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 (21)
  • Joshua

    Right on!!

  • george999

    I think it is a very valid point but also simplistic. The point not addressed is that many people, especially in a typical American culture, simply don’t get excited over negotiating. This has nothing to do with potential gain or fear of a loss. It has to do with thinking of the whole negotiating process as a waste of time and would rather people just posted their price. They can then either buy or walk away. The people who enjoy negotiating obviously tend to get better deals especially on the small stuff because, well, they enjoy doing it.

    Where your points are very valid are for the people who fail at negotiating a raise or something major because of fear but really we’re talking here more about a self confidence issue and not so much about how to negotiate successfully.

  • flea_flicker

    My biggest problem with negotiating is that when I “win”, I always feel like I’ve screwed the other guy — and that leaves me feeling awful. I can’t imagine being happy about getting a good deal on a toaster at a flea market, for example — I’d just think about the difference in financial status between me and the poor guy standing there selling his toaster, and feel like a jerk. Same for any third-world haggling — I don’t see how first-worlders can do it. I would just feel awful.

    This obviously doesn’t count for salary negotiations, of course, or maybe a new car. There I’m just screwed by good old traditional “women who drive a hard bargain aren’t seen as nice” thinking. :-P

    • Anna Zelenskaya

      What if you try to think of it in terms of giving the other party a good lesson / training in negotiation?

      • Aidan Fitzpatrick

        What a lovely way to look at it!

    • Mark Marra

      And if you “lose,” then they screwed you.

    • Dawn Amber Hood

      For the third-worlders, it’s a way of life. They negotiate everything, and it seems it’s almost a game to them.

      In America, we go into a store, the item is tagged with a price they expect to receive and we as buyers expect to pay.

    • Frank Schroeder

      I’ve lived in Cameroon for a couple of years. Haggling is a way of life there since there are almost no fixed prices. Everything is negotiable. I hated that.

      At some point I’ve realized that it is OK to pay 2-3x the local tariff for a cab ride but not 10x. Since then dealing with pushy merchants at the local markets became a different experience since I had a way of telling whether they were trying to rip me off or whether we’re just in the bargaining game.

      Also, the cabby and I could share a laugh when he was trying to play me but I got it and only payed 2x instead of 5x. Everybody won.

  • Alexey Korsakov

    Highly recommend to read a book “You can negotiate anything” by Herb Cohen.

    It changed my attitude of approaching any negotiation (basically, almost every interaction is a negotiation) and made it smooth and even fun.

  • Michael Garcia

    I’ve learned and taught negotiating before. This is a great perspective. Thank you for sharing!

  • Monique Muro

    Haha, awesome closer. Great little piece! I never thought of negotiation as a challenge at all, I am definitely always the one who sees it as a threat. Maybe it just takes practice?

  • Vincent van Leeuwen

    Great post, thanks for sharing!

  • John McDahl

    You have a husband?

  • viqueen

    Well said! Thanks for posting. Perspective is everything.

  • Dan

    Many people falsely believe that you can’t negotiate from a position of weakness. They believe that negotiation = ultimatum whether it is for you or for the other side. They fail to realize that there is always an incentive to both sides to do a deal rather than walk away.

    • lias

      great advice!

  • GothyCat

    Good, succinct, common-sense advice. Thanks for the push to advocate for myself as strongly as I do for others. After all, I must bring in the cat food money!

  • Linda-n

    heheeheheheh. I just loved the ending! Thank you for the wonderful article!

  • aug_

    great post :)

  • Lias

    Great article!

  • Happy Collaboration

    Take the higher ground in business negotiations. After all, your the one spending the money. Connect with influential businesses to cultivate a referral pipeline and bid on new opportunities. –

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,155 other followers