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Tell Them What You Want

Robin Copland
© © comzeal | Adobe Stock

Negotiations are often formulaic.  Management, for example, go into a negotiation fully expecting the union to make the first proposal.  This approach has been accepted as the norm for so many years that somehow, it is seen as “not the done thing” to do anything different.  If management is keen to put a radical new proposition on the table, then “waiting for the union to make the first proposal” is obviously silly; but it’s amazing how often negotiators blindly follow procedure and do just that.

I have often heard it said – and typically at drinks parties when someone finds out what I do for a living! – that the secret of great negotiators is “never to tell people what you really want”.  So let’s take the combination of these two techniques – “letting the other side lead with their proposal as a matter of course”, and “never letting the other side know what you want” and see what happens.

Party One:        “Make me an offer”.

Party Two:        “No”.

Party One:        “Oh – go on”.

Party Two:        “No”.

Party One:        “No, really.  Make me a very generous offer that meets all my needs and expectations.”

Party Two:        “Which bit of ‘No’ was it that you weren’t getting”.  Your proposal is outrageous”

Party One:        “But I haven’t made a proposal”

Party Two:        “Exactly.  And the answer’s still No.”

I’m a great believer in being transparent about my expectations during a meeting.  The

earlier I can communicate to the other side what it is that I want, the more time the other side

has to work out the circumstances in which they can give me just that.  That is especially

true when what I want is either controversial or a long way removed from the status quo.

In these kinds of circumstances, it becomes really important to be absolutely specific about

exactly what it is that I need.

Are there any exceptions to that basic rule – tell people what you want?  There are maybe a


  • You genuinely do not know what it is that you want, for example, someone comes to you with a new product or solution to a problem
  • You think that if you let the other side lead, they may come up with a deal that is better than the one you would have asked for (though the chances of that happening are maybe not as high as you think!)
  • Someone makes a complaint about a product or service that you have provided and that has gone wrong. Let them tell you the level of compensation that they want – most of the time, they haven’t a clue!

But generally, telling the other side what you want is the way forward.  Constant reinforcement of that position is also important.  Put what you need on the table and stay there.  Anchor the position by constantly reinforcing it and not moving from it.  This idea that somehow you should ask for twice what you need, then haggle is old hat and can damage your long-term relationships.  What you may need to do is be flexible in other areas to protect the areas where you can’t.

My advice? 

  • Tell them exactly what you want early in the negotiation – especially when what you want is far removed from the status quo
  • Anchor yourself at that position and remind the other side constantly
  • Be open about where you might be flexible if you have to; incentivize the other side to give you what you want on the important issues.

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