The Best Negotiators Never Win

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Here's an idea: The best negotiators in the world never actually get the very best deal.

Well, I suppose that may depend on how you define best, but in my world, best doesn't mean I've won or beaten my opponent. To me, the best deal is the one that both people walk away from happy and excited to do it again. The best negotiators don't get the very best deal for themselves; they get a great deal for everyone involved.

Great negotiators play a win/win game.

The reason bargaining and negotiating are such uncomfortable experiences for many people, especially in the US, is because everyone thinks they have to play a zero-sum game to do it right. That means there's a clear winner and a clear loser. If $100 is at stake, one person has to walk away with all of it and the other with none.

If you're a decent person and this is how you approach negotiation, you probably feel uncomfortable because either:

  1. You don't feel good about trying to screw people.
  2. You don't feel good about getting screwed.

The first thing that pops into most peoples' minds is the image of the quintessential sleazy used car salesman. Yuck.

Believe it or not, you can strike great deals without encountering any of those unwelcome feelings. You just have to play a different game that no one taught you how to play before.

There's an art to the win/win deal.

If you want to become a great negotiator, the first thing you need to do is unlearn everything you thought you knew about getting a great deal. It has nothing to do with beating the other person down, pretending you don't care, pointing out flaws, or hyping your product.

In fact, a great negotiator doesn't focus on what she can get for herself. She focuses on giving the other person what they want. This probably sounds completely counterintutive, but stick with me.

The real art in effective negotiation is to be able to set aside what you're after long enough to really listen and understand what the other side is after. When you have a crystal clear picture of what will satisfy the other party, you gain complete control of the situation.

You first, and then me.

The truth is, you'll never get the best deal you can until you give the best deal you can. When you understand what circumstances will satisfy the other person, you can make them a teammate instead of an adversary. And they won't even realize it. Listen to what they say they want, but really pay attention to how those things will make them feel.

When someone says they want something, what they really mean is that they want to feel a certain way and they believe that what they're asking for will make them feel that way. If you can nail down that feeling, then you open a world of possibilities of what you can offer them as a substitution in order to get what you need out of the deal.

If you go the opposite direction and try to convey everything you want first, you'll get nowhere. In fact, you're more likely to get taken if the other person is actually paying attention to you.

Great negotiation isn't about you, it's about them.

This is a trade off game. In almost any haggle, there's likely to be more than one item/idea/etc. up for discussion.

If you're buying a house, you're negotiating a lot more than just its price. There are appliances, repairs, financing terms, and a whole host of other things to settle on. I'm sure you can think of a time you had to work out more than one detail when you were negotiating something.

You can undo a lot of hard work and go in circles for days if you try to attack them all at once. A great negotiator will prioritize those items and address them in that order. Always settling on each aspect before moving on to the next.

If you have to come back to one of them later to make the deal work, that's okay. By coming to agreement on the most important terms first, you raise the chances of actually finishing it exponentially. This also allows for back and forth negotiation on each issue as it arrises. That's much more effective than one person prattling off all their terms at once and then the other being forced to respond.

You can also play the win/win game with a zero sum negotiator.

The real beauty in changing the game and playing with a win/win strategy is that it still works when you're haggling with someone using a zero-sum strategy. In fact, it works even better for you because they don't usually realize that you're in control the whole time.

They're happy to think that you're letting them push you around. And you can be just as happy to let them think that.

When you're able to find someone playing the same win/win game as you, that's a real treat because when you're in that mindset, you're open to seeing partnerships that just don't get noticed in a winner-takes-all situation. These are the relationships that remain prosperous for a long time to come.

If you want to be a great negotiator, the three key skills you need to develop are:

  • Good listening skills. What do they really want and how can you give it to them?
  • Patience. Take care of them and neutralize their objections before they even know what you're asking for.
  • Compromise. What can you compromise on so that you get exactly what you want in the areas that are most important to you?

Changing your game to a win/win strategy isn't just a smart move, it's sustainable, too. Think of it as expanding the pie. You're not just trying to get the biggest piece you can. You're actually making the whole pie bigger so that everyone can have as big a piece as they want.

Tyler Tervooren founded, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.