As a child, I was always quite persuasive. I could charm almost any adult into giving me an ice cream cone or letting me stay at the park for another five minutes. I seemed to have no problem asking for what I wanted, offering something in exchange (usually the promise of good behavior), and getting the goods. Life was good. I felt like I had some kind of superpower, and I loved it.
You’d think this skill would have naturally followed me into adulthood, where I became a ruthless lawyer, negotiating anything and everything with ease and confidence. Well, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I never made it to law school. (Marketing was more my style!) And I definitely wouldn’t consider myself to be a killer negotiator today. One day at work, I was struggling to articulate why I thought I’d be great for a new project. Then, I had a realization: The idea of negotiating anything made my stomach drop—whether negotiating my starting salary at a new job or the restaurant I wanted to go to with girlfriends. What happened to all of my youthful confidence?
I decided I wanted to get my mojo back and learn how I could get better at the art of persuasion. So, I reached out to Fotini Iconomopoulos, a negotiation expert who has worked with everyone from top-level executives to new graduates. I learned her best negotiation tips, why so many women avoid negotiating, and how we can all become better at it.
Practice your skills in low-risk situations
To start off, Iconomopoulos emphasized that while most people think of negotiation in asking for a raise at work or a lower price on a car, it can extend to almost anything. She explained, “You could be negotiating with your partner about where to take your next vacation or who will empty the dishwasher. You could be negotiating for space on public transportation or with a peer about workloads. You negotiate everywhere all the time!”
This is especially true when it comes to people who interact with children. (Aha! Suddenly my childhood experiences all make sense.) “Anyone who spends time around kids knows the power of negotiating. You navigate situations with them the same way you would navigate any discussion. You go in with an attitude of curiosity and listening while setting expectations for what you need to work together,” Iconomopoulos said. In this case, trying to get a toddler to eat broccoli is not that different from trying to get a colleague to pull his weight at work. Since we’re engaging in these micro-negotiations all the time, we can practice honing our skills in low-stake situations. Therefore, we’re more prepared—and less intimidated—by the bigger things.
As much as we wish it weren’t true, negotiations can quickly go off the rails. When I asked Iconomopoulos what could appear in a negotiation, she highlighted that unfortunately, gender bias is sometimes still present. “Women may be perceived as greedy or aggressive when it’s unwarranted,” she said. But don’t fret—it’s not all doom and gloom! There are things you can do to combat this. It all comes down to preparation.
Approach the conversation in an assertive yet productive way. “This doesn’t mean suppressing emotions or holding back from negotiating, but using productive language and asking pointed questions,” Iconomopoulos said. She explained how asking open-ended questions and giving room for pause after speaking are parts of a master negotiator toolkit. “It also means finding allies wherever possible to help remove obstacles,” she elaborated. Add this to the growing list of reasons why you need a sponsor in your corner. Fostering connections at work is always a good idea. But it is especially key when preparing for things like raises, promotions, and responsibility changes.
Do your homework
While negotiating isn’t always about money, it’s usually the first thing that comes to mind. I’ve had some great negotiations where I went in prepared and got a sizable bump in pay—yay! I’ve also had some not-so-great negotiations where I couldn’t think properly and fumbled over my words. (AKA, I felt the opposite of confidence.)
Fotini Iconomopoulos reinforced that preparation is truly the key to success here. “Knowledge is power, so know what the market is paying, what similar companies are paying, how you compare to other candidates, and so on,” she said. When it comes to presenting a number, Iconomopoulos advocates for shooting for the (research-backed) moon. “Be aspirational in your ask. It’s easy to back off of your opening offer, but it’s harder to go back and increase the ask later if you end up regretting the original number you gave.” Take this as the encouragement you need to add on that extra 10%. You deserve it!
Then, there’s the age-old question: Should you anchor the negotiation with your desired salary or let a recruiter or HR set the pace? Iconomopoulos recommends taking the reins. “If you’ve done your homework, don’t be afraid to anchor your expectations first. Most people worry about putting their offer on the table first, but there are advantages that you don’t want to miss,” she said. Those advantages include coming across as knowledgeable and confident. Of course, you’re also setting yourself up for a result you’ll be happy with.
In terms of how to make your ask, Iconomopoulos shared her go-to language with clients: “Based on [insert reasons why you know you would be valuable to the team] and what similar experience is paid in the market, I would expect [insert the desired salary] compensation for this role.” Then, pause to see what their response is. Try not to fill the silence by offering conditions or justifications for your ask. (That comes later if it’s needed!) I know this is the scary part. But if you’ve done your homework, you’re already in the best possible spot for success!
Know how to handle bumps along the way
Once you get some negotiating experience under your belt, it’ll start becoming more natural. Then, you’ll be able to tell when things are going your way. But in the meantime, it can help to know some common concerns. The fear of damaging relationships is a common concern that Iconomopoulos mentioned. Coming across as demanding or greedy when you’re trying to project confidence is also one of the most common worries.
“But the truth is, you can conduct negotiations with diplomacy and tact and maintain, if not strengthen, relationships,” Iconomopoulos said. Respecting yourself enough to even have the conversation encourages other people to take you seriously. This is especially true when you come to the table with well-prepared arguments. (If you present yourself well in a negotiation situation, imagine what you can do when presenting to a potential client or investor!)
But what about when you do your homework, practice your pitch, and wear your best power outfit, only to end up getting the dreaded “it’s just not in the cards right now” response? “Sometimes, despite our best efforts, rejection happens,” shared Iconomopoulos. “It may bruise your ego for a while, but when handled with tact and with a backup plan in place, it’s not so terrible.” Your backup plan can include asking for non-salary perks like more time off or increased working-from-home benefits. It could also include a follow-up conversation in a few months to ask again. Or, perhaps, you ask for a title or responsibility change.
Ultimately, Iconomopoulos reassured me that the rejection “can actually bring self-confidence from asserting oneself and can help to gain the respect of others,” which doesn’t sound too bad at the end of the day. As someone who has experienced rejection during a salary negotiation before, trust me when I say that what doesn’t kill you makes you—and your future negotiations—stronger. (But some ice cream and retail therapy can help ease the immediate wound.)
Remember: It all comes down to confidence
You can have all the research, know the comparables, and have a spreadsheet a mile long with your recent accomplishments. Yet, there’s one thing that people are often missing when they enter a negotiation. “Your mindset has to be in the right place,” shared Iconomopoulos. “You can psych yourself up, or you can psych yourself out.” Now’s the time to blast some Lizzo, wear your favorite heels, and tell yourself that you deserve this. Then, believe it!
Iconomopoulos advises her clients to ask themselves two questions before they go into the conversation: “If I don’t stand up for myself and go after this, who else will?” and “Don’t I deserve what I’m going after?” These questions are powerful reminders that nobody will advocate for you if you don’t advocate for yourself. You need to believe you are deserving of more money, time off, or the vacation destination of your dreams before you can convince someone else of it.
Iconomopoulos’s final piece of advice is to channel that nervous energy into enthusiasm. “Instead of telling yourself that you’re nervous, turn that nervous energy into a more productive energy by telling yourself that you’re excited to finally get what you want. Your brain will thank you for it… and so will your bank account!”