How to negotiate from a disadvantage

Think you don’t have any leverage? Think again.
By Eddie Huffman

In an ideal world, you would enter every negotiation from a position of strength. If you wanted a raise, you'd have a great job offer with another company in your back pocket. If you wanted to acquire a competing firm, you'd have abundant resources and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. If you wanted to buy a house, you'd have money to burn and all the time in the world.

But we don't live in an ideal world. It's often necessary to negotiate when you're in a comparatively weak position. Maybe you represent a small company negotiating with a much bigger organization, or you're a member of a family that's moving and must buy a new home in the next six weeks.

You always have leverage, however, even if it's not obvious. We spoke to some experts about the best strategies and tactics to use when you're negotiating at a disadvantage.

Play to your strengths. The experts agree: If you're in a negotiation, you have something to offer. If you didn't, the other side wouldn't have come to the table. Todd Camp, owner of Camp Negotiation Institute in the San Francisco Bay area, puts it in terms of David vs. Goliath: "If Goliath is talking to you, you have something they want."

One way to play to those strengths is by doing your homework, according to Greg Williams, a speaker, negotiating adviser, and author of books such as Body Language Secrets to Win More Negotiations. Enter a negotiation with as much information as you can about what the other side needs and what you have to offer.

"How badly do they need what you have?" he said. "Why are they negotiating with you? What are they seeking from you?"

Establish rapport by asking questions. Use small talk and ask questions to build trust with the other negotiator, said Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates in Los Angeles. Take time to get to know the people you're dealing with. Even if they represent a Fortune 500 company and you represent a local firm, they have families, hobbies, and business interests you can ask about. Asking questions will make them more receptive to working with you and may reveal useful information about their values and needs in the process, Pynchon said.

"You learn their strengths, their weaknesses, what they're worried about, who they have to answer to, what the time constraints are, what outside interests they're serving, and then you pitch whatever it is you're trying to negotiate in their favor," she said. "You pitch it as satisfying their interests."

Asking questions puts you in a power position, according to Williams: "That individual is gathering more information than he or she is actually giving."

Stand your ground. Even if you feel as if you're at a disadvantage in a negotiation, that doesn't mean you have to let the other side walk all over you. If the other negotiators make an offer outside your acceptable range, they may simply be testing the waters to see how many concessions they can get, Camp said. You can politely refuse and then turn the tables by asking them to suggest a way out of the impasse.

"Say, 'I'm sorry we can't agree to that. How do we proceed from here?'" Camp said. "You're exercising your right to veto, but you're not walking away."

Even if a negotiation doesn't feel like a meeting of equals, you have power at your disposal simply by being in a position to bargain. You can overcome disadvantages by recognizing your own strengths, making a solid connection with the other negotiator, and, if necessary, simply saying "no."

Eddie Huffman is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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