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Want to Win a Negotiation? Try a Family-Style Dinner (and These Other Offbeat Ways to Get What You Want)

Some seemingly counterintuitive methods could come in handy during your next hardball

In spite of how many articles pitch negotiation as something easy to learn and apply with just a few simple techniques, it never quite goes that way in real life.

Case in point: I recently went to Tijuana for a weekend, and in a touristy shop hawking cheap bajas and cheesy reproductions, we came across some halfway-decent art reproductions. We asked the shop owner the price, and he came back with $50 American for two. It seemed far too high, and we showed our disbelief and kept looking. Eventually we came across a Mexican blanket for $10, so we pitched the two copper prints and the blanket for $50 — still more than we thought we should pay, but it seemed doable given his position. “No,” he said, clearly extremely insulted. “I am not giving you the blanket for free.”

We had negotiated every other purchase in the city easily, but this time, we couldn’t figure out this guy’s devotion to the price. So we left and spent well over $50 on pottery at another shop with shopkeepers who were happy to strike a deal. In my view, I’d shown no real interest in the copper reproductions, and an obvious willingness to walk away, but the shopkeeper never budged or even tried to keep us in the store — which, by the way, was completely empty then and on our pass back by.

Had we made some fundamental negotiation error, or was this just the sort of guy who refused to negotiate, even to his own detriment?

Given the success rate, friendliness and eagerness to negotiate of everyone else we’d encountered, it seemed more likely that this guy was just not the haggling type, or that we’d offended him in some way we couldn’t pinpoint.

But perhaps we hadn’t thought outside the box.

When I think of negotiating, I always imagine Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock’s timeless tactics: Bring your own chairs, never speak first and remember hair movement is a sign of weakness.

We couldn’t have used any of those in this scenario, but perhaps we had failed to use some unexpected technique. New research finds more and more offbeat negotiation techniques that go against our intuition when haggling for a deal.

Family-Style Dinner (Instead of Coffee/Drinks)

Research from the Chicago Booth School of Business has found that eating dinner in a family style setting can broker faster collaboration. That means sitting at a big table and passing the entrees around, as you would at a family dinner. I personally find it annoying outside of eating with actual family or friends, but when it comes to negotiation, it can grease the wheels of deal-making faster than a shared ramekin of grass-fed butter.

The study had participants attempt to negotiate a union strike in under 22 rounds in either a shared meal setting or a dinner scenario where they each ordered their own plates. The team who shared the entrees clocked in a deal at nine days, compared to 13 days for those who ate their own separate plates. The reason? Researchers believe that the simple act of sharing the meal forced participants to not just think about their own needs alongside those of the opposing team, but the forced coordination it required extended to the negotiations, too.

The winning team saved $1.5 million in hypothetical costs by arriving at a deal sooner.

Use Round Numbers (Not Specific Ones)

Negotiation advice often pitches the idea that using specific numbers in negotiating price or salary shows credibility. If you say you’ll pay $1,275 for the rug instead of $1,300 or want to be paid $55, 250 in salary instead of $55k, it indicates you’ve thoroughly researched value, which bolsters the argument as well considered and fair and implies you are far less likely to come down on price.

But newer research suggests that it’s the round number that leads to more success. Researchers looked at successful eBay transactions to find that sellers who used round numbers over specific ones ultimately encouraged lower offers and lower sale prices (by 5 to 8 percent), but sold faster (by 6 to 11 days), and had greater likelihood of selling at all (by 3 to 5 percent). That’s because round numbers signal to prospective buyers or employers that there’s flexibility and room to move around in the negotiation, which is what lures them to bid in the first place.

So go high and specific if you must, just know that you may kill the deal by doing so.

Flat Feet (Instead of Crossed Legs)

I tend to cross my arms whether I realize it or not, a dead giveaway in negotiations that I’m on the defensive. I cross my legs, too, because it seems more professional and ladylike. But experts say to keep your feet flat on the floor to straighten your spine and help keep your shoulders up, with your hands on the table. The move projects confidence.

Blow Your Top (Instead of Remaining Calm)

We’re told over and over again to remain calm and control our emotions in negotiations or else we risk blowing the deal by being a total hothead. Tell that to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose explosive anger and tantrum-throwing in a congressional testimony about his alleged sexual assault — compared with Christine Blasey Ford’s calm, deferential demeanor — still won the day and landed him a Supreme Court confirmation.

Experts caution that this is a risky move that works only in short-term negotiations and still causes issues in the long-term, but if your concern is getting your way right now, it’s a humdinger to act offended and upset during a negotiation. This doesn’t mean you need to pull a full-on Kavanaugh, red-faced and belligerent. But you can try openly showing your disappointment with phrases like “Hey, I’m not a bank,” and “Whoa, you want my firstborn with that?” (Or something less cliched.)

Pipe Down (Instead of Talking)

Most of us picture successful negotiation as successful talking, but silence is more likely the winning play. That’s because it’s extremely difficult for most people to simply shut up when there is empty space and they’re nervous about the outcome. But when negotiating, particularly after asking for what you want, the best thing you can do is sit there and let the other person blubber through it.

As Shana Lebowitz explains at the Ladders about how to put the technique into practice:

…if you’re offered a starting salary that’s lower than what you know is the median salary for this position, you can say something like: “Thank you for the offer. I’m a little surprised about the salary, though. Based on my research I would have expected it to be in the [X] range.”

Even if the hiring manager raises her eyebrows; even if he gasps in horror, don’t backpedal, and don’t run your mouth out of nervousness.

As Dahl writes, the hiring manager “might not be able to reach the number you’re asking for, but let them tell you that; don’t undercut yourself by saying that for them.”

It’s extremely awkward, but it’s supposed to be, and it’s more likely to get them closer to your offer than if you keep doing the talking.

Get Them to Say No (Instead of Yes)

Another tried-and-true method for negotiation is the idea that we negotiate more in our favor if we get someone to agree with us first, which we do by asking questions that elicit a yes. But experts now suggest that feeling pressured to say yes feels like a trap, not a moment of unity and alignment. As a result, negotiators should give their opponent the illusion of disagreement by asking questions that let them answer no, but which still create openings for finding common ground.

For example: According to an FBI negotiator, questions such as “Have you given up on this project?” or “Is now a bad time to talk?” make your opponent feel in control, which means they’ll let their guard down, thus paving the way to move the situation forward.

Name Your Price First (Not Second)

30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy famously advised Liz Lemon to never speak first during a negotiation, because that person loses 90 percent of the time. That advice also typically applies to who names the salary or cost price first. It’s called anchoring, because it tends to lock in the entire debate around the first number thrown out, and people have a really hard time getting away from the first number uttered. The technique is also called the Turkish Bazaar, referring to the fact that Turkish carpet sellers often start with an outrageously high price for a carpet knowing they can stick to a much lower number.

But experts now say it can work in your favor to go first so long as you pick the right number. By setting your own first high number — at around 15 to 20 percent higher than you expect to get — this sets the entire ordeal around your own terms.

You can even frame it as a joke, such as “I’d love a salary of $100,000, but I’m really just looking for something fair.” It works, even when the salary being negotiated is closer to $35,000. By pitching it as a ha-ha moment, it still gets the job done of setting a high bar for what you want. By some estimations, we walk away with 50 cents on every dollar over the “fair” price or amount being negotiated — but only if we ask for it.

Be Honest (Instead of Lying)

Most people don’t expect to go into negotiations pitching their own or their product’s shortcomings, but experts say knowing what the other person is looking for and understanding where you’re apart on that negotiation works well when pitching a product. This includes being honest about something you know they don’t need, don’t like about the product and can’t use.

It’s a tactic that’s particularly useful in sales, given the high degree of mistrust we feel toward anyone we know is trying to hawk something. A little dose of honesty gains trust, which then allows you to keep negotiating. If your boss is looking for someone with a certain skill you don’t have, you can mention it, but make sure you follow up with a skill you have in spades that more than offsets it.

Not Caring (Instead of Caring)

Finally, the best negotiation trick of all is not really wanting what you might not get. That’s because really wanting something makes you overly emotional, which leads to overspending on something you could’ve gotten for far less. Experts say this is being willing to walk even when it kills you, as opposed to going hard over something you really do want — which is tantamount to a self-fleecing.

Of course, as my own experiences indicate, walking got me nothing. That’s because with negotiations, nothing works all the time, and sometimes, nothing works at all. In my case, I didn’t really want the art in Tijuana, but it’s not like that changed the shopkeeper’s tune. And in the end, he’s the one running a business, so he theoretically needed the $50 far more than I needed that art. In the end, I walked out empty-handed, and so did he. I still consider that a win. And after all, if true compromise is both people leaving equally unsatisfied, isn’t that the whole point?