Alexandra Carter on Negotiating Salaries, Relationships, Discounts, and How to Ask for More

Professional mediator and negotiation trainer Alexandra Carter on how anyone – from teens to executives – can strike bigger and better deals for work and life.

By Neha Kirpal

Alexandra Carter is a professor at Columbia Law School, a professional mediator, a negotiation trainer, and a mother. She makes her living helping people “ask good questions and finding the right answers.” Alexandra is also a negotiation trainer for groups including Fortune 500 companies, US government agencies, the United Nations and 10-year-old girls.

Each year, she helps thousands of people make deals, improve negotiation skills, strengthen relationships and come to know themselves better than ever before. 

In this exclusive interview, she talks about her latest book Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything (Simon & Schuster, 2020)

Can you tell us the story behind Ask for More?

I wrote Ask for More because as a young professional woman, I found that I was fantastic at advocating for other people – and much less comfortable standing up for my own worth. Until the day I negotiated for my first salary. I went in to the office in my power suit, really nervous and trying to act confident. To my surprise, the offer came in above what I expected. I managed to keep my face composed and say, “Thanks so much – let me run the numbers and get back to you.”

I felt unsure about what to do. So, I called a senior woman in my field and asked, “What do I do? Should I just take it?” She told me, “I’ll tell you what you’re going to do, Alex. You’re going to go in and ask for more.” I was incredulous. “Really? Even if it’s good?” I asked.

And she said, “Yes. Always negotiate. Because when you teach someone how to value you, you teach him how to value all of us. So, if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for the sisterhood. Do it for the women who are coming after you.”

In that moment, I realized that asking for more is not a selfish act. Quite the opposite: it helps create seats at the table for other women. And from that moment on, I dedicated myself to using my skills as a negotiation trainer to help women learn how to ask for more in every area of their lives.

Why did you write a book about negotiation for people who don’t think of themselves as negotiators?

I wanted to expand the conversation about negotiation. A lot of people think it’s just a back-and-forth over money, and that they can only negotiate if they’re business people or politicians. Or they might think that negotiation is something the biggest, most aggressive person (usually meaning a man) in the room can do well.

I wanted to let people know that whether you’re a management consultant, a mechanic or a mom, you too are a negotiator. And you can feel confident doing it.

Why do some people avoid asking for more and what are the consequences of this mistake?

A lot of us right now are going through life settling for less when we could be asking for more. Why?

Sometimes – especially as women – we think it’s not “nice” to negotiate. We think, or we’ve been taught, that we should be grateful just to be in the room: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” We think that negotiation means you have to be forceful and aggressive, that you can’t be a warm, relationship-building person and also be a great negotiator. So we don’t approach people with the services or products we have to offer.

At home, we “stuff it” and stay silent rather than raise our needs with our loved ones. And it’s all because most people don’t know that just learning to ask a few simple questions can help you get more in every area of your life – more financially, yes, but also more of the things that make life worthwhile.

Many of us also fear the “no.” That if someone turns our first proposal down, it somehow means terrible things about us or our business. Or that we’ve then ruined a relationship. We think “no” means the end of the conversation (it doesn’t!). One of my favourite topics these days is how to use questions to turn a no into a yes!

Or we may not realize it’s possible to negotiate many things in life. For example, back in 2005, my Italian single mom took me to a very well-known NYC bridal salon to buy my wedding dress. We picked one out, and I hesitated: I knew this was a big expense for her. My mother turned to the saleswoman and said, “I’m a schoolteacher, and this is a lot of money. What can you do for me?”

I almost died from embarrassment on the spot. I thought, “Doesn’t she know? This is a fancy bridal salon – you can’t negotiate!” Imagine my shock when the saleslady turned to her and said, “Well, Vera, since you told me you saw it at Saks first (*wink*), it’s 10 percent off.”

And there are huge consequences to not negotiating. Women who don’t negotiate their first salary stand to lose more than $500,000 in earnings by the age of 60. A study of MBA graduates found that only 7 percent of women attempted to negotiate their first salary offer, while 57 percent of men did. The result: a 7.6 percent difference in salary between men and women. Although a 7.6 percent difference may seem small, it is compounded over time as individuals receive promotions and raises.

Result: If you and your counterpart who negotiated are treated identically by the company – you are given the same raises and promotions – 35 years later, you will have to work eight more years to be as wealthy as your counterpart at retirement.

How do you define negotiation?

Negotiation is steering. I teach that it’s any conversation in which you are steering a relationship.

This means that when I’m negotiating with someone, I don’t wait until the money conversation to teach them how to value me. I’m communicating who I am and what I have to offer in every conversation. And I’m simultaneously getting to know them really well, too – which means that usually, I’m not just doing one deal or signing one contract with someone; I’m creating a partnership that produces many years of value.

And if negotiation is about steering relationships, what’s the most important relationship of your life? The relationship you have with yourself. Negotiation doesn’t start when you sit down with someone else – it starts at home with you. When you steer your internal conversation well, you will arrive at the negotiating table (or Zoom meeting!) with a sense of clarity and confidence.

In Ask for More, you emphasize the power of questions. Why do you believe that questions are the most neglected negotiation tool?

People don’t often think about questions in negotiation because people often make the mistake of thinking that negotiation is all about having the answers. Or controlling the conversation. Or making your arguments first. In fact, asking questions is the best way to get the information you need to create better deals – as well as relationships that produce a lifetime of value. But research shows that we don’t ask enough questions, and if we do, they’re the wrong ones.

When we ask ourselves the right questions, we gain the self-awareness that makes us better leaders. The people who lead most effectively are the ones who spend time considering the questions that will move them and their companies forward.

And when we ask other people questions, we create better deals and more trust across the table. But most of us don’t: Professor Leigh Thompson at the Kellogg School of Management found that 93 percent of all negotiators failed to ask the right questions that would help them get better deals.Even if you’re at odds, listening to the other side will help you in negotiation.

Why are self-reflective questions critical to any negotiation?

People sometimes wonder, “Do I have time to spend asking myself questions?” My answer: one, it doesn’t take that long – I can ask myself five great questions in under 30 minutes. And two – you can’t afford NOT to spend the time. When you make a small investment in asking yourself about your goals, priorities, needs and emotions, you not only do better financially but you’ll feel more peace and clarity during a challenging time like the one we’re in now.

Alexandra Carter (Photo: Nick Onken)

How can negotiating be useful in the most common situations an ordinary person might find themselves in?

The classic example is asking for more salary or a better compensation package. This is useful not only when you are interviewing but during the course of your career at an organization.

I knew one senior executive who was offered a promotion but not enough money. She continually and pleasantly asked, “How can we get me closer to a salary that reflects all the work I’ll be doing in this critical role?” And once she got to the maximum, they said, “We have a pot set aside for this and you’ve hit the maximum.”

So, she asked, “What other pots could we draw from to get me closer to where I believe the market is?” Turns out, they found something. This job would have required the executive to travel from home a lot. The company offered to pay for her spouse to accompany her, all expenses paid, once a month. Asking the right questions got her there! 

Or let’s take an example in the home. You’re struggling with your spouse over use of the one home office. A lot of us are working from home right now, so this is relevant! You feel like your spouse is taking the quiet space a lot while you’re left working at the dining room table with the kids (who are also home). Instead of saying, “Why am I always given the leftovers around here?” you pick a moment, sit down and say, “Let’s take a look at our work weeks and see how we can work out use of the home office. Tell me what your work week looks like, and I’ll share mine.”

Are the basic question-asking strategies you teach the same for negotiators at all levels ranging from the trainings you do at the United Nations versus the tween girls you teach for Stand Up Girls?

At their heart, yes. Many of the questions are the same. The applications are different, of course. But I have found that most human beings, whether female diplomats or tween girls, have the same basic human needs. We want to be respected, understood, heard. We want a sense of pride and achievement.

And for parents who wonder: can I really ask the same questions of my daughter that I can an adult? The answer is an emphatic yes! The parents I’ve taught have been shocked at how asking questions of their child, making them a partner in problem-solving, produces huge benefits and unexpected solutions. And actually the tween girls tend to be better listeners than us adults.

Why is negotiation a skill we urgently need now more than ever?

Never have we needed more the ability to talk to one another and find ways to solve problems. We’re in the midst of a health and economic crisis, where nerves are frayed and people may be struggling to keep their heads above water and find a way to thrive. We need a creative approach to help us continue to make deals and serve people in our businesses and lives.

Studies of the political and social climate in the United States show that we are more polarized than ever before. Research also demonstrates that people entering the workforce lack sufficient conflict-resolution skills. We can’t have the deep conversations that help us steer our families, companies and society forward unless we engage people beyond our own vantage point. We need to have the courage – and the tools – to talk to one another.

Why is opening a question with the phrase “Tell us about…” much more effective than asking someone “Why”?

One of the most ineffective questions people ask when trying to gain perspective is why. For example: “Why did you do that?” or “Why didn’t I stand up for myself?” Why is a question we tend to use when assigning blame, either to others or ourselves. Research shows that asking ourselves “why” puts us in a self-justifying mood and leads to distorted, self-serving answers.

But “Tell me” are the magic two words that help you negotiate anything. When you start your negotiations with “Tell me,” you build trust, reduce defensiveness, and get the most information possible by allowing you to hear someone else’s perspective on your problem or goal. Getting this perspective requires a bit of effort but produces so much value.

It helps us move from a black-and-white (and often biased) view of a situation to what some negotiation experts have called a “learning conversation,” where we grow in our understanding of an issue rather than remaining stuck. Open questions like “Tell me…” have been called “wellsprings of innovation” because the information they produce can transform institutions as well as individuals. Try it, and watch how your conversations transform.

Why should we shift the focus of negotiation from the desired outcome to the core problem?

Remember, to negotiate is to steer. Every decision, every turn you make in a negotiation stems from the problem or goal you have defined for yourself. In other words, if you’re going to be steering, don’t you first want to know where you’re going? People who skip this step (and many do) run the risk of finding themselves having paddled all day through choppy waters, only to find themselves on the wrong island. Most people think that the fun part of negotiation is figuring out the solution. Nope. This – defining your problem – is the juicy work. Once you learn how to define a problem, you’ll find how incredibly satisfying, creative, and even fun it can be.

How can we overcome the emotions that routinely derail negotiations?

Over time, I’ve seen two emotions that derail negotiations. We try to suppress them, but to no avail – they always come back up, like the monster at the very end of the action movie. What are they? Guilt and fear. Guilt and fear are what I call the Big Two – the two emotions we avoid most, and the two emotions that blow up negotiations and relationships more than any other.

I’m always reminded of the John F. Kennedy quote: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” When people seem difficult in a negotiation or relationship discussion, chances are they are feeling one of these emotions.

I deal with the Big Two by acknowledging people and letting them know I’m here to work with them. If you’re giving someone feedback in the workplace over a project that didn’t work, for sure they will be feeling fear and guilt. You can let them know (if it’s true) that you see their contributions. That your goal is to help them succeed and this is just one problem among many positives.

What’s the best way to ask your negotiation partner about their feelings?

I like asking, “What are your concerns?” It’s easier than asking about what I call “the F-word,” or feelings – especially at work.

A lot of times people have trouble acknowledging that they have feelings in their negotiations at work. The first time I ever previewed these questions at the United Nations, I was surprised by how many diplomats, male and female, teared up immediately upon my asking this question, and then had trouble allowing themselves to write anything down.

One of them said, “I’m not used to asking myself about feelings while wearing a suit. What I feel at work is only what I want to allow myself to feel. The things I’m thinking about aren’t ‘suit feelings.’ ”

I’ve come to understand that a lot of us really need to talk about our emotions, but don’t allow ourselves the opportunity. Instead, we try to shut off our feelings, especially in the workplace. It doesn’t matter whether you wear a suit, uniform, or the same pair of shorts every day to work.

What’s your favourite question to turn a “no” into a “yes”?

These days, I find myself turning to one question over and over. It helps me create trust in challenging situations, bust barriers and turn “no” to “yes”. Here it is:

What are your concerns?

Sounds simple, right? But too often we negotiate by leading with what we have to offer, rather than hearing (and satisfying) our counterpart’s concerns. When you don’t know the other person’s concerns, you’re flying blind in making your pitch.

I recently counseled a start-up company on a big negotiation. This company produced a product that was performing well on the coasts, but needed more distribution in the Midwest. A major Midwest distributor called them for a meeting. They had met with her twice before, showed her their glossy pitch deck, and walked out confident that they had the deal.

They didn’t get the deal.

This time, they went in with a different approach. They simply sat down at the table, thanked her for the meeting, and then asked her, “What are your concerns about our product?” A few seconds of stunned silence followed this question. Then she said, “Okay, you want to know why you didn’t get the deal? I wasn’t sure my customers were ready for this kind of premium product. The data wasn’t there to support it. But recently, the data’s more mixed, and so I thought I’d call.”

Now they had the keys to the kingdom. They heard her out, and responded to her concern by showing her their research and their success in comparable markets. And they walked out with a six-figure deal – during the pandemic.

How can silence be a highly effective negotiation tool?

Learning how to be comfortable with silence is a key negotiation skill. I tell people to ask a question and then “land the plane” – meaning, you ask your question and then stop talking. Often we rush to fill silence and then end up overpaying in a deal, or assuming something that isn’t helpful. Silence often allows you to connect with someone even better than you do by talking.

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