Making negotiations fun: Five lessons from the outliers who actually like them

Ask a person their favorite activities, and they’re not likely to say “negotiation.” Most of us dislike negotiation, and some utterly despise it.

But does it really have to be that way? Isn’t it at least conceivable to enjoy negotiation?

In my role as negotiation professor, I’ve had the pleasure of observing at least a few students who seem to genuinely enjoy negotiating, in the classroom and beyond. In hopes of helping the rest of us make our negotiation-filled lives more fun and negotiable at the same time, let me recount a few of their common characteristics.

People who enjoy negotiation tend to:

  1. Understand the worst they can do is the same. Many of us dread negotiation because we fear a phantom calamitous outcome. We imagine ourselves getting a salary reduction or a higher price on the car. People who enjoy negotiation know that’s not likely to happen. In the face of a respectful and reasonable request for something that genuinely matters, some counterparts will say no but few will retract their offers. And assuming your request is in fact respectful and reasonable, few will fault you for trying—some may even respect you that much more. People who enjoy negotiation know that the worst possible downside is often the status quo.
  2. Understand the other side needs them too. Many of us dread negotiation because we assume we’re the only one who needs something. But if we’re in a negotiation rather than a command-and-control relationship, we’re not! The car dealer needs our purchase and trade-in. The employer doesn’t want to interview additional candidates after choosing you. Even the cable company needs our business, sort of. Those who enjoy negotiation know that dependence runs both ways.
  3. Treat the negotiation more like a puzzle than a problem. Many of us dread negotiation because we hate dealing with interpersonal problems, and negotiations seem like yet more of those. People who enjoy negotiations don’t see them that way at all. They see negotiations as puzzles to be solved by two smart and motivated people. Sure, they recognize that those two people may not be entirely aligned, but they don’t confuse partial misalignment with total opposition.
  4. Think beyond money. Many people hate negotiation because they fixate on money—and specifically on the risk of losing it, e.g., by paying too much for that car. As suggested in my book, The Bartering Mindset, those who enjoy negotiation know that money is typically one of several issues to be negotiated—and often the least negotiable. So they don’t shy away from the ever-important monetary issues, but they also don’t hesitate to consider the many non-monetary issues that are often substantially more malleable. With the car dealer, for example, they’re talking not just about price, but financing, floor mats, servicing, the value of their trade in, etc., etc., etc.
  5. Don’t knock themselves for trying. Many of us hate negotiation because we’re mortified at the prospect of failure. We can’t stomach the prospect of asking for something, getting denied, and walking sheepishly out the door. The best negotiators know they won’t always succeed—and they don’t expect to. If they try their best to no avail, they learn from whatever might have happened and congratulate themselves for trying, knowing they won’t have to wake up at 4 am questioning the salary they “could have had” if they’d asked. And sometimes they even high-five themselves vigorously for the failure, knowing as they do that “no” was actually the right answer in light of the better deal they just got elsewhere.

So consistent are these assumptions that I can usually identify the people who verbalize them as the outliers who enjoy negotiation. Here’s hoping the rest of us can learn a few lessons from the outliers that make negotiations—if not fun—at least negotiable.

Five reputations no negotiator wants

Many of our most important negotiations happen at work. We negotiate job offers, reconcile competing strategies, allocate limited funds. So it would really behoove us to understand the drivers of our success in such situations—the factors that will determine whether we walk away happy or sad.

If I asked you to name just one such factor, what would you say?

Chances are, you’d name a negotiation strategy. Aggressively insist on your demands! Persuasively plead your case! Creatively seek a solution! Or some other behavior to display in the negotiation itself.

While none of these answers is inherently wrong, I’d suggest that your success in a critical organizational negotiation is often determined long before the negotiation itself—in the many less-critical negotiations and non-negotiation situations that crystallize your reputation. Critical negotiations become substantially more negotiable, in other words, when you’ve developed the right reputation beforehand.

It’s easier to see what the right reputation is if you first consider the opposite—the type of reputation you really don’t want to bring into a critical organizational negotiation. At that point, you really don’t want to be known as the:

  1. Constant negotiator: We all know someone who negotiates every flipping, last thing. Why do I only get 10 pencils? I need at least 12! Do we really have to go Applebee’s? I’m really hankering for the Olive Garden. Constant negotiator is not the type of reputation you want to carry into your critical organizational negotiations, as everyone will think this important negotiations is just another in your never-ending string of demands.
  2. Selfish negotiator: We all know someone who, though they don’t necessarily negotiate everything, they approach every negotiation (and non-negotiation) with exactly one objective: themself. Would it cost three jobs to guarantee my 12-pencil minimum at all times? No matter, as long as I get my pencils. You obviously don’t want to develop this reputation either, as everyone will come into the critical negotiation ready for battle.
  3. Pushover negotiator: Conversely, kind of, we all know someone who never ever sticks up for themself. Want to reduce my pencil allocation by two pencils a month, ultimately leaving me with pens alone? No matter, I’ll just buy some pencils myself. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as everyone will approach the critical negotiation with the demeanor of Jaws in the presence of a bleeding beluga.
  4. Reactive negotiator: We all know someone who, despite the “manager” in their title, sits around and lets the world conquer them. They seem utterly incapable of steering the course of events, and they often respond bitterly when the world steers them. Oftentimes, they just fade into the background. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as someone else in the critical negotiation will steer the negotiation in their own direction before you have the chance to, well, react.
  5. Incoherent negotiator: We all know someone who can never seem to collect their thoughts. Their statements are jumbled, and their requests tend toward the internally inconsistent. Thought 1: We should all get more pencils! Thought 2: Management should really cut costs! Developing such a reputation may well keep the other party on their toes. But you’re unlikely to get what you want from a critical organizational negotiation, for the simple reason that neither you nor they has a clue what that is.

So if you shouldn’t cultivate any of these reputations before a critical negotiation, what type of reputation should you to develop? A reputation as someone who confidently negotiates when they have to, but only when they have to. And when they do, as someone who confidently or even insistently sticks up for their true needs but also gives in on their non-needs, particularly when the other side truly needs the opposite. And someone who doesn’t react to negotiations as they happen but leads the way, typically by initiating and coherently guiding the discussion.

Do all of that in the small situations before your critical organizational negotiation and, dollars to donuts, you’ll walk away with the critical outcome.