Students negotiating.
Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Navigating the Art of Negotiation

Negotiation. It can be one of the most anxiety-inducing words. Many who enter my class and the businesses I consult see negotiation as an adversarial word due in part to the drama we see in politics, movies, and TV shows. These contexts generally portray negotiation as a male-dominated sport, which can trigger sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, uneasiness, dread, and nervousness.

Companies may avoid mentioning the term or use alternative words like influence management, persuasion, or problem-solving just to soften the anxiety around it. Unsurprisingly, many people attempt to bypass negotiations altogether or enter negotiations often unprepared.

Negotiation happens every day all around us

So, what is negotiation? Negotiation is simply a dialogue between two or more people or parties intended to reach a beneficial outcome over one or more issues where a conflict exists concerning at least one of these issues.

When we look at this definition, negotiation is a gender-neutral dialogue. We enter exchanges regularly. There is a conflict that exists. You may not even realize it, but you negotiate frequently throughout your day. It could be negotiating a replacement drink at Starbucks when they’re out of your caramel macchiato or convincing your child to eat Cheerios instead of sugary cereal. Or it could be persuading a colleague to prioritize your project today. Negotiation is more common than we may think.

Students engage in a listening exercise during a Coach Approach to Management Opus College of Business Executive Education Class in Terrence Murphy Hall. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)

Negotiation is also more than a business class. It is a life skill that applies to our personal and professional lives and is one of the most vital skills you can learn with the largest quantitative payback.

Let’s break it down. Negotiation is an art and science where the process helps us to tackle any negotiation thrown our way. However, most people go into negotiations unprepared, which leads to missteps, missed opportunities, and an internal belief that negotiation isn’t for them.

When you are unprepared for anything, the nervousness you experience is exponentially higher. This mentality can lead to losing over $2.5 million in a lifetime. This number can have a drastic impact on your life. If you are reading this and thinking, “I’ve never negotiated my salary – it’s too late to start now,” realize it is never too late to negotiate for your full worth!

Children are surprisingly effective negotiators

One of the best negotiation quotes of all time is by Nora Roberts, “If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.” Who are the best negotiators? Children are some of the best negotiators because they continue to push barriers, think critically, challenge assumptions and question the status quo.

Children are some of the best negotiators because they continue to push barriers, think critically, challenge assumptions and question the status quo.”

Danielle Hansen ’04, ’09 MBA

When my daughter was 6, everything revolved around her iPad. I could take any other toy away, and it would not affect her. However, if I even threatened to take away her iPad, it was as though the world was about to end. One day, my daughter decided she was going to negotiate with me.

Now, my daughter knew we didn’t take iPads into Target because I had never allowed it before. But on this day, she decided to step up and challenge me to a negotiation duel. I told her, “Gabriella, you know we do not take iPads into Target. You will need to put it in the car.” Gabriella looks at me with one hand on her hip and says, “But why, Mama?” A simple question. I explained that we did not want to give the impression that we stole the iPad. In less than the time it takes to snap your finger, my daughter had both hands on her hips, was shaking her head, and looking at me with complete disgust. Her response: “I would just turn on my iPad and show them how many apps I had downloaded. Clearly, their Wi-Fi isn’t fast enough to have stolen an iPad and downloaded all the apps.” In less than a second, my daughter had countered my argument with an extremely logical response.

Students engage in a listening exercise during a Coach Approach to Management Opus College of Business Executive Education Class in Terrence Murphy Hall. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)

As we grow older, many of us lose that innate drive to challenge and push boundaries. This is due to messages from parents, teachers, and others telling us that asking for what we want is rude. How often do you remember being told you were asking for too much as a child? Or that we should consider what others would think of our requests? I know I remember hearing it consistently. Unfortunately, gender roles have amplified this issue, with women receiving this feedback exponentially more than males.

Five negotiation tips and strategies for business leaders

So what can you do to disrupt this phenomenon and regain your negotiation power?

  1. Prepare
  2. Ask open-ended questions
  3. Don’t be afraid to challenge norms and rules
  4. Actively listen
  5. Be aware of your nonverbal communication


Preparation is essential in negotiations. Just as you prepare for an interview by researching the company and practicing your answers, negotiations also require a high degree of rigor to manage the complexity, strategize the negotiation, and counter the positions and arguments made.

Ask open-ended questions

As shown in my daughter’s negotiation duel over the iPad, asking questions is a critical step in the negotiation process. Just as you practice the 5 Whys in Lean, we want to incorporate this rigor in our negotiations. Open-ended questions help us get to the root cause of the other party’s position. Leaders can use this knowledge to disrupt the status quo and challenge barriers or rules.

Don’t be afraid to test rules and challenge norms

Go ahead and challenge norms and rules. Test them by asking open-ended questions. What can we do collaboratively to problem-solve a solution that moves beyond that rule?

Actively listen

Active listening is the most critical skill for great negotiators. However, in today’s busy world, it’s the most challenging skill to conquer. With the distractions of cellphones buzzing, beeping, ringing, emails flooding your computer, kids, colleagues, spouses, checklists, thoughts, and dogs barking in the background, finding the focus to listen to the other party in a negotiation becomes very difficult. The migration to Zoom/Teams meetings has made it even harder to stay focused.

Additionally, we have another layer in negotiations. None of us wants to sound stupid. So, often we stop listening after the other side makes an argument. We focus instead on brainstorming our counter. This approach causes us to miss out on critical information that could support our positions and counterarguments.

Be aware of your nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication plays a significant role in negotiations. Your facial expressions, body posture, hand motions, pace, and tone of voice convey meaning and impact the outcome of a negotiation. Vea Mariz states, “10% of conflicts are due to difference of opinion and 90% are due to the wrong tone of voice.” As negotiators, we need to be aware of and remember the importance of how we deliver nonverbal communication.

Improve your nonverbals by recording yourself during a Zoom/Teams call and reviewing the footage afterward. Watch yourself and take notes. How was your tone? Pace of speech? Facial expressions? What didn’t you realize that you were doing that you were? Focus on one or two things to improve upon.

Negotiation skills are crucial for unlocking your leadership potential, owning your self-worth, and achieving gains for yourself and your company. As you approach your next negotiation opportunity, practice these tips: prepare well, ask open-ended questions, actively listen, and be aware of nonverbals. With practice, you can lower your anxiety and become a more confident negotiator.

Danielle Hansen ’04, ’09 MBA (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Danielle Hansen ’04, ’09 MBA is a vice president of global sourcing at JBT Corporation and an adjunct at the University of St. Thomas with extensive experience in international supplier relationship management, negotiation and continuous improvement. She is also the president of Strategic Training Endeavors, a published author of Upward: Leadership Lessons for Women on the Rise, and the board chair of Girls Are Powerful. A double Tommie, Hansen graduated cum laude with a triple major in legal studies in business, Spanish, and operations management and completed her MBA with a focus on international marketing. With certifications in Lean and Six Sigma Black Belt and Certified Professional in Supply Management, Hansen has received numerous awards and continues to train individuals and companies on negotiation, contract management, and strategy while pursuing her passion for improving people's lives.