Part 1: Negotiation Is Problem Solving—Here Is How To Do It

How do you decide whether you should negotiate or simply accept what is offered?  This may sound like a simple decision, but making this choice correctly requires some thinking.
Consider the tale of the two sisters who simultaneously reach for the last orange in the fruit bowl.  They both want the orange, but there is only one.  They might fight over who gets the orange or who deserves it more, or simply decide to cut the orange in two and take each piece. Each sister would then end up with half of the orange, the two of them getting only half of what they want.  While half may be better than nothing, this 50/50 split doesn’t leave them completely satisfied.
The story gets better! With her half of the orange, one sister squeezes the juice for a smoothie then throws away the rind, and the other sister removes the orange zest from her half to bake a cake. She then throws away the pulp, which contains the juice.
While splitting the orange was the most obvious compromise, the two sisters could have made a different and more beneficial arrangement. One just needed the zest while the other wanted the juice, so they could have shared it accordingly. Had they been more transparent and revealed what they wanted to use the orange for, each would have had what they wanted. Focusing only on your own gains does not give way to a productive conversation and a positive outcome.

Man and woman shaking hands

Photo Credit: rawpixel on Unsplash

Negotiation can be more than simply splitting the difference between the parties’ desires or dividing a pool of resources equally. This dividing-the-pie perspective focuses exclusively on value claiming:  who gets what, and what I get that by definition is what you do not get.  If you only think about negotiations in this context, then you may perceive negotiating as adversarial or as a win-lose battle.  That mindset affects not only how you negotiate, but also how you evaluate the behavior of the “opponent.”
This simple-minded perspective overlooks a critical aspect of negotiation: the ability to maximize and grow the pool of resources available for each person to claim, enlarging the pie by creating value rather than simply trying to win a larger slice. In the earlier example, the sisters approached the negotiation with a narrow-minded mindset, treating it as a zero-sum game when a different perspective would have led to better results.
This suggests that you should think about negotiating differently. Most folks only consider negotiating during major life events that can have a significant impact on their wealth, like the offer of a new job or the purchase of a house.  Others will shy away from negotiating, but most people will at least consider negotiating. A potential reason behind their hesitation is this battle mentality.  From this perspective, you must pick and choose your negotiations based on your willingness to pick a fight.  Yet, most negotiation opportunities occur with others with whom we have or have the potential to work with. So, these are the last people with whom you’d want to pick a fight.
So, instead of cultivating that battle perspective, consider reframing how you think about negotiating.  Instead of the win-lose battle, think of negotiations as collaborative problem-solving.
Now, some of you are thinking, isn’t this what everyone says?  To try to make it into a win-win situation so that everyone is happy?  Not quite!  This is a bit different.
Collaborative problem-solving boils down to this:

  1. Negotiating is always worth the try. Let’s be clear: you are better off negotiating (regardless of the outcome) than if you don’t even attempt it. A little-known fact to job candidates is that hiring managers almost always have a higher budget than what they first offer, and they actually appreciate candidates who ask for what they’re worth. Take advantage of this and ask for what you want. Even if you don’t get your desired outcome right away, you show the company that you value what you have to bring to the table, and you also position yourself to be considered for growth opportunities and career advancement later down the line.
  2. Understand your counterpart. Because there is no command and control in negotiation, your counterpart must voluntarily agree to your proposal. You need to understand your company’s interests, your boss’s pain points and goals.  With this knowledge you can craft proposals that not only get you more of what you want, but can also help your counterpart.
  3. There is always a solution, you just have to find it. The most important thing to remember during a negotiation is to frame your proposal as a solution to a problem experienced by your company or hiring manager.  Too often when we negotiate, we focus on our own gains. You will yield a more positive outcome if you learn to listen. And the good news is, others will be more than willing to share! Memorize and write down key talking points then use them in your proposal. The least easy part is planning and preparing for the negotiation, and being creative with the framing of your proposal.

For example, suppose you would like to move from an associate level to a manager position at your job. This switch would not only be a promotion, but it would also come with a raise in your salary. Before you even bring it to the table with your supervisor, offer to take on the responsibilities of the manager. Manage your workload to leave time for these additional activities. You will not only impress your boss, but you will also become more familiar with the actual job. After some time doing the job of the manager and delivering a great work performance, have a candid conversation with your supervisor and get as much feedback as possible. Ask about the problems the team is still facing and how the manager can help solve that. Once you have that information, come up with solutions within your expertise and include them in your pitch when you prepare to have that conversation with your boss.

Successful negotiators typically spend at least twice as much time preparing for the negotiation as they do negotiate. The better you are prepared for it, the better your outcome is likely to be.

Once you adopt this mindset, you will be a lot more comfortable with negotiations. It will no longer be a confrontation, but an exercise in reaching a mutually beneficial arrangement with someone or a group of people. It’s an essential skill to master as you will likely encounter situations where you have to negotiate throughout your professional journey and personal life. It’s worth taking the time to practice it, listen, and understand. That all starts with an open mind and a less defensive, more collaborative attitude.
Margaret Neale headshot
Margaret Neale is the co-author of Getting (More Of) What You Want and the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
About Elevate For Her
This is the first of a three-part series by Elevate For Her, a professional development organization offering programming specifically for women. Programs include negotiations, empowerment, unconscious bias, personal branding, and even improv for business.  The organization’s founder, Rhonda Moret, is a professional speaker and seasoned marketing professional who has worked on accounts including Nike Golf, PGA of America, and Universal Studios and has also worked with high profile personalities such as Billie Jean King, Tiger Woods, bestselling author Robert Kiyosaki, and more.