Good negotiation skills have a huge impact on your career -- whether you're a salesperson making deals or an entry-level employee trying to get good assignments or cube neighbors to quiet down.
"Most people think of negotiation only when they need to get something more," says Tammy Lenski, a professional mediator who helps universities and businesses nationwide with conflict management. "The reality is that at work, pretty much every conversation is a negotiation. You're negotiating deadlines, the quality level, what might be taken off your plate to make room for this priority project and what benefit you might get for taking on that project. The minute you walk into the workplace in the morning, you're negotiating."
Lenski says big negotiation mistakes are common -- people either are too confrontational or cave in because they're afraid to ask some basic questions. "If people think of a negotiation more as a conversation than something that needs to be won, they'll do much better," she adds.
Here are four of Lenski's tips on becoming a good negotiator -- and improving your situation at work:
1. Tactic Is Dictated by Situation
Playing hardball in the office can backfire when you need to work with your coworkers every day. "You have an ongoing relationship with these folks, and you're trying to not leave debris," Lenski says. "People need to stop thinking about negotiating as getting more of what I need, which means getting less of what you need."
Instead, find out the other person's needs, and try to come to a conclusion that helps both of you. "The best negotiating is using the really good human relation skills in an effective way," Lenski says. "It isn't about pushing or convincing or manipulating the other person. It's about having them figure out what they want and how you can help them get it."
2. Ask Good Questions
In negotiations, you know what you want. But you also need to find out what the other side wants in return. It's most efficient if you just ask openly.
When starting her private practice 10 years ago, Lenski presented her fee to provide conflict-management services to a company in turmoil. The department head asked her to slash her price 20 percent. Lenski said this was her bottom-line number, but the department head said everything is negotiable.
Lenski then asked the essential question: "Why do you believe everything is negotiable?" The department head explained the head of finance would ask if she bargained and got a good deal. At that point, Lenski crossed out the original fee and wrote a new one that was about 25 percent higher. "Will this work?" she asked.
The department head said, "Well, I'll have to offer you 20 percent less than that." And they had a deal.
You won't always get such a clear-cut answer, but it only strengthens your case if you can find out about the other person's goals.
3. Deal with Issues Up Front
Instead of keeping quiet and thus becoming resentful, "negotiating is figuring out how to raise the things that are bothering you so they can be sorted out," Lenski says.
There are gender-based differences in negotiation. "Many women are not very good at asking, or when they are made an offer, they tend to think that they have to say yes or no," Lenski says. "But men tend to think of it as the opening volley in a negotiating experience."
Instead of just thinking about what might make it difficult to accomplish your goal, talk with your boss about those issues right away. "It's much more helpful in general to think about under what conditions you might make it possible, and how can you help me do that," Lenski says.
Lenski was recently asked to speak at a conference, and the university offered to pay her travel expenses but not conference fees and hotel room. She discovered a colleague who was manning a nearby conference booth was getting all her expenses paid by another college department. Instead of having hard feelings, Lenski approached the dean. "Aren't I doing as much to get the college's name out there?" she asked. When she pointed out the discrepancy, he offered to pay her way as well.
People are too often afraid to have those tough conversations, bottling up their resentment. "If I hadn't asked and would have gone home and fretted, I wouldn't have had the money," she says.
4. Do the Right Kind of Homework
Lenski says people tend to waste a lot of time worrying about scary negotiation scenarios. "They go into it thinking about all the ways it can go wrong," she says, even though the negotiation generally turns out much better than expected. "Instead, they should spend their time thinking of it from the perspective of the other person. What would make them want to join with you to figure things out? Not what will make them change their mind, but what will make them want to sort this out with me. Invite them into joint problem-solving."
Not only does this tactic lead to more successful negotiations, but your colleagues will also have a better opinion of you. "You have to keep seeing most of the folks in the workplace, and they can have a lot of input on whether you move up," Lenski says. "You want to approach them in ways that you're seen as a team player."