Your gender might matter most when it comes to negotiation — women just aren’t as good at it as men. Part of the reason for this is that women are more hesitant to ask. But to be fair, women who negotiate competitively are judged negatively, whereas men aren’t.
Another factor that has a huge impact on your ability to negotiate is the power of your BATNA — or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Deal. William Ury, author of the negotiation bible “Getting to Yes,” says that the key to effective negotiation is learning how to read the core needs of each side. If you can estimate the BATNA of each party, then you’ll be clear on where you can push during the compromising stages.
I learned about Ury’s methods when my husband and I were in couples therapy. The therapist taught us to stop trying to change each others’ needs and to understand them instead. This is how we got better at accommodating each other in a way that didn’t crush us. And it was a great lesson in negotiating that went way beyond our marriage.
Ury focuses on strategy — he teaches how to understand the big picture from both sides. But you also need to have some tactical plans. I learned mine from one of my former bosses. My strengths are management and coming up with ideas. One of the reasons I took a job with this guy was because I knew he had totally different skills from mine: He was a great dealmaker, especially in business meetings.
This boss gave me so much negotiating advice it could fill 50 columns. Here are seven of the most memorable tactics I learned from him:
1. Don’t attend a meeting without decision-makers.
If you can’t get the meeting organizers to tell you who’ll be making decisions about the items under discussion, tell them you’re sending an admin to the meeting in your place. When they complain, say, “Then why don’t we both send our decision-makers?”
2. Don’t take a meeting unless you know who’s attending.
If the person who scheduled the meeting won’t tell you who’s going to be there, call just before the meeting and say, “I’m calling to see if the meeting’s still on. Please give me a call.”
When my former boss did this and got a call back 10 minutes later saying that the meeting was on, he asked, “Great, who’s coming?”
3. Always have a scapegoat handy for hard questions.
This is a person who takes the first shot at an answer to tough questions.
When my boss and I went into a partnership meeting and they asked how we would handle billing to small businesses, I told them we’d do it by hand. After a half-minute of me going on, my boss came up with a more reasonable answer because I had bought him the time to think.
4. Treat your lawyer like your friend.
Of course, the company’s lawyer was my boss’s friend because he only hired his friends. But lawyers at top-tier firms are generally smart people who shunned a risky career path by going to law school and then straight into a big law firm.
Consequently, they can keep a meeting strategy in their head and help you think of the other company’s point of view. And while some people say lawyers are slow thinkers, I think this is an illusion created by hourly billing.
5. Inundate the other side with information.
When my boss and I met with venture capitalists, they fired off question after question. We began to be able to predict their questions and created bright, visual charts and diagrams to answer them.
This caused the VCs to slow down in order to look at the charts, which allowed us to finally say what we wanted to say.
6. Don’t fidget.
In the first meeting I had with my boss, he noticed that I dropped my pen eight times. A fidgeter doesn’t know she’s fidgeting because she’s too absorbed in the fidgeting.
Someone who’s relaxed and confident doesn’t look rigid, and definitely doesn’t fidget. Even if you can’t master this, at least look around the room to see who has: They’ll be the toughest negotiator.
7. Believe you’re good at negotiating.
If you think you’re bad, you’ll be bad. If you believe you’re smart and you do a lot of preparation, then there’s no reason not to think you’re good.
If you really, really don’t think you’re a good negotiator, go to work for someone like my ex-boss. When you’re surrounded by great dealmakers, some of it starts to rub off on you — that’s how it worked for me.