6 Negotiating Tactics Based on Psychological Science

Have you ever haggled over the price of a car? Negotiated a salary? What strategies did you use in these interactions? Whether you're an employee, a parent, or an FBI hostage negotiator, psychological science can give us tips for how to successfully navigate a negotiation. 

Jade Wu, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #316
The Quick And Dirty

Knowing the psychology of negotiations can help you to enter them with confidence and feed positive relationships.

  • Always start by trying to empathize with the other side.
  • Be authentic with your emotions. Try to lean into positive emotions so there is more trust and willingness to work together.
  • Try starting out with small requests to get buy-in before asking for a major concession.
  • Alternatively, start out with a huge request and then backing off after the initial refusal.
  • Give people a sense of control by letting them know they're always free to make their own choices.
  • If you're squeamish about negotiating, pretend you're doing it on behalf of someone else.
  • Invest in a long-term relationship with your negotiating partner. Be fair and generous, but don't let yourself be exploited.

Have you ever bought a used car and bargained for the price? Negotiated a salary? Tried to agree on a curfew with your teenager?

I must confess that, in practice, I am a terrible negotiator. I’d rather just pay $80 more for an old bookshelf on Craiglist than respond to the ad for a similar one listed for "$60 or best offer." For me, this is probably due to a lack of practice and a dose of social anxiety.

Negotiations can't be avoided—they exist in our personal relationships, professional advancements, financial marketplaces, and political structures.

And I’m not alone. Many people shy away from negotiating because they fear backlash, feel embarrassed, or just lack confidence in their ability to do it. But negotiations can't be avoided—they exist in our personal relationships, professional advancements, financial marketplaces, and political structures. (Just ask the members of Congress trying to reach an agreement with the opposite party on an economic stimulus bill!)

Our success in these life domains is often more affected by our willingness and ability to negotiate than we’d like to think.

So, what bargaining tactics have you tried? Of course, there are some tried-and-true ones, like being willing to walk away or aiming high first so you can ultimately split the difference. But these strategies alone don't provide the sort of negotiating power necessary for navigating complex deals, emotional situations, or sustainable relationships.

For these, we turn to psychological science for some pointers.

1. Talk less, listen more, and empathize with the other side

Sometimes we think negotiating well means being able to talk your way through something, dazzling the other side with persuasive arguments and winning phrases. But as psychologists know, a much more powerful force in any interpersonal interaction is empathy.

And this is not just an academic psychology concept. Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference, swears by empathy. In his book, he details how he would spend most of a hostage negotiation simply listening and asking open-ended questions so he could better understand the person he was dealing with.

Psychologists know that empathy is a powerful force in any interpersonal interaction.

Voss didn’t try to convince kidnappers to let hostages go with point-by-point arguments. Instead, he empathized with how scared they must have been feeling and how frustrating it was to have things go wrong. This empathy—making a personal connection to genuinely try to understand the other side—makes the conversation less of a fight. When that happens, the other side is more likely to be willing to work with you. Not only that, but when empathy is involved, people are less likely to engage in unethical behaviors during negotiations, such as lying, spying, and sabotage.

Whether you’re trying to negotiate an appropriate amount of video game time with your teenager or trying to come to an agreement with a coworker who isn't pulling their weight on a project, you can start by genuinely trying to understand the other person's perspectives and feelings. Then, reflect those feelings back to them so they know you get it.

2. Use your emotions wisely

Emotions are an interesting part of negotiations—they can both help and hinder. But generally, research shows that expressing positive emotions during a negotiation builds trust and improves problem-solving, whereas negative emotions like anger can tear down trust.

However, what’s doubly interesting about anger is that its effect depends on whether it’s real. If you fake anger, the other side will see this as a strategic use of emotion and take you less seriously, resulting in them making higher demands.

On the other hand, if you express genuine anger, the other side may actually give in more. This means that you should always be authentic with your emotions, with an effort to cultivate positive ones. If you do feel angry, you can feel free to express it in an assertive (but not aggressive) way if the situation is appropriate.

For example, if your boss has been promising you a promotion for years, but keeps finding excuses to delay it, you may let your frustration be known through assertive and professional communication. This lets them know to take you seriously in the negotiations to come.

3. "Foot in the door" and "door in the face"

Two of the classic psychological techniques for getting someone to do what you want are the foot-in-the-door and the door-in-the-face approaches. Researchers have been demonstrating the effectiveness of these approaches for decades, and they’re both equally effective in general. I remember my Psych101 professor teaching us about them using these examples.

Let’s say you’re going off to college and you want to get your parents to buy you a new computer. You start out by asking for small, reasonable items for college, like a backpack. Then, you gradually increase the size of your requests until you get to the thing you really covet—the new laptop.

Meanwhile, your negotiating partner is getting used to saying “yes” and becoming increasingly invested in helping you.

This is called a “foot in the door” because you get the negotiations going off to a smooth start with some easy-to-agree items. Meanwhile, your negotiating partner is getting used to saying “yes” and becoming increasingly invested in helping you. By the time you get to the laptop, your parents may think, “Oh well, I’ve already invested so much in helping him succeed. I might as well go all the way with a laptop that will run fast.”

An alternative approach is to start out by asking for something ridiculously out of the question, like a car. Your parents would turn you down, and explain why this is unreasonable when you try to “bargain.” After this, they may feel like a nice laptop is no big deal compared to what you initially wanted, making them more likely to say yes.

4. Give people a sense of control

People don’t like it when they’re forced to do something. They like it much better when they come up with the idea to do this thing themselves, or at the very least feel like they had a choice in the matter. This is why good negotiators, instead of pushing hard on the “you should do X” message, always back off a little and give people the freedom to make decisions. 

Good negotiators always back off a little and give people the freedom to make decisions.

For example, someone who's bargaining with you about a coffee table on Craigslist may offer, “I’ve also got a stool that you should take. It would go great with the table.” A more effective approach might be, “If you’re interested, I’ll throw in this stool for $20—totally up to you. You’re free to take the coffee table only.”

Researchers have found that adding this “but you’re free to...” increases the other side’s willingness to buy in.

5. Pretend you’re negotiating on behalf of someone else

Research shows that women ask for less money than men in salary negotiations. This happens in part because a stereotype that women are bad negotiators exists. When women are reminded of this stereotype, we negotiate less effectively—it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We also tend to fear backlash and worry that our counterparts will think negatively of us.

But one way to counteract these barriers is to pretend you’re negotiating on behalf of someone else. Research shows that we are just as good at negotiating as men when we’re advocating for another party. So, whether you’re a rising star negotiating your salary or putting in an offer for a house, pretend you’re an agent negotiating on behalf of your client.

6. Invest in the long-term relationship rather than emphasizing one-off wins

Sometimes it can feel like a negotiation is a face-off between players and the only goal is to win the zero-sum game. There are times when this is the case, like when a tourist tries to bargain with a street vendor on the price of a trinket, or a hostage negotiator talks to a kidnapper. They meet. They haggle. And whatever the outcome, they never see each other again.

In reality, most negotiations take place in the context of ongoing relationships.

But in reality, most negotiations take place in the context of ongoing relationships. When you negotiate salary, you’re doing so with a current or future employer, so you don’t want to burn bridges. When you negotiate who’s doing which chores with your partner, you don’t want to sacrifice the relationship for a win, either. That’s why it’s sometimes necessary to take a step back and look at the bigger picture: What’s more important—getting 5% more on that contract or maintaining mutual trust with an ongoing business partner? Investing in the relationship (and the trust between the parties) will result in more productive outcomes for both parties in the long run.

At the same time, recognize patterns of exploitation. If your counterpart keeps taking advantage of your willingness to acquiesce to tough deals or keeps trying to get just one more hour of your time for free, it’s time to either firm up your boundaries or re-evaluate the relationship.

If you consistently play fair and also stand up for yourself, you will end up having mostly productive relationships and successful negotiations. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.