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How Shy People Can Be Strong Negotiators

Workarounds, bargaining math, and the hidden advantages of introverts.

Key points

  • In an increasingly competitive and dynamic environment, those of us who were born shy may appear to be at a disadvantage.
  • Remote work changed where negotiations happen: Even when we’re talking face-to-face, we might be time zones or continents apart.
  • Negotiation doesn’t need to be a shouting match: It pays to pay attention and aim for a win-win outcome.

I witnessed a remote job interview at Starbucks once, in which a guy on a video call shared juicy details about his previous roles and salary expectations — with people sipping coffee all around him. It was a beautiful display of confidence, and the scene filled me with the immediate urge to do something about my being shy.

Most people are pretty uncomfortable negotiating, let alone negotiating in front of others — let alone in a loud café, where everyone and their mother can eavesdrop on the conversation.

In an increasingly competitive and dynamic environment, those of us who were born shy may appear to be at a disadvantage. An important skill of a successful negotiator is communication, and shy people, by definition, tend to be less talkative with people they don’t know well.

Rather than fixing some aspect of our personality, figuring out our strengths and negotiating based on those usually works better. Negotiation doesn’t need to be a shouting match, either: It pays to pay attention — and understand the other side’s needs and perspectives.

Joint bargaining

Researchers have long been interested in the outcome of joint decision-making efforts. Ideally, negotiations result in outcomes that suit everyone, but participants often leave the table with regrets. And sometimes no decision is made at all.

Some people will always aim for win-win outcomes in which both sides are happy when they walk away, while others find it more acceptable to reach a win-lose type of deal. Different participants might try for different outcomes, and what some people consider ethical, others might consider crossing the line.

One method for courting win-win scenarios is described in the book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. The authors, Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, contrast two types of negotiations. In what they deem “positional bargaining,” each side takes a position, argues for it, and makes concessions in order to reach a compromise. Positional bargaining is then compared to “principled negotiation,” which focuses on each party’s needs or interests — not their goals, but rather, the reasons why they have adopted those goals.

By focusing on underlying interests, participants can suggest alternative positions to satisfy them. As a group, the parties can come up with varying solutions as well as creative ways to find a truly win-win situation.

Negotiating math

Negotiation analysis, an emerging field between decision analysis and game theory, deals with developing theories and useful advice for negotiators.

With the goal of determining a zone of possible agreement, analysts evaluate all strategies and tactics. All potential outcomes might be conditional to various actions, and they might pose different subjective values for the participants. Finding the optimal outcome is both an art and a science.

Even when we don’t expect either side to be rational, creating a fully rational baseline analysis is useful. Negotiations tend to activate all sorts of irrational components though — components that can be a deciding factor in the outcome.

As negotiators, people have different personalities, motivations, and histories. People at the negotiating table can have incompatible interests and can be misled by irrelevant information, heuristics, or anything else in a persuader’s playbook. All of these factors can both help and hinder reaching an agreement.

With larger groups, social dynamics come into play, and the picture gets even more complex. Social barriers can impact communication and lead to polarization or conflict. Since individuals take cues from others, leaders can hijack decision-making, leaving shyer group members in silence.

Breaking up in an email

Preparation is critical to being successful at negotiation, but communication is how plans get implemented. Verbal communication being the Achilles’ heel of shy people, it can be a good idea to find shortcuts.

Remote work changed where negotiations happen: Even when we’re talking face-to-face, we might be time zones or continents apart. And when we don’t use real-time channels, we resort to email, chat platforms or other, asynchronous forms of communication.

Over email, parties can’t interrupt each other or shout the other side down. Email is also a great platform for reducing social differences. For example, it can hide a person’s accent or national origin, which can help reduce unconscious gender or racial bias. And of course, it can hide or help reduce the anxiety of those too shy to speak up.

One would think writing helps people get their point across, but that’s not often the case. One drawback of written communication: Parties may revert to cherry-picking some arguments and simply ignoring others.

In fact, real-life email threads can accentuate competitive behavior. When the two sides are having two simultaneous conversations, each might try to persuade the other instead of exploring ways to work together. When that happens, it’s safe to assume that it’s a matter of information overload rather than a deliberate attempt to cherry-pick. With email, however, there’s always time and opportunity to correct these — mostly unconscious — mistakes.

What a good negotiator knows

Everyone’s style is different, and different people have varying levels of control over their body language. It’s often said that poor negotiators focus on themselves rather than on the other party and the other party’s objectives.

Since information is one of the main sources of bargaining power, knowing how to ask good questions is an essential component of negotiation. But knowing how and what to ask isn’t worth much without the ability to listen. Making sure to fully understand the position of both parties and finding a win-win outcome is a skill that no one should shy away from.

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