5 Research-Backed Tips for Successful Negotiations

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A major reason why so many of us find it difficult to negotiate is because it seems so confrontational. Whether it’s haggling at the farmer’s market or making the case for a raise, most of us think of negotiating as a battle that only one side can win. But research shows we might be going about it all wrong. Try these five proven negotiating tactics to ease the process.


In Getting to Yes, a classic conflict resolution book first published in 1981, researchers Roger Fisher and William Ury introduce a concept called principled negotiation [PDF]. This tactic involves separating the people from the problem and focusing on common interests in order to reach a solution that pleases everyone. Negotiation isn't a battle, they said, it's a joint problem-solving session.


A 2002 study published in the journal Group Dynamics found that a little "social lubrication" prior to the negotiation can make the bargaining easier, particularly when the negotiations are taking place via email. For the study, researchers had subjects “schmooze” on a telephone call by revealing a small personal detail about themselves that had nothing to do with the negotiation, like where they grew up. "Schmoozers felt more rapport, their plans were more trusting (although no less ambitious), and their economic and social outcomes were better,” the study says.

Specifically, when subjects only exchanged names and email addresses, they reached a deal less than 40 percent of the time. But when they shared extraneous personal information, they reached a deal 59 percent of the time. So strike up some small talk before you begin your contract negotiation or car dealership haggling for best results.


Stanford researchers looked at how subjects tackled different kinds of negotiations when food was involved—say, a plate of cookies was placed in the conference room or the negotiations took place at a restaurant. In the right situation, they found, the act of sharing food could be beneficial. But first, you have to determine whether you are negotiating competitively or cooperatively.

"In more competitive negotiations, people want to have the best possible deal for themselves, and typically, they see their counterpart as having adversarial or opposing motives," doctoral student and study co-author Peter Belmi told the Stanford Business website Insights. "In cooperative negotiations, typically people are more concerned about reaching an agreement for all parties involved."

If you're in a competitive situation, say a negotiation to end a legal dispute, having food available can help ease the tension. "What we found is that when people were negotiating in a competitive situation, sharing the food—and by that we mean sharing, not just eating—they created significantly more value," Belmi said. The social ritual of eating offset the competitive tone of the negotiation, allowing subjects to pay more attention to each other and look for opportunities to create more value in the negotiation.

But if you're negotiating with friends or friendly coworkers, skip the snacks. “In a cooperative negotiation, sharing food creates a comfortable and familiar environment, and people can become more concerned about maintaining that atmosphere rather than finding the best deal,” Belmi said.


A small joke can make for a big icebreaker in salary negotiations. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at the role of anchoring, or the bias towards the first piece of information offered (in this case, the first number thrown out), in such negotiations.

The study found that subjects who suggested an implausibly high salary when asked what they were looking for—$100,000 when their last salary was $29,000—were actually offered more money on average: $35,385 compared to $32,463. Meaning, the high anchor was effective, even if it wasn't meant to be taken seriously.


If you tend to be shy or introverted, the assertiveness necessary for a successful negotiation can feel abrasive and confrontational. A study from Columbia University [PDF], however, shows that you likely have nothing to worry about. Researchers had subjects participate in mock negotiations, then rate their own level of aggressiveness. They explain the results:

A significant share (38%) of people who were seen by their counterparts as appropriately assertive incorrectly thought their counterparts saw them as over-assertive. They displayed what counterparts saw as the right level of assertiveness but they assumed their counterpart saw them as getting it wrong—specifically, as pushing too hard. We call this the line crossing illusion, when people mistakenly believe they have “crossed the line” into being over-assertive in a counterpart’s eyes, when the counterpart actually views them as appropriately assertive.

The point is, if you’re a shy person who’s afraid of being confrontational, you probably don’t have anything to worry about.