How does one learn to negotiate? Have you ever wondered this? Am I the only one? Am I the only one who has been in the dark about negotiation? Does a person take a negotiation class? Do they go to negotiation school? Where do these master negotiation skills come from? I will tell you that it was quite the mystery to me for far too long. That is until I finally embarked on my negotiation journey and made negotiation a priority. Or maybe negotiation made me a priority.
My Negotiation Journey
My negotiation journey mostly began the hard way. I didn’t negotiate. I learned the hard way that negotiation is crucial. No one specifically taught me or told me to negotiate. I grew up where pay steps/grades were mostly a social norm of the jobs within my family. Negotiation just never came up. Even if not explicitly stated, negotiation could even be looked upon as potentially impolite. I come from a small area where everyone knows everyone. You probably know the person you’re going to be doing business with, therefore, should you negotiate? (The answer is YES! But I didn’t know this at the time.)
To be honest, the topic didn’t come up all that often. There weren’t too many situations where I needed to negotiate until I started in the workforce. Maybe I was never taught because it never organically came up as a “teachable moment” or “life lesson,” unfortunately for me (or fortunately, because now I’m focused on making sure everyone else knows they can and should negotiate). It is never too late to negotiate or to learn to negotiate.
Baby Steps to Negotiation
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties when I learned that I should have negotiated. I bought a used car and later realized I should have negotiated the amount I paid for it. I bought the car from a colleague/friend and so I assumed they gave me the best price because they were a close acquaintance. Wrong. They did not give me the best price. Another colleague asked me, “Why didn’t you negotiate the price down a few thousand dollars?” And then it hit me. I should have negotiated. Of course they didn’t give me the best price because they were ready to negotiate, too. They were taught to negotiate and I wasn’t. I didn’t know the game, the act we were engaging in.
Negotiating is normal. People expect you to negotiate, as long as you know that’s the game being played. And I didn’t. I expected that they would give me the best price. I knew them, how could they not? No one told me otherwise, until it was too late. I was never explicitly taught or told to negotiate. I had to teach myself. (Side note: It is never too late to negotiate. I hadn’t signed a contract, I could have backed out, no money was exchanged. I very well could have negotiated, but I was too timid or embarrassed or maybe even friendly to negotiate. Still kicking myself for having these thoughts.)
My Next (Non) Negotiation
My next experience with (not) negotiating had rippling effects. My salary. Negotiating salary. Something I’d never been taught, trained, or told to do. I was never told it was something I could do. How has no one brought this up before? I grew up surrounded by a family who had careers where salary “steps” and set “pay grades” were the norm but… just in case, shouldn’t I know how to negotiate in case I didn’t have that salary system? I had a predetermined salary scale starting out. It was dependent on experience and education to determine – a simple equation to ensure inaccuracies or inequalities could not take place (I now know that’s not exactly true of either of those types of systems). It always appeared to be fair and straight forward.
When I stepped into the world of receiving a salary without scales, where anything goes, it’s the wild wild west, and if you don’t say something, you miss out. I was sincerely caught off guard. I had an honorable profession, one that focused on helping others, of course they wouldn’t jip me of the salary I deserved. Wrong. It’s a business. A business is a business is a business. They may like you, but they don’t have to pay you. And they didn’t. I thought of course they were giving me the most they could in that moment based on the organization’s “tight” budget. Wrong. The less they paid me, the more they got to spend in other areas. And I saw that very clearly play out right after I was hired.
Hired Without Negotiation
When presented with my contract, the boss let me know this was the most they could pay right now and “at least you will have health benefits with this.” That part probably enrages me the most. Holding health benefits over my head because we live in a country with too poor of values, where we maintain the notion that healthcare is only for the privileged. It is not a right. And so I accepted, believing this boss who appeared to be kind and wholesome, believing the organization had done its best, and of course, desperately wanting health insurance. I now recognize what a vulnerable nerve my boss hit while swindling me to accept the very low salary offered.
After I was hired, I saw another person be hired, even though there was no more money left in the budget for personnel. Then I saw another person get hired. It appeared they did have money in the budget to pay people. Then I saw extra spending in other areas. Maybe this was related, maybe it wasn’t, but I knew one thing for sure. There was more money in the budget to pay me. The boss lied. Of course the boss lied. That’s the game. The negotiation game. You are either in it and you know the rules, or you’re outside and your lifetime earnings are basically poured down the drain because of your lack of negotiation knowledge.
Never Not Negotiating Again
After gritting my teeth and being a little aggravated at the salary situation that year, while simultaneously being eternally grateful to have health insurance, new contracts were about to come out.
A colleague received her contract. Unsatisfied, she mentioned she is of course going to negotiate. I looked at her, wide eyed, as if learning a new word and pronouncing it for the first time and said, “Negotiate?” like it was the most foreign term my mouth had spoken. She replied in all her confidence (and a little bit of saltiness from what they offered her), “Oh yeah.” Well, yeah. If she is going to negotiate, then that may mean I can too. She told me her strategy, gave me all her tips, all her lines, and sent me on my way. If she could, of course I could.
My First Time Negotiating
My first time negotiating, it went as well as can be expected. Not great, but you have to start somewhere. I learned so much from that mediocre negotiation that it catapulted me into my second negotiation. Failure really is a teacher. My next negotiation left me with more skills than my first. Then I started talking, asking around. Did I negotiate enough? Was I getting paid more or less than others? I was quickly finding out that I wasn’t the only one timid about negotiating.
It was almost as if people had to be given permission to negotiate in order to really start. Nobody needs permission, and they need to know that. After asking around, I also learned that I wasn’t getting paid as much as I should have been. That definitely left me raring to go for my next negotiation. Nothing like learning a colleague is earning more with similar or fewer credentials will put a fire in your stomach to embolden your next negotiation strategy. Salary transparency is also a desperate need to ensure equity, but that’s for another post.
We Must Negotiate
Not negotiating can set you back an unfathomable amount of money. It pains me to think of how much money I lost over the years due to not negotiating. Thus inspiring my passion, rage, whatever you want to call it. Don’t wallow in the past, move forward to the future. If I wasn’t taught to negotiate, does that mean that other people weren’t taught either? Was it just me that was left out of this supposed societal negotiation norm or are there others out there, unknowingly uninformed like me?
I hope there is no one out there uniformed about negotiation like I was. But I’m skeptical, unfortunately. I am smart and well educated. Doesn’t that count for anything? I can safely say, with 8 years of undergraduate and graduate education, along with 10 years of work experience… no one explicitly taught me to negotiate. Or really even mentioned it.
Who Teaches Negotiation?
Two people in my life brought up negotiation to me. Two! These two colleagues were both looking out for me. In one situation, it was too late (though not, because it taught me a valuable lesson). In another, it was just in time. It put a fire, anger, passion, notion… that no one should have to feel uninformed about negotiation and no one should be underpaid. There are too many of us out there, too many of us underpaid. That’s why I’m on a mission. A mission to negotiate, to let people know they can and need to negotiate, to give people the invisible “permission” that negotiation is okay, acceptable, and absolutely necessary. In a world where the wage gap gets wider and wider, negotiation is what is needed to get to the next step.
While the contents of this post and blog come from research and personal experience, each experience, situation and/or person has their own unique circumstances. This is not negotiation, financial or any other form of legitimate or official advice from an expert. Each individual should do their own independent, comprehensive research. Negotiation, career and all other decisions are the sole responsibility of each individual or party. Details found on the blog and in individual posts are opinions and should be treated as such for entertainment purposes only. Read further disclaimer information in the footer and on the Disclaimer page.