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  • Writer's pictureJoe Cangelosi

Joe’s Rules of Negotiation

People often ask me how they can get better at negotiating, or my favorite question, “what’s the secret to negotiating?” They usually ask me in one of two ways: eitherlike they are asking for a trigonometry equation, as if I’m going to look it up in a leatherbound book and recite it to them; OR I’m going to lean in close and whisper it backwards in Latin. Many books and blog posts and cocktail napkins have been written on the topic, and YouTube is not lacking experts here to tell you they have mastered the secrets of the universe. In practice, though, I find many of these so-called “techniques” ethereal at best and often impractical to apply in the real world.

I may not have a million YouTube followers, but I have negotiated everything from hourly rates to master agreements and I have learned a few things, mostly the hard way, and maybethese tips will keep you from falling in holes I’ve already had the opportunity to fall in (or maybe even step over).


Let’s start with that attitude – try to have a good one! If you immediately act as though you expect the other party is trying to screw you (whether you think they are or not) it’s not going to set the tone for a collegial negotiation. Even if your negotiating partner seems hard-nosed, give them a chance to warm up.


This should go without saying, but the number of times I’ve found myself with incontrovertible evidence that a negotiating party has patently misrepresented their product, terms, intentions, or abilities is shocking to me. Don’t say anything that isn’t true or commit to anything you don’t intend to do.


In cartoons, a treasure map always has an X that marks the spot where the treasure is buried. Negotiation is a bit like deciding on where to draw the X. But what’s buried in the sand? In other words, what are your goals for this negotiation? Are you trying to decrease costs? Increase quality? Refine terms? Retain ownership of intellectual property? The more clearly you can see the place you’re trying to get to, the easier it will be to find the road.


A fair and successful negotiation results in both sides each netting value. If one side holds all the cards, you’re not really negotiating, you’re mitigating damage. If you’re negotiating, go into it with a clear understanding of what’s important to you and your organization, and – no less relevant – what is not important to you. The other party may have a very different idea of what’s important and your flexibility on something unimportant to you may make a big difference to them. For example, if you’re willing to pay up front or faster than the counterparty is used to, it might command a lower price from a company strapped for cash.

The Three Numbers

This technique is limited to single-number negotiations like price-per-unit or pay without benefits, but it can’t hurt as a thought exercise, and I always have these three numbers in mind going into a negotiation:


People say that whoever says a number first loses. This is because if there’s no established range and you throw out a number below the expectations of your counterparty, you’ve left money on the table. There is some truth to that, but if I know that in my reasonably-wildest dreams I could get paid/pay X, and I got X, what have I lost? This is the number you say first if you have to say a number first.


While your first price should be a moon-shot, you really should take some time to decide what you think this gig, service, etc. is worth TO YOU. Depending on the kind of person you are, this might have to do something with its market value or not. That part doesn’t really matter, what matters is what it’s worth to YOU. This number is a guidepost on the negotiation trail.


This is the most important number to know: the price beyond which you will walk away from the transaction. You never want to be on the hook to deliver thinking “I don’t get paid enough for this” (or “I paid way too much for this”). If you know for sure the lowest amount you’d be willing to accept and still be able to live with yourself, then you don’t have to worry about regret.

Some complex negotiations can and maybe should require an outside set of eyes to assess the situation, if not negotiate on your behalf. If you’d like to talk about how you can improve your business’s negotiating position, you can get in touch with me at
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