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Get What You Want: 5 Expert Negotiating Tips

September 30, 2016 | Filed in: Your Career

Professor Malia Mason studies and teaches negotiation tactics at Columbia Business School. (She’s also a fascinating human with great taste, to boot.) Here, she shares a few tips for getting what you want at the negotiating table.

1. Grow and know your BATNA.

Power comes from your indifference towards the deal. If you approach the bargaining table with a willingness to walk away because you have an amazing alternative (known as a BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement), you automatically have leverage. But BATNAs don’t just magically appear in your lap—you have to create options for yourself, and good ones! So the single best way to spend your time preparing for a negotiation is by locking down a BATNA. Be disciplined about it, and articulate to yourself exactly what it is and how much you value it. How can you possibly know whether to accept or walk away from an offer at the negotiating table if you don’t know the value of your alternative?


You want to sell your house for a certain amount. If a potential buyer isn’t willing to pay that much, your BATNA might be to rent it out until the market improves. (An even better BATNA would be to have a potential renter lined up, with an agreed-upon rental fee.)

2. Know what success looks like.

What are you trying to accomplish here? Are you trying to get the best price? Are you looking to forge a new relationship? Are you looking to negotiate with candor? Maybe, for some reason, you’re just looking to school your counterpart. There are many ways to succeed (and fail) in negotiating, but it’s next to impossible to know how to proceed—what to offer, how much to push back, what to concede, and so forth—if you don’t know what you are trying to get. The dynamics you foster with your counterpart will depend on it. Orient yourself around the standards with which you will judge your performance afterwards.


Say you’re hiring a new employee. One of your goals is to bring her on at a salary that’s commensurate with her experience level. But, in this particular instance, you also care a great deal about her start date, because she’s taking the spot of another employee who’s leaving and you can’t afford to have the position unfilled for long. For you, success is a combination of making sure you don’t overpay and bringing her on staff quickly (and, of course, forging a relationship—she’ll be your employee, after all!). Balancing those goals should guide the way you behave during the negotiation.

3. Have an offer strategy.

Will you make the initial offer? Or will you wait for the other person to go first? What will you say if he or she asks you to suggest a starting point for the deal? How extreme will your offer be? What form will it take? And what is your narrative around why your initial proposal is a legitimate one? Initial offers can—emphasis on “can”—have an anchoring effect on final settlements, and so it’s worth giving this special consideration. For example, will you suggest a range, or a precise offer? Again, what you do here, and how extreme you are, should be conditioned on how you define success.


If your goal is to forge a strong relationship with a prospective long-term business partner, asking them to make the initial offer could be a smart opening gesture.

4. Have an information strategy.

By this, I mean two things: First, before the negotiation, it’s worth giving some thought to what information you don’t know about your counterpart that would be useful. Obvious questions include: Why is this person buying or selling? What issue on the table is a top priority for your counterpart? And so on. Second, it’s worth thinking about how to respond to sensitive questions that might be asked of you, like, “What is your budget?” Or, “What are your alternatives?” You want to position your situation in the best light, and you certainly don’t want to lie about your circumstances, which people are more prone to do when they haven’t considered their answers beforehand.


If there’s a question you hope to avoid, plan in advance how to dodge it elegantly and move on. (“We aren’t quite ready to discuss our exact budget for this year, as we still have some moving parts, but I’d love to know how much you usually charge…” etc.) Meanwhile, if there’s a question you want to ask (“Have you taken on any other new clients recently?”), figure out how to word it and how the response will affect your strategy ahead of time. 

5. Assume you don’t know.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming your counterpart has diametrically opposed interests on each of the issues that are part of the negotiation. Getting this wrong can be incredibly costly, because it can set you up to be exploited by your counterpart if they gain an information advantage—they know far more about what you want than you know about what they want. With price, it’s fair to assume that the buyer wants a lower one and the seller wants a higher one, but don’t forget about other factors that are part of the negotiation (e.g., delivery date, number of units, etc). Your counterpart doesn’t always want the exact opposite outcome, and he or she doesn’t always feel as strongly about the same issues that you do. Gather as much information as you can about your counterpart’s preferences before being too forthcoming about what you want.


You need a photographer two days from now. You approach the ideal person and explain your timing constraints. She frowns and explains that the project might be difficult on such short notice. She finally says that she will do it if you pay $500 more for the job. You agree, thinking that you got a good deal under the circumstances. But in reality, she’s had a last-minute cancellation and doesn’t currently have any work on the date you asked for. You assumed that it would be easier for her to take on your business at a later date, but in fact, it’s just as easy for her to take it on now. Not only did she get what she wants (business in two days), but she got you to pay more for this outcome.

Photo by Frances F. Denny.

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Malia Mason is an associate professor at the Columbia Business School. Read more of Malia's posts.

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