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How I Stopped Being Such a Chickens--t Negotiator

You don’t have to be a fearless bully to get what you deserve in life

Cropped image of man standing next to live chicken
Chris Buck

After eight years I’m still not sure when my house was built or the roof was replaced, but I do know that when it rains hard for a few days, I get water in my basement.

I could fix the problem, but I don’t, because that would mean talking to a contractor, which would mean negotiating. I’d rather run a cat shelter. 

I hate negotiating, primarily because I’m scared that someone is going to laugh or yell at me. 

At 54 years old, I’ve accepted that I’ll never ride a motorcycle or chop wood with an axe, but negotiating remains a burr. So I set out to negotiate around my fear of negotiating

Do the bare minimum of research

My basic fear about facing professionals is that they know things and I don’t. And that’s true—I will never be an expert. But I also don’t have to be a dope. 

There’s Google and talking with neighbors, which can get me to the reachable bar of “sufficiently informed,” says Richard Shell, a professor at the Wharton School and author of Bargaining for Advantage.

It also keeps me from saying things like, “Italian reverse trench? Sounds awesome.” 

Getting three quotes helps, as well, says legal consultant Lynn Price, author of Negotiate It! 

And it really does. We’re redoing our deck and we've only gotten two quotes so far, but I already had a better handle on the language. My questions became sharper, and I started talking about what we wanted, which blunted any feeling of being overrun. 

Keep the business talk to email

In the beginning it’ll just be a conversation. But eventually, there will be a number and I’ll have to say something about that number, and that stresses me out. 

When you feel stress, just ask more questions. It slows down the pace and ups your command of the details. And do your hard negotiating through email. You’re brokering a peace deal. There’s usually no need—or even expectation—to haggle in person. 

Make it about the kids

Advocating on my behalf has never been enough to make me feel strong, but I’m a ballsier version of myself when I’m representing my kids at doctor’s appointments and teacher conferences. I just have to get it into my head that I’m saving for college or impending braces—and there’s my kick in the tushes. 

Do some low-stakes practicing

Price suggested that I start slowly and practice with an online purchase, which is lower in stress because it’s faceless. I called a clothing company, told the rep I was a new customer and had a coat in my cart (not lies; don’t lie) and then asked if there were any other discounts I could apply. The guy quietly said there weren’t any. I survived.

Once you try a little haggling, you’ll start to look for other chances, says Price. I found an opportunity when only three pairs of socks arrived from a four-pair order. 

The company offered to find a replacement, and when the rep on the phone did, I thought, I wonder if …

So I took a shallow breath, mentioned that they were meant as a gift and asked if he’d give me a bonus pair for my inconvenience. 

He said he wasn’t sure, and instead of negotiating against myself by suggesting a 30 percent discount in order to make the discomfort please, please go away, I just shut up and let him break the silence. 

He came back on the line and said he would throw in an extra pair.

I’m gonna wear those socks when I start chopping wood (OK, pruning bushes).