Musings + Essays

The Art of Negotiation.

By: Jen Shoop

I hate negotiating.

If I can pass it off to Mr. Magpie or — better yet — avoid it full-stop, I will, usually to my own detriment or material loss, in that I end up paying more than I should or under-compensated for one reason or another.

Negotiating feels like subterfuge and bluff — a dishonest business. Mr. Magpie routinely re-orients me in a different way of seeing negotiation: as a reconciling of two different agendas. And in this sense, it is more about consensus-building than treachery–even, if we are especially bright-eyed on the topic, about achieving fairness in a transaction.

Still, any time Mr. Magpie nudges me to ask a service provider to knock off a couple hundred dollars or follow up with a customer service representative seeking remuneration for a poor experience, I hem and haw and grit my teeth.

He has lots of advice, culled from years of negotiating as an entrepreneur, leading sales teams back during his Groupon days, and serving as our principle home business manager.

1// “Never make the first offer.” Better to have the other party throw something out first and negotiate up, lest you underestimate them. This can be highly awkward in my experience, as more seasoned negotiators will cut in with: “What price are you thinking?” right off the bat. And then finding an elegant way to flip the conversation back over to them takes some maneuvering. Fortunately, words are my trade and I have usually found my way around it. (“Well, as I said, we’ve received a few bids lower than yours and want to understand what sets you apart and whether you can come down to a fairer price. What would you be willing to do?”) Separately, this particular adage is especially true when going to a customer service representative. Don’t ask for something specific right off the bat, i.e., “can you refund shipping to make up for the late arrival”? Instead: “What can you do to rectify the situation?” I have been shocked by some of the generosity of some of the results–sometimes even a full refund on the order!

2// “Counter low, knowing that they’ll probably come back and ask for something slightly higher.”

3// “Don’t put words in their mouths.” This is a tough one for me, as I tend to fill in blanks and presuppose conditions. Something like “I’m sure it would be hard for you to get this done on a Saturday, but…” should be erased from the conversation. If there’s an issue — even one you see a mile away — have them bring it up. And “Since I can’t do x, would y suffice?” should be replaced with: “I can’t do x. What else would work?”

Oh, but these tactics drain me and leave me feeling as though I’m not expressing myself organically, like I’m lumbering around a mine-field with a fifty-pound backpack strapped to me. Meanwhile, Mr. Magpie is alight with a kind of adrenaline-fueled brilliance when he’s strategizing in this way.

But there is something important I have learned recently, amidst the minutiae and logistics of this move, that has unlocked a new, more quiet negotiating power within me:

Just ask.

It’s a simpler way of thinking about negotiating, and it’s made me feel far more comfortable with the framework. It’s just a question. A harmless string of words followed by the most optimistic punctuation mark there is in the English language. The recipient can rebuff the entreaty, but there is rarely any harm or foul that can befall the transaction.

I now realize that for most of my life, I have been worried that by negotiating, I will be somehow breaking an unspoken rule. And man am I a rule-follower.

“But the proposal says it will cost $3,000. So. It costs $3,000. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. If I go back and ask them to drop the price, I’ll be going against some rubric somewhere, or breaking some immutable precedent, or hurting their feelings, or insinuating that we don’t really need the service, or coming off as cheap, or –“

Where were all these rules and subtexts written?

I think, too, that when I am in a situation where I want something done (i.e., ahem, a lease to be signed), I worry that negotiating will protract and complicate the transaction in a way that imperils my overall objective.

But truly, my friends, everything is negotiable. And most of the time, people expect a counter.

What’s more, I am usually in a position where a service provider is trying to sell me something, and they have a lot more to lose if I walk than the other way around. So my fear of somehow alienating the seller or souring the deal is grossly misplaced.

At any rate, I have turned a corner by thinking about negotiating as an opportunity to ask a question — not make a heated demand. It calms me to think: “They can always decline, but I should at least make known what I would like. I have that right.”

I have been frankly astounded by some of the results I have gotten. With one vendor, for example, I asked, rather baldly and out-of-the-blue: “I’m impressed with your service and would like to use you over some of the competitors we are considering. But would you be willing to drop the price by a few hundred dollars? That would make my decision very easy.” There was a pause. A brief consultation with her manager. And then: “Sure. We can do that.”

Just because I asked. Just like that.

I leave this here because I think (and I hope not to step on any toes here) that women have particular trouble working up the courage to negotiate. Whether it’s your salary or the cut of work you find on your plate or the cost of your refrigerator repair — it can be hard to pony up the energy and chutzpah to ask for the plum deal you want. But try my tack on for size. Re-consider the negotiation as an exercise in question-asking. It’s just a question!

Examples might be:

For salary (I used this exact formula multiple times, to 100% positive outcomes):

“I am flattered by this offer, but would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t ask whether you can come up in base salary?”

For division of labor at work:

“I’m especially good at x, but would you be able to help with y?” or “I have x, y, and z on my plate and am trying to make sure I’m prioritizing things helpfully. If you need z done sooner, do you want to tackle it yourself so I can get through x and y?”

For things like home repair:

“I’d like to have you do this work for me, but am considering a few other vendors. Can you drop the price a little or honor a 10% discount so we can move forward?”

Of course, none of these are foolproof and I still occasionally find myself shaky with nerves when I go out on a limb. But taking a deep breath and remembering that you’re just extending a question takes some of the pressure off.

What are your tips for negotiating?

Post Scripts.

+More career-related musings.

+I’d forgotten about this product until I found it at the bottom of my makeup bag — but it is a really, really good highlighting powder that can be used for subtle glow all over your face in order to set tinted moisturizer/concealer/foundation.

+Writing about Aspen reminded me of this post on the way language can fence us in — and keep us out.

+Obsessing over these shades.

+Intermix always has a good sale going: I’m loving their on-trend white denim (pair with a chunky cardigan, unbuttoned to there, for an of-the-moment look), this stunning evening gown, and this fun dress for vacation this winter.

+A pretty blouse. (Love those bows!)

+Cute vest for mini.

+The day I started to see myself as a somebody.

+These earrings are major! Obsessed!

+A simple, rustic vase for taller stems (on super sale).

+Hunting for some new sconces for our new apartment (more on outfitting the new digs to come soon) — and how cool are these sconce shade covers?!

+Love this sweater-coat. I’d wear it with white jeans and Chanel flats.

+Things I want to know more about.

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15 thoughts on “The Art of Negotiation.

  1. I learned from my mom, who amazed me with her ability to ask the most ridiculous things and somehow get them, to JUST ASK. The other day I asked to return a coat even though I was above the return-by rate because I had completely misread the return policy. Even though I was “at fault” for not reading it correctly I just said to them that I misread it so could I please return. And they said yes.

    1. RIGHT! I have to remind myself that it can’t hurt to just ask for what you want. You might be rebuffed, but it’s worth a shot. A lot of times companies would prefer to keep customers happy and returning, so…worth trying! Thanks for sharing this. xx

  2. This post was posted at the perfect time!!! I forwarded to my sister who was offered her dream job but with a salary that was too low. She negotiated with them and got it up and now has her dream job, starting in two weeks!!

    And personally, I used this post in a much less exciting fashion, haha, to negotiate with a store that shipped an item that I ordered well after the date it should have been delivered. They refunded me the cost of shipping and gave me a store credit. Thanks Jen!

    1. Oh wow – I love this!!! Happy endings all around. I would actually say that your victory with that shipping issue is bigger than you think — one of the exercises Mr. Magpie had to complete in graduate school in a course on negotiation was “collecting nos.” Basically, he was asked to negotiate in as many situations as he could think of in the hopes of collecting “nos.” The idea is that it gets much easier to get comfortable with negotiating the more practice you have. So, clapping for you, too! You tried and it WORKED!

  3. This post is great timing for me as well…

    Re-framing negotiations as just asking a question has greatly helped me in my personal/home life. We recently installed a new fence and the contractor we wanted to use was a few hundred dollars more than we wanted to spend. I hyped myself up about it all day and finally emailed “We were hoping to spend X, is there anyway you could meet that?” and they did! I just needed that little kick to get the ball rolling and now I’m much more comfy with things of that nature.

    Professionally though, it’s a whole different ballgame. We don’t have yearly reviews at my SMALL (12 people) company so there’s not an opportunity to negotiate my salary at that natural time. Our year is December – November and at the end of November we are each called into a meeting where the owner and my direct boss (the only 2 superiors in the company) tell me how I’m doing and give me a raise. I was so new last year that I wasn’t in position to negotiate, but this year is different. I’m more experienced but more so I’ve taken on several larger tasks, on top of my intended job. I want to negotiate but I’m not sure that “that’s the vibe.” I think they intend to say here’s your raise and for me to say thank you. Still trying to figure out that dynamic and how to approach this.

    Sorry for the book, I feel like I have written a novel!

    1. No need to apologize! This is a meaty topic and it extends into so many facets of life, as you note!! Way to go on the contractor negotiation — inspiring! It reminded me of that old adage: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!”

  4. Jen – I am a longtime reader, but first time poster. This resonated deeply with me today as I am deciding whether or not to leave my current job. I’ve accepted a new position with a much higher salary, but my current company (that I love!) countered the offer today – how serendipitous of your post. Both offers are wonderful opportunities, but those are sometimes the hardest to make a decision on.
    I completely agree with you that men are historically better advocates for themselves than women. I completely fall into that stereotype, but am working diligently on getting better. I’ll be thinking of Mr. Magpie’s advice as I navigate this decision.
    PS. reading your blog every day while drinking my smoothie in the morning is one of my favorite rituals 🙂

    1. What fortuitous timing! Sending you the best vibes. Sounds like it will be more of a challenge to pick between these two opportunities than it will be to negotiate the right deal…that’s a tough situation to be in!

      Thinking of you. And thanks for reading along!


  5. So funny, but I was just going to write that I was bookmarking this post, too! This is really valuable advice – I wish I saw it before I recently botched a negotiation, ugh! My mistake was that I wasn’t prepared. I should have had an idea of what I was hoping to achieve, while being flexible and open-ended. Thankfully it all worked out, though. Like most things, I assume we get better at negotiating the more we do it.

    I also like the Hourglass Ambient powder! xo

  6. Oh god, I am the worst at negotiating. When I studied abroad in Nairobi, part of our orientation was learning how to negotiate (a baseline assumption in Kenyan society is that everything is negotiable, and being a white person made you a particularly ripe target for ripoffs). We each got sent to the market with 100 shillings and the directive to convene again after an hour with our purchase. Whoever had obtained the best item for that price won. Needless to say, it was not me!! Definitely bookmarking these tips the next time I need to negotiate.

  7. I’m bookmarking this post straightaway — I’ve always struggled with negotiation in general, and in matters involving money in particular. I think your advice is great, and I’ll be so curious to read what the rest of the magpie tribe has to say! xx

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