Even if you train yourself to be the best possible negotiator you can be, there will be times when you should put off trying to seal a deal because you aren't prepared or in the right mind-set. These types of instances are often tricky to identify. Here's what to look out for.
Maybe you're desperate for work and have no other option but to try and strike a bargain. Maybe you're taken by surprise and have to haggle unprepared. Or maybe it's just stress that makes you launch into a negotiation when you'd do better to ask for a raincheck and take a breather.
The first two cases are somewhat easier to learn to avoid than the third. The bad aftertaste you feel after making an unsatisfactory deal just because you’re desperate for the work tends to stay with you, so you can avoid taking on crummy projects next time.
Similarly, there will be a few times in your career when someone prods you into negotiating when you aren't expecting to—so you can skirt similar situations or simply meet them with, "I'll need some more time to prepare before we go forward with this."
The third is trickier. We tend to think of the best negotiators as ready for anything, heroically able to compartmentalize their thinking, focus on the deal, and push it through. Maybe those people do exist. Personally, I’m not one of them, and you don’t have to be, either.
Jesse was a successful industrial designer. He’d designed espresso makers that sat on kitchen countertops and watches that encircled wrists the world over. His firm and its billings were growing.
But lately, Jesse and his partner of nearly 20 years were arguing almost daily. An extra glass of wine sometimes relieved the tension; sometimes it made it worse. Jesse found himself out the door earlier each morning. Once he got to work, he felt better—except that he kept missing longstanding appointments, forgetting to return calls, and in the afternoons he felt blindingly tired.
So Jesse was unusually happy to hear from a Silicon Valley robotics firm who wanted him to design their new product. A trip to the West Coast seemed just he boost he needed, Jesse recalled in our recent coaching session. After firing off a $100,000 budget for the project’s first phase and booking his fight, Jesse headed out to visit his prospective client. At first, things went swimmingly. The team liked his ideas, and the conversation was upbeat. "I was pretending I didn’t have a care in the world," Jesse said, "and I almost believed it."
In the morning, he sat down with the CFO to negotiate the contract. "I was a bit nervous, plus glad to be away from home, so I’d overdone it on the wine the night before," Jesse admitted to me later. "I’m sure that made me fuzzy, but there was also a lingering bad feeling I was trying to keep at bay." As the CFO focused on contract details, Jesse noticed his own attention wandering. "It wasn’t until I was signing my name that I realized she had trimmed 30% off the budget. We lost our shirt on that deal."
Whenever you're heading into a big negotiation, take stock of your own feelings and make sure you're inhabiting the right headspace. Negotiations are stressful enough on their own. So it's easy to be in denial that you're actually preoccupied by other factors—which can then throw you off your game.
I've found that my own capacity for this type of self-deception is higher in the morning when I’m mapping out my day. I want to be productive, and I sometimes tell myself I'm ready to take everything that's thrown at me, even if I'm really not. Afternoons are different, when I tend to be more critical and skeptical. One afternoon, I realized that what I'd thought was just an ordinary after-lunch energy slump was really my morning's denialist tendencies wrestling with themselves.
This turned out to be a good thing. Since then, I've learned to identify when something is really bothering me, and to tune into that. It's ultimately made me a more perceptive, strategic negotiator, but it took some hard lessons to get there, just as it has for Jesse. I've learned to look for signs like these:
- Feeling tired for no reason
- Missing details that usually held my attention
- Losing interest in things that used to interest me
These are good times to admit to yourself that something unacknowledged is getting under your skin. Though I’m not a writer by nature (I have dyslexia), I’ve learned to make a list of what might be bothering me, so I can separate the pressures of a high-stakes project or an impending deal from the other types of stressors that threaten to derail it.
It’s way easier for me to write down 10 or 15 ideas than it is to hold them in my head, even if I never read them again. But simple though it is, making the list helps me refine my focus on that one thing that's throwing me off. And I’ve learned to recognize that as a good enough reason to hit pause.
You don't usually need to give an elaborate excuse—you just have to assert yourself (politely) and say you'll need a bit more time before sitting down to negotiate. Sometimes that's all it takes to avoid a mistake you might later regret.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.