also help you avoid giving away information that disadvantages you strategically.
3 — the person is not the problem. Don’t respond to aggression with aggression. Always come back to the shared problem which is the issue that you are working together to resolve.
4 — think beyond the agreement. You need your counterpart to want to follow through. That means they need to feel good about the negotiation process and the outcome, and there needs to be a plan.
I have written this article reviewing the five books I read as part of my mission to improve my negotiation skills. They are listed in the order I read them and I’ve also included a short video or article for each, to help you to get started and see if each book is right for you.
For an even faster introduction, I found that this two part video series by Margaret Neale gives an excellent summary of the most important negotiation topics:
Now, on to the books.
Women Don’t Ask
“The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation and Positive Strategies for Change”
Read this first:
An HBR article on a similar topic by the same authors.
At first I was not sure that I agreed with the title statement of the book, that women don’t ask. From my own experience, I felt that I was constantly asking for what I wanted or needed, just very frequently not getting it. It seems this is not just in my head: in the years since Women Don’t Ask was published, additional research has suggested that women do ask as often as men, but they get rejected more often.
That said, I had felt that in certain types of negotiation (such as negotiating a price or salary, or any negotiation with an aggressive or competitive “alpha” type man) I was consistently achieving poor outcomes. I had a nagging feeling that gender may have had something to do with it. I chose this book on the topic because it is very thoroughly research-backed.
I definitely identified with many of the phenomena that were described by Babcock and Laschever. By the time I had finished the book I was convinced of 2 things:
1 — the “female” negotiating style that I am most comfortable with is in fact a very effective style for most situations:
Women […] frequently take a more collaborative approach to problem solving than men take, trying to find solutions that benefit both parties or trying to align their own requests with shared goals. In many situations women’s methods can be superior to those typically employed by men.
2 — if I want to improve in the non-collaborative type negotiations, I cannot avoid thinking about gender differences. Gender biases are common and relevant to negotiation outcomes.
Some biases are ones I have towards myself. One example given is:
stereotypes and gender-role ideas take hold very early in a child’s consciousness. In pay allocation studies […] researchers found that in every grade, girls paid themselves less than boys paid themselves — between 30 and 78 percent less.
Other biases are likely to be present in my negotiating counterparts. For example:
women who do rebel against [gender norms] by pushing more overtly on their own behalf often risk being punished. Sometimes they’re called “pushy” or “bitchy” or “difficult to work with.
This book was a good starting point to my negotiation journey. I found it useful to put some evidence behind the vague gendered feeling I had about my performance in negotiations, and gave me hope that I can improve my negotiation performance.
Next I needed to find out how to do that.
Getting to Yes
“Efffective, powerful negotiating skills that prevent stubborn haggling and ensure mutual problem solving.”
Roger Fisher & William Ury 2012 (originally 1981)
Watch this first:
This TedX by William Ury about the power of listening, one of the most valuable pieces of advice in Getting to Yes:
“listening may be the cheapest concession we can make in a negotiation.”
This is probably the classic negotiation text. The Getting to Yes method is to work with your counterpart towards a common goal, to avoid locking into specific positions (what you want) and instead focus on interests (why you want it); to get creative and come up with many different options that could meet both parties’ interests; and to use objective criteria to agree on a fair deal.
Again, the book suggests that the collaborative negotiation style favoured by many women is more effective than an adversarial style. This is interesting, because I was quite convinced that I was bad at negotiating. In fact, I was already doing well in negotiations with counterparts that I or my company have a long history with. I was also good in negotiations where there were many issues being discussed at once. I have a high success rate for finding combinations of agreements that taken together result in outcomes that both sides are happy with.
But what about the negotiations where I wasn’t getting good outcomes, against a competitive counterpart or over an issue like salary for example? In Getting to Yes, the suggestion in both of these cases is to change the rules of the game so that every negotiation is a collaborative negotiation. The book does give some help for specific situations where this is difficult, including “negotiation jujitsu” to use on counterparts who aggressively resist your attempts to focus on interests and create value, and instead pull the discussion back to positions:
avoid pitting your strength against theirs directly. Instead, use your skill to step aside and turn their strength to your ends. Rather than resisting their force, channel it into exploring interests, inventing options for mutual gain, and searching for independent standards.
I really liked the sound of this, but in practice I have not been able to get good results from this method. Perhaps with more practice it will come, but I found a better approach in another book Getting (more of) what you want, which is the last book in this list.
“How I beat fear and became invincible through 100 days of rejection”
Jia Jiang 2015
Watch this first:
Jiang’s popular Ted Talk
This book opens with Jiang’s realisation that his fear of rejection is holding him back from pursuing things that are valuable to him.
Giving up at the first sign of rejection felt much safer than putting my ideas out there to be further criticized. It was so much easier to do the rejecting all by myself.
He embarks on a 100-day rejection challenge, and details the lessons he learns along the way. These include methods he learned to turn initial rejections into acceptances, but for me the biggest revelation was that rejection does not need to be feared.
I actually made a small “rejection therapy” of my own, and focused mainly on asking for things that were likely to be rejected, like trying to buy a piece of fruit from a juice store, asking to make my own coffee at a café (this one was actually accepted though!) For me, it was key to realise that asking for something doesn’t mean they have to say yes, and it doesn’t need to humiliate you or damage the relationship if you get rejected. The important thing is that by asking, you share information about what is valuable to you. The more information you are able to share, the more value you will be able to create in a negotiation. Jiang recommends that a rejection in itself does not mean much, rather it is the asking that is important:
By focusing on controllable factors such as our efforts and actions, and by detaching ourselves from uncontrollable outcomes such as acceptance and rejection, we can achieve greater success in the long run.
Since I did the exercise, it has changed the way that I behave in my daily life and particularly in negotiations. There is much more scope for me to increase value in negotiations now that I am putting the issues that are important to me on the table.
Never Split the Difference
“A former FBI top hostage negotiator’s field-tested tools for talking anyone into (or out of) just about anything”
Chris Voss with Tahl Raz 2016
Watch this first:
Voss’ TedX, worth it just for use of the phrase “weapons-grade empathy”
This book focuses on listening, empathy and delivery: not just what you should say but how you should say it. For example, by using non-threatening language: “softening words and phrases ‘perhaps,’ ‘maybe,’ ‘I think,’ and ‘it seems.’” The idea is to avoid escalating confrontations by developing empathy.
The idea is interesting, but I found it strange that many of his suggestions are similar to what women are explicitly told to avoid, Voss even advises to “start with ‘I’m sorry’”. The idea that women apologise too much has been the topic of a vast amount of research recently, and the word “sorry” has practically become a taboo for professional women these days. I wonder whether when used by women, these tactics wouldn’t just reassure a competitive counterpart that he has all the power and set women up to be walked all over. Some of the examples in Never Split the Difference use women (or women’s names at least). If they are real examples then that would suggest that the techniques can work for women too, but I remain sceptical, and in the negotiations I have had since reading this book it has never felt like the right tactic to try.
I found other parts of the book useful though. One of the most insightful ideas from the book is around the words “yes” and “no”. Voss suggests that most of us have a strong aversion to hearing the word “no,” and a strong desire to hear the word “yes,” believing that is the single goal of a negotiation. Voss suggests a different approach: making your counterpart feel safe to say “no” so they feel in control.
Saying “No” makes the speaker feel safe, secure, and in control, so trigger it. By saying what they don’t want, your counterpart defines their space and gains confidence and comfort to listen to you. That’s why “Is now a bad time to talk?” is always better than “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
And I found Voss’ thoughts on the word “yes” even more enlightening. This is one idea that I am consistently using in my negotiations months after I finished this book: that “yes” on its own doesn’t mean anything. You need your counterpart to follow through on what they have said “yes” to. “Yes” is not the end of a successful negotiation: you also need a “how” and you need your counterpart to want to follow through:
Let the other side feel victory. Let them think it was their idea. Subsume your ego. Remember, “yes” is nothing without “how.” So keep asking “how” and succeed.
Getting (more of) what you want
“How the secrets of economics and psychology can help you negotiate anything in business and life.”
Margaret A. Neale, Thomas Z. Lys 2015
Read this first:
This article by Thomas Lys, plus Neale’s videos from the top of this article.
The books I’d read so far had given me useful methods to increase the value in my negotiations, and took away some of self-imposed barriers that were preventing me from engaging in negotiations or from asking for what I really wanted.
But I still didn’t feel that I had learned anything much about how to improve in the types of negotiations where I had been performing poorly. When up against a competitive or aggressive counterpart, all I seemed to be doing with my shiny new negotiation skills was creating value for them. I still frequently ended up with slightly less than my bottom line, and the distinctly unpleasant feeling of having been duped. Getting (more of) What you Want promised to address precisely this type of situation, so it became the last book on my negotiation reading list.
It starts with some very tedious explanations of basic negotiation concepts. The authors recommend to skim through if you are an experienced negotiator, but I would add that you should also skim if you are capable of doing basic arithmetic. In that way you can avoid pages of the same very basic calculation in a large number of different examples. But once I got through that I found the book very insightful, answering many of the practical questions that I had after reading Getting to Yes. The Getting to Yes method works really well when both parties are participating in an open and collaborative way. But in my opinion, it does not provide strong tools to stop an aggressive counterpart from taking all of the extra value you have created for them self.
Getting (more of) What you Want systematically addresses the major practicalities of negotiation, starting with how to prepare (the most important step), and how to create a collaborative exchange of information, whilst still thinking strategically:
The information that you choose to initiate the sharing process should open up the conversation without risking significant harm to your strategic position should your counterpart not reciprocate.
They also cover when to make the first offer and when it’s better to receive it, advice about threats and promises, emotions and power imbalances. In each case, the discussion is thoroughly backed by research. Sometimes the recommendation goes against common wisdom, such as the topic of who should make the first offer. In this situation they advise to balance the benefit of knowledge gained from receiving the first offer against the beneficial psychological anchoring effect you gain by making the first offer.
Another surprising piece of advice is about emotions. They suggest that suppressing emotions is usually not a good strategy as it uses up “cognitive energy that is then unavailable for meeting the informational demands of the negotiation.” They suggest it is better to interpret emotional responses as useful information sources about preferences — both your counterparts and your own. In this way your emotional response doesn’t need to cause you to lose power in the negotiation. Rather, by noticing you are getting upset you learn that the point you are discussing is perhaps more important to you than you had realised.
These five books represent my reading journey towards improved negotiation skills. I learned something from each book, but the most useful were Getting to Yes and Getting (more of) What You Want. If you are looking to improve your negotiation skills, I think those two books are a really good start, and I would add to that Rejection Proof if you can identify in yourself a fear of rejection, or an aversion to asking for what you want.
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