picture of a woman sitting across a very long table from another person

On a Monday morning in 2004, Chris Voss picked up the phone from his desk at the FBI’s office in Port-au-Prince. Yet another kidnapper was holding yet another innocent person for ransom – $150,000 this time. With kidnappings happening at a rate of eight to ten people per day in the chaos left behind by a recent rebellion, the situation in Haiti was unlike any Chris had seen before.

The hostage’s family was terrified. They were focused on handing over the $150,000 and putting the nightmare behind them. But Chris knew capitulating would only embolden the kidnapper and exacerbate the larger problem he and his team were tasked with solving.

Their mantra was that no deal is better than a bad deal. (With kidnappings, no deal keeps the hostage alive, at least for the moment. A bad deal leaves the family bankrupt and the hostage dead anyway.) As the FBI’s top international kidnapping negotiator, Chris had already learned the most important lesson about striking a deal.

“You’ve got to embrace the hard stuff,” he says. That’s the path to the biggest payoff, and that’s what the best negotiators do.

Most of us don’t get into high-stakes negotiations very often, and when we do, it’s not a literal matter of life and death. But it might be a matter of financial well-being, like the price of a new car, or a matter of personal pride, like landing that big contract. Or, in the case of negotiating your salary, both.

Having more (or better) information than the other party is an advantage in any negotiation. So you’d think that, in the age of Glassdoor and other organizations that make salary data visible, asking for a raise would be easier than ever. You may not know what your teammates’ salary is, but you know what people in similar roles are making at other companies in your area. Surely, that’s the key to building an iron-clad case for a nice fat raise.

Not so fast. There’s more to it than having a compelling argument. Getting a raise also hinges on approaching the conversation with the right mindset, turning objections into insights, and navigating the nitty-gritty haggling with grace.

Imagine you recently had your annual review and learned your salary will go up just 2% this year – barely enough to keep up with inflation, and less than you think you deserve. But what’s a person to do? Asking for a raise is scary. The mere fact of asking could damage your reputation. Or worse, you might find out your boss thinks 2% is plenty based on your performance, thank you very much. So you resolve to let it go and hope for better next year… until you learn your rent is about to go up by 10%. Now you have no choice but to take action.

That’s when it’s good to know someone like Chris. Since retiring from the FBI, he has taught hundreds of university students and seasoned professionals how to succeed in every-day negotiations by applying the same principles used to resolve a hostage crisis. In his book, Never Split the Difference, Chris lays out nine techniques that touch on everything from establishing rapport to ensuring follow-through once you’ve reached an agreement. We talked about that, as well as what to do if it all goes south, when I called him up to learn how crisis negotiation techniques can help laypersons like you and me score a raise.

Focus on the relationship first

Whether your relationship with your boss is rocky or rockin’, you’ll need to approach the negotiation from a place of what Chris refers to as “tactical empathy”. If this seems like an odd time to empathize with the boss who just stiffed you in your annual review, remember that empathy is not the same as sympathy or compassion. Empathy is simply understanding the other person’s perspective, whether you agree with it or not.

Your boss has probably learned to brace themselves for trouble when they hear a knock on their door. (Will this be a complaint? A self-serving request? The latest fire drill du jour?) So don’t just waltz in and ask for that raise straight away. Invest time in making sure they view you in a positive light.

“The first thing to do is recast yourself,” Chris advises. “The question isn’t how you can get more money, but how you can be involved in strategic projects that are critical to the company’s future.” Asking questions like that instantly transforms you from a selfish employee into a team player. Now your manager thinks of you as a partner who can help them build a better future for themself and the team.

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While you’re strengthening rapport, a process that may take a few days or even weeks, you can simultaneously collect information that will help you in the eventual let’s-get-down-to-brass-tacks conversation. Research the local market salary range for your role. Make note of both praise and critiques you receive from your manager. Look for signs they’re invested in you, like bringing you into long-term projects or asking you to take on additional responsibilities. (Unless it’s just busy-work. That’s actually a negative tell and a sign you still have some relationship-strengthening to do.) Also keep an eye out for ways you can add more value to the team and tuck those ideas in your back pocket for later.

Throughout this phase, keep track of the information you’re not able to gather, but feel could be important down the line. This might include your manager’s available budget for salaries across the team or similar constraints. Ideally, you’ll be able to discover the answers through conversation using what Chris calls “calibrated questions”.

Words matter (so ask carefully)

Calibrated questions are a beautiful thing. They shed light on the facts of the situation, and how the other person views those facts, without making you appear intrusive. The idea is to frame the situation as one where you and the other person want the same thing, but there’s a problem and you need their help to figure out a solution. When done right, calibrated questions can nudge a conversation in whatever direction you like without the other person feeling railroaded. In fact, they might even feel like they’re the one steering the discussion.

For the question to be effective, you have to choose your words carefully. Chris warns not to use words that elicit a “yes” or “no” response such as “is”, “can”, or “does”. You’re going for open-ended responses that reveal as much information as possible, so words like “what”, “when”, and “how” are your friends.

When you’re ready to approach your manager with a proposal, try using a calibrated question to draw out their initial thoughts: “How does this sound to you?” Also, anticipate concerns they might raise and be ready with questions designed to overcome them. (Remember those ideas around how you can add more value? Get ready to pull them out of your pocket.)

  • What about raising my salary creates a challenge for you?
  • When will we have the budget to support this idea?
  • How can I help justify this change?
  • What is your highest priority here?

Avoid asking “why” during a negotiation. This word is often perceived as accusatory. Instead, use phrases like “What is preventing…” or “What caused you to…”, which acknowledge the other person without judging them.

Handling objections is the part we dread most, but fortunately, there’s another tool we can put in our kit: mirroring. Reiterate what you’re hearing from them but soften it with phrases like “it seems” or “perhaps”. Think of mirroring as a way to test a hypothesis about why the objection exists instead of making assumptions.

“What you’re doing is making an observation, which is actually the best way to ask an open-ended question,” Chris says. “You ask an open-ended question because you want an open, elaborated response.” For example, if your manager brings up mistakes you’ve made recently, respond with “It seems like you don’t think I’m performing at a level that justifies a raise.” They might confirm your hypothesis and tell you where you need to improve. Or, they’ll rush to correct you, which makes them feel good and reinforces the idea that you are indeed doing a great job (without you having to point it out). Either way, you just did yourself a favor.

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“When you throw out an observation, it tends to trigger consciousness from the other person,” he adds. Now you’ve brought them onto your side by either making them think good thoughts about you, or enlisting their help and guidance.

Chris cautions us to steer clear of using “I notice that… “ and “I’m hearing that…”, which are often suggested as ways to diffuse a contentious conversation. “Actually, ‘I’ is a pattern interrupt,” he tells me. “It distracts the person hearing it and makes you seem self-centered in this context.” Remember, you’ll have a better shot at getting what you want if you frame the conversation in terms of the other person and their priorities.

Tips for the bare-knuckle phase of negotiating

Things are getting real. You haven’t gotten a firm “yes”, and you’re worried there’s a “no” just around the next corner. But shrewd negotiators learn to see “no” as an opportunity to get down to the heart of the matter. The trick is discovering what’s happening under the surface so you can respond constructively. Based on the conversation so far, you should have a pretty good guess as to what “no” really means. According to Chris, it’s usually one of these:

  • I’m not ready to agree yet
  • I need to talk this over with someone else
  • I need more information
  • I don’t think this fits my budget

Take a pause, go back to your calibrated questions, and try to find a solution. Ask what your boss would need in order to make this work. Or what additional information you could provide. Your goal in this moment is to get agreement that a raise is a good idea in principle, even if there are a few pesky details to iron out.

Once you’re aligned on that, it’s time to tackle the peskiest of details. That’s right, the number. You know the salary you want, but you also know better than to say that number out loud straight away. You need to lead your manager to that number with such subtlety they almost think it was their idea. Your best bet is to enter the conversation with a plan already in mind.

In his book, Chris lays out a method for haggling called the Ackerman model. Your first ask should be about 35 percent above your actual target. Then calculate increments of 20, 10, and 5 percent above your target. Memorize these numbers or jot them down so you don’t get flustered in the heat of the moment.

Expect your boss to balk at your opening salvo. (Relax. You’ve prepared for this.) They’ll counter with a number that is likely well below your target, at which point you go back to your objection-handling tool kit. Chris advises using mirroring and calibrated questions to gently refuse and lead them to increase their number before you decrease yours to 20 percent above target. Rinse and repeat until you’re hovering right around your desired salary. If need be, sweeten your last counter with something non-monetary like offering to organize the next team offsite. That’s a clear signal they should consider it seriously because you’re at your limit.

Engaging in some back-and-forth inspires reciprocity. If your manager sees you making concessions, they’ll feel comfortable making some as well. And they’ll feel like they’re doing so on their terms, which taps into our deep human need for autonomy and control.

order of operations

Negotiating a raise is a multi-phase process:

  • Strengthen rapport
  • Gather information
  • Prepare a set of calibrated questions to draw upon and the numbers you’ll use when following the Ackerman model
  • Make the ask (this is The Big Meeting™!) and schedule a follow-up conversation if needed

What if you don’t get the raise you want?

Chris stresses that the tactics he used as a member of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit never guaranteed success, only the best chance of success. That’s true for every-day negotiations, too. You might accidentally alienate your boss. You might cave in and accept a number you’re not happy with or an outright “no”.

“Salary only pays your bills,” he reminds me. “It doesn’t build your career. If you focus on where the job is taking you professionally and the terms that go with it, you can potentially make your job much more valuable.”

Think about the last time you haggled over the price of a new car or the rent for your apartment. Chances are, incentives like a better stereo system or a flexible month-to-month lease entered the conversation at some point. That’s because people are less sensitive around non-monetary items. And, as it turns out, your boss is a person.

“People are far less sensitive to being pushed on nonmonetary terms,” Chris says. Think vacation time, working remotely, or getting involved in that glamorous career-defining project the whole office is buzzing about. It’s unlikely they’ll take offense, and very likely you’ll walk away in a better position than when you walked in.

Even if you’re prepared to leave your job if you can’t improve your salary or terms of employment, don’t lose sight of the relationship you have with your manager. (Regardless of when you move on, you’ll want to be able to list them as a reference.) It’s one of the most important relationships in your life. If you can embrace the difficulty of salary negotiations and navigate it gracefully, you’ll have strengthened that relationship. Which means you’ve won.

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