How to win a job negotiation before it starts
Hint: The negotiation starts way before you walk into the room.
Everything is a negotiation. Deciding what to have for dinner, what to watch on Netflix, who should do each part of the project… All of this is negotiating, and you do it every day. Negotiating is simply positioning your ideas to try to get the outcome you hope for.
Here’s the thing nobody tells you: The negotiation starts way before you walk into the room. By the time you are in the room with the person, they already have a rough idea how much you’re worth to them. You already have an existing dynamic--and they are anchored on this.
Given you need every possible tailwind, here are things to keep in mind for your next negotiation:
1. If you love your current company, tell them.
Before you negotiate, think about what you want before you try to get it. If you have competing offers, which role would be better for your situation and current stage in life? Decide which company you prefer--because that will influence how you negotiate and whether you should negotiate at all.
If you decide to bring it up with your current company, you want to show that you’re 100% loyal and want to make it work. The reason is the minute people think you have one foot out the door, you’ve committed treason.
Personally, I dislike the idea of counter-offering. It feels icky and gross and yes, treasonous. As someone who has hired teams, it leaves a weird feeling to have someone on your team dangle this bait like “Oh look, I might leave! Try to keep me!” It’s hard not to think, “Okay bye.”
So be mindful about how you bring this up. If you really want to bring it up, then emphasize (and over-emphasize) how much you love your current employer and want to stay.
To summarize, you have to overcompensate and be more extreme in this than you think, in order to counteract any negative taste this might leave.
2. Your negotiation is 90% over before it starts. 😱
Most advice about negotiation says to come prepared with a list of how you’ve added value, but I disagree. If you have a strong relationship with your boss, they know you’re a great asset. If you’re on rocky terms, they know too.
Therefore, a long list and 20 minute recap of your contributions doesn’t really help. You should be prepared with a few high-level points about how you’ve added value. But overall it’s better to make your request then stop talking.
When a boss feels like you might leave, their brain starts to mentally detach from you. You might continue talking. But they stopped listening ten minutes ago.
Why? Because they are already thinking,
“I hope this doesn’t wreak havoc on my team.” 🤔
“I want to go home by 6pm, but now I’m one person short on headcount…” 🤔
“How can I replace person X in the fastest, most efficient way possible?” 🤔
Ideally, the best way to get what you want in a negotiation is to have added value and cultivated a positive relationship all along. A negotiation conversation is high-stakes, for sure. It’s certainly higher-stakes than most conversations and it’s worth spending several hours to prepare.
But for better or for worse, much of the outcome has already been anchored. This is why it’s important to understand how people think and how people make decisions. When you understand that, you can fully use those levers to influence the outcome before your scheduled negotiation meeting.
3. Negotiations are emotional, not logical.
When you make your request, the outcome you want is for the person to *remember how much they like you and love working with you*. Most people get this part wrong. They think this is a logical conversation, so they bring all kinds of logical reasons why they should get a raise or counter offer. But when you bring logical reasons, you switch on the part of a person’s brain that is analytical.
You do NOT want to switch on their analytical brain. The analytical brain will think things like:
“This person added value, but that’s why I hired them in the first place. They were literally just doing their job.”
“They said they led that project but technically so-and-so helped a lot and I cleared the path for it, so they can only claim part of the credit.”
“Don’t they know how much I’m doing behind the scenes? I cued up half of those wins before I even put it on their desk.”
You don’t want to trigger analytical thoughts. You want to trigger HAPPY FEELINGS. You want your boss to remember how much they like working with you and how much they’ve already gone to bat for you.
This is how you apply cognitive dissonance in practice. People love being consistent. When you remind your boss how much they advocated for you in the past, they are more likely to advocate for you this time. Why? You’re framing it like its *not a new, risky decision* for them. They’ve already decided to advocate for you, and this is just another time they can do that.
4. Timing is everything. Nobody remembers that great thing you did six months ago.
Ideally, you want to ask right after a big win where you’ve brought glory to your boss and team. You can save this conversation knowing you have a big win coming up, then ask immediately after.
It’s okay if you don’t have a big win coming up. You can simply ask on a day when your boss is relaxed and in a good mood. For example, Fridays could be a good day to ask because people are happy it’s Friday. Plus, if the negotiation goes poorly, you have the weekend apart from work to reset and come back fresh on Monday. You need every tailwind in your favor.
People overestimate their own skill and underestimate situational factors like timing. Situational factors have nothing to do with your negotiation skill, how compelling your message is, or how persuasive you are. Situational factors are important to control for. If you want to get the reaction you’re hoping for, you have to take into account factors that influence your target audience (boss). And every target audience is influenced by situational factors.
5. Stop talking.
You want to give your boss time to think and respond. I suggest talking for as little as you possibly can for your opening statement. 30 seconds should be plenty. You can always add details later on during the conversation.
Talking for too long during your opening statement is another common mistake. 30 seconds really is enough for many, many things. For example, I recently coached a CEO on how to let go of an employee.
When he reported back on how the conversation went, he said, “I’m so glad I kept the beginning short. I even went a little longer than what we practiced and wished I left that out. But the short beginning was perfect. She immediately understood, didn’t push back, and it was respectful of her time and intelligence.”
The point of your opening statement is to show the person what kind of conversation this is. It’s like helping someone understand the genre of a movie. Once they know the genre, their mind is already off to the races about all the other considerations they have to make.
They might be thinking of the approval process, making the case on your behalf to their own boss, etc. They are already thinking of these other things. That’s why you should stop talking and let them think and respond.
There’s no such thing as convincing someone. You can only remind people of how they already feel. In this sense, a negotiation is less about introducing new information--and more about REMINDING people of what they already know and feel about you.
Here’s an exercise:
Given all of this, your homework — should you choose to accept it — is to come up with a script for what you want to say to your boss. Your draft can be a bit longer because it’s easier to see more, then trim to only keep the good stuff.
Practice saying your script out loud. Don’t worry about the exact wording — just get used to talking about your main points in a conversational way. Focus on your opening sentence and closing sentence. Why? Knowing how to start and end will help you feel more confident.
Practice until you convince yourself. When you’re convinced you’re worth the amount you’re asking for, the awkwardness will melt away. So will the smell of desperation. At that point, you won’t be obsessed with the outcome.
“If this doesn’t work out, I’ll find another role that’s a better match for what I’m looking for and what I offer. I’ll be okay.”
When you know you’ve done everything in your power to prepare, you can relax and be present. Your conviction and warmth will shine through.
Every day, you use your skills in framing, positioning, and marketing. I’m a big believer that the same concepts used in marketing products can, and should, be used on an individual level to advance your work.
When you believe this, you’ll notice opportunities all around you where you can think and act more strategically.