We all have an innate ability to negotiate, but many of us lose it along the way. It can be regained with just a little effort.
The ability to negotiate is a skill most people wish they were better at. For many it feels foreign and unnatural, but there was a time when it was totally natural to you. We’ll look at when it was, why it changed, and how to feel that way again.
When I was five, I would climb anything I could find. The higher the better. Like most five-year-olds, I was pretty fearless. Watching my nine-year-old nephew show me how he plays at recess–by sitting on the monkey bars and dead dropping between them while trying to catch himself as he falls–all I could do is think of all the ways he could get hurt. He did, but nothing serious. (I know he does this even when I’m not around, so I figured it was better to watch and correct anything overly dangerous, than tell him “no” and have him ignore it altogether.)
As an adult I’m more risk-averse than when I was five. I think about what can go wrong, that consideration is something I never did as a kid. It’s fairly reasonable since at my age I know much more. Also, the injuries won’t heal as quickly. I can think back to the times I had hurt myself; kids don’t have that experience to hold them back. Even the incredible Simone Biles talked about how she got the twisties, thinking about what could go wrong with her boundary pushing gymnastics, instead of the fearlessness she had of just doing it when she was teenager.
All of us gained fear as we got older. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of rejection. Fear of failure. Fear of strangers. Lots and lots of fear. (To be fair, we also lost some fears, like fear of thunder.)
You negotiated long before you even knew the word.
You were, and still are, a natural negotiator. Don’t take my word for it, ask your parents. To you bedtime was more of a suggestion not a rule. The number of pieces of broccoli you had to eat before you got dessert was open to negotiation. The toy of your dreams was on the table for the holidays, but you knew it meant being on good behavior. You didn’t ask, you didn’t doubt, you just boldly stated your goals and let the negotiation unfold. You negotiated long before you even knew the word.
What happened? Where did that natural negotiation skill go? At age four you had nothing to lose by trying to stay up later (at least until you were about to lose your toy, or dessert tomorrow, or whatever leverage was eventually employed by your exasperated parents). We learnt boundaries. We also incorporated, correctly or incorrectly, the opinions of others into our self-esteem. What if the other person says no? What if they think I’m dumb for asking? What if they pull the job offer altogether? Remember how I got laughed at in the fourth grade–I don’t want that to happen again!
Like me dropping through the monkey bars, or a gymnast with the twisties, we let our fear and doubt overtake us and hold us back. How much will vary by person. Some people are still fearless, at physical risks or at negotiating. Others are overly conservative. You, compared to your younger self, moved to less risk, in your negotiations and other aspects of your life.
All of us gained fear as we got older.
The good news is you can change. It’s easier to learn skills like skiing or gymnastics when you’re five. But if at twenty-five you really wanted to learn to do it, you could. You may never become an Olympian starting at that age but that wasn’t really your goal; instead, it was to get better at the sport for enjoyment.
Likewise, you can learn to negotiate at any time in adulthood. Unlike physical activities you’re not going to be more limited with age. FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss didn’t start his training until age 34.
If you wanted to learn to ski, you’d take some skiing classes and then go skiing. You’d start with a green circle hill, moving your way up to a blue square, black diamond, and ultimately a double black diamond. If you want to be a better negotiator, start with some books (scroll through this list for some recommendations marked “Negotiation”) or classes. Just as you wouldn’t jump to a double black diamond hill, you wouldn’t start by leading a multimillion-dollar negotiation. Start with some small negotiations. They could be your own or assisting others with theirs. Talk to more experienced negotiators for advice. Develop your negotiation skills as you would do with skiing or any other skill.
Today you might not be happy with your negotiation skills. It should be clear, however, that it’s not a lack of innate ability, you were negotiating before you knew the word. It got stunted by a lack of training and a lack of confidence. Both of those can be overcome through training and experience.
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