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Why Relationships Are Key to Successful Negotiations: Ask for More Excerpt

Ask for More book cover

Is there anything more anxiety-inducing than negotiating your salary at work? Or finding middle ground in a high-stakes disagreement with your partner? And yet, avoiding these conversations won’t make you feel any better either.

Enter the new book ASK FOR MORE by Alexandra Carter, a Columbia law professor and mediation expert who has helped students, business professionals, and even the United Nations learn how to ask for more–and get it. In a special selection from ASK FOR MORE, Carter explains why these conversations are actually all about negotiating relationships

Too often, we are taught that negotiation means talking instead of asking. Making your arguments. Controlling the conversation. That negotiation means having all the answers and getting your way to prevent the other person from getting their way. And if we do ask questions, we should only ask questions to which we already know the answer.

This performative concept of negotiation not only turns a lot of people off, leading them to avoid it, but it’s also ineffective. You don’t prepare to become an expert negotiator by looking in the mirror and rehearsing your arguments. That’s not negotiation—that’s public speaking. And when you sit down with someone else and lead with those arguments, the other person is less likely to hear you, and prone to give what you say much less credit.

Having worked with thousands of negotiators over the course of my career, I can tell immediately who the experts in the room are. Expert negotiators know that their greatest source of strength in negotiation is not bluster but knowledge. Expert negotiation requires you to understand yourself and someone else well enough to conduct a conversation that produces value for both parties. But most people don’t ask the right questions to acquire that knowledge. Research shows that only 7 percent of people ask good questions in negotiation—even when sharing information about themselves, or getting the right information about their counterpart, could greatly benefit them. If you start negotiating by launching into your arguments, or asking the wrong questions, you not only miss the chance to create understanding across the table, you may end up settling for less.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

When I teach people to negotiate, I start by putting up a point-of-view picture of a kayak going through a series of sea caves. You see the front of the boat, the paddle, some clear blue water, and  several caves ahead. I ask: “What does this have to do with negotiation?” Most people look at the picture and say things like, “Negotiation is about strategic decisions.

You need to pick which cave you want,” or “Negotiation means choosing the best of the options in front of you.” “Negotiation is advocating for the result you want.”

This is a pretty narrow, outcome-focused way to talk about negotiation. My conception of negotiation comes from a different definition, the one that’s way down the list when you open the dictionary:

Negotiate /v/: to successfully travel along or over (Merriam-Webster)

When you negotiate a kayak through sea caves, or negotiate your way along a hiking trail—in other words, when you successfully travel in the direction you need to go—what are you doing? You’re steering. In my work, I teach that negotiation is any conversation in which you are steering a relationship.

I love the kayak metaphor because it illustrates so many things about negotiation. How do you steer in a kayak? You have to paddle consistently. Even if all you want to do is continue on the course you’ve set, you still need a steady rhythm, left and right, in order to continue traveling the way you want to go. What happens to a kayak if we stop steering? We keep moving, but maybe not in the direction we want. Outside forces like the wind and water will carry us away. And the kayak metaphor tells us one more thing about negotiation: You need the right information to steer with accuracy.

You can’t close your eyes and ears and expect to arrive at your destination. You need to watch the waves and feel the direction of the wind. Everything you see, hear, and feel helps you steer with accuracy toward your goal. All of us can benefit from steering more consistently, and with better information—but too often we don’t. Because we’ve been taught that negotiation is only when you’re talking about money, or that it’s for politicians or businesspeople, we often quit steering. We put the paddle down and wait until our once-a-year salary negotiation, or until we feel like we’re in crisis. And sometimes we are steering, but we steer haphazardly because we don’t have the right information to help us plot our destination.

So what happens when you treat negotiation like steering a kayak? First, it means you don’t wait until the contract comes up to negotiate with your boss or client. You don’t wait until your relationship feels like it is in crisis to have a conversation. Instead, you are continuously piloting those relationships in every conversation you have. And second, you take in the right information to help you steer toward your goal. You ask great questions. You use advanced listening skills to get information that helps you shape your deals. In sum, you approach those conversations intentionally. You treat them all as part of your negotiation of that relationship.

Wondering what comes next? Listen to a sample from the ASK FOR MORE audiobook to hear more from Alexandra Carter on how to hone your negotiation skills:

For a powerful 10-question framework to successful negotiation that will make both sides feel victorious, pick up a copy of ASK FOR MORE by Alexandra Carter in hardcover or audiobook.


Excerpted from Ask for More by Alexandra CarterCopyright © 2020 by the author. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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