I sometimes hear complaints about the role of negotiation in setting salaries and pay. The claim is that “negotiation skills” can give some people an “unfair” advantage over others.
This claim sounds plausible at first, but on a deeper inspection, it falls quickly apart. This is because it assumes that negotiating is not an important job skill to have in a business. And it assumes that rewarding negotiation is somehow irrelevant to most jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Almost every major interaction in business—and in life—is a negotiation in some sense or another. And this is a good thing. The alternative to negotiation is either non-cooperation or forced cooperation, and negotiation is far preferable to either.
At the most obvious level: If you can’t negotiate with your boss when your own self-interest is on the line, how could that boss ever expect you to negotiate effectively with a client on his or her firm’s behalf?
But this isn’t something that matters only for salespeople and dealmakers. It matters for everyone.
If you’re a graphic designer or a computer program with many requests from many clients or departments, how do you prioritize some requests over others? How do you make your colleagues or clients feel they’re being treated right when you have to prioritize around them? How do you work with them to figure out which requests are urgent and which aren’t? And when there is a difference of opinion, how do you agree about which direction to go?
Even a barista negotiates, both with customers and co-workers, in some fashion or another every day of the week. They may not be haggling about prices, but that’s not all that negotiation means. Negotiations happen in every family and in every relationship. Even choosing what to have for dinner or where to put the toothbrushes is a form of negotiation.
Ultimately, I think this may be one of those words that scares people simply because they don’t realize what it means. Let’s fix that:
Negotiation means that you are trying to find an arrangement that works better for everyone than the available alternatives.
Negotiation creates wealth and creates value by finding ways to make everyone better off than they would be otherwise.
Negotiation is far preferable to the other major methods of deciding what to do, which include:
A) Not getting what you want,
B) Not figuring out what other people want or would be happily willing accept, and
C) Ordering people around.
Negotiation is a civilized alternative to dictates, and negotiation is a civilized alternative to force. Negotiation is an essential life and business skill and one that should be rewarded and encouraged. So if you’re afraid of it, work on it. Realize that you already do it every day.
Without rewarding good negotiation, how are we supposed to get more of it, and less of those other, less desirable methods of deciding what to do?
So if the idea of “negotiation” scares you, it’s time to change your mind. You may not be able to haggle every price, but that’s not what “negotiating” really means. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with money.
Negotiation doesn’t mean getting the most for yourself—or the least for everyone else. It means finding ways and places to agree. It means figuring out what you can give and what others can give as well. It means figuring out how to work with others to make the most out of life.