What words come to mind when you hear the word negotiation? Negotiator? Tough. Competitive. Frustration. Liars. Cheating. Battle. Winning. Losing. (no wonder people avoid negotiation like the plague...)
In this episode, I interview, Devon Smiley. She has15 years of experience with Forbes’ finest and small business alike. She closed $5 billion of commercial contracts as a lead negotiator. She brings this experience to organizations that are focused on securing strong commercial results without sacrificing relationships.
Her insights on negotiation have been featured in the New York Times, Glamour magazine and the Chicago Tribune. If you are fed up with getting in your own way, feeling like you're not quite good enough, and settling for second best. It's time to master the art of confidently, calmly and successfully asking for what you want, need and deserve.
In preparing for this interview I looked up what negotiation means. The definition I found was ‘the aim of reaching an agreement’. Is that your definition as well?
Devon thinks about negotiation as transformation. Taking a situation that doesn't really work for you and turning it into one that does.
When two people have opposing views it can be difficult to reach an agreement. What are some strategies that you teach on how to reach this agreement and get what you want?
When you are preparing to negotiate you need to not just think about what you want and need, but also what the other person wants and needs. It is important to ask the other person what they want. Which can feel very bold but can really help move the conversation forward.
Do you recommend starting with asking what the other person wants?
When you start a negotiation you want to set an agenda for the conversation. It is then beneficial to ask the other person if there is anything else that they want to talk about.
If I ask the other person what they want, how is that helpful to me?
Knowing what the other person is looking for can really help you in being more active and more engaged in the conversation. It helps you start off on the same page.
The person that is asking the question is most in control. Do you believe that to be true?
Devon agrees. It’s a combination of the person who takes the initiative by going first and asking questions because it gives you a lot of information. Information is powerful and will feed all the proposals you will be able to make in the negotiation.
The bigger umbrella in this is asking for what you want. Women, in general, struggle with asking for what they want. For someone who is experiencing fear, there’s an emotional aspect to it. Do you also teach about that emotional piece?
As much as we like to think as professionals, as businesswomen, that we can detach ourselves from the emotion, it is actually feeding everything we are doing. Devon suggests people ask themselves - what would be the worse case if I ask for this thing? In reality, what we fear is unlikely to actually happen.
What’s the worse thing that has happened to you when you have asked for something?
Devon had someone burst out in laughter once because he thought that what she was asking for was absolutely ridiculous. She was able to keep a straight face and keep going because she had prepared herself for a bad reaction.
Do you feel like you can build this ability to handle ‘rejection’ when you practice asking?
Definitely. That’s why it’s great to start with small things. For example, asking for an extra napkin when you buy something. It’s not the end of the world if they say no, you just move on. It makes it easier to build up that comfort with rejection before you build up to the big high-risk things.
We’re often told not to talk about money. How do you suggest people prepare themselves for asking for more money?
To prepare ourselves emotionally we need to separate worth from value. That you as a human being have a worth but that’s not what you’re negotiating. You’re negotiating based on the value you are bringing to the table. The next step is to come up with actual tangible numbers. How many percentage points did you earn your client because of that great marketing campaign? How many new clients did you bring in for your employer? Arm yourself with quantifiable data before entering discussions about money.
I want to hear more about your story. How did you become interested in this topic and start a business around it?
Devon fell into negotiation. After her degree, she started working in procurement and was offered the opportunity to move into a full-time negotiator role for contracts in aerospace. She ended up loving it. After some time she discovered she got more pleasure out of training and mentoring more junior employees in developing their negotiation skills. She is now making it her mission to show more people that negotiation isn’t as scary as they think.
What do you think the message that you’re relaying is?
The big one is reminding people that negotiation isn’t a natural skill. Everyone can become a great negotiator as we build the skills. It involves practice, building up some strategies and becoming more comfortable with negotiating.
What might be something that someone practices?
There are two things she generally has people practice. Asking for the small things, even outside of business. Start asking for the things you want. And getting comfortable with silence. A lot of negotiation is letting the silence sit there and having it as an opportunity for the other person to start talking.
How important do you think it is to stay with the thing that you want? When do you find yourself meeting somebody halfway?
It’s always important to start ambitiously. Women tend to ask for 30% less than a man would ask for in the same situation. This limits the amount of wiggle room we have in a negotiation. So be a little cheeky. It should make you feel a little nervous to ask for that much. That gives you the space to make an adjustment to your proposal without selling yourself short. Then have a few plans for things that you could be comfortable trading to the other person. The worst thing is when the other person is sitting across the table saying no to everything.
So what would you do when somebody is saying no?
Remind the person of what the goal is and ask if that is still what the negotiation is working towards.
How do we establish boundaries?
In the workplace, when you’re setting your boundaries, it’s important to be clear about how it makes you feel when someone does something inappropriate. Sometimes we try to soften what we say when we try to set a boundary.
What are some words to watch out for to avoid softening?
We apologize. ‘I’m sorry taking your time for this.’ Or ‘I know you’re really busy….’ We put all these fillers at the beginning. ‘I’m thinking that maybe….’ We’re trained to not be assertive in our language, so it takes practice.
When it comes to money we tend to ask for a range: $50K-$70K. The other person will hear what they want to hear. Devon suggests that in this example we should be a little cheeky and ask for $75K.
Do you think this comes from some of our conditioning around teacher/ student dynamics in school?
Raise your hand. Get permission. Very gently ask. Being polite goes a long way but we are overly conditioned to seek permission before sharing what we need.
How did you find the courage to take the leap of starting your own business?
One of the last experiences Devon had in the corporate world was a negotiation where she saved $10 million. She walked into the Vice Presidents office and got a ‘Is that all?’, which felt terrible. With her first non-corporate client she helped her earn an extra $500 and she was so grateful because it meant she could get her kids sports lessons. And Devon realized that the type of impact she wanted to make was the type that helped other human beings.
There’s something to be said for the power of small asks. Often there are small things that we find uncomfortable that we overlook. We wait until we’re really uncomfortable to say something.
Devon talks about the analogy of a frog in water. The temperature slowly rises until the frog is dead. We put up with low-level things until it gets too much before we don’t want to rock the boat. We will adjust to a very crappy situation. But the moment comes which is enough to shock us out of it which is the moment to ask for a change.
Anything else you want to talk about?
A lot of people get scared about negotiation because of the image they have of a negotiator and they don’t fit that image. Devon says that negotiation is about relationship and communication. Those are the elements that are important in negotiation and what you look like doesn’t matter.
Is there a fast way to build that connection?
We tend to get very uncomfortable with small talk. Either because we think it’s a waste of time or because it can be awkward. But according to studies you get a better result if you take 5-10 minutes to connect with someone on a non-business topic. This can be as simple as talking about the weather.
For me connecting comes more naturally because I have this world view that we’re all friends and it really helps. If you see somebody already as your ally. When we’re negotiating we tend to put people in a position of being against us rather than as allies.
We go into battle mode and think the other person is going to trick us and screw us over. We put a lot of emotional energy into figuring out how they may try to screw us over rather than focusing on what we want to achieve and ways we can move things forward.
We’re terrified of rejection. That’s why we don’t ask for things.
Devon still remembers being rejected by a boy at her school dance in the 7th grade. When we’re negotiating if we get a yes straight away then we probably haven’t asked for enough. So hearing a no is good because you haven’t sold yourself short. And then you can get a conversation going.
You’ve previously said - Don’t ask for things through email. Is that still true?
For the most part, yes. Especially as email can be terrible at conveying tone. Email, however, is great at recapping meetings but the phone is a much better way of asking for something.
There is real freedom in having the courage to ask for what you want. It changes everything. What is holding us back is that we’re afraid to ask.
We sit there and we accept the status quo because we’re too afraid to ask for something. We rationalize the situation. We don’t ask because we don’t want to be a nuisance.
When people meet Devon and find out that she’s a negotiator, they often say - “Oh you’re going to tell me that I always need to ask. I always need to negotiate my salary, that I always need to ask for more money.” Devon says that it needs to be a choice. That you know the option to ask is there and you choose not to do it consciously and not because you’re scared to do it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Never email when angry.
That following an emotion when making a business decision does not make you weak.
What’s an action step somebody could take right now if they want to ask for what they want?
Devon has a Make The Ask Challenge. Everybody has something that they have wanted in the last 7 days and haven’t asked for. She gets people to figure out what that is and write it down. They then have 7 days to ask for it.