What does the word negotiation bring to mind for you?
Perhaps you think about asking for a raise or getting a certain salary before taking a new job. Maybe your first thought isn’t about work, but about negotiation on the home front — to coordinate childcare responsibilities while you and your partner work from home, for example.
Regardless of the context, many people associate negotiation with fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of appearing too needy or demanding. They’re concerned that if they speak up for what they want, they won’t get it, or worse, they’ll be judged for even asking.
It’s time to put those limiting stories aside, according to Alex Carter, author of Ask For More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything. She is a Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Mediation Clinic at Columbia Law School. And for over ten years, she’s been leaders across the world negotiate better, build relationships, and reach their goals.
I sat down with her to find out how to build the skills and confidence to ask for more, even if you’re not the loudest and most assertive voice in the room.
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Melody Wilding: What inspired you to write Ask For More?
Alex Carter: Two things. The first was that in my job at Columbia, I run a mediation clinic. Mediation is a process where a third person comes in to help two or more people negotiate better. By the time people get to mediation, things are usually pretty far gone. In the process of helping, I realized there was an approach that really worked. When I helped people raise the right questions for themselves, they became much better negotiators, and they took that with them outside the room. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could give people these tools before they got support?”, so they could use them in their everyday lives, not just in conflict, but to help them think about steering themselves in their futures?
The second reason I wrote the book is that I realized, at a certain point, that I was great at negotiating for other people, but I still struggled to do it for myself. I’ve talked to a lot of professional women who have felt the same way. Then something happened to me, for the first time ever I went in to negotiate my salary. I was super nervous, and then their number came in above what I thought! I kept my face neutral, told them I’d run the numbers and left. Then I called a senior woman in the field and I said, “What do I do?” She told me, “Go in and ask for more, because when you do you teach someone how to value you. You teach them how to value all of us. So if you’re not going to do it for yourself, I want you to go in and do it for the woman who’s coming after you.”
That was the moment that I realized that also asking for more was not a selfish act. It actually helps create more seats at the table. It normalizes the process of standing up for your value so that people after you will feel comfortable to do the same.
Wilding: You have a unique definition of negotiation. Tell us about why we should rethink the term.
Carter: Yes, people have this conception of negotiation as just being the money conversations, right? When we see something that way it’s limiting and reactive, we end up thinking that negotiation is a thing we do once a year during salary decisions or it’s something we do when we’re about to sign up a new client. But negotiation is so much more than that.
I teach that negotiation is steering, it’s any conversation in which you are steering a relationship in a desired direction. That means you don’t wait for the money conversation to teach someone how to value you. You should be thinking about steering that relationship in every conversation you have.
And what’s the most important relationship of your life? It’s the one you have with yourself. People, from UN diplomats to C-suite leaders, forget that negotiation does not start the moment you sit down with somebody else, it starts at home with you. If you steer that internal relationship first, you’re going to approach that negotiation table with so much more clarity and confidence.
Wilding: How can women in particular be emboldened to ask for more?
Carter: This is such an important conversation and it resonates for me so deeply because I teach this and I also grappled with it in my everyday life. When I first had the idea for Ask For More, there was a period of time that I considered not writing it because I wondered if I was senior enough. I looked at the other people writing negotiation books in my field, they were male and 20 years older than I am. Then I thought back to what I teach, which is that when you ask for more, when you stand up and claim your worth and your expertise, you pave the way for other people, so I did, and this is part of my message now.
The first thing I want women in particular to know is that asking for more is a community service. It means that you have normalized that process for the next woman coming after you.
The second thing I want people to know is that when you ask for more, you are actually teaching your organization what kind of leader you will be on their behalf. The same negotiator you are when you enter the room with all of your facts, making tactful and collaborative arguments and standing in your value is the same person that will go out on behalf of that company. You are teaching people what kind of leader you will be.
Lastly, I want people to know there’s a formula that can really help you, called the I/we ask. When I am training people to ask for more, it goes like this: Here’s what I’m requesting, and here’s how we all benefit. So in other words, when you’ve spent time really stepping into the shoes of your manager, your CEO, your organization, and figuring out what they most need, you then are in a position to pitch your ask in a way that meets that need – the I/we is an extremely powerful tool. It’s just as powerful as it is collaborative. And it’s an approach that works exceptionally well for women and not just pre-pandemic, but even amid this crisis and uncertainty.
Wilding: Right now people are negotiating more flexibility. How should we think about doing that?
Carter: It goes back to steering that internal conversation and asking yourself a couple of good questions before you go in to negotiate. Whether it’s flex-time or whether it’s a promotion, I would first ask yourself, “What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?” This is the equivalent of getting in a kayak and figuring out which beach you want to hit.
Is the problem I want to solve that I’m connecting more with my nine-year-old daughter and I want to be there to support her schooling? Is the problem that I’ve now really figured out that I do my best, deep work in the morning? And that’s the time that I’d like to be completely focused for the company, without Zoom meetings, so that I can do the work that’s going to propel us forward?
What I want people to do is write down all of their needs. What I find is their needs usually fall into two buckets — tangibles and intangibles. The tangibles are things like, the need for a certain work schedule. It’s the things we can touch see or count. The intangibles are the values that make life worthwhile. People might say to you, for example, I need a sense of balance, I need some freedom, I need to take care of my health, etc. Those are great, but what I want people to do is to make those needs concrete by asking themselves a follow-up question, which is what would that look like? What would balance look like for me in my life? What would freedom look like? Then write that down concretely. That is what you can use to go in and negotiate with your employer. So that you’re coming up with a complete solution for all of those needs you have.
Wilding: How can you negotiate in this new environment when there’s a lack of social and non-verbal cues?
Carter: I go back to the fundamentals on this one. When I’ve prepared first, then I arrive on the Zoom fully able to focus on that other person because I have my stuff nailed cold. I’ve asked myself some good questions. I’ve written down all my information. My mind is clear, I ask them questions and I summarize what they’re saying. So right from the beginning, they have the feeling that I’ve come to the table to truly understand that.
The last thing that’s so important is silence. I think we are scared of silence in person, but even more so Zoom, right? It can feel awkward, but silence is transformative. In my book, I teach people three words that I tell them to take with them for the rest of their lives, land the plane.
It means that when you ask your great question, when you look at somebody and say, “What do you need to get this done?”, you don’t add words on the end. You don’t keep talking, you zip it. When you allow there to be silence, that’s actually not an imposition on the other person is a gift to really consider your great question, and amazing things happen on the other end of that silence.
Wilding: What tips do you have for negotiation when emotions are high?
Carter: The first thing is to grapple with your own emotions before you sit down with somebody else. One of the questions that I have people ask themselves is, “What do I feel?” Write down everything without self-censorship. It’s important to write those things down and not filter them because the act of writing them down will help you to release some of those feelings. That way when you sit down with the other person you’re doing so from a place of greater clarity.
The other thing I train people to do is to always have questions and a couple of tools at your disposal in those conversations. If things start to get heated, either you feel your temperature rising or their temperature rising, you can always ask a really good question or you can do what I call summarizing.
Summarizing is when the other person has spoken and instead of reacting in the moment, you instead say “I want to understand what you’ve said, what you’ve said is…”, and repeat it back. This way you have bought yourself more time to answer. You have also taken the heat down from the other person because they feel heard. And you might just, in the process of summarizing, gain something new that allows you to process the conversation in a new way.
The last thing I would say is, I think the timing is so important right now for these conversations. Think about what’s going to be a good time for you in the grand scheme of things. If you have a child at home ill that day, it’s probably not a great time for that conversation. Likewise, checking in with the other person to make sure it’s a good time for them, both when setting it up and then again before starting the conversation. The other person, especially if it’s a manager, they may be dealing with some unexpected intense stress that day. You want to time your conversation for the moment when it will be most well-received. And if the temperature goes up to a certain point, you can always take a break and reconnect.
Wilding: How about not taking “no” so personally?
Carter: That’s a good question, this is something that affects women in particular. We fear the “no” and we fear it for a few reasons. One reason is that we think no is a referendum on our self-worth. That it means something intensely personal about us and our value on this planet.
Men frequently see no as just an opening offer, and what I want women to know about the no, is that the no is not about you. There are so many reasons that somebody can say no: the timing is bad, they’re not the right person to ask, they didn’t have the right information to say yes or maybe they’re in a pandemic and they’re panicked. Because of whatever circumstance is going on in their life or role, their automatic answer is no.
Over the last few months, I too have received more no’s than I ever thought possible. With publishing this book right now during a pandemic, I had many, many in-person events lined up where people were going to buy books and all of a sudden all of those events got canceled. So the sales temporarily were canceled too. I learned to do one thing in response to the no, that over and over changed it into a yes. I simply got on the phone or Zoom with the other person and I asked them this question, “What are your concerns?”
One response I got was, “We’re worried if we do a book event right now, it looks self-promotional and we want to do something that’s in service of the community.” So I said, “Okay, how about we don’t do a book event. How about we do a negotiation training for small business owners who’ve been hurt by coronavirus?” We not only switched the note to a yes, but we found ways to work together that created a lot of value for both people.
When you figure out what somebody’s concerns are, you put yourself in a position to be able to overcome them. I promise you have this question in your pocket and you won’t fear the “no” anymore.