Do you negotiate? Are you good at it? I have a good friend in commercial real estate who practically salivates over the opportunity to negotiate. He bought a parking spot beneath his building here in Manhattan a few years ago and I remember him intoning: “It was the best, most exciting deal I’ve ever done.” (Clearly, he’s chosen the correct profession.) I can’t say I share in his thrill with negotiating, but Mr. Magpie and I have been through countless negotiations together, both as business owners and determined administrators of our home life together, and I have gradually worked my way from a place of dreading them to viewing them as a necessary evil to re-interpreting them as an occasion to advocate for myself.
When I was younger, I tended to assume the answer was always “no,” and would talk myself out of negotiating before the conversation had even started. (I would later learn this to be a chief tactic amongst seasoned negotiators: get the other party to negotiate with itself — usually by refusing to make the first offer — and you don’t need to do as much work.) I was particularly this way about formally-presented offers, i.e., “We are pleased to offer you this position with a starting salary of x” or “Your application for this apartment has been approved; the rent will be $x.” The declarative structure of these “invitations” made me feel as though everything was a done deal and that I would be out of line to ask for anything different. (Once a rule follower, always a rule follower…) I now understand that everything is a posture — including the formal language! — and that there is very little that isn’t negotiable. With intensive coaching from Mr. Magpie, who has reminded me on countless occasions that “you miss every shot you don’t take” and “if you don’t ask, the answer is always ‘no,'” I have gotten more comfortable with countering. At the beginning, I was often worried that countering would make me unlikeable or would hurt someone’s feelings, but those assumptions have proven either incorrect or unfair to myself — or both. The key for me has been realizing that I don’t need to be rude or unpleasant to negotiate. I can present an alternative calmly and politely in a way that gestures toward fairness for all parties. I typically start my counter offers by saying: “Thank you so much for the generous offer” or “I’m honored by this opportunity…” or “This is such exciting news!” A small thing, but starting the conversation from a place of gratitude and acknowledgement helps me put my best foot forward and tends to build goodwill.
Nowadays, my biggest stumbling block in the negotiations arena is the old “bird in the hand” mindset I occupy in all realms of my life — that is, “a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” I can’t tell whether this mentality is a condition of expediency or risk intolerance. Mr. Magpie will go through multiple rounds of counter-offers to get to a place that he deems fair. Meanwhile, I would rather have a firm resolution that’s in the ballpark of what I want than sit uncomfortably in limbo going back and forth and worry that I’ve risked the entire enchilada. Mr. Magpie often makes the valid point that it is pretty rare an entire deal will go asunder by adding an extra round of negotiation — most of the time, both parties are pot-committed and determined to make things work by that point. This has proven to be correct over time, but doesn’t make the experience any less of a nail-biter for me.
Mr. Magpie and I have been in a number of these kinds of negotiations recently in the process of buying our new home, finding movers, renting our current apartment in NYC, selling various items in our home, etc, and I’m always a bundle of nerves, begging him not to go back again, while he displays flinty determination in getting to a satisfactory result. I should note that he is never untoward or unpleasant in these conversations. He is calm, collected, rational, gentlemanly. Still, I find the process gut-turning. On my run the other morning, I found myself wondering whether the delta between us in this regard is a gender thing, a personality thing, or the result of his MBA? (Probably a combination of all three?) One framework he shared the other week that has helped me better accommodate his perspective involved acknowledging and identifying constraints on both sides of the negotiation. That is, it often feels as though I have the most to lose in a negotiation, but that’s not necessarily true. As an example, I have worked with various vendors over the years. It has felt at times as though I will run the risk of entirely losing the opportunity to work together if I don’t accept the proposed terms, my constraints being budget and ability (I actually cannot do that thing by myself). However, the vendor is operating under its own constraints, and it is worthwhile to take a minute to imagine what they might be. As an example, it probably cost the vendor a lot of time and money (whether marketing, staff time, etc) to acquire me as a customer, and it is less expensive for them to drop the price on my project than it is to find a new lead and bring her to the point of contract.
My broad point here is that negotiating is a skill developed over time, and it is worthy of practice. Running two businesses has taught me that no one will advocate for you. You must be willing to advance your own objectives or someone else’s will supersede your own. (Sometimes, by the way, that’s OK — there are issues that are not particularly important, or costly, or worth your time, or maybe you just think the other party deserves it. But sometimes, it is a matter of fairness, and sometimes you are being taken for a ride. I have been!) I should add that these principles do not only apply to my narrow experiences with entrepreneurship. Some of the best negotiators I know are stay-at-home mothers who know how to navigate healthcare systems with sophistication, get a fair deal on home services, achieve a better outcome with customer service representatives, etc. You have to show up for yourself — no one else will!
What about you? How do you approach negotiation? Are you good at it?
Related to this post: how risk tolerant are you?
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