To get better at negotiating salary, start negotiating more at home

Hone those skills.
Hone those skills.
Image: Reuters/Whitney Curtis
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Maybe there are some people out there who relish the opportunity for a good, hard salary negotiation.

For the rest of us, the times when our pay is at stake—if we’re starting a new job, for example, or requesting a raise—can be stressful and uncertain. Unless we’re pretty sure we’ll get what we want, some of us might not even put ourselves in the vulnerable position of asking for more than we’re offered.

Jane Charlton, head of leadership programmes at London Business School, who along with her team at the school’s career centre has helped thousands of business students prepare for job interviews, says we should always negotiate, even when we know the answer is going to be no. And in order to make it more likely we’ll actually do so, she says, we should practice. That can mean using some surprising situations—a standoff with your kids about mealtimes, for example, or a discussion with a partner about where to go on holiday—to hone skills that can later be employed in meetings with managers.

Practicing the art of negotiation, as with any skill, is a great way to learn. Every time you negotiate, you’re “not learning just about yourself and how you handle the situation, but you’re learning about the behavior of other people as well, which is really important,” Charlton says. “And you’re building your confidence.”  

Develop your narrative

Going into negotiations over pay, or into a job interview for that matter, many people haven’t actually thought hard about what specific skills and strengths they bring, the gaps in their knowledge, or, crucially, what they’re doing to fill those gaps. She calls this detailed thinking “developing a narrative” around who we are, and encourages students she works with to practice it ahead of interviews.

Charlton says that some of the most common mistakes people make going into negotiation are not to have thought enough about their own story, and not to have spent enough time getting information to back up their desires. Going into an interview, for example, a candidate seeking a certain salary should be armed with knowledge about what competitors are paying—information that’s increasingly available through comparison sites like Payscale, Emolument, and Glassdoor.

It’s also a good idea to try to gain information about your interlocutor and what it is that drives them, even if that’s just from sharp attention to their behavior, she says.

Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator and founder of The Black Swan Group, a negotiations training and consulting firm, sets out three “archetypes” in his book Never Split the Difference. When it comes to negotiation, he suggests, we’re all likely to be either Assertive (in a nutshell, needing to be heard), an Analyst (needing information), or an Accommodator (wanting to be liked). Work out which of these categories you and the person you’re negotiating with each fit into, and you can adjust your approach accordingly.

Test your skills

Ever without the resource of a career center filled with paid advisors, there are opportunities for practice.

“You can negotiate with anyone you’re in a relationship with,” Charlton says. With kids it might be about how you get them to eat healthy meals without the use of bribery. With a partner, it might be about reconciling their wish for a beach holiday with your hope of spending the vacation time climbing mountains. “How do you resolve that situation?” Charlton asks. “It’s a negotiation essentially. It’s a conversation about hearing what the other person’s position is, and telling them what your position is, and potentially coming to a compromise.” 

Be flexible

Conversations with those we love and trust might feel completely different from a hardball boardroom discussion, but here Charlton’s point about listening is key. To get a good outcome in a negotiation, she says, we need to understand the wants and needs of the other person. There’s no point, for example, driving relentlessly for a massive salary raise with a company that’s struggling, or a manager who truly doesn’t have the budget to give you what you want. In that situation, Charlton says, being flexible can be a huge asset.

That’s why she advocates for negotiating even when you know the answer about the money is going to be no, because there’s often more than one thing at stake.“Perhaps you might get a ‘no’ on salary, but might get a yes on something else,” like time off for training, a more flexible work schedule, or better healthcare, she says. 

Find the lesson

Practicing any skill also forces us to admit that we don’t always get things right. You can read Getting to Yes as many times as you’d like, but if negotiating is new for you (or even if it’s not) you can expect that sometimes you’ll come up empty handed. And that’s okay, Charlton says.

“You know, maybe the first one bombs, and you don’t get what you want,” she says. “But actually there’s something to learn in every situation. So you can use that to help you frame what you will do next time you go into a negotiation. It really helps you develop clear communication skills and how [to] pitch yourself.”

So your five-year-old still won’t eat spinach? Never mind. The practice at keeping a cool head, using data to back up your suggestions, listening, and clearly stating your case will stand you in good stead at the next meal—or the next time you’re gunning for a promotion.