How to Negotiate

Illustration: Michele McCammon

If you’re still working during the pandemic, you may feel grateful to have a job at all. If you’re looking for work, you might have been advised to take whatever you can get. And if you’re in need of a car or are back home living with your parents, you may feel powerless to negotiate your circumstances. In hard times, it’s easy to feel that any attempt to bargain for more or ask for a better deal is just too risky.

Not true, according to negotiation expert Margaret Neale, Adams Distinguished Professor of Management Emerita at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of Getting (More of) What You Want. Even in times like these, says Neale, you still have power, you still have options, and, yes, you can and should still negotiate.

STANFORD: Can you negotiate during a downturn?

Neale: The answer is absolutely! What you shouldn’t do in a downturn—or any other time—is start a job and then immediately decide you want more money. You’ve just set up a fight.

You need to expand the conversation, particularly in 2020, whether you are talking about a new job or the one you already have. [Your employer is offering] a compensation package, with a lot of other things to it, including what resources and support you need to do the job well. Do you need marketing help to promote your project or product? Do you need to work at home two days a week even post-pandemic? Maybe you’d like to take a course or get some more schooling. Might your employer support that? Think broadly about what will help you do your best work.

This is not your last job. It is your early job, so you have to play the long game. You have to ask, “How can I perform in this job to set me up for the future?”

What is negotiable in hard times?

Everything! I call it the power of the ask. If you are trying to negotiate a car payment, your power may be only in walking away, but if you are approaching your landlord to negotiate the rent, you have options. You have to align your interests with your boss, landlord or even your partner. There is something we are all uncomfortable with, and that is asking for what we want. But if you don’t ask for what you want, you won’t get it. So go for it, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Be an agent of your own fate.

The economy is weak now, but it won’t be forever. Let’s say it’s a sales position and you think you can do a lot more than they are asking. You’ve made your compensation package proposal, and they haven’t agreed to the salary. What if you say, “If I make the following happen in this amount of time, based on what I do, would you agree to a salary increase of 20 percent?” You have just aligned your goals with theirs. Now you have a contingency contract.

Is there a key to successful negotiation?

Before you do anything, you need to transition your mindset from “negotiation is a battle” to “negotiation is problem-solving.” It is hard for someone to think you are picking a fight if you are trying to solve a problem, so start from there.

When you enter the conversation, you need to understand your counterpart, their motivators and their interests. You need to understand why they would say yes to your proposition. It has to be a proposition that makes them better off.

‘If all you think about is the worst case you can say yes to, that is where your mind is going to reside, and you will end up there.’

Think about what it is your landlord cares about. Maybe it’s going from month-to-month to a lease that gives her more stability. Maybe it’s paying your rent a little early or offering to do a small job to increase the property value. What can you do that will help mitigate the problem you and they are facing?

To be successful, when you present a proposal, you need to explain it as a solution to a problem your counterpart has. Too often we get overly concerned about what we want. That’s OK if you have all the power, but if you are in the less-powerful position, you have to walk the path of the solution with the person you are negotiating with.

How can you prepare for “the big ask”?

There is no substitute for preparing for a negotiation. This is not something you do the night before. People will tell you their problems. Pay attention and think creatively.

The first step is to know your alternatives. What happens if there is no agreement? Be realistic about setting your bottom line.

Second is to ask yourself, “What is my aspiration?” If all you think about is the worst case you can say yes to, that is where your mind is going to reside, and you will end up there. Know what you hope to get. You may not get it, but it will improve your final outcome.

Third, define the issues you will discuss and know your priorities. This can take a lot of time and some soul-searching. It could take 10 minutes if it’s Nordstrom and you are negotiating the price of a pair of shoes. (Yes, I do that!) If you are in a serious negotiation, it can take hours of intense preparation. You have to understand the relative weight of those issues and what you are willing to give up or on which things you can compromise.

Last, think about how you are going to start. Will you make the first offer? What will your counter be? You want to have already played that script in your mind.

What if you’ve taken a job that isn’t what you wanted?

So you didn’t get your dream job—yet. Can you still leverage your degree? It depends on what that fabulous degree means you actually bring to the table. You are going to have to make it clear: Are you the person who goes the extra distance? In three months, when you’ve shown what an awesome performer you are, go back and say, “I have been doing the job of a manager, and here’s the evidence. I’d like to talk about my future in this organization.” It might not be immediate, but remember, you can leverage your skills anytime.

Right now, the emphasis has to be on the long game. It is a very challenging time, but [you] are not going to be totally constrained by what happens over the next six months. Optimism is really helpful.

How can people use this approach in their personal lives, with partners or parents?

When you are negotiating in the context of a long-term relationship, there is an added level of complexity. Predicting how they will behave, what is important to them and what is important to you gets messy. You can’t really walk away. They aren’t out to take your last nickel from you (hopefully!), but if you want to try to do a negotiation, you have to find common ground and find a solution that allows you both to find value.

‘You can’t behave like a butthead and expect it to end well.’

With parents, you already have that common ground, but that can also make it difficult because you want to make sure you maintain it. You can’t behave like a butthead and expect it to end well. There are all sorts of things your parents might want. Maybe you take responsibility for making meals one day a week. What is it that you can do that will help them live a better life? Maybe it is chores around the house. Maybe it is engaging in an activity with them—[this could be] especially easy because they are likely to be in your bubble. Plan a safe outing. Engage your parents in an activity that is something they enjoy but wouldn’t think of doing. Seriously, there are so many options for solving problems for the people you know.

The best negotiation of my life was when I was an assistant professor and I was working 12 hours a day trying to get tenure. It was very stressful, and my husband, who was also working, would come home and sit down with the newspaper. I’d be making dinner and cleaning up. So I said, “We need to have a talk about how we allocate tasks in this house.”

We agreed each of us should work to our strengths. As our lives have evolved, I spend my intellectual energy understanding negotiation, so whenever there is a negotiation—we buy a house or a car, or hire someone to do work for us—it’s my job. Turns out [my husband] hated his job, so after nine years he went back to school and became a chef. Since 1991, I have not cooked a meal. Best deal ever.


Melinda Sacks, ’74, is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.