In the context of interpersonal skills, negotiation is the one that inspires the sweatiest palms. It feels high-stakes and high-pressure, as if it’s something you do only at a long conference table or in a courtroom. And it often feels so adversarial: you against the other person. A battle to see who will get their way. 

In reality though, negotiation is simply a specific type of communication – and you’re doing it way more frequently than you probably realize. 

What exactly is negotiation?

Negotiation is really just a conversation focused on reaching a mutual agreement with someone else. That’s it.

If you and a direct report are trying to find some middle ground between your two project approaches? That’s a negotiation. If you’re pushing back on an unreasonable deadline? That’s a negotiation too. 

6 best practices to improve your negotiation skills

Fortunately, the art of negotiation is well-studied. Here are six research-backed best practices to feel more confident negotiating – and increase your chances of getting the outcome you want.

1. Manage your emotions

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Particularly if you feel strongly about what you’re negotiating, it’s easy for emotions to creep in. But researchers have found that emotions – particularly anxiety and anger – have a profound impact on the way you negotiate. They can cloud your understanding, escalate conflict, increase the probability of an impasse, or even force you to exit the negotiation without a resolution. 

To keep those meddlesome feelings in check, build your emotional intelligence so you can correctly recognize and identify your emotions (ideally, ahead of the conversation) and find ways to manage them appropriately. 

2. Invest in preparation

Experts say that up to 80% of your efforts when negotiating should be dedicated to the preparation stage. Make sure you know the following before starting the conversation:

Iron those out beforehand so you can approach the negotiation with a clear understanding of your expectations – and what you’re willing to do to get there. 

3. Define the problem first

Here’s another way to think about negotiating: You’re trying to solve a problem together. During negotiations, dedicate enough time to defining the problem together to build a collaborative environment and ensure everybody agrees on what you’re addressing. A lot of the frustration involved with negotiating ties back to people trying to solve two separate problems without even realizing it. 

4. Find mutual gains

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Achieving “mutual gains” means that all negotiating parties benefit from the outcome of the negotiation – or, at the very least, nobody is worse off.

You’ll be hard-pressed to sway someone to your side if it’s a detriment to them and a benefit to you. Focusing on mutual gains means you can facilitate fair negotiations that are less hostile and more productive. 

5. Find ways to add value

Negotiation can feel like people vying for their own piece of the pie. If their slice is bigger, the other party’s is smaller. That’s called distributive negotiation. 

But as Harvard Business School explains, integrative negotiation is the better way to go. “The focus is on expanding the pie by finding creative ways to add value for everyone involved,” explains Matt Gavin in the HBS article. 

“The key is to consider your differences across multiple issues. If you focus on one item at a time, you risk being locked into a series of win-lose scenarios in which one party comes out on top,” Gavin continues. “While your highest priority might be Issue A, the other person’s might be Issue B, creating an opportunity for trade that can benefit both sides without any major sacrifices.”

6. Ask open-ended questions

Negotiating will inevitably involve asking a lot of questions. When doing so, ask open-ended questions (questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”). 

According to Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, this gets the other person talking and also gives them more control over how much they want to share. Plus, open-ended questions help you get a better understanding of the other person’s point of view.

Remember to practice active listening when they respond so you can ensure you comprehend the information they share.

How to improve your negotiation skills