The One Thing Never To Do When You Negotiate

Negotiating can be terrifying, emotional, and frustrating. But don’t let that lead you to making this one crucial mistake.

The One Thing Never To Do When You Negotiate

Negotiation has a reputation problem. Most people see it as a way to manipulate others to do their bidding. Much of that comes from the way negotiation is portrayed in popular media. The quintessential negotiator is the one who cleverly plays his or her opponent into a corner from which the only out is capitulation. While this winner-take-all portrayal may appeal to our egos it does nothing to promote resolutions to really tough problems that require negotiation in the true sense of the word, where each party has a well-defined objective that they believe constitutes success.

Negotiation is actually a very straightforward process of problem solving. You need to be objective, listen carefully, and follow some basic rules. But, before I get into what those rules are, here’s what you absolutely shouldn’t do.

Fine, Be That Way!

The tactic we are all familiar with when negotiating is to get up and walk away from the table if we don’t get what we want. So, let’s play that out in the simple scenario of negotiating for a car in a dealership.

Picture this. You’ve just spent 30-60 minutes of your time using every ounce of negotiating skill you have to get the salesperson to what they claim is a rock bottom price. You’ve exhausted all your tactics, you really want the car, but you need to get the price down even further. What do you do? If your answer is to walk then you’re in good company. That’s what most people would do when they reach a negotiation impasse.

The expectation, of course, is that the salesperson will come after you. The problem is that once you’ve walked you’re no longer in a negotiation. If the salesperson doesn’t come after you there is no recourse but to go back with your tail between your legs.

The cardinal rule in negotiation is to never walk away from the table unless you have no intention of coming back. In the example I just gave you’ll likely have many more opportunities to negotiate elsewhere. And you can keep walking out until you find the one out of ten salespeople who will come after you.

But what about those situations where the only person you can strike a deal with is the one across the table? Walking out in those cases means that you’ll just have to come back to the table again later. Unless you’re hiding all the cards, in which case this isn’t a negotiation at all, all you’ve done is lost credibility and undermined your position.

I know that there is a certain dramatic appeal to walking away. I was once notorious for doing just that. But what I learned over the years was that walking away from a deal that I wanted to do, although the terms were not what I wanted, was at best lazy and at worst hurting me just as much as the other party. Think of it as the equivalent of hitting the nuclear button knowing full well that nobody survives.

So, what’s the alternative? A very simple process that you should use in every negotiation. I call it the DNA of negotiation – Discover, Negotiate, Agree. Here’s how it works.


No negotiation should begin without your first spending time understanding who you are negotiating with, their patterns of behavior, their context, their constraints, and their drivers. Clearly, not all of that can be found just by researching the other party, but you’d be amazed at how much you can discover before even starting a negotiation.

Discovery is also the first phase of the face to face negotiation process. You should constantly be looking for insights that help you better understand the other party. The biggest challenge most of us face in a negotiation is that we create such a rock solid rational behind what we want and why we want it that we instantly discount, if we even hear, the other party’s needs. This is especially challenging if you have a Type A assertive and aggressive personality. My suggestion? Shut up. I mean really shut up, until the silence is painful. I’ve found that saying nothing is almost always the best way to learn about someone else.

When you do talk ask questions that help you better understand the other party’s position. These are often best phrased in a way to help elaborate on points that may seem obvious “Can you explain more…” or “Help me understand that…” Most people refrain from asking questions of this sort because they are so stuck on getting what they want. The best negotiators invest in understanding the needs and drivers of the other party. Do enough of this and one of two things happens, either you learn a great deal about the other party’s motivations and constraints or you challenge them enough that they start to questions their constraints. In both cases you’re making progress.


Once you have the insights needed to understand what the other party wants and why, it’s time to start the process of negotiation. Don’t rush this. Jumping into a negotiation without adequate discovery almost always leads to posturing, this is the classic case in which both parties hunker down in their respective diametrically opposite positions and only drive what soon becomes an irreconcilable wedge into the negotiation.

As a way to find a middle ground we then make the mistake of giving away things of no value to the other party. Rather than deliver ultimatums or toss a bone, try testing the waters by once again resorting to questions. In this case use trial scenarios such as “What if we did….” or “What would you be willing to do if we did…” Never give anything away that the other party doesn’t value and never give anything away without getting something in return. The only fairness in a negotiation is an exchange of agreed upon value.

The key during the negotiation phase is to problem solve in order to find ways to meet the goals of all parties. The Pawn Stars technique of splitting the difference should only be used as a method to close the deal. Don’t get into the habit of splitting the difference on everything. That’s a sure fire way to make sure nobody ends up happy and it can easily lead to remorse on the part of one or both parties that undermines the negotiation. The colloquial win-win isn’t about splitting the baby down the middle. It’s about figuring out what each party values.


I’ve yet to be party to a negotiation that didn’t involve multiple items on which the parties had to agree. The challenge in these cases is separating the items being negotiated into distinct categories. “But wait,” you say, “it’s all linked together!” Yes, and that’s exactly why you never get to a point of agreement

Once you agree on a category make sure all parties have indicated their agreement explicitly. This may mean using an actual checklist that everyone initials as each items is agreed to. This isn’t binding and you can always go back and change an agreed upon item if needed. But there is a finality about putting pencil to paper that helps to avoid revisiting every previously agreed upon point.

If you get stuck on a particularly touchy item just set it aside by saying, “Okay, lets’ come back to that later.” The more you agree the easier it becomes to agree on a subsequent point. Suddenly an item that you had been stuck on becomes much easier to agree to if you have a track record of prior agreement on less consequential items.

If you follow the DNA process the likelihood of coming to an agreement that works for everyone involved is much higher. Is it bulletproof? No method of negotiation is. But one thing is certain. If you walk away you’ve just put the fate of the negotiation entirely into the hands of the other party. Stay at the table, as tough as it may be, stick to these basics and the negotiation continues.

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This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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