Get good at winning negotiations at work

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life


Get good at winning negotiations at work

The project

You won’t get far at work without being willing to negotiate – for a promotion, a pay rise, flexible hours – and in many jobs deal-making is a major part of the job itself. Should you err on the side of being aggressive, and risk alienating people (especially in a society that judges ‘pushy’ women more harshly than men?) Or do you choose timidity, and risk not getting what you deserve? To find the right balance, you need to rethink the whole notion of negotiation. The crucial thing to remember: it’s not about you.

The aim

That sounds absurd: surely your hoped-for pay rise (for example) is obviously ‘about you’, right? Yet the biggest mistake you can make in negotiating is to confuse the real goal with your ego’s agenda. The real goal is more money, more interesting work, and so on – but it’s easy to get caught up in wanting to win, or defeat the other person. That turns a conversation into a pitched battle – making a happy outcome less likely – and may blind you to alternative, creative ways to get what you want.

The theory

In their classic book on negotiation, Getting To Yes (Random House Business, £8.99), William Ury and Roger Fisher stress the importance of ‘separating the people from the problem’. Don’t treat negotiation like you’re pulling a Christmas cracker, each person grabbing from the other. Instead, see it as an impersonal problem you’re both collaboratively trying to address. (Working life involves long-term relations; there’s not much point winning one dispute if it triggers lasting animosity.)

And focus on underlying ‘interests’ rather than ‘positions’: don’t get fixated on, say, working from home on Thursdays and Fridays – that’s a position. Wanting more flexibility is the true interest behind: maybe there are other ways to achieve that that would leave both sides satisfied? Think about what you really want, not what feels briefly exhilarating.

Try it out

  • Prepare yourself with a ‘premortem’: We know our own weaknesses, but we forget them. Before going into a negotiation, imagine you’d already failed, then ask yourself: why? This will make you aware of the ways you sabotage yourself – being too shy, too argumentative, etc – so you can be alert when they arise.
  • Know your bottom line: Especially where money’s involved, have a clear sense of the worst you’d accept. (If you’re negotiating the pay for a new job: how low would you go before you’d walk away?) It often won’t be wise to reveal your bottom line – but knowing it, privately, will help you avoid spur-of-the-moment decisions you’ll regret.
  • Talk about ‘we’, not ‘I’: A simple trick to keep the focus on the problem, not the egos involved, is to use ‘we’ more than ‘I’, notes leadership writer Jenna Goudreau. This forces you to think about the issue, not the personalities, defusing potential hostilities and increasing the chance of a good outcome.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)