Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

A Non-Negotiator's Guide to Negotiating

For most of my life, I was a terrible negotiator. I accepted lowball offers, I never demanded the raises I deserved, and I overpaid for everything. I knew that you needed to “drive a hard bargain” and “be willing to walk away from the table” if you wanted to get the best possible deal. I just never seemed to be able to do it, ever.

It reached the point that my husband actually forbid me from negotiating the price of a car, a home, or even a used toaster at the flea market. And while I wouldn’t usually take too kindly to being silenced, I had to admit that I saw his point. In a negotiation, I was the weakest link.

Two programs of research helped me to see what I was doing wrong – specifically, how I was thinking about negotiations the wrong way.

Epiphany #1

When people are about to enter a negotiation, they see it as either a threat or a challenge. Studies show that people who see negotiation as a threat experience greater stress and make less advantageous deals. They behave more passively, and are less likely to use tough tactics aimed at gaining leverage, compared to the hard-ballers who feel negotiation to be more of a challenge than a threat.

This makes so much sense to me. My husband absolutely sees negotiating as a challenge. He looks forward to a good haggle. I do not. Reading about these studies, I realized that I have always seen negotiations as threatening, and just wanted them over with as quickly as possible, no matter what it cost me. Why prolong a stressful, threatening situation when you can throw in the towel and move on?

But why do I see negotiations as threats, and not challenges? To answer that, I needed…

Epiphany #2

There is more than one way to look at any goal. Some of us think about our goals as achievements or opportunities to advance – having what psychologists call a promotion focus. Others see their goals as opportunities to keep things running smoothly, to avoid loss, to do what you ought to do – this is called a prevention focus.

Promotion and prevention-focused people work differently to reach the same goal. When we are promotion-focused, we are creative, embrace risk, work quickly, and are fueled by optimism. When we are prevention-focused, we are more thorough and deliberate, more analytical, and better fueled by defensive pessimism (i.e., thinking things might go wrong if you don’t do something to prevent it.)

When it comes to negotiating, having a promotion focus will give you the clear upper-hand. The promotion-focused (like my husband) see negotiation as an opportunity to gain something, and studies show that this helps them to stay focused on their (ideal) price or pay targets. The prevention-minded (like myself) see negotiation as an opportunity to lose something – they worry too much about a negotiation failure or impasse, leaving them more susceptible to less advantageous agreements.

When it comes to getting what you want, it pays to focus on what you have to gain, rather than what you might lose, so that you can see it as a challenge (rather than a threat), and be better able keep your eyes on the prize.

Now, when I enter any negotiation, I make a deliberate effort to refocus myself beforehand. I stop and reflect on what I have to gain by getting a great deal, or by fighting for better compensation – the opportunities for happiness and growth they will afford me.

You wouldn’t believe the deal I got on our last toaster.

More insights on: Money

Heidi Grant Halvorson

more posts →
Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, is an author and speaker.  In Succeed, she revealed surprising science-based strategies we can use to reach goals.  Her new book is Focus:  Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.
load comments (20)

Comments