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You Can't Always Get What You Want: The Art of Negotiating

Negotiation isn't about winning. That's why so many people do it so poorly.
You Can't Always Get What You Want: The Art of Negotiating
Image credit: Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need” -You Can’t Always Get What You Want,  Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

As I sat down to write this I tried to think of an appropriate quote on winning. I like to start my articles with a quote because it allows me to leverage the wisdom of greater and smarter people than I, and to construct a context for my stream of consciousness meanderings. In constructing this particular circumlocution, I realized that while the quotes on winning are bountiful -- ranging from the pithy to the banal -- most supported the opposite of my point. All of them had to do with winning a war or winning a sporting event, but neither seemed appropriate.

Business isn’t a war, nor should it be. While there are lessons to be learned from the Art of War by Sun Tzu, most of them have always seemed a bit strained, like writing about the leadership secrets you can learn from Winnie The Pooh And the Blustery Day. You may read profundity in a children’s book. Who am I to judge?

Hell, I’ve tried my best to achieve the life of the man in the yellow hat from Curious George. I mean come ON! The guy travels the world with no visible means of support with a chimp that he leaves unsupervised as he goes off doing God knows what with God knows who. It's a life without consequence, and then of course there is the hat. I really liked that hat.

But I digress. In the end I decided to quote nobody and instead to write my own “seeking to win at all costs, costs one everything.” I admit it’s not exactly the Grapes of Wrath but then I’m not exactly Steinbeck. 

Failing to find an appropriate quote on winning was not a fruitless effort. As is often the case, the destination wasn’t as important as the journey. Now I understand why it was so hard to find an appropriate quote on negotiating and winning. Negotiation isn’t about winning -- that’s why so many people do it so poorly. We’re conditioned at an early age to think about negotiation as a duel, a contest of wills where one side emerges victorious while the other leaves the encounter vanquished and shamed, but a successful negotiation is the opposite of that.

As The Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, negotiation isn’t always about getting what you want; it’s about getting what you need. To do that it’s important for you to know the difference. (I guess I found my quote after all. I like my quote, so gods and editors willing, it will stay in this piece.) 

I have had to do a lot of negotiating and there is a lot one has to know and do to be successful, so while this is by no means an exhaustive list (think of it as a beginner’s guide to negotiation) it’s enough to keep some from running roughshod over you the next time you have to negotiate.

Related: 5 Steps to Master the Art of Negotiation

Prepare

Whether you are negotiating for a new job or negotiating the price and terms of a new home purchase, start by doing your homework. In either case, you should never enter the negotiation blind.

Start your preparation by listing the things you need. A simple test as to whether or not you truly need or just think you need ask yourself whether or not you are prepared to walk away from the deal. If you aren’t prepared to walk away from the deal unless you get a particular item, you probably don’t really need it.

Once you have a list of your true needs you have your “walkaway position” (what negotiating king-pins and show offs call the minimum you will accept in a negotiation).  If you don’t know your walkaway position then you don’t have any business negotiating. As a young man I accepted a job that I absolutely knew for a fact did not pay me enough to cover the costs of sustaining my family, and yet I took the job. Eight months later I left because I just couldn’t afford to stay. I later learned that I most probably would have been able to get a wage that would have been sufficient but I hadn’t prepared for the negotiation.

The company did not take advantage of me -- any money that was figuratively "left on the table" was left there by me. Had I prepared, and known my walk away figure, I would have received a much higher offer -- or not -- but at a minimum I would have saved myself eight months of misery worrying about money.

Related: Fixing the Pay Gap Starts With Your Salary Negotiation Skills

Look for a way where everyone wins. 

Another key to good negotiation is that everyone comes out a winner. This sounds like New-Age psychobabble but there doesn’t have to be a loser in a negotiation. One of my friends lost his dream house because both sides started this alpha dog positioning. Both parties dug in their heals and refused to budge on what amounted to less than five percent difference in price on a six figure deal.

The temptation to “win” negotiation can cloud one’s judgment. I’m not immune to the tendency to want to win. When I bought my home (probably the biggest negotiation most of will ever enter, or at least where we have the most personally at stake) negotiations got pretty fierce. I almost walked away. Fortunately, I had good advice and got a nice place. The seller, who had been living with her mother down south somewhere and paying a mortgage on a house in which she wasn’t living, got out from a debt she didn’t need.

Related: 4 Tricks for Negotiating Like a Poker Pro

Remember it’s about getting what you need.

Too many deals go up in smoke because people lose sight of the fact that solid negotiation is about getting what you need. There’s nothing wrong with asking for more than you need. Some meat-headed negotiators don’t feel like they are successful unless they make you give something up, but you have to recognize the unlikelihood that you will get everything.

I always put in very favorable payment terms in my proposals because it gives the purchaser something that he or she can demand be taken out, thus justifying his or her job. I don’t put in fluff in my price, because if I then lower it I basically have admitted to trying to cheat the customer, but payment terms? I can adjust those without loosing a ton and without risking insult to my customer.