How to win a negotiation

Getting what you want often requires choosing the right strategy.

CHRIS VOSS: Everybody has cards they're not showing in a negotiation. Everybody.

DAYMOND JOHN: Understanding that when you're negotiating it's what's in it for the other party as well and it's not just self-serving.

DANIEL H PINK: The key here is that we tend to think that persuasion or motivation is something that one person does to another.

KEVIN ZOLLMAN: In such a situation oftentimes the best strategy is very counterintuitive because it involves flipping a coin, rolling a dice or doing something random.

DAN SHAPIRO: So the classic approach to negotiation is positional bargaining. In positional bargaining I have a position, you have a position and we haggle over those positions. Now, the rules to positional bargaining are very clear. You start with an extreme demand, but not so extreme that the other side thinks that you're crazy or bluffing. You concede stubbornly, and you demonstrate a greater willingness than the other side to walk away from the negotiation table.

FREDRIK EKLUND: It's very important to set a floor and a ceiling so you know where to move. Because if you don't you can be manipulated and you can lose yourself in the emotions. If you're a good negotiator you will obviously try at least to be completely disconnected emotionally from the deal and negotiation itself, although you will play emotional. So if you're not upset you can play upset. But none of that matters unless you don't have a floor and a ceiling. So you need to know if you go under the floor you need to walk out or end the negotiation.

KEVIN ZOLLMAN: One of the things that game theorists have found is that in negotiation, especially in negotiations where we're debating how to divide up some resource—classic example in game theory is dividing up a pie but it could be anything like money or some time with a toy or anything where we have to decide how to divide it up. Game theorists have discovered a couple of central principles that make a big difference to who does better in those negotiations. One of the critical things is how patient you are. How willing you are to stay and continue to negotiate. So if I come in in a rush to a car dealership and I say I need a car right now, everyone knows that the car dealer is going to try and take advantage of the fact that you need a car right now and say sorry, we can't give you a discount. But if you come into a car dealership and you say I don't need a car anytime soon. If you give me a good deal today I'll take it, but if you don't I'll leave. Maybe I'll come back tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe a month later. Then you'll get a better deal.

SHAPIRO: However, this probably isn't the best agreement that you could have come to. All this is doing is arguing over one single factor, a number. And that's the problem of positional bargaining is that I might have a lot of other interests at stake, but none of them are getting shared within this very strict form of positional bargaining. There's another form of negotiation that at the Harvard Negotiation Project some of my colleagues have developed we call it interest based negotiation. The idea here is let's not argue over positions. Let's argue over underlying interests.

SALLIE KRAWCHECK: Never have one ask and take no for an answer. That if you're told no on the raise or even if you're told yes, come in with 12 other requests. I want to take a coding class that the company pays for. I want to have a stint in marketing. I want to work overseas for a period of time. I want to be mentored by XYZ. I want to work on this big project. I want to, I want to, I want to. And if by number 20, typically your boss is going to say yes to something that can turn into professional advancement or money down the road.

DAYMOND JOHN: Understanding that when you're negotiating is what's in it for the other party as well and it's not just self-serving. A lot of times people just don't ask the right questions. Instead they're just stating what they want instead of saying how can this situation be better. What do you need for this situation or what are your obstacles.

SHAPIRO: Why do you want the car? Well, I want the car because I have three kids, three boys. I want a safe car. I don't really care about the sunroof—I don't need to look that cool. But I want a car that's not that expensive. I want one that's energy efficient. These are all of my interests. Now, the car dealer has his or her own interests. If I ask you right now on camera what day do you think I bought my most recent car. Literally what day, you should know. It was December 31 right at the end of the year because I knew one of the interests of the car dealer in my area was they needed to get these cars off the lot for the next year's cars. They were more likely to go lower because they had other interests at stake. So interest based negotiation says don't just focus on the positions what you say you want. Focus on the underlying interests. And this is just as true in contemporary society, whether it's a business example, two people arguing over a contract. Don't just focus on the positions, focus on the underlying interests.

CHRIS VOSS: You know successful negotiation is not about getting to yes. It's about mastering no and understanding what the path to an agreement is. We get hammered so much day in and day out with people trying to trap us with yes, trying to corner us, trying to lead us places by getting us to say yes that we get defensive instantly when someone tries to get us to say yes. So you've got to get out of the getting to yes mindset and instead understand that yes is commitment and we're always worried about what we've let ourselves in for when we make a commitment. There are three kinds of yeses: there's commitment, confirmation, and counterfeit. People are most used to giving the counterfeit yes because they've been trapped by the confirmation yes so many times. So the way you master no is understanding what really happens when somebody says no. When yes is commitment, no is protection. If you say no and you've just protected yourself you're actually a little more open to hearing what the other side has to say because you're not worried about what you've committed yourself to. So you can take most questions that are designed to get yes and simply turn them into the same question where the answer is no and it gets you to the same place. If a boss gives an employee an impossible task and the employee says 'Well, you want me to be successful, don't you?' Well, that's pushing for a yes. The flip side question of that instead is, 'Do you want me to fail?' It's stunning what people are comfortable saying no to.

So, first of all understanding that you can use a no to make somebody feel protected and a little more open-minded to hearing what you have to say. Now, the second move after that is what do you want them to say next? What you really want them to say is 'That's right.' You want to be able to summarize how they feel about things and what the circumstances are so that they feel that you've got it. So much so that you look at you in the eye and say 'That's right.' And that's what we say at any given point of time when we see something that we know is completely true and that we're in complete agreement. We say 'That's right!' almost as if we're so totally behind it, it may have even have been a partial epiphany. We're so behind it. We just heard something that we feel is the indisputable truth and in many cases a really good 'That's right' summarized in a way that the other person was actually blind to. They didn't know that those forces were driving them or those passions. But when you say it to them it creates an epiphany on some level where you pointed something out to them that's true that they didn't even realize. They're showing us and telling us that they feel empathy from us. And any time you feel empathy from somebody else, you feel bonded to them. You want to collaborate with them. You want to do whatever you can for them. And that's a great way to find out what kind of latitude somebody has in a deal. And everybody's got latitude someplace.

VOSS: How you use your voice is really important and it's really driven by context more than anything else. And your tone of voice will immediately begin to impact somebody's mood and then immediately how their brain functions. There's actually scientific data out there now that shows us that our brains will work up to 31 percent more effectively if we're in a good mood. So if I smile at you and you see it or you can hear a smile in someone's voice. If I automatically smile at you and you can hear that I like you I will actually be able to reach into your brain, flip the positive switch, put you in a better mood, there are mirror neurons in our brain that we have no control over. They automatically respond. And if I intentionally pout you in a good mood your brain will be working more effectively and that already begins to increase the chances that you're going to collaborate with me. You'll be smarter and you'll like me more at the same time.

JOHN: Also, body language. Over 65 percent of communication is body language. Only seven percent is what you say. The other is how you say it. When you're at a table communicating with somebody do you notice them putting a lot of obstacles in front of you to gather space and push you away, or are they lifting their hair over their ears when they're writing because they're more interested in what you're saying.

VOSS: Now upward and downward inflection. Downward inflection is often used to say this is the way it is. There's no other way. And I will say it exactly like that. If there's a term in a contract that there's no movement on and I want you to know it and feel it without me having to say 'There's no movement on this!' Maybe you want to yell at somebody. That's ineffective because that triggers a different part of the brain and makes people angry and they want to fight. And I've done this in contract negotiations. I've said things like, 'We don't do work for hire.' Just like that. That let's the other side know there's no movement, whatsoever. I also may need to put you in a more collaborative frame of mind and if I want to ask you a question I'll say something like, 'it seems like this is important to you?' And I'll inflect up. It's more driven by context and I can use an upward inflection to encourage you and smile while I'm questioning you. And that will make you feel less attacked by being questioned because people are made to feel a little bit defensive when they're questioned anyway. So if I know if I have to question you, if I want you to think about a different option, then I'm going to be as encouraging as possible while I may be very assertive at the same time.

DANIEL H. PINK: So let me give you a hypothetical. Suppose that you're a parent and you have a daughter, say a teenage daughter whose room is an absolute mess. It just looks like a bomb went off in there and you want your daughter to clean her room. You're trying to sell her on the idea of cleaning her room. What do you do? Well, you could try to bribe her and that might work in the sort term. You could try to threaten her. That might work in the short term. You could try to exhort her. You can try to tell her about the meaning of clean rooms. But there's actually a technique from the counseling literature, really crystallized by a fellow named Mike Pantalon of Yale University, called motivational interviewing. And what you can do more effectively is ask two irrational questions. So, let's say that you have a daughter named Maria, and Maria has a messy room, and you want Maria to clean her room. The two questions you could ask Maria are this: 'Maria, on a scale of one to ten, one meaning I'm not ready at all, ten meaning I'm ready to do it right now. How ready are you, Maria, to clean your room?' Now Maria's room is a pigsty so she's not going to give you a ten or a nine or even a five. Maybe she'll give you a two. So she says 'Dad, I'm a two.' Well, here's where the second question comes in and it's a really interesting counterintuitive question. You say to Maria, 'Okay Maria you're a two. Why didn't you pick a lower number?'

Now our instincts as parents is to say, as a parent of three kids I have this instinct very strongly. If my kid were to say to me I'm a two I would say what, 'Why are you a two? You should be a nine!' But you say 'Why didn't you pick a lower number, Maria?' So here's what happens. Maria has to explain why she isn't a one. And so she says, 'Well, you know, I am 15 and I probably should get my act together. If I had my room cleaner I'd be able to get to school on time faster and maybe see my friends a little bit more. You know, you and mom never know where anything is anyway, so I'm kind of wasting my time asking you to help me.' What happens? With that second question, why didn't you pick a lower number, Maria begins articulating her own reasons for doing something. And this is really axiomatic in sales and persuasion. When people have their own reasons for doing something, not yours, their own reasons for doing something, they believe those reasons more deeply and adhere to the behavior more strongly.

Now suppose Maria says, 'Dad, on a scale of one to ten I'm a one.' Okay, that makes things a little more complicated, but it's actually really, really important to understand this. If you say to Maria – if Maria says, 'Dad, I'm a one,' here's what you say to Maria: 'Maria, what can we do to make you a two?' And what often that does is this. Maria will say, 'Well maybe if you and mom help me for 15 minutes to get this started. Maybe if you maybe not set the table and take out the trash tonight that would free up some time for me.' Because usually when people are a one it's often not because they're purely obstinate. It's because there's some kind of environmental obstacle in front of them. And if someone says they're a one, find out what that obstacle is, try to make them a two and that might give you some more momentum. The example I just gave had to do with parenting, but you can use this more universally. Now you can't whip it out at every single persuasive encounter but you can use it to persuade your boss. You can use it maybe to persuade a reluctant prospect in an actual sales encounter. You can use it with someone – your neighbor who's resisting moving his garbage cans or something like that. The key here, and again you've got to go back to first principles here. The key here is that we tend to think that persuasion or motivation is something that one person does to another, and what the social science tells us very clearly is that it's really something that people do for themselves. And your job as a persuader, as a motivator is to reset the context and surface people's own reasons for doing something. Because it works a lot better.

VOSS: The secret to gaining the upper hand in negotiations is giving the other side the illusion of control. And the illusion of control is typically best given with either questions that begin with the words what or how. Both what and how should be the form of nearly any question where you're trying to gather information. And it's actually one of the ways we say no. The first and best way to say no to anyone is: 'How am I supposed to do that?' Now, the other side actually has no idea as to the number of things you've done with them at the same time. You've conveyed to them you have a problem. It's something that we also refer to as forced empathy, because one of the reasons why we exercise tactical empathy is because we want the other side to see us fairly. We want them to see our position. We want them to see the issues we have. We want them to see the constraints that we have. And when you say to somebody 'How am I supposed to do that,' you make them take a look at your situation before they respond. And they think about it in a number of different ways. And a number of different people I've coached through negotiations who have felt completely helpless. They felt completely taken hostage. In one instance a woman thought she was taken hostage to the future and she just wasn't getting paid. They called her up to give her more work and we taught her to say, trained her, counseled her to say how am I supposed to do that.

They thought about it for a while and they said you're right, you can't. Now notice that response is not word for word directly responsive to her question. What they responded to was they felt like she said to them I can't do this anymore. I've reached my limit. And it's a way to establish a limit in a way that doesn't back the other side into a corner. You really want to be able to let out no a little bit at a time, and the first way to start letting out no as an answer is how am I supposed to do that. Now ultimately with that question we all imagine that the other side is going to say 'Because I said so' or 'Because you have to.' That's actually where you ultimately want to be with that question. That's a great way to find out whether or not you've gotten everything you could on that particular term. Because the other side's most angry response is 'Because you have to.' It's not them walking away. It's not them terminating the deal. It's not them giving you any more of an ultimatum. It's them saying no, I've got no more room to give with out the negotiations breaking off. So given the other side the illusion of control while signaling limits, it's a great way to stay in the conversation and find out that you're not leaving anything on the table. So the more you let the other side feel like they're in control, the more amenable they are to collaboration. You really don't want people to feel out of control.

VOSS: The F word in negotiations is fair. Fair is the F bomb, and when you begin to look for it, it's stunning. In how many negotiations somebody drops the F bomb in the negotiation? And when somebody says we just want what's fair, That's actually a really bad sign. One of two things is going on. Now, the cutthroat negotiators know how much I can punch your buttons if I say I've given you a fair offer. And that will immediately put you on the defensive and make you worry about whether or not you're being fair and most people have an instinctive feeling about fair price, fair market. Fair is just like this incredibly overused term in negotiations. I just want what's fair, what's the fair market price. So if I say I've given you a fair offer and I'm accusing you of being unfair I've immediately knocked you back on your heels. It's a way for me to gain an advantage on you, if I'm that kind of a negotiator. The flip side of it is, maybe I've been assertive enough in the negotiations and I haven't been using enough tactical empathy that the other person feels like I'm taking, taking, taking from them, and they'll respond with 'I just want what's fair.' That may be someone genuinely telling me very indirectly that they feel I've been far too aggressive. And if they feel I've been aggressive, and if they feel treated unfairly, one of two things is going to happen. They're either going to walk away from a great deal, or they're going to make implementation painful. And when implementation of a negotiation is painful, when they drag their feet, when they don't make deadlines, when they don't deliver the product quality they're supposed to deliver, when they're not as thorough and paying as much attention to detail because they didn't feel it was a fair deal, they destroy your profit. So you have to really keep an eye out for the F bomb in negotiations. And when somebody else feels they've been treated unfairly they're probably going to hurt you over it.

ZOLLMAN: When one is confronted with a situation that's truly zero sum where one party is going to win and the other party is going to lose, the situation is very complicated and sometimes difficult to analyze. Game theory spent much of its early days analyzing zero sum games and trying to figure out what's the best strategy. It's a little complicated because it depends critically on how sophisticated you think the other party is. If they're very, very, very smart, the chances that you're going to out-think them are not very high. In such a situation, oftentimes the best strategy is very counterintuitive because it involves flipping a coin or rolling a dice or doing something random. Professional poker players know this, and they oftentimes advocate in poker strategy books that one should occasionally do something completely counterintuitive in order to keep your opponents off guard. And, in fact, game theory has shown that this is good, solid mathematically well founded advice. That oftentimes what you want to do is engage in a kind of random strategy – game theorists call this a mixed strategy – in order to make sure that your opponent can't get the leg up on you. The nice thing about these random strategies is that they ensure that your opponent can never out-think you. So even if you think your opponent is a little smarter than you, or a little bit more sophisticated than you, or has a little bit more information than you do, the fact that you're being random to a certain extent means that they can't out-think you. Now how do you figure out how to be random? I'm not saying just flip a coin all the time, or whatever. What game theorists have figured out is that in zero sum games, the best strategy to pursue when you're against a sophisticated opponent is to adopt the strategy which minimizes your maximum loss. This is sometimes called the mini-max strategy.

So the idea is you think what's the worst case scenario for me. What could my opponent do that would make me worse off? And then you figure out what's the best strategy against that. So you're minimizing your maximum loss. Game theorists prove that if you use this way of thinking, minimizing your maximum loss, you ensure that no matter how sophisticated your opponent is you've guarded against the worst case scenario and not only that, but in zero sum games you've done the best you can possibly do. That's not true in games that aren't zero sum, so one has to be very careful about employing this strategy because if you're mistaken and you're not in a zero sum interaction, you can end up ruining it for everybody. But if you're truly in a zero sum interaction, this is one of the strategies that you could use.

VOSS: A summary is designed to let the other side know that you really understand what's going on now and, if nothing else, at least you understand their position. There are a lot of negotiators that really will give in on a deal because being understood is more important than getting what they want. In particular, the assertive negotiator, being understood is actually more important to them than actually making the deal. So, everybody wants to be understood anyway. Let people know you completely understand where they're coming from, and that's the design of a summary. Summarizing the facts and how they feel about the facts. And actually if you can summarize their feelings about the facts that are driving them but that they're blind to, it will make a big difference to them because then they feel really understood. That empathy connection is there. What you want to do is put people in a position where they feel connected enough to you that they're willing to collaborate with you. They're willing to show you the things that they were scared to tell you about before. You know the cards that everybody holds in a negotiation? That if you could just see those cards, you might be able to negotiate a completely different deal? Well, that's where this entire approach is really going—everybody has cards they're not showing in a negotiation. Everybody. And if you could get the other side to show you those cards, we call them black swans, those little things that make all the difference. If you can get them to show you the black swans, to reveal those black swans, then you can probably make a better deal than you ever had in mind.

  • There are many variables in every negotiation, which means there is no silver bullet or magic phrase you can use to win every single time. On top of that, the idea of "winning" changes depending on the situation. The key to success is being able to identify the type of negotiation and use a strategy that gets you what you want.
  • "Successful negotiation is not about getting to yes," says former FBI negotiator Chris Voss. "It's about mastering no and understanding what the path to an agreement is."
  • In this video, experts including Voss, Shark Tank investor Daymond John, author and real estate broker Fredrik Eklund, game theorist Kevin Zollman, Harvard International Negotiation Program director Dan Shapiro, and others detail the different types of negotiations and share tips on how to navigate them effectively so that both sides feel like they've arrived at a good spot, somewhere near the center. You can also learn how to outsmart an opponent in a zero-sum situation.


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