Despite what certain game shows tell us, negotiation isn’t a zero-sum game. In fact, it can be an important tool both for yourself and your community, explained Columbia Law School professor Alexandra Carter in one of our small business webinars. The former United Nations mediator and author of the bestseller Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything talked to our community about making negotiation an ongoing process, and changing culture by building business relationships. “My mission is to achieve empowerment and equity through negotiation.” Carter shared a thoughtful approach to mediation that focuses on acknowledging the tough stuff and making everyone feel seen.
Negotiation happens constantly.
Carter advises her clients to think about negotiation outside of signing a contract or closing a sale. As with so many things related to business, negotiation is about relationships. “Every conversation you have with someone is an opportunity to teach them how to think about you and your expertise,” she advised. Each time you present yourself as the expert on your business, you demonstrate that you deserve the best.
What is the problem you’re trying to solve?
“It starts at home with you.”
“The first stop in any negotiation is not the moment you sit down with somebody else. It starts at home with you,” Carter explained. She advises people preparing for a negotiation to start with asking themselves questions, which she refers to as mirror questions in her book. The two most critical, pre-negotiation mirror questions are:
- What’s the problem I want to solve?
- How have I handled this successfully in the past?
Having an answer for the first question seems obvious, but Carter explained that in her experience, it’s an essential step business owners often skip. “The truth is that a lot of times in negotiation, we can almost panic and start jumping to solutions.”
Carter shared an example of a small coffee business she worked with that, like so many businesses at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, was concerned about the quarter’s revenue. She had to reel her client in by asking, “Are we just trying to get money in the door for May or for June at any cost? Or are we trying to figure out how to pivot your business for the long term, so that you can raise your next round of financing?” Though both scenarios ultimately have to do with increasing revenue, they required different approaches.
The second question helps negotiators build confidence in their abilities, which is critical. “Asking [this question] will put you in the state of mind to do better,” Carter explained. Not only will reviewing past successes boost your confidence, it also acts as what Carter calls a “data generator.” Entrepreneurs often find themselves in unfamiliar situations, but thinking of similar circumstances helps uncover strategies they can apply.
Your prep should also address your feelings. As much as we’re taught that emotions have no place in business, the fact is, we’re human. Strong emotions are bound to come up, especially when speaking about the business you’ve worked so hard to build. The key to keeping them under control during mediation? Facing them head on. Carter counseled our group to write down their feelings–”the good, the bad and the truly ugly you wish you didn’t feel”–before the big day. “If you don’t acknowledge those emotions, especially the big two, fear and guilt, they will come back to haunt you in your negotiation.”
These pre-arbitration steps lay the foundation for a confident and engaged meeting. “I want you to arrive at the table with the most rock-solid knowledge of yourself and your situation.”
Ask questions, then ask some more.
After thinking about your own role and needs, it is the time to start with Carter’s top window, or outward-facing, questions:
- Tell me about your experience, how you’re addressing this problem, etc.
- What are your concerns?
The first question isn’t really a question at all; it’s an open-ended statement that invites a candid response that lays out the person’s goals. The second question is helpful especially if the person you’re hoping to negotiate with is hesitant to accept your offer. “When you ask somebody for their concerns, you give yourself the greatest chance possible, figuring out what the target is that you need to hit,” Carter said. Their answer may help you readjust and potentially change their mind. In most cases, a person declines an offer because they don’t have the information they need to accept. “I want you to internalize this: most of the time, the ‘no’ is not about you,” she urged our community.
When you stand up as an expert, it makes space for the women who are coming behind.
Mediation tip: reframe and re-engage.
Carter’s top negotiation strategies go beyond her four critical questions. One technique involves stating your ask in a way that doesn’t focus on what you want to extract from the interaction. “Frame it as ‘here’s what I’m asking, and here’s how we all benefit’,” she instructed.
Another key tool is offering a summary. This is especially helpful with someone who doesn’t seem like they’re going to budge, Carter advised the audience. “Sometimes by just hearing [what they’ve said], the other person will start to recollect that this doesn’t sound good.” Still not getting anywhere? Press on with “Can you tell me more about that?” The answer to this question can either elicit vital information that you can then counter with information of your own, or it can show the person you’re speaking with that maybe their argument isn’t as strong as they thought.
An additional solution Carter offered is calling on allies, especially high-ranking people either within your organization or in your industry. She recommends this approach especially for women of color who aren’t getting through. Drawing on the lessons she herself has learned from her Black women colleagues, Carter shared, “If they were having trouble with an immediate white woman supervisor, they might go to a white man who was up the chain and say, ‘I need some help.’ That is one of the ways that they have squashed some of the more serious aggressions that they have faced.”
In closing her session, Carter urged our community to think of each negotiation as something both for your own business and for the larger community. “When you stand up as an expert, it makes space for the women who are coming behind.”