Negotiating Your Way To A Better You
If you’ve got a big professional goal, you’ll likely encounter a situation where, in order to get ahead, you’ve got to advocate for yourself. If you don’t, you may be missing out on a considerable sum that could majorly impact not only your current financial situation, but that of years to come.
There’s a lot of information out there on how to negotiate (e.g., things you can say, data you can point to), but that’s not what this article is about. Instead, it’s a case for overcoming the mental barriers that are holding you back from self-advocacy, and how you can make negotiation less intimidating with a combination of regular practice and realistic expectations.
As a bonus, you can take the skills you gain from from professional negotiation and use them to advocate for yourself in all areas of your life, including your personal relationships. Doing so will allow you to be an equal and respected party, preventing resentment down the road.
To motivate you to start championing for yourself, I’ll share real examples from my life—both successes and failures—to illustrate real possibilities of outcomes that I wish I had known prior. For context, I was always sold on the benefits of negotiation, so much so that I incorrectly believed that as long as I followed proper tactics, negotiation works every time. In my experience, however, I’ve come to realize that the success stories conveniently left out the failed negotiation attempts. The stories of unrelenting success you often hear are from people who are either very lucky or who only chose to negotiate when they had an indisputable advantage over their counterpart. So let's get real!
Recognize That Standing Up For Yourself Is Hard
I want to take a moment to recognize that advocating for yourself is so very hard. So difficult, in fact, that it’s often easier to do nothing. If you do nothing, you’re left wondering, “what if”? Like many unpleasant and scary situations, the more you encounter them, the less scary they become. And like a muscle, the more you practice, the more you can refine your approach and get the outcomes you want.
If you’re feeling nervous about asking for what you deserve, that’s completely normal. Reframe your goal for the negotiation: the goal is NOT to get more money (or a lower price, depending if you’re the getting paid or paying). Rather, the goal is putting yourself out there and trying something scary, even if it doesn’t pan out. Think of negotiation as a character-building exercise as part of your personal growth.
Success is not the absence of failure; it's the persistence through failure - Aisha Taylor
Know That It Might Not Work
The problem with negotiation advice out there is that it doesn’t properly set the expectation that even if you follow every single negotiation best practice, there is still a very good chance that you will fail.
And of course, the more times you try to negotiate, the more likely you are to encounter failure! Sometimes you simply don’t have the advantage or your counterpart does not perceive you to have it. At that point, it’s out of your hands.
I have failed multiple times at negotiating, to the point where I thought I never would do it again. Normally, there's no harm in trying to negotiate, right? Well, that hasn't been my experience.
The first "gotcha!" was when I was offered a position for a new job, and I asked for a higher salary (about 5-10% more, nothing obscene). The HR department said that actually, the initial salary offer was based on my total years of work experience, but since I didn’t have experience in that particular field, none of my prior years of work counted as “experience,” so the most they could pay was actually 10% lower than their initial offer. I was dumbfounded. Not only did I not take the job, I was confused why not a single financial expert and negotiation advocate had ever told me that there was a remote possibility that negotiating would decrease my initial offer. I felt discouraged.
A few years later, I recovered and decided to negotiate the monthly rent for an annual lease renewal of an apartment. When we asked for a lower amount based on the market trends, our property manager said surprise! That initial offer from a few weeks ago has since expired and now the renewal rate is $400 more than the initial offer. There was no expiration date communicated in the initial offer. We moved.
To be honest, these experiences made me never want to try negotiating again, especially when doing so got me LESS than what I was initially offered. I wondered if I was doing something wrong. Was I asking too much? Were they calling my bluff? But the lesson was not that I should never negotiate; rather, the lesson was that a person (or company’s) refusal to meet you halfway could be a major red flag.
Consider That It Usually Never Hurts to Ask
Despite the examples above (which I’ve come to learn are extreme outliers), asking usually does not get you less than that with which what you started, but it’s always a possibility. I’ve come to learn that, “It never hurts to ask” does NOT apply when:
you don’t understand a hidden rule of your counterpart’s terms (e.g., categorization of work experience, a made-up expiration date); or
when what’s allowed is a somewhat grey area, in which case it’s better to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission. You might be better off assuming yes and apologizing later (“I had no idea!”) rather than giving someone the opportunity to deny you up front. If you ask for permission and are told no, you can't say you didn’t know it wasn’t allowed.
So assuming normal circumstances, it usually doesn’t hurt to try and ask for more. The cost, then, is the discomfort of having to stick up for yourself. It can be really uncomfortable, but you owe it to yourself to at least try!
Sometimes trying really pays off. For my very first internship, I was thrilled for the opportunity to work in a real office. When the HR person told me interns were paid $10 an hour, I said, "Great! That's what I make babysitting!" The HR rep shook her head and said that they should pay me more than babysitting, and instead pay me an hourly rate of $12. What a win, right? Imagine my surprise when I received my first paycheck, I was paid only $10 per hour. It was a mental struggle: should I say something? Was it a mistake? Did I imagine the $12 conversation? I mustered the guts to go into HR the next week and raise the question, citing the earlier discussion when I was first hired. Because the head of HR recognized how awkward and scary it must have been to cite this mistake, I was rewarded with an extra dollar on top of this rate for a total of $13 per hour. If I never said anything, I’d be missing out on $120 hours per week. That’s nothing to sneeze at!
Remind Yourself of Your Why
Reminding yourself of the opportunity cost of NOT negotiating can motivate you when you’re feeling tempted to avoid confrontation. In the internship example above, the opportunity cost of not attempting negotiation was over $100 a week. To motivate yourself further, write down some of the things you would do with the extra money. Imagine that you're paying yourself to stand up and be vulnerable.
Again, go back to the broader skill set. Do you want to be someone who accepts the status quo, or do you want to be a person who stands up for him or herself? What kind of example do you want to set your younger coworkers or your kids? Integrate "negotiator" as part of your identity, and your actions will follow.
Everything Is Negotiable, But Not Everyone Will Negotiate
Anyone who has ever planned a wedding in the U.S. knows that the prices are absurd. What might normally cost X skyrockets 10x as soon as the word “wedding” is mentioned, a result of the so-called "wedding tax". So much of wedding planning is driven by scarcity of resources (“Is my date available?”), online reviews (the main leverage consumers have), and the pressure to have certain elements (e.g., flowers, photographers) as part of the big day. These characteristics, however, make wedding planning a crash course in negotiation.
Wedding services are arbitrarily priced. How much should a violinist cost? As much as people are willing to pay! If reviews aren’t good, a vendor isn’t going to be able to price their services as high. Word gets around, and the internet has helped make it all so much easier.
As a consumer, I had contacted various transportation companies for a quote for my wedding. One vendor (let’s call him vendor V) told me that his differentiator was the classic white limousine that "every bride wants." V told me to go ask my husband if it’s in the budget. How rude of V to assume my husband would be paying and making the financial decision for the wedding (he wasn’t, I was), but I used this presumption to my advantage.
I called V back the next day, explaining that my husband found a company offering transportation for cheaper, but that I really wanted to go with V because he sold me on the vision of the white limo. Could he match the other vendor’s price? Slam dunk, he did.
I have to say that this small win was one of the highlights of my wedding planning experience. I correctly assessed that for V, the cost of losing my businesses was greater than the few hundred dollars the vendor lost by agreeing to my terms.
That said, plenty of things were not negotiable with the wedding. Some florists had an absurdly high minimum spend that was way out of our budget; otherwise it was just not worth the florist's time. When a business has the luxury of a waitlist and tons of demand, you simply don't have leverage to negotiate. That said, it's still worth trying because you never know what creative workarounds you can uncover. For example, our church didn't allow non-religious music during the ceremony; however, they allowed our favorite songs to play as people were walking in and getting seated.
Even though everything is negotiable, not everyone will negotiate. And sometimes just asking will start a conversation where you and your counterpart can agree to a happy compromise.
I hope this article encourages you to think about some areas of your life where you might be holding back from asking more. Negotiation is a part of self-growth, and each time you put yourself out there, you strengthen your self-advocacy skills. Go get 'em!