Negotiation 101

Public-policy negotiator Susan Podziba is a teacher and a mediator for hire. Here are her nine tenets for negotiating success.

Susan Podziba teaches the fine art of negotiation at Harvard and MIT, but she’s continually refining her own skills in some of the thorniest conflicts around. She’s brokered an agreement between conservationists and fishermen. She’s calmed the rhetoric between prolife and prochoice activists after an abortion-clinic shooting. She’s mediated divorces and helped a struggling city struggling rewrite its charter.


“Listening is as important in negotiating as stating what you want,” Podziba says. “Negotiating any long-term relationship requires trust. Building that trust doesn’t exclude pursuing your interests. It means being forthright and listening carefully to the other side.”

Heed the following advice from Podziba on mind-set, preparation, and trust, and put it to work negotiating deadlines, collections, and bids for your next job.

1. Something More Than Zero-Sum

In some negotiations, a gain for one party means an equal loss for the other. Think of buying a car: You want the lowest price, the salesman wants the highest, and chances are you’ll never see each other again.


More often, single, thorny issues can be teased apart. “You’ll find many issues embedded in what looked like just one,” Podziba says. “For example, in a salary negotiation, an employer wants to pay as little as possible and a would-be employee wants the opposite. But maybe the candidate values stock options more than salary because her financial needs are not immediate. Likewise, the employer may be cash poor and stock rich. Add in flextime, telecommuting, vacation, and other benefits, and what looked like a zero-sum negotiation at first has become a situation in which both sides can find room for agreement.”

2. Divide, Unify, and Conquer

Anatomize challenging issues — they’re oftentimes comprised of multiple layers. “The more layers you peel off,” Podziba says, “the more nuanced your negotiation becomes. Once you’ve dissected the problematical point into its different parts, pan back and look at the negotiation as a whole. Avoid treating each individual part as its own separate zero-sum negotiation. Build packages of agreement with give and take on the various issues.”

3. Be Confident and Courteous, Stay Calm and Curious

“Negotiating requires the confidence to ask for what you want, and the focus to get it. Negotiating also provokes strong emotions, and emotions can cloud a person’s focus. Staying calm and nonconfrontational keeps aggression at bay and the negotiation on track. Asking questions sets a positive tone — for the other party, and for you. Cultivating curiosity allows you to unpack the situation, focus on the important issues, and rein in your emotions. It’s hard to be upset and curious at the same time.”


4. Aspire to Greatness but Stick With the Possible

Define success before you come to the table. What do you really want? Generally, people lack confidence when entering a negotiation, and they set their aspirations too low. Podziba recommends thinking about what you can achieve and then pushing it a little. Write it down.

5. What Are Your Alternatives?

Determine your best alternative. This is not your bottom line. This is your plan if negotiations fail completely — taking another job, looking for another job, or just staying put. Your best alternative is in your control — you can always work to create a better one.

Podziba illustrates the point like this: “The other day I went car shopping. I was considering two cars, one much nicer than the other. The nicer car cost much more; I’d resolved to buy it only if I could negotiate a good price. Otherwise, I’d buy the cheaper car. The expensive car was my aspiration; the cheaper one, my alternative.”


Write down your best alternative with your aspiration.

6. Map Your Range

Your aspiration and best alternative delineate the range of possible agreements for you. If the person across the table offers you something below your best alternative, don’t take it. It helps to think through all the options that will work for you, and to write them down. Take your notes into the negotiation with you. They offer a touchstone to keep you focused.

7. Map Their Range

What do the people across the table want? What’s their best alternative? Compare their range to yours. Where do the two overlap? That’s where you will find agreement.


Dig for information so that you can map their range of possible agreements. “When I was buying my car,” Podziba says, “I got the consumer report that told me the price of every option and established a price range. I dug deeper and discovered that car dealerships like to sell cars at the end of each quarter because they’re taxed on every vehicle in inventory. So that’s when I went to buy a car.”

8. The Digging’s Never Done

“Ask lots of questions. Why do you want that? Why is that important to you? Negotiators say that you have to dig down five levels of ‘why’ to get to the root of the issue. It’s okay to go into a negotiation not knowing everything — but you must ask questions to understand fully what they want and why.”

9. Let Them Be Heard

“In mediation, you often run into irate citizens. Usually, they’re mad because they don’t feel anyone is listening to them. Let people know that you hear what they want, understand why they want it, and think that it’s a legitimate interest — even though you may not be able to deliver it. Their rage will often dissolve, making further negotiations much easier.”


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