Strong and Kind Negotiation

A The Eminents interview with Seth Freeman

Posted Mar 10, 2017

Courtesy, Seth Freeman
Source: Courtesy, Seth Freeman

Negotiation is scary, and when we’re scared we may not be at our best. For example, we may capitulate prematurely, unduly harden our position, and even be unethical.

The antidote is preparation, practical and psychological. To help us with that, my The Eminents interview today is with Seth Freeman. Since the 1990s, He has been teaching negotiation at Columbia and NYU as well as to executives, students, and UN diplomats around the world. He’s also the professor of The Great Course: The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal. Too, he’s the author of The Ready and Able Negotiator and, forthcoming, The Trust Problem: How We Turn Danger Into Hope.

MARTY NEMKO: We are negotiating even in settings we don’t think of as a negotiation. One timely example: Discussing politics with someone who voted for a different presidential candidate than you did. Any advice in that situation?

SETH FREEMAN:  Especially these days, such conversations can be stressful. It may be helpful to agree to use the Recap, Recap technique. I’ll explain with an example of how I might introduce the “negotiation:”

 I’d like to talk politics but to make it safe for both of us, should we try this? You talk for around 30 seconds--so it doesn’t get too complicated to remember. Then I’ll try to repeat the gist of what you said. If I got it right, you let me know. If I didn’t, you correct me. Then we’ll reverse roles. Do you want to try it, say, for 10 minutes and then we can reassess? Maybe after our conversation, we’ll go get ice cream.

It can also help to ask follow-up questions, not to nail the person but to better understand their statement’s underpinnings. One example: “It sounds like you feel that more redistribution to the poor would be good. Can you explain why you feel that way?” By often asking questions, you may lead speakers to better understand themselves or even change their mind---without arguing. That’s why Socrates and most salespeople ask so many questions.

MN: Unless a job seeker is a star or has a rare but in-demand skill set, s/he has little power when negotiating compensation. The average candidate has job-searched for months and is grateful to finally get one job offer. So s/he has no walk-away power. As challenging, most job seekers can’t accurately enough assess their fair-market value: Publicly posted salary information is rarely comparable enough, and employees of the organization rarely will disclose their compensation package to the job seeker. Any advice?

SF: Non-cash aspects of the offer may be more negotiable than salary, so rather than asking for more cash, you might couch the request broadly: “Are there ways you could improve the offered package? I’m flexible as long as we find a way to help me better provide for my family.” That can be potent because a survey found that HR people typically are given little latitude on salary and more around vacation, start date, and some benefits. So you might, for example, request a training budget--that benefits both you and the employer.

MN: I’ve taught negotiation skills to many clients, and they prepared well for their negotiation but amid the pressure, prematurely capitulated, couldn’t maintain their good listening skills, or lost their temper. Any advice?

SF: It can help to role-play with someone playing the counterpart from hell.

MN: What are some tactics the negotiator from hell tends to use?

SF: They may use threats, lies, and bluffs such as, “Take it or leave it,” “Where do you get the nerve?” Or even lie.

Nothing is foolproof but readiness counts. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviets’ U.S. ambassador insisted it had no offensive weapons in Cuba. Fortunately, Kennedy had spy satellite photos proving that was a lie.

Another sleazy tactic is bafflegab, double-talk: saying deceptive things in complicated ways. That plays on people’s fear of looking dumb. It really helps to ask, “Forgive me, I didn’t quite get that. Would you reexplain?”

MN: Speaking of fear, many job seekers are afraid to negotiate for fear the offer will be withdrawn. Any antidotes?

SF: Prepare carefully, then try to get the employer to make the first offer and listen carefully for any cues it’s a final offer. A low-risk way to test the limits is to ask, ‘How firm is the offer?" Also, use a positive, optimistic tone, for example, "I'm confident we'll come up with an arrangement we'll all be happy with."

MN: If I Google the phrase “Trust is essential,” I get more than 100 million hits. You say trust isn’t essential.

SF: If trust were essential, a war could never be ended by negotiation. Yet, even though, to this day, the leaders of Northern Ireland have never trusted each other, the children there are growing up never having experienced a car bombing. The negotiators used a number of trust mechanisms. For example, the negotiators got powerful third parties such as the U.S. to agree to an independent international commission to monitor key parts of the peace accord.

MN: When shopping—for example, for a car, jewelry, whatever—one way to assess if you’re getting a really good price is to walk out. What do you think of that tactic?

SF: If you have only a worse alternative, it's potentially high-risk, high-return. True, it may just mean egg on your face if s/he calls your bluff. On the other hand, the seller might say, “Sorry, that offer is off the table" since s/he now knows your alternative is weak. It’s certainly safer to ask, “Can you do better?" If s/he says no, you can walk away and if s/he shouts a concession, great.”

MN: You say that young children can be taught negotiation. What can a parent do to teach negotiation?

SF: Our girls are 6 and 9 and we've taught them a few tactics. One is creative options. For example, if they're fighting over a ball, they know they can share, take turns, trade, give and love, or do something else together. We drew a picture of those on a piece of posterboard to remind them and to give them choices---Everyone likes choices.  I’ve taught the creative options tactic to kindergartners with success. You can practice with kids by doing funny simulations about fighting for a ball.

MN: We’ve been rather tactical in this interview. Is there a bigger-picture statement you’d like to make about negotiation?

SF: I cherish Martin Luther King’s statement: “Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Together, love and negotiation can help people get along better when most think it’s impossible. That's why I love teaching negotiation. That possibility is also why I want my children, above all, to be strong and kind.

After this interview, I had Freeman on my KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco) radio program to probe some of his answers. HERE is the link to it

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach. You can reach him at

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