How To Negotiate When You’re At A Disadvantage

Even when the playing field isn’t level, you can still make the negotiation more fair.

In an ideal world, a negotiation is fair. Whether it’s a sales deal, salary package, or overarching agreement, the best negotiations have two or more parties who are looking for common ground and committed to finding the best possible solution for all.

But, we don’t live in an ideal world. Bias, deception, and hidden agendas can put even the most forthright negotiator at a disadvantage. A new study bears this out. Women ask for raises as often as their male counterparts, however the research found that they got what they wanted 25% less often.

Whether you’re dealing with people’s stereotypes or biases because of who you are, or if there’s another reason your counterpart is not being forthright and honest, how you handle the negotiation can make all the difference, says leadership consultant and career coach Avery Blank.

“First you need to decide if the negotiation is worth it. Negotiations should be win-wins. You shouldn’t accept the terms of the negotiation if you’ve been bullied or disrespected,” she says.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to know if you’re in a fair negotiation, or you feel you must negotiate even if you aren’t going to get a fair shake. In those cases, these seven steps can help.


Before you begin the negotiation, do all of the research you can about the person, entity, situation, and possible offer, says psychologist Jerry D. Smith, Jr. of psychology and consulting firm Breakthrough Psychological Solutions. Smith, who has experience in crisis, hostage, and labor negotiations, knows what it’s like to be at a disadvantage. He advises gathering as much information as you can so you’re well-versed in as much of the negotiation as possible. That way, you’re less likely to be caught by surprise, and more likely to spot it if your counterpart is being unfair or deceptive, he says.

In addition, you can use the knowledge you have about the situation to think about different directions the negotiation might go and the objections that your counterpart might have. “The more you understand others’ positions and what they’re looking for, the easier it will be for you to have clarity over what your negotiation is going to be like and whether you’re going to be successful or not,” says Joe Carella, assistant dean of executive education at the University of Arizona.


If you’re in a situation where you’re dealing with bias because of stereotypes, Blank says you may be able to use that to your advantage. For example, if you’re a young person who may be thought of as inexperienced or unprepared, prove others wrong. When you defeat their preconceived notions, you throw them off their game and give yourself an advantage, she says.


When you are actively listening, you’re completely engaged in what the other person has to say, instead of just waiting to speak. Active listening can help you build rapport with others in the negotiation and learn new things about their goals or apprehensions, Smith says. You can also establish commonality and put them more at ease.

“Usually when people or parties engage in an abusive kind of process in a negotiation process, they’re afraid of something,” Smith says. “They have a concern that their feeling is not going to be met, so really being able to figure out what those aspects are by listening to the emotions behind the language can help the party who doesn’t have the power really see what’s motivating the other party,” he says.


To further conversation and communication, avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Probing questions require lengthier answers and can uncover more information that you can use in the negotiation, says Barry Goldman, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona.

If you ask “Is my benefit package similar to what others in my position are offered?” you would get a yes or a no answer. However, if you ask probing questions such as, “What is included in the benefits package?” you are more likely to reduce the likelihood of deception or uninformative answers.


Smith says that he enters negotiations with the assumption that both parties are looking for ways to be logical. If that’s not what he’s seeing, he feels it’s his responsibility to help the parties get there. Getting unnecessarily heated or emotional or calling out perceived behavior can get in the way of that effort, he says.


Ask for what you want, but know what your bottom line is, says Jennifer Martin, founder of Zest Business Consulting. Without that “walk away” number or parameter, you lose your power in a negotiation because you don’t have the leverage to disengage from it. “Knowing what the most you will pay for something or the minimum you’ll accept for a new or existing job will help you decide when you are ready to walk away,” Martin says.


If you get a sense that the negotiation is derailing or you’re truly being treated unfairly, remember the “reset button,” Blank says. Ask to reconvene the negotiation at a different time or location, or to otherwise revisit it–perhaps after the parties have had time to gather and review more information. Pushing “pause” on an unfair negotiation gives you a chance to start over again in an attempt at something better, she says.

“You always have more control than you think you do,” Blank says.


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