Negotiating against ourselves: Stop it!

In preparing to negotiate, most of us spend so much time worrying about our counterpart’s likely behavior that we forget to face down a far tougher counterpart: ourselves. That is, we out-negotiate ourselves even before we meet our real counterparts. We tell ourselves not to request that, not to think that, not to mention that idiosyncratic issue—so we don’t. But why? Since systematically shutting off our inner negotiator can make life negotiable, let’s unpack the issue.

In the moments before a negotiation, most of us implicitly engage in an inner conversation something like this:

  • “Should I ask for that? No, I don’t want to seem greedy.”
  • “What will she think if I raise that idea? That it’s crazy.”
  • “Should I say anything about that important but potentially weird issue? No, I don’t want to seem weird.”

Through inner conversations like these, most of us routinely convince ourselves to suppress what we really want and need before we ever ask for it. As a result, most of us just don’t get it—no critical adjustment to our work schedule, no support for our innovative but potentially wacky idea, no idiosyncratic but necessary amendment to our benefits.

But why? Why would we ever negotiate so hard against ourselves before the negotiation even starts? I’ve observed three, interrelated reasons:

  1. We’re afraid of uncomfortable interpersonal situations.
  2. We want other people to like us.
  3. We conclude that if we ask for what we really need, an uncomfortable interpersonal situation will ensue, and other people won’t like us.

But consider five, interrelated problems with these assumptions:

  1. As mentioned above and before, if we don’t ask for it, we won’t get it.
  2. Humans being human beings, we really have no idea how they’ll react until we ask.
  3. On average and over the long-term, other people will probably respect us more if we ask for what we need rather than acting as a human doormat.
  4. For some reason, we’re much more scared of a mildly unpleasant, short-term “no” than a highly unpleasant, permanently dissatisfying agreement.
  5. We don’t realize that a rejected request is often the gateway to additional creativity from both sides.

So what can we do about our dubious inner negotiator? I’d suggest a three-step response:

  1. Start calling yourself out the next time you hear the inner negotiator.
  2. Starting telling your inner negotiator to knock it off.
  3. Try a couple experiments in which you actually ask for what you really want and need. If it’s really so risky, the risks will appear quickly, and you can backtrack. But, in my experience as a negotiation researcher and teacher, you’re much more likely to find yourself finally getting what you need.

So should you just go out and ask for everything in the world? No. To be clear, I’m not telling anyone to get greedy or follow every frivolous desire under the sun. But I am telling those of us who routinely talk ourselves out of pursuing our true needs—most of us—to stop counting ourselves out before the match ever begins.