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Negotiating 101 - Getting the Best Deal

By Kaitlin Lavinder

Negotiating can be rough. Whether it’s negotiating a higher salary, an international trade deal, or that your eight-year-old goes to bed at 8:30 pm if you give her two scoops of ice cream at 7:30 pm, this is a skill that takes ample practice to master.

In the SWAN Negotiations Workshop in Washington last week, six highly experienced negotiators – and SAIS alumni – offered their advice to a filled room of SWANers, from recent grads to people preparing for retirement.

A few points hold true in almost all negotiating situations, according to the masters.

  1. Needs & Avoids. A simple framework for thinking about how to enter into a negotiation is a “needs and avoids” square, explained Nancy Adams, a former U.S. Trade Representative who is a non-SAISer but very involved in SWAN. In the upper left corner, write your needs (your best deal). In the upper right corner, write their needs (their best deal). In the bottom left, write your avoids (your worst outcome). In the bottom right, write their avoids (their worst outcome). To fill in these blocks, think about the interests and values of both parties. Finally, always write down your (and their) BATNA: Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement – that is, your bottom-line.

  1. Common Interests. Look for the “coincidence of wants,” said Carmen Suro-Bredie, class of ’72 and formerly a U.S. Trade Representative, like Nancy. There is typically some area of overlap in which the interests of both parties meet. For example, Carmen explained, when she was working on the Sinn Fein and Irish Republican Army (IRA) negotiations with the British government in the 1990s, the two sides met in the middle, with the IRA agreeing to stop the bombings that were tearing Ireland apart in exchange for a provision in their agreement that stated there is the possibility that Irish citizens can vote for unity between the North and the South after 10 years. The negotiations ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.

  1. Other Currencies. Think creatively. In a job negotiation, for example, you need not always be negotiating a higher salary. In a Harvard case study that the SWAN group did during the workshop, a singer’s agent was negotiating for her to land a leading role in an upcoming opera. SWANers paired up in teams of two – with one playing the agent and the other playing the opera house. Many participants focused on the salary. But you could have discussed side perks, vacation time, or voice lessons, noted the master negotiators in the room.

  1. Preparation. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” posited Sun Tzu in The Art of War. With tools in hand, great negotiators prepare. You should be getting 360 degrees of feedback about both the company (or whoever your counterpart is) and yourself, said Marshall Millsap, class of ’76 and a former senior executive for JPMorgan. There are always unknowns, but the key is to gather as much information as possible, so the unknowns (e.g. how much your employer is really willing to pay you) become clearer.

  1. Practice. Marshall noted that to this day, he is constantly analyzing and improving his ideas on negotiation. Great negotiators develop a practice, he said, and they build tactical tools to master. But don’t forget that from time to time, you have to examine your tools, and think about why they may or may not be working.

At the end of the workshop, Marshall, Carmen, Nancy, and the other master negotiators – Acquania Escarne '07, Deputy Chief for Recruitment and Outreach at the U.S. Department of State; Hillary Stewart, Executive Recruiter at Navigant Consulting; and Olga Trusova, Director of Global Talent Management at FINCA Impact Finance and FINCA International – took questions from attendees. The Q&A session highlighted how everyone, to one degree or another, has to engage with, and often struggles with, negotiations – especially in the workplace.

I began by asking how an employee figures out the realistic salary range one can negotiate at a startup company, with little knowledge of its finances. “Ask as many questions as you can,” answered Marshall. Figure out all you can about the company. Just the way the question is answered can tell you a lot, he said.

The team was also asked, right boss or right job? “One would hope that you could have both,” said Carmen, but in the early years, definitely choose boss over job. In the middle years, job becomes more important, Carmen said, adding that good bosses often design good job descriptions – so if you find a good, detailed job description, you could be in for a win-win.

Olga agreed that boss comes first. But she expanded on that notion, saying, start with yourself. What career do you want? And how will your boss get you there?

What about a career change? One SWANer at the workshop, a woman getting ready to retire and wanting to go into a completely different field, asked, how does one position oneself to compete with all the younger talent already in this field? Volunteer, the team responded. Or offer to take a lower salary, said Aquania, while making an agreement to re-evaluate how you’re performing in the position in six months. If you can show you’ve learned quickly and met – or exceeded – your job’s requirements, you should be able to negotiate higher pay.

A final piece of advice from the expert negotiators: “Practice your story,” said Hillary. If you’re switching careers, explain it clearly and convincingly. If there’s a gap in your resume, have a good reason. And, maybe most importantly, make sure your story is real.

If you missed the negotiations workshop, the team also gave some suggestions on good books to read: Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and Strategize to Win by Carla Harris.

If you want to hear more about Carmen Suro-Bredie’s amazing life story and get her insight into some of the most pressing issues of today – from the Trump Administration pulling out of international trade deals like TPP to the recent announcement that the U.S. will be withdrawing from the Paris climate accord – check out our interview with her in the first SWAN podcast series, Lessons from Leaders, where SWAN member Kaitlin Lavinder sits down with SAIS women who have had extraordinary careers to talk about their life journeys. Kaitlin, class of ’16, is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief.

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