A lot of people tend to get nervous when it comes to negotiation—they hate the feeling of pitting themselves against another person to get what they want.
But negotiating is just like any other skill. You get better at it over time if you practice, learn the theory behind it, and build on your approach as you go.
There are plenty of specific tactics you can use in a negotiation, but know that tactics aren’t everything. It’s just as important to have an overarching strategy and an understanding of how to approach the negotiation in the first place.
I’ve spent years negotiating everything from strategic deals in biotech to a better price on my next car. Through all of it, I’ve continued to improve bybased on different outcomes.
It took me years to learn these lessons, but in the end, I think they’re helpful points to keep in mind as you enter any tough negotiation:
1. Preparation is everything
What you do before the negotiation matters more than anything else.
It’s a good idea to prepare by writing down the key issues in a one-page brief. At a minimum, you should put down the issues, the interests of the individual parties, what’s at stake, and what each party is trying to get.
The process helps clarify your own issues and interests.
People often get these two areas confused, and they end up negotiating the issues without really thinking about the interests. They don’t stop to consider what’s actually important to them in the negotiation, and they wind up spending too much time and effort on details that don’t really matter.
So much of getting what you want from a negotiation is derived from. I can’t guarantee that you’ll walk away from the table feeling satisfied. But if you prepare well, you’ll give yourself a fighting chance.
2. Breakthroughs often come when you least expect them
Negotiating is exhausting, but paradoxically, that’s what allows the best breakthroughs to happen.
A complex deal can envelop your life, making you both mentally and physically exhausted. The constant analysis, in-person meeting, and collaboration with your team will take their toll when a negotiation is happening for weeks or months at a time.
You can only take so much. At some point, you have to step away.
And oddly enough, that’s when most of your great ideas involving the deal will come. They don’t pop into your head when you’re sitting across the table working out the terms with someone. Rather, they’re the product of internalizing all the details and issues related to the deal—and then letting your subconscious work on them for you.
3. Scarcity drives deals.
Creating a sense of scarcity is the single most important action you can take in a negotiation.
Scarcity is key because people always relate it to value. Driving off the lot in a brand new sports car feels pretty great. But if you pulled onto your street and the same car was sitting in every driveway, suddenly your vehicle wouldn’t seem so special.
Scarcity taps into the fear of missing out on a valuable opportunity.
You create it by excluding people. Now, some will tell you that you have to play hardball to do so, but the best way to create scarcity is actually by being credible and trustworthy.
If you constantly cry wolf — telling people you have better options when you really don’t —your ability to drive action will eventually dwindle. People simply won’t buy your spiel about scarcity anymore. It’s the same reason you ignore all those emails about “one-day only” sales. You’ve heard it all before, and you know that sale will come around again soon if you just wait.
When you really do have alternatives, your behavior changes. Your responses become more neutral, and you spend less time trying to convince people about the deal.
And interestingly, just as people can pick up on desperation, they can also tell when they’re beginning to lose leverage. The sense they might be excluded from the deal—that their position isn’t as strong as they thought—is exactly what drives action.
4. You can capitalize on aggression
If you’ve never seen an aggressive negotiator in action, your first experience can be intimidating.
Here’s the thing: not many negotiators are actually both aggressive and skilled. Most aggressive negotiators are projecting an image of what they think a tough negotiator is, and it just comes off as egotistical or irritating.
I was in a negotiation once where the lead negotiator from the other company called me in the middle of the night. This person was very demanding, trying to get concessions from my team at an unusual hour. We said it wasn’t the right time to be talking and hung up. When we finally finished the deal, my team and I realized we’d been able to get past their aggressive behavior by calling it out and ignoring it.
It can be hard for beginners to handle aggressive negotiators. But if you’re well-prepared and have a strong team around you, even the most combative negotiators won’t be able to best you.