Try this: Don’t ask for what you want when you negotiate

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When I founded my first company I didn’t have time to find someone to date, but I knew that I wanted to get married. So I followed all the advice I had read about how you should tell people what you want in order to get what you want. I started telling everyone that I wanted to get married, and a lot of people set me up on dates.

But things did not go well. Almost every guy I went out with ended up wanting to do business with me. (Yes, I went into business with one of them.) And often when I met with an investor about the next round of funding for my company, our meeting (that was invariably at some swanky restaurant he owned) turned into a date by the end of the evening.

I started questioning the idea that I should be so frank about looking to get married. Life is one big negotiating opportunity, and I saw I was not doing well. Also, I noticed that men don’t generally ask for what they want. The classic example: They ask you out to lunch when what they really want is sex.

There is so much written about how women are not as good at negotiating as men are. Lots of studies show that women don’t even start negotiating — nine times out of ten, men will ask and women won’t. And when women do negotiate, they don’t get what they want as often as men do.

There is no solid research to tell us the why behind the poor negotiations. Most people who toss around ideas about why women don’t ask, toss around some version of the idea that women don’t like conflict: Women like to collaborate; women are caretakers.

I don’t believe this, because in a relationship, women are typically more comfortable with conflict than men are. In fact, women are more likely than men to bring up conflict in a relationship. And men are more likely to withdraw from conflict. (This last link is so fun. It’s dating tips for guys from – a site that is always right on target about how women think.)

Anyway, I think the reason women do poorly in negotiations is that women assume you should ask for what you want, but men know that’s not how the game is played. Men know that you need to be aware of what you want, but that’s not necessarily what you ask for.

So then it makes sense that men negotiate more than women because women are facing conflict head-on and men are not. It’s much easier to approach someone you are not going to instigate conflict with. So negotiations work best when you don’t assume you need to ask for exactly what you want.

Think of the sex example: If a guy approaches you for sex, you hang up on him. If he approaches you for lunch, you think he’s very sweet. And then later you have sex.

Salary is another situation where you are better off not asking for what you want. In salary negotiations, you always want to wait until the other person gives the number. Even though you know what you want, if you say the first number, your counterpart will tell you it is higher than he or she was planning to pay, no matter what the number is.

When someone asks how much money you want, a way to get out asking directly for the very high salary you really want is to say things like, “I want to consider the whole package not just salary” or “I want to make sure we are a good match before we talk about salary.” This forces the other person to give a number first, and then you can say you want more.

My friend Chris Yeh gave me another good example of when you should not ask for what you want: Founding a company. He said if you want advice, ask for money, and if you want money, ask for advice. For those of you who have dealt with investors, you’ll recognize that this is exactly how the world of startups works.

And based on my own experience of trying to date while running a startup, I think this might be true too: If you want to go into business with someone, ask them on a date. And if you want to date someone, go into business with them.

46 replies
  1. Susan
    Susan says:

    Penelope, I wish you’d written this article before I negotiated my last salary! I found that the confusion about dating vs. doing business is pretty widespread (even outside of the startup community). Once I was at a young professionals event and someone completely outside of my field asked for my card. I gave it to him, thinking I might get a date out of it. A week later, he called and offered me a job. Didn’t see that one coming!

  2. David B. Bohl at
    David B. Bohl at says:


    All that you said resounds as true and well-advised, yet I cannot help but feel a little disheartened. I guess I live in this fantasy world where being transparent and communicating to others, and hoping that they communicate to me, what each of us wants, needs, and desires is the most effective (and genuine) way to get what we want, need, and desire.


  3. Graceless
    Graceless says:

    This is my favorite post of yours yet! Dating AND business! How could it get any better? Since I’m trying to navigate my way through both worlds, I think there is some sound advice in here.

    I wish I would’ve had that salary negotiating advice six months ago…. ugh.

    Thanks for this, though! Great read!

    –Grace from Nashville

  4. O.
    O. says:

    This is hilarious…and full of stereotypical conditioning. Men do this, and women do that…next time, make sure you preface it by saying that they are all generalizations, and sexist at that.

    And, sweetie, if you think is actually written by men – and not women who want to get the better end of the deal – then you have a lot more coming to ya!
    * * * * * *
    Oh my gosh! It didn’t even occurr to me that is written by women! But that makes sense. I have to go over there and read stuff with that in mind. See if it sounds right…

  5. MS
    MS says:

    Good post. I have no clue where the dating vs. business mismatch comes from, but I do have some thoughts on negotiations.

    A key element of negotiations is to find out what is important to the other side. Once you know that, you know what they are willing to pay a premium for, financially or in other terms. You can use this to help them get a better deal, or to get more of the things you want, or both.

    Being upfront about your own priorities is good when you are negotiating in the context of a long-term relationship, as it saves time and lets the other side look for ways to help you out.

    In a less relationship-centric negotiation, it is useful to throw out several requests that you don’t care a whole lot about, this gives you room to make concessions without hurting you own outcome. Ideally, you can say to your potential employer “well, I *guess* I can live without the in-home llama care since you’re willing to give me an other week’s vacation…”

  6. Cori
    Cori says:

    Penelope – I’ve been slogging through your ENTIRE site this whole weekend because my attempts to transition from owning my own luxury handbag line into BD/branding have been disasterous. I get the interviews (only by cold-calling) and, once in the inner sanctum, am completely adored by the team (so they say). Each company becomes very excited about me and always “wants to create a position” especially to fit my skill set. They’ll even get so far as making me an offer, but at the end of the day they never hire me. All the people in my life who are watching this roller coaster claim it all falls apart when we talk money. So here’s my question to you: does it? Example: last company on Friday “we want to make you an offer for the BD position with an emphasis on marketing, are you interested?” When I said I was and we began the numbers dance I held my ground and did not cough up a number first. When she finally put a number on the table I said the offer was fair yet she continued to press me for a counter number. After an unreasonable amount of pressure, I finally countered $10,000 higher (and when you’re talking in the 90s, I can’t imagine 10K is make-or-break). Anyway, that was on a Friday. On Wednesday, after not receiving the formal offer, I called the hiring manager back. They had hired someone else with “direct linear experience.” So what’s the deal? Is it my lack of linear experience? Is it the numbers dance? Is it my breath?!

    * * * * * * *
    It’s very hard to tell from one example if you are chronically falling apart at the point of the salary offer. But if this really does happen a lot, and you really don’t care one way or the other about another $10K, then next time someone says, “Here’s the offer,” say, “Great. I’ll take it.” Then you don’t have to worry about losing another job becuase of your salary negotiations.


  7. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    I think what the lunch date analogy shows isn’t that you should be duplicitous by asking for a date as just a means for sex (or a relationship. or fun. or…a meal). It’s that true negotiation isn’t about demanding your bottom line is (some sex) but is about offering something to the other party as well and making it more graceful than just “Here’s what I want now give it to me.” It’s just what I think they used to call etiquette and social grace. Also, the lunch date helps YOU decide if you do indeed want to proceed any further!

  8. Lane
    Lane says:

    When discussing salary, I always give a higher end range amount than what I really want, hoping that they come in closer to my desire.

    However, the last job interview I had offered me MORE than my high end. So…sometimes giving numbers helps.

  9. Ken
    Ken says:

    Do I have this straight? If I want a raise I should actually ask the boss-lady out to lunch. But wait she might get the wrong idea and think I really want something else. Now believe me I do not want her to want me to ..uh.. you know give her that.

    Maybe I should just demand the proper raise I have ‘earned’ after all I’m 10 years older than her. What does she know about my work anyway? But being demanding might upsurp her authority position to ‘give’ me the raise she thinks I deserve.

    Power struggles, male/female struggles, age struggles! Penelope, what should I do?

    Maybe I will ask her for a loan. If she doesn’t want to loan me money maybe I can interest her in buying some power-drinks or vitamins from the multi-level marketing group I am with. Either way she will know I need extra cash and give me the big raise. I think this is a good plan. It will also prove Penelope is right, men don’t ask for what they want but they get it.

  10. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I’m thinking it might make a difference in salary negotiations if you are a woman negotiating with a woman, or a man with a man, woman with a man, etc.

    Theory: The female “boss” figure might agree to your number without negotiations? (to avoid conflict) The male boss will assume that you would actually accept less than you’re asking for and bargain you down.

    In my limited salary negotiation experience, that’s how it has played out. I never thought of it as necessarily a male-female thing until now.

  11. Joe Blogger
    Joe Blogger says:

    This reminds me of ‘captain subtext’ – pretty funny to watch

    More on topic, in salary negotiations never give a concrete number, because all things are not equal between jobs.

    For example, one job might pay you 30,000 – but it may give you extra days off, free tuition for courses (no questions asked), it may be more flexible with vacation time, and it may have other perks such as maching your contributions to a 401k

    Another job may pay you 45,000 however it may not be as flexible on vacations, and it may contribute nothing toward a 401k for example. Is the upgrade in monetary compensation worth it to you when you are giving up other benefits?

    Saying that you consider the whole package should not be a way of evading the question, it should be the default way of thinking.

  12. Angel Armendariz
    Angel Armendariz says:

    Penelope, your post is right on. There is always a “courtship ritual” you must abide by. The formalities are embedded in our society. Baby steps is the key. Never do it like John Nash from A Beautiful Mind, “I find you very attractive. Your assertiveness tells me you feel the same way about me. But ritual remains that we must do a series of platonic actions before we can have intercourse. But all I really want to do is have sex with you as soon as possible.” – lol.

  13. JC
    JC says:

    How do you negotiate the salary if you already have the job? Currently I am part-time at a software company with the agreement of going full-time by the end of the year. This might be a silly question, but do I just assume my salary will be doubled since the hours will be double (we never talked full time salary before) or do I still get to negotiate for more? And if so, how do I do this since they already have my numbers??
    * * * * * * *
    Presumably you will get more benefits and lower taxes when you become a full-time employee, so it would make sense that your hourly wages go down when you become full-time.

    You will need to have a good argument for why your hourly salary should not decrease when you go on full-time. For example, you could show that you were not actually getting market rates to begin with, or you could show that you do not actually vaue the benefits you get and you are expecting to keep your same hourly wage. Something like that.


  14. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    This article is great! I am going to remember this. The hardest thing to do is to make sure what you are asking for will directly relate to what you want. If I ask for lunch, and get lunch, I may be dissappointed. Very sound advice – and a great way to control your situation.

  15. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    About 10 months ago, I began a job search after being gainfully employed for about 5 years. I read all the books and blogs and listened to the wise advice. Including the “don’t say your number” advice. I started to find out that time and time again, I would be pushed for my number up front due to my clearly experienced resume. People wanted to know if I was way out of their budget. Having some personal flexibility I would say “let’s see if there is a good fit, i am sure we can work it out” but they would continue to push. Finally, I just starteed saying my number up front. I founce, we both knew where we stood and knew whether to proceed. This experience might be more typical for the older, executive (not quite VP but not entry director). Could indicate I was wasn’t going for senior enough positions for my background too (quite possibly true). BTW, I discovered your column only recently and enjoy it a great deal. When the negataive commenting starts piling on, that’s when I know you’ve struck a nerve. You go girl.

  16. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    This is so interesting to me, as I’ve observed a shift in the relative promotability of men and women lately at my company. I believe it’s directly related to their ability to negotiate.

    I’ve also observed women’s negotiating issues on the flip side; an inability to say no to a direct request from a salesperson. I always thought it was due to the need to be perceived as “a nice girl.”

    Further still, I have had difficulty managing my own negotiations because I do say no…it’s hard for me to get over the perception that salespeople should just leave me alone. On my good days, I recognize it’s all part of the gme/dance/whatever; on my bad days, it’s a pure annoyance, and probably treated as such.

    Penelope — could be a fun Coachology segment, if there’s an expert out there.

  17. Torbjorn
    Torbjorn says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Your two previous two posts come at an important time to me (my name now has a link), woop! Not only am I early in my blog stage, but I’m due for a negotiation in the next two months. The first time I was put on salary I was disappointed that there was no negotiation planned, I moved from hourly to salary and they gave me a little raise that they thought was fair, and it was – considering I could finally tap the company’s salary benefits. This time I have a negotiation opp and it should go well. I’ll be thinking about this advice. Super!

  18. CareerCowboy
    CareerCowboy says:

    Try this next time someone asks you “what do you want..”

    “I am looking for the best offer, based on what I bring to the table the day I start…where do you think I fit in?”

    Works like a charm and baffles HR folks.

  19. Bloggrrl
    Bloggrrl says:

    You know, if a guy asks me for sex, then I think he has no social skills. And of course, he gets nowhere. I think it is the same thing with negotiating–do you have the social skills to play the game? It is not something that we are taught explicitly, oftentimes.

  20. Simonne
    Simonne says:

    And I thought I was the only one who cannot negotiate! I remember when I had a job interview, my future boss made me a salary offer which I accepted instantly. When I got the first paycheck, I noticed he gave me more. I asked him why, and he told me that he was expecting a little bit of negotiation from my side. So, he decided to give me what he intended from the very beginning, although I was happy with less.

  21. L. Bates
    L. Bates says:

    This article has some great points – sad but true. Women are just not as skilled in the art of, well, deception, for lack of a better term.

    The best negotiation advice I ever got was the simplest. Never use “okay” as a replacement for “um” or some other thought-pausing word. For example, your manager/the hiring manager says, “we’re prepared to offer you $75,000 a year.” As you consider this number, don’t say, “Okay…..” and pause. “Okay” implies acceptance, and it makes it very difficult to go back and negotiate.

    If you must make a thought-pausing noise, try “hmmm…” last time I used that one, I got $15K a year more than their “final” offer!
    * * * * * * * *
    Great advice. Thanks Lorraine. I never realized that people say okay when they mean umm. But it makes total sense. Thanks for pointing this out.


  22. Willy
    Willy says:

    I have mixed feelings about this post. Having studied Negotiation Theory pretty heavily in college, and having put it to work in both simulations and real life situations, I’m not sure that this advice is exactly good.

    I think the reason for this phenomenon may be that people inherently want to make other people happy. If your constraints don’t allow you to accept someone’s request, you may find another way to please them. If you can’t give them the job, you (and they) won’t feel so bad if you take them out on a date; however, if they don’t know what you really want, they can’t give it to you.

    I think better advice might ask for what you want, but don’t make it completely clear how badly you want it. Also, ask for a few things, so that they have options to give you. If someone has uncertainty whether a certain issue is a deal breaker or not, it will make him negotiate against himself. If you are dead set about something, it’s a lot easier to reject outright without even offering alternative options.

    Also, I think women are much less likely to say what they want than men are. So that kind of turns this theory on its head, doesn’t it? Men get what they want because they ask for it, right?

  23. Denis
    Denis says:

    “And, sweetie, if you think is actually written by men – and not women who want to get the better end of the deal – then you have a lot more coming to ya!”

    I don’t read AskMen but I followed the link and this specific advice that Penelope cited is given not by a woman but by a real life pick-up artist David DeAngelo:

  24. Alamgir Kahn
    Alamgir Kahn says:

    I think you might be completely off on the whole not stating what you want when negotiating a salary bit. In negotiation, (atleast) three principles you need to be aware of are your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement), Reservation Point/Price, and the concept of anchoring.

    My throwing out what you want for your salary before someone else does, you establish an anchor point that research shows DOES have an effect on where the other party places their counter-offer.

    You’d be well suited to consult Prof. Leigh Thompson at the Kellogg School of Management ( Not is she only a negotiation specialist, but she’s written a great book AND she’s a woman, so she can offer an informped POV.

  25. Vincent
    Vincent says:

    I laughed when I read the section about salary negotiations. I laughed because I just went through this with my boss (a woman) who asked me what I thought was fair when I tried to keep from giving her a number. I must say after a brief exchange over salary but neither of us giving a number, she broke down and gave a number. She had a meeting to rush off to. :-)

  26. MJTeegarden
    MJTeegarden says:

    I am a male and read your blog with no defensiveness at all, until reading how men often ask you for lunch when they really want sex. Of course we men want sex; this is how we are built, designed, made, or evolved (take your pick, please). Men have high levels of testosterone, which makes them (and women too, when they have higher levels) want sex very much. However, society has taught us fairly well that we are not allowed to simply approach women and ask for sex. We must approach the issue from the side, and we must prepare the woman we desire with certain socially-acceptable communications. Lunch dating is one of these. Men learn as teenagers how to negotiate for sex, which is something they (1) really want and (2) cannot easily obtain. If you have any better ideas as to how men can fulfil these needs, please publish – you will become quite rich, I predict, quite famous, and also quite reviled (conservative society does not want sex to be more easily obtained). You are correct, I believe, in the rest of your blog – men learn early to negotiate for what they really want (and after their teenage years, they learn to apply those skills for other things, such as business purposes). And men also expect women to negotiate less; we are somewhat surprised when women turn out to be equal or better than us in negotiations. We respond defensively with dismissively negative attitudes, such as “she is a bitch,” but this does not really help us negotiate with the next strong woman we meet.

  27. Priyanka
    Priyanka says:

    I love your writing, especially the fact that you challenge the notions we carry about work and our lives. One thing I must disagree with you on is about whether women ask for raises in the workplace. Based only on my personal experience, I find that women DON’T ask for raises. Many of my female friends are often afraid to ask for raises or initiate a salary negotiation because they are afraid to argue with authority. In fact, when I asked for a raise at work and didn’t get it, my mother (who in all other aspects of her life is very strong willed and outspoken) was worried I would be fired for asking!
    However, I think your point about asking for things other than money is a great one. Suze Orman actually recommends this in her books. I think its important to rememeber how much other things like free time and control of your work matter as well.

  28. Joan
    Joan says:

    Well, this is certainly a wake up call. I’ve never been one to stand up and demand xyz and I’ve been told that is the reason I’m not farther ahead in my career, etc. Gee, I didn’t know that I needed to ask for something completely different than what I was wanting.

  29. marketingberatung
    marketingberatung says:

    You could definitely see your skills in the work you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to say how they believe. Always go after your heart.

  30. negligence
    negligence says:

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