“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
If that line rings familiar, you recognize it from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. In that speech six decades ago, he was talking about international diplomacy. But that sentiment applies just as readily to business deals and personal relationships.
Nobody understands that better than Alexandra Carter. She’s director of the Mediation Clinic at Columbia Law School where she’s also an award-winning professor and a world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.
Some people seem to regard negotiation as only for ruthless dealmakers, inappropriate for their own everyday interactions and incompatible with their reticent personalities. Alex promotes an approach that places a priority on self-knowledge, on understanding your negotiation partner, and asking questions that unlock fresh possibilities without arguing or changing who you are.
She opens the door to those possibilities in Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything.
Rodger Dean Duncan: What are the most common misconceptions about what constitutes effective negotiation?
Alexandra Carter: A lot of us right now are going through life settling for less when we could be asking for more. Why? We’ve been taught it’s just a back-and-forth over money, and that we can negotiate well only if we hold our cards close or get aggressive. In other words, we have the wrong idea about what negotiation is and how to do it most effectively.
Negotiation isn’t just a back-and-forth over money. Negotiation is steering. It’s any conversation in which you are steering a relationship. And that includes the relationship you have with yourself. When you become a pro at steering your relationships in every conversation – not just the ones that involve money – you achieve better results both financially and in creating trust across the table that leads to more long-term deals.
And how do we steer most effectively? We ask the right questions, of ourselves and others. But 93% of us are not asking the questions we need in order to create better deals. When we ask ourselves the right questions, we gain the knowledge that is our greatest source of power as a negotiator. And when we ask other people the right questions, we gain more information that helps build trust, as well as our bottom line. When you lead your negotiation with questions, you are asking for more in every area of your life – financially, yes, but also more of the things that make life worthwhile. Stronger relationships, more clarity and peace in a stressful time, and more satisfaction getting up every day.
Duncan: What definition of (and mindset about) negotiation do you think serves people best?
Carter: The old way of negotiating, in which you held your cards close and then tried to spring a surprise on your adversary, no longer works in a world where so much information is available at the touch of a button. Everywhere I consult now, whether with the United Nations or Fortune 100 companies, people understand that negotiation is about transparency. You need to get clear on the problem you are solving, your needs, your concerns and your goals—and then be clear in communicating with the other person. Transparency creates trust. And trust creates deals.
Duncan: You recommend ten open questions in your “Ask for more” framework. What’s the not-so-secret sauce in open questions?
Carter: Open questions get a ton more information. They also encourage—almost compel—the other person to work together with you to find a solution.
When you ask an open question, one that starts with “What,” “How,” or an action verb like “Tell me” or “Describe,” you are doing the negotiation equivalent of fishing with a giant net. You often get a universe of information that helps you create a deal. Closed questions, by contrary, are like fishing with a line. They are yes-no questions that elicit very little information. And when you ask someone a yes-no question, what’s the easiest answer for them to give? No.
Open versus closed questions can be the difference between, “Would you like to see a list of our negotiation product offerings?” (closed) and “How is your company equipping your sales force to negotiate during a time of change?” (open) One is likely to get a short no. The other opens up many avenues for discussion and possible agreement.
Duncan: As a negotiation mediator, you help people “tune out the noise and tune in to their issue.” What does that mean?
Carter: The best negotiators and leaders are the ones who get the right information to help them make better deals. But achieving transparency is a lot harder than it seems in this age of information overload.
We struggle to tune out internet chatter, other people’s opinions, even our own expectations, and truly see ourselves for who we are and what we need. And when we struggle to see ourselves, we inevitably fail to see the people around us—our clients, colleagues, spouses, and adversaries. This lack of perspective leads to all kinds of challenges, including failed negotiations, fractured or distant relationships, and client-service stagnation.
I want to help people ask the questions that will take them far beyond one handshake to experience some of the magic—the added value, clarity, understanding, and even personal transformation.
Duncan: In any negotiation situation, what’s the first question you should ask yourself? Why that particular question?
Carter: Negotiation success starts with defining the right problem to solve. In times of challenge—a lost business deal, a potential pay cut—we tend to start by jumping to solutions. We immediately want to call the client, or our boss, and start trying to turn things around. But that’s not where negotiation success begins. We first need to consider what problem we need to solve. Do we just want the revenue from that lost client, or are we better served by strategically targeting clients who will be more sustainable long-term partners? Are we trying to prevent income loss, or are we also trying to communicate to our CEO that we want to be placed on track for a promotion to management?
Even if you’re just negotiating with a contractor for a bathroom renovation, you’re better off if you figure out first what problem you’re solving. Are you renovating for sale? If so, your choices may be dictated by what other people will want. Or are you renovating a home you plan to live in for 30 years? If so, you have a whole different set of choices to consider. Everything in negotiation flows from defining the correct problem to solve.
Duncan: What are your tips for creating psychological and emotional safety in a negotiation situation?
Carter: For emotional situations—and really, most negotiations are emotional to some degree because there are humans involved—I make sure that I’m asking open questions. Then I sincerely listening to the answers, by summarizing and acknowledging what the other person in the conversation has said.
When my young daughter says she is upset about screen time rules, it’s tempting to react and say, “You know, other parents don’t even let their kids watch TV!” But instead, when I ask her to tell me what is upsetting her, I find out what’s on her mind. For example, I thought screen time was just an escape from classwork. But instead, she told me screens are the only chance she has to connect with friends. So we used that information to inform the decisions we made together about screens in the home.
For work negotiations, I make sure to ask the other person about their concerns, and then listen. When people know that their concerns are heard and they have a voice in the conversation, they are more likely to trust you and partner with you.
Duncan: You say that “feeling are facts.” What does that mean, and what’s the implication for effective negotiating?
Carter: When I first studied negotiation, my mentor taught me that feelings are facts. She did not mean to say that feelings are as objective a reality as time, weight or temperature, but rather that they are real, they exist, and they must be dealt with in any negotiation.
Feelings shape our perception of reality and help us make decisions, big and small. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied a number of patients whose right side of the brain (which controls emotions) was impaired, but who otherwise were cognitively intact, and found that they were unable to make decisions. They could talk through what they logically thought they should do, but couldn’t even decide what to eat for dinner. Without the ability to make decisions, we would be lost in negotiation.
Any relationship or connection that involves humans, no matter how businesslike or brief, involves feelings. We’re used to thinking about feelings insofar as they affect our so-called personal lives, like in the context of our family relationships. But we often fail to appreciate that feelings are present in all negotiations.
It doesn’t matter what kind of issue you’re facing, whether you’re at the table negotiating on behalf of someone else or an institution, or whether you’re normally what one might call an “emotional person.” If your negotiation involves people (i.e. you), it’s personal, and feelings will be part of it.
Duncan: Every negotiation, you say, involves time travel. Please explain.
Carter: We need to understand the past and the present before we move to designing a better future. Starting with understanding the past helps us grapple with the past so that we don’t repeat it (unless we want to). When we consider the present, we ground ourselves in our present needs and priorities. All of this information helps us create the best possible future, for ourselves and for others.
Duncan: When another party in a negotiation is using rank or stature as a bullying tactic, what’s a good way to level the playing field?
Carter: I like to ask them what their goals are and what they need. Once I know the answers to these questions, I have the keys to the kingdom. I can say, “I’ll be best able to support you in your goals/needs by ____________.” In other words, I take what I need and frame it as a win for them.
If I’m dealing with what I call a “counterpuncher,” or someone who shoots down ideas without contributing any of their own, I ask them a question that puts the ball in their court: “What would a workable solution look like?” I then patiently enjoy the silence that follows. In this way, I am inviting (or compelling) them to actively participate in the search for a solution.
Duncan: You suggest that “staying curious” is a critical behavior for a negotiator. Please give us an example.
Carter: Staying curious simply means staying open to viewpoints and potential solutions. Mila Jasey, an elected member and Deputy Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly, used this strategy to win an important legislative battle on a divisive issue—salaries for school district superintendents.
In 2011 the governor of New Jersey instituted a salary cap for superintendents, the administrative heads of each school district, saying it would save the state money. But Mila, who had previously served on a school board, could predict the consequences: experienced superintendents immediately left New Jersey for Pennsylvania and other states, where salaries were higher and where districts found it difficult to replace them. Increased turnover led to school budget inefficiencies, which erased most of the hoped-for cost savings. And most important, school performance suffered.
Mila saw the problems clearly, but she also knew that the salary cap had some support. So she embarked on a listening tour around New Jersey, asking families, school boards, and officials their perspective on the measure. In rural towns, she learned that even the capped amount—$175,000 per year—seemed enormous to most local families. They wondered whether more money was really necessary to attract talent. And in some of the wealthier districts, where people paid high property taxes, additional salary money felt like a burden. By sincerely listening to differing perspectives, Mila was able to generate trust and also respond effectively, acknowledging that the salaries were substantial while also focusing people on the many ways raising the cap could benefit schools, from reducing turnover to improving academic performance. She helped families think about other measures that would help contain their tax burden. Slowly, public opinion started to change.
When Mila finally proposed a bill removing the salary cap, no one spoke out against it, not even the districts that had favored the cap. It passed by a wide margin. The time she spent engaging with other people’s perceptions of the problem paid off in a major policy change.
Duncan: Clearly, negotiation is appropriate beyond business and political deals. What can/should negotiation play in personal relationships?
Carter: Negotiation is about steering relationships. That includes our personal relationships with the people closest to us. When we approach our personal relationships intentionally and use everyday conversations as occasions to ask great questions and invest in our loved ones, we reap the benefits of more closeness, more understanding, and more peace.
In Ask for More, I share personal stories about how I have used these questions to steer my relationships through some difficult times—terminal illness and communication differences—in a way that leaves both people feeling valued. Right now, when many of us are staying and working at home with loved ones, it’s never been more important to learn tools that help us have better conversations with those closest to us.
Duncan: Why does a question as simple as “What do you need?” seem to be so powerful in resolving differences?
Carter: Asking “What do you need?” is a life changer. It helps you access the reasons people do what they do. It’s much easier to negotiate from someone’s underlying need than from their demand. If we negotiate by just repeating our demands, we often end up with a very different, costlier, and less productive result. Getting underneath someone’s demands to figure out the needs driving them can help transform someone’s ideas about a conflict and what to do with it.
The fact is that needs, not rights, are the real reason many people initiate lawsuits. Needs, not rights, are the reason many negotiations stall out or end badly. Needs are the person’s why, the reason for taking the position they do. And when we figure out someone else’s needs, those needs help us generate much better solutions to tough problems.
Duncan: Have you ever found it difficult to ask for more?
Carter: In fact, during my earlier professional life, I found it much easier to advocate for others than for myself.
The title of my book was in part inspired by the first time I negotiated for my own salary. I was nervous about the entire process. Management surprised me by coming in above the range I expected—and I wasn’t sure what to do. Like many women, I was concerned about how it would come across if I negotiated. I called a senior woman in my field and said, “They came in above. What do I do?” She told me, “Alex, you’re going to go in there and ask for more. When you teach people how to value you, you teach them how to value other women. So if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for the women who are coming up behind you.”
Since that time, I have made it my mission to encourage everyone, and especially women, to ask for what they are worth. When we ask for more, we pave the way for others to claim their own seat at the table.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.