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Negotiation: You Already Do It – Now Own It

My father recently commented that my kids (age six and four) are becoming expert negotiators. That made my husband and I smile—big goofy smiles. Why? Why does this please us so much?

Because unless they manage to discover unlimited resources, the only way for our kids to get what they want in life is to clearly describe their needs and ask for them to be met. Then they have to work with the people (their parents and teachers for now) who can help them make their needs come to fruition.

We all know the strategies that do and do not work. Solely sitting at your desk working tirelessly for a promotion won’t make it happen. What can get you that well-deserved promotion is talking to your manager about your work and explaining what you want and why.

Diagram showing balancing priorities
Figure 1. Project requirements at a high level. Each requirement may be adjustable on its own, or may be dependent on other requirements.

My negotiation skills were developed relatively late in life, as they are for most women. Even now I find myself second-guessing how to ask for what I want. Women Don’t Ask authors Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever found that, “When asked to pick metaphors for the process of negotiating, men picked ‘winning a ballgame’ and a ‘wrestling match,’ while women picked ‘going to the dentist.’” Based on their findings, most men look forward to negotiation while most women consider it an unpleasant and potentially painful experience. Women who have this attitude will most likely avoid negotiation unless it is absolutely necessary.

Adding to the imbalance between genders, women (at least in North America) are not often taught negotiation skills—there is a cultural bias towards encouraging men to negotiate and women to settle for what they have. Babcock and Laschever state that the “first step is for women to assume that most things in their lives are negotiable—that they don’t have to accept the status quo as fixed and rigid and settle for whatever they’re offered.”

This means women tend to leave opportunities untouched, and raises, challenging projects, and promotions are given to the men who ask for them. That being said, negotiation is not a panacea; the payroll gap between men and women in the United States does not exist simply because women haven’t asked for more (in 2010, women’s earnings were 81 percent of men’s, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

While most technology-related careers are primarily filled by men, user experience is much closer to an even split between men and women. A good portion of our jobs is negotiating on behalf of users. Assuming half of our industry is women, and assuming many of those women are not being taught negotiation skills, this leaves the users we represent at a disadvantage.

Know Your Alternatives

We must sharpen our negotiation skills regularly, just as we do our design and facilitation skills. As with anything we are not comfortable doing, we need to build our confidence. Confidence can be built by determining your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA), a phrase coined by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury to describe the course of action you will take if the current negotiations fail and agreement cannot be reached.

A BATNA is a standard by which any arrangement can be measured. “I can keep my current job with benefits and a flexible schedule” is one example of a BATNA. “We will implement the off-the-shelf system that fulfills most of users’ needs” is another. These BATNAs do not sound exciting and that is fine. If your BATNA sounds truly awesome, perhaps you should not be negotiating.

Consider every offer against your BATNA. If the arrangement isn’t better than your BATNA, do not agree to it. Having a BATNA protects you from accepting terms that are unappealing and helps prevent you from rejecting terms that you should accept. BATNAs can also give you the freedom to explore creative solutions that you may not have considered otherwise. You do not need to share your BATNA, but in some cases it may be appropriate to communicate it.

A common misconception that adds to negotiation anxiety is that there are winners and losers. The goal of any negotiation is to maximize the benefit to all parties. Everyone should feel they have gotten a good and fair deal. In most cases you will have to work with these people again in the future, and you need to make sure that the relationship is preserved regardless of the outcome of this particular situation.

Prepare Carefully

Once you have a BATNA, it’s time to do some research. Who are you dealing with? What is important to them (for instance, ROI, cost savings, or schedule)? What are the difficult questions they will ask you and how will you respond? What is their culture like? Does it affect their preference for negotiation strategy? When meeting, consider the cultural norms to avoid any misunderstandings. For instance, if you are from Southern California and heading to a meeting in Munich, Germany, put on a suit and leave the hoodie at home.

Despite any cultural differences, you will need to separate the people from the problem you are trying to solve. To help make this happen, be prepared to talk about your shared interests, such as making a great user experience, enhancing benefits to the users and the organization, and saving resources. Practice using inclusive language to discuss the situation—for example, use “we” not “you.”

With complex problems, consider as many options for resolution as you can. For example, consider all of the requirements for a project. Are some requirements flexible in their amount, breadth, or depth? What happens if you reduce or increase individual requirements (see Figure 1)?

Understand the Value of Your Work

Someone hired you to represent the users and to improve their experiences. That gives you the right and the responsibility to present the best case you can on their behalf. Be confident in yourself and your abilities, and use your credentials as needed to help bolster yourself.

Remember, no one is perfect. Don’t compare your worst day to someone else’s best day. Instead, work to your strengths and focus on improving what you need to. For example, if speaking on your (or your users’) behalf is uncomfortable, join Toastmasters or a similar group. Practice speaking frequently in a safe environment and you will become more comfortable, which will improve your negotiation skills.

Practice Asking

Start today by asking for small changes such as moving to a better desk, getting a title change, or going to a conference. Remember your BATNA and don’t leave any opportunity untouched. The negotiation process requires that you work with everyone involved to come to the best solution or return to your BATNA. These small starts will help you to represent users when the pressure is on.

Own Negotiation

I hope that my kids will one day take the opportunity to use their negotiation skills to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Until then, I will encourage them to practice negotiating in small ways every day.

We can all become more confident in our negotiation abilities by practicing these tips:

  1. Prior to negotiation, determine your BATNA.
  2. Conduct research to understand the underlying problems, all of the potential options, and the other negotiation parties’ needs and culture.
  3. Work with all parties involved to identify the best solution for everyone.
  4. Compare every offer to your BATNA to determine its suitability.