Hard conversations: negotiation

January 8, 2021

Walking into a negotiation for a new job can feel nerve-wracking. In this 'Hard Conversations' post, we’ve outlined some of the most common negotiation mistakes to avoid and provided an approach that can help you get the other party on your side.


In our last Hard Conversations post we gave you some guidelines for determining what to negotiate when you’ve been offered a new job. Now that you know what you want to negotiate for, you may still be left wondering how. Walking into a negotiation can feel nerve-wracking, so we’ve outlined some of the most common negotiation mistakes to avoid and provided an approach to negotiation – along with some one-liners - that can help you get the other party on your side.

Negotiation Don'ts:

Many people who haven’t gotten what they wanted out of negotiations have made the mistake of thinking one of these two methods would get them to their desired outcome:

  • Bulldozing – Just going full steam ahead without concessions, questions, or real engagement.
  • Rational, straightforward arguments – What you want and why you want it. Seems logical right?

These two approaches often fail for the same reason – They both view negotiation as a battle of arguments. While you may think you’ll be successful if your arguments are logical enough, or if you bring enough bravado, this leaves out all the other factors that actually influence the ways humans make most decisions: their feelings, their desires, their egos.

Successful negotiation does not start with grinding someone down or even making a well-reasoned series of logical arguments; it starts with recognizing that people want to be understood and accepted. So what do these intangible ‘other’ needs that drive most of our decision-making processes mean for negotiation?

Negotiation is not an act of battle, it is a process of discovery and tactical empathy.

When you enter a negotiation process, engage with a mindset of discovery and collaboration. You actually want to get to objections. You want to hear ‘no’ as early as possible in the conversation.

How? Active Listening

How do you make people feel understood and accepted and still bring them around to your point of view? It starts with active listening. Instead of prioritizing your argument, make your sole and all-encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say. In that mode of true active listening, you make them feel safe, and the defensive voice in their head will begin to quiet down. The other huge advantage of listening? You get key information that moves the conversation forward. You already go into the conversation knowing what you want, right? It’s your job to play explorer and uncover information. Reveal what the other person wants.

When you stop bulldozing or making your case, you give objections a chance to surface and treat them as opportunities to gain information, revealing more about what your negotiator wants and may be limited by. This turns what could otherwise be a confrontational exchange that both of you dread into more of a problem-solving session. Active listening gets you both back on the same team again, caring about your mutual success – which includes you.

Active Listening and The Art of the Calibrated Question

What does negotiating while actively listening look like?

It looks like a calibrated question – or, as some call it, an open-ended question. But, there’s an art to that question. Our immediate instinct when someone tells us no, is ‘But why?’ or ‘Why not?’, which can feel like an attack and put your opponent on the defensive. One of the most effective ways to move a conversation forward - while making your counterpart feel listened to – is to ask a question that instead diffuses the situation:

Turn ‘Why’ into ‘What’ and ‘How’

‘Why’ tends to feel accusatory and turn a conversation into a firefight, whereas ‘What’ and ‘How’ can diffuse the situation and trigger quite a bit of useful information to be spilled from your counterpart:

As an example, which of these feels more confrontational?

“Why don’t you agree?”


“What about this isn’t working for you?”

The ‘what’ can diffuse the situation, uncover information, and make your counterpart feel they’re being treated well and are part of a collaborative process. ‘What’ and ‘how’ don’t just diffuse some tension from the situation for you, they also get your opponent to do the work for you. He gets a chance to feel heard and he has to think about the situation from your point of view, making him more sympathetic to your cause.

Here’s a list of helpful ‘What’ and ‘How’ questions:

  • What about this is important to you?
  • How can I help to make this better for us?
  • How would you like me to proceed?
  • What is it that brought us into this situation?
  • How can we solve this problem?
  • What’s the objective? / What are we trying to accomplish better?
  • How am I supposed to do that?

Practice, Practice, Practice

The catch with calibrated questions, is that they only work with emotional regulation and self-control. The confidence it takes to maintain this kind of control takes PRACTICE. Practice will minimize shock and nerves, by getting you used to hearing ‘no’ so it doesn’t rattle you. Use mini-challenges such as engaging the (often unwelcome) solicitor who’s called you to pitch a credit card. Or, try some active listening or calibrated questions when deciding with friends where to go to dinner. In each of these practice scenarios, the concept of negotiation itself will start to feel less overwhelming when you realize that it’s part of many everyday interactions.

Ask friends to do mock negotiations with you – and, this is key, tell them to go hard. Skills that you learn and practice when someone is going easy on you won’t stand up to the nerves and defensiveness that will naturally surface when you feel someone’s being unfair to you.

Learn to start hearing ‘no’ as a victory bell.

When you reach this point, it means you’re doing it right for two reasons:

  1. It means you’re asking for what you really want (if they immediately say ‘yes’, you probably asked too little)
  2. You’ve just received an invitation to ask a question that is going to diffuse the situation and give you information.

The Power of the Pause

Pausing and silence are keys to remaining rational and calm in a negotiation. That doesn’t mean what you want to say doesn’t matter; it means you’re going to halt the knee-jerk defensive response or the impulse to just give in and accept their rejection. It means you’re finding the right words  to respond appropriately.

When you’re hearing a rejection or objection from the other person that makes it difficult to pause and have patience, remember: That rejection/objection isn’t actually about you. The other person’s job is to not give you everything you’re asking for. Pausing will let them feel heard and let you find time to address their concerns and limitations.

It’s Not Just About (Present) You

If you need some last-minute motivation to gain the courage to follow through with your negotiation, focus on the long-term impact. You’re not just negotiating for your present self, but for your future self as well. Not even attempting to negotiate means that you’re leaving money (not to mention other potential benefits) on the table that could be working for you in a 401(k) for years. Even a small difference between two starting salaries can compound to substantial gaps over time, possibly amounting to significant amounts of money. Would you forego extra cash to get out of one hard conversation?




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The opinions and forecasts expressed are those of the author and individuals quoted and should not be construed as a recommendation or as complete.

Phil Wright is affiliated with Jackson. All other authors are not affiliated with Jackson.