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6 Phrases All Good Negotiators Use to Get What They Want

While no words work all the time, the following phrases can help keep you on track, serve notice to the other side, and keep the conversation open.

Unless it’s your job, few people love the prospect of negotiating. It’s filled with anxiety about getting taken and being laughed at, and even if you’re decent at it, there’s the confrontation aspect and the unavoidable pressure of what you’re trying to do.

“Negotiations are about how to share things that are scarce,” says Richard Shell, professor of legal studies and ethics at the Wharton School of Business and author of Bargaining for Advantage.

The obvious thing is money, but it could be time, a parking space, or who gets to go first in the board game. It calls on you to be patient and listen, and it also involves the need to stand firm and be empathetic, a duality that isn’t stress-free and can’t be removed.

“There will be tension,” says Eugene B. Kogan, instructor of advanced negotiations at Harvard’s Professional Development Program and co-author of Mediation: Negotiation By Other Moves.

But you can handle it and it doesn’t have to be a battle. It just means remembering some fundamentals of negotiating:

  • No. 1: Forget about winning versus losing. Instead, focus on your goals, problem-solving and getting the deal that works for you. And so …
  • No. 2: Go in knowing what your must-haves are, what they aren’t, and everything in between. When you prioritize, you don’t go down rabbit holes.
  • No. 3: You must voice what you want. It’s not a mind reading endeavor. “Don’t ask. Don’t get,” says Lynn Price, speaker, attorney and author of Negotiate It!

And while every negotiation is different, there are common sticking points and moments when you just want to retreat and make it stop. While no words work all the time, the following phrases can help keep you on track, serve notice to the other side, and keep the conversation open until you decide when it’s over.

1. “What’s it like to work here?”

Time isn’t limitless but you don’t jump right in. With common transactional deals where you won’t see they won’t see the customer service rep or a car dealer again, you want to start by building rapport, and open-ended questions do that. It could be the above or something like, “How long have you been doing this?”, “What do you like about your job”, or “Who annoys you?”

Chances are, they rarely get asked anything like that. They’re more “used to being abused and disregarded,” Shell says. By asking them about themselves, you’ve taken a moment to recognize them and given the interaction dimension, and when you’re not feeling good about what’s being offered, you can ask, “Are there any other options you can think of?” You’re acknowledging the power and insider knowledge that they have and you don’t. It won’t work all the time, but sometimes that person will want to do something for you.

 2. “Help me understand why this matters…”

No one should lay everything out immediately, but as you talk, you can sense an obstacle. Rather than pop off or walk, you give this invitation to be educated and put the responsibility on the other person to explain the significance. Maybe it’s a dollar figure; maybe something more qualitative. Asking doesn’t mean you have to agree, but it tells them that you’re listening and you can learn something. “You’re digging underneath the request,” Kogan says.

3. “I hear what you’re saying, but what do you think about what I offered?”

One difficult point is when what you say isn’t acknowledged. That silence can be unnerving and can cause you to fill it up and start negotiating against yourself. Price says that it’s always a good move to say what you want, smile, and say nothing more, but if that’s too hard, use what she calls a “boomerang response,” a line that doesn’t commit you to anything, prompts the person to talk, while sending the message that you’re not changing your terms. “It’s a way to show you’re confident, and confidence in negotiations is key,” she says.

4. “Wow. That was not what I was expecting to hear.”

When the other side comes out strong with an offer, that surge of aggression can make already anxious people more so, causing them to retreat or give away too much. The above response slows things down and makes the other side give their why. That person might not have one – it could have been a play – but if they do, they must voice it and then you can talk about the reasons. “You’ve regained momentum,” Shell says. “It’s a good place to be.”

5. “We’re not agreeing on this point. Let’s come back to it later.”

You’re recognizing the impasse and moving it to the side. It keeps you from agreeing to something just to make discomfort go away. While working on other issues, you could continue to build rapport and learn more about what the other person wants, and that momentum might help when you revisit the issue.

Or it won’t. It’s okay to say that it won’t work, emphasizing that it’s just “this time” to leave a on a positive note. Just don’t feel beholden to make a deal just because you started on one, an easy trap to fall into. Rather than fearing it was all wasted time, see it as valuable information for the future. “You’re coming out with what you can and can’t do and that you can’t work with this person,” Price says.

6. “Maybe it’s not your intent, but your current approach feels like you’re trying to pressure me.”

No matter what you say or do, the other person might have zero interest in collaborating. It’s all about acting tough and getting you to cave. There are many great negotiators with advice, but the best might be from Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse: Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.

You want to let them know that what they’re doing won’t work, spelling out the probable outcome: No deal and no one is happy, especially the people being represented, and that can make them change tactics. You can also suggest taking a break, which can cool things down and allow them to reconsider.

It takes some brass, but you’re showing yourself to be cool under pressure. It might or might not change the dynamic, but regardless, you can’t feel good about any outcome if you’re playing at someone else’s pace.

“You want to be in control of time,” Kogan says. That’s truly a key to being a good negotiator.