How can you get what you want without sacrificing your reputation? We spoke with Columbia Law Professor Alexandra Carter, author of Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything to learn a simple yet powerful framework for successful negotiation.

Q. How do you define negotiation?

Alexandra Carter: Growing up, I was taught that negotiation is a transactional back and forth between two or more people — usually over money. It’s something you do once a year: I go into the head of my organization and say “Hi, Alex Carter here. I won an award. I published a book. Keep me in mind when you make your compensation decisions.”

But over time, I came to realize negotiation is not that, and it’s not BATNA or any other method you learn in school. It all clicked when I went to Hawaii with my husband, and we got in a kayak on the Wailua River. Our guide looks back at us and says, “Please negotiate your kayaks to the left so that we can end up on that beach over there.” That was the moment when everything came into focus.

Negotiation as I now understand it is any conversation in which you are steering a relationship. I am teaching people how to think about me and my experience, and I am working to really understand them and their experience. My goal is not getting to yes. My goal is not a handshake. My goal is creating long-term partnerships where people know that I am their partner in their long-term goals that are going to produce value for us both. Negotiation is teaching people how to value you in every conversation you have — including the conversations you have with yourself.

Q. If negotiation is about steering relationships, what tools do you use to steer?

AC: The way to steer is to ask great questions. When we ask ourselves the right questions, we develop internal self-awareness that helps us lead.

Negotiation starts at home with yourself. Steering your own internal conversation is critical to figuring out how you're going to lead and negotiate. The first question that I ask myself is, “What is the problem I want to solve?” Picking the right problem to solve is only the most critical component of negotiation success. In the midst of unsolvable problems, pick the ones you can solve and focus your energy there.

The second question I ask myself is, “How have I handled this successfully in the past?” When you go into a negotiation having thought about a prior success, you are more likely to perform better. It acts as a power prime. Inevitably we find strategies that worked in the past that can work in the future.

When you’re negotiating with someone else, questions that lead with “tell me” are the best approach you can take to get the most information on any level. For example: “Tell me what your company needs most. Tell me what you think you're succeeding at. Tell me what you're struggling with.” “Tell me” just opens people up, compelling them to share with you what's on their mind and productively participate in finding a solution. People have concerns in every negotiation. And when you ask about their concerns, you can then pitch to them and create better deals.

Q. How do you ask for more in the midst of a crisis? The environment isn’t necessarily flexible, and many are lucky to even have jobs.

AC: During this time of stress, it is critically important to lead with questions. If I go in right now and I lead with my arguments or my demands, I'm going to get a reflexive no. And the easiest way to get a no is to push too far too fast. When I ask questions first, I slow it down and I enable people to participate and make it more likely that I'm going to end up with a yes.

One way of looking at this situation is that every dollar is precious. On the other hand, if every dollar is precious, don't you want to spend those dollars on people who can contribute most to the success of your organization? On those who are going to pivot your company out of this crisis? Come prepared to show them how compensating you will benefit them.

It is so easy in a crisis for us to fall back on the previous lies we've told ourselves — that we're lucky to be there, that we're lucky to have a job. All of that is true, but we can and should still make the argument about our value in the end.

Q. Do you ever feel imposter syndrome when you’re negotiating and asking these questions? How do you overcome it?

AC: The title of the book, Ask for More, comes from my first salary negotiation. I was in my thirties and I had never negotiated for salary before. I went in in my power suit and I had an idea of what they were going to come back with. And they came in above. And so I thought, oh crap.

I called a senior woman in my field and I said, I need some advice. She said, “I'm going to tell you what to do, Alex. You're going to ask for more. Because when you teach someone how to value you, you teach him how to value all women. If you're not going to go in and ask for more for yourself, go in and do it for the sisterhood. Do it for the women who are coming up behind you.” That is my answer as to how I get over imposter syndrome. Do I have it? All the time. But I realized that when I stand up and claim my value as an expert, I am making room for other women.

Originally Published May 15, 2020