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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 3

How to Be a Better Negotiator

Be fair, strike a power pose and aim high



PAUL PANTAZESCU/iStockphoto

In my first experience with negotiation, a human resources rep at a publishing company offered me $24,000 a year for an entry-level gig. Having been coached never to take a first offer, I responded, “Is there any way you can do better?” A day later I was ecstatic to accept her second offer of $24,500. The victory, however small, set me up to be willing to negotiate the next time an opportunity arose. “I don't think it makes any difference if you're negotiating for the release of a hostage or trying to get a better price on a used car, the principles of being an effective negotiator are the same,” says Russell Korobkin, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of a leading law school textbook, Negotiation: Theory and Strategy, 2nd edition (Wolters Kluwer Law and Business, 2009). Here are three research-proven ways to boost your negotiation game:

#1 Be fair. “Good negotiators should always think about how they can show the proposal they're making is fair to both parties,” Korobkin says. “Fairness” does not have one exact definition, but social psychology studies suggest that an offer people consider fair is one that is similar to what other people in the same situation are getting, consistent with market prices or terms, or on par with a similar transaction you have made in the past. “If the deal is fair,” he adds, “the person you're negotiating with never has to feel like they're being taken advantage of, and it'll make it easier for him to say yes.”

#2 Strike a power pose. Psychologists have found that expansive, open postures (“high-power poses”) make people feel more powerful and confident during stressful situations such as interviews or negotiations, whereas closed, curled-in positions (“low-power poses”) do the opposite. One study by Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy even found that striking high-power poses—such as elbows wide with hands on hips (think Wonder Woman), elbows wide with hands behind the head (think guy watching football), or leaning forward with arms wide, palms on a table (think leading a meeting)—causes an increase in testosterone and decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. In other research, Cuddy and her colleagues had student volunteers assume either a high- or low-power pose for seven minutes before giving a speech. Although the students stood normally during the speech, observers still found the high-power group more persuasive and said they would be more likely to hire them during a job interview.

#3 Aim high. Really high. Business research shows that people with more aggressive (but still realistic) goals—say, getting a 20 percent raise at work versus a 5 percent bump—end up doing better in negotiations. “One big reason for that is that people who have more aggressive goals make more aggressive first offers,” Korobkin says. “Where you start has a lot to do with where you end up.” This is called the “anchoring effect,” a tried-and-true bit of business strategy that was first identified by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s. Let's say you make $50,000 a year and want a raise—if you go into your boss's office with a target of $60,000 versus $52,000, you're going to make a higher first demand. That first number will influence the way your boss thinks as the negotiation proceeds, anchoring the back-and-forth. “If you ask for 75K, your boss may say, ‘No way,’ but in the subconscious part of her mind, she's trying to figure out what would be fair. Maybe 58 or 59 or even 60 might sound about right,” Korobkin says. You still may not end up at your target figure, but by aiming high—within reason—you at least have a chance.

As much as it makes me break out in a cold sweat thinking about it, I am vowing to try out this last bit of advice during my next negotiation, which will likely be at a flea market or furniture shop because we are doing some redecorating. You're asking $125 for that midcentury modern end table? “I'll give you $75,” I'll say. And then maybe I'll get it for what I really wanted to pay all along: something in between.

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