May 132017

Icon of handshake, with circular arrows symbolizing an even exchange[Ed. note: This is another in a series of occasional articles by Jack Molisani. Here Jack expands on ideas he presented at our April 2017 program.]

For many people the term “negotiating” brings to mind images of unpleasant haggling with a used car salesperson in a loud plaid suit. But negotiating isn’t something you do just when buying a large-ticket item like a washing machine or a used car. Deciding what features will be documented given the time on hand, getting your kids to clean their rooms before playing video games, even deciding what movie to watch on Date Night, are all negotiations in one form or another.

What is Negotiation?

Webster’s Dictionary defines negotiating as “conferring, discussing, or bargaining to reach agreement.” defines negotiating as “to attempt to come to an agreement on something through discussion and compromise.”

I find these definitions lacking—they just don’t capture the true spirit and goal of negotiation. So after reviewing my 25+ years experience as a negotiator (first as a Systems Acquisition Officer in the Space Division of USAF, then as a staff and contract technical writer, and finally as the owner of my own business), I created a better definition:

Negotiation is the art of giving up as little of what you have in order to get what you want.

What would you as a staff or contract technical communicator be negotiating?

  • Your compensation
  • Project scope
  • Project deadlines
  • Resources
  • Headcount
  • Comp time
  • Training
  • Tools, etc.

What do you regularly give up to get what you want in the workplace?

Negotiation Basics

One negotiates to reach a common agreement. I believe all negotiations have to be either Win-Win or Lose-Lose to be considered “successful.” For example:

A sale: Buyers gets a product (or service) they wanted at a price they can afford, and the seller make a reasonable profit

A war: Both factions split the territory in dispute. Neither side is happy, but it’s certainly better than fighting

Win-Lose is not “negotiating.” When one side forces their terms on the other, there is no common agreement, no meeting in the middle. The other party may accept the offer because they have to, but they sure aren’t going to like it, and they certainly are not going to give 100% if they feel cheated.

What do you think a vendor will do who sold their service for less than what they consider a fair price?

What do you think customers will do if forced to pay more for something than they feel they should have?

What do you think employees will do if they accept a salary that is much lower than what they think is fair?

Let’s look at some lessons learned and best practices for conducting negotiations.

Before You Begin

The first thing to do before starting any negotiation is your homework. Decide before you begin what you would like to achieve. Decide what is a nice-to-have, what is a must-have, and at what point will you walk away from the negotiations if you are just not getting what you want.

Don’t try to decide these things during the negotiation. There is usually far too much stress or emotion in a negotiation, and you don’t want to make a snap decision that you will later regret.  

Also, Chellie Campbell, author of Zero to Zillionaire, talks about doing business with “Your People.” You recognize Your People when you meet them. They value your services and are happy to pay your rates for a quality product or service. They want to strike a deal that is good for both parties.

So the next step after doing your homework is to find Your People and negotiate with them.

At the Start

When opening a negotiation, don’t just jump into price negotiations. Take time to get to know something about the person with whom you are negotiating, and for them to get to know you. They will be more open to negotiating if they feel you are “birds of a feather,” so look for shared values and common ground.

Also find out what is important to them, and let them know what is important to you. (More on this later in the article.)

Opening Offers: Theirs

When possible, let the other side make the opening offer. That is the first insight you get into what they have in mind as a fair price, and you can decide if the deal is even worth pursuing.

When a company comes to me looking for a contract technical writer, I usually ask: “Compensations can vary widely based on the amount of education and experience they have. Do you have a particular range in mind so I don’t send anyone too expensive…?”

If a client tells me they want someone for a ridiculously low amount, I assume they’re telling me the truth—they really are looking for a writer for $x/hour. In that case I don’t even try to negotiate. I just say, “Sorry, there is no way I can find someone at that rate and still include a margin to cover my overhead.”

But if the number is not too far from your target, you can ask to split the difference, or even just agree to their number if it is not too far from your own.

Opening Offers: Yours

There will be times when you will have to make the opening offer, such as stating your bill rate or salary expectations in an interview. I have a rule of thumb: The better the interview went, the higher the number I quote when they ask my bill rate.

However, I always add a qualifier in case I needed to backpedal. I say, “My normal bill rate is $x/hr…” and then watch their reaction.

If they accept my rate without hesitation, I make a mental note to raise my rates!

But if they react negatively, I can quickly add, “…but I’m flexible given that this is a long-term contract [given the state of the economy, etc.].”

But—if they react negatively and I have to backpedal, I also add, “What bill rate did you have in mind…?”

Justifying Your Numbers

For bidding projects (no matter if you are an internal employee or an external contractor), you must be able to show how you came up with your estimate.

The best way is to support your numbers with historical data. “The last time we did a project just like this it took….” If you can show exactly how you came up with your numbers, the negotiation will swing away from your hourly rate and onto the scope of the project.

For more information on how to justify numbers in a workplace negotiation, see “How to Build a business Case,” Molisani/Graham, Intercom, July/Aug 2008.

For more information on how to track historical data, download the session slides and a sample database from Bonni Graham’s presentation, “How to Create a Historical Database and Bid Future Jobs” from LavaCon 2006.

Negotiating: Give and Take

Remember, most people consider making and receiving concessions as part of the negotiation process. So knowing the other person expects me to give up something as part of the negotiation, I always add things to my “wish list” that I am willing to negotiate away.

At the start of the negotiation I ask the other party what is important to them. That way I can say if you give me what is important to me, I’ll do what I can to give you what is important to you.

When I do that, I find negotiating a deal is much closer to a dance than a tug-of-war.


To recap:

  • Negotiation is the art of giving up as little of what you have in order to get what you want
  • Find and negotiate with Your People
  • Take time to build rapport with the other party
  • Decide before you start what you want, what you are willing to give up, and when to walk away
  • When possible, let the other party make the opening offer
  • Be able to back up your numbers and estimates
  • Go for a Win-Win agreement

About the Author

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Jack Molisani

Jack Molisani is the president of ProSpring Technical Staffing, an employment agency specializing in technical writers and other content professionals, and is the author of Be The Captain of Your Career: A New Approach to Career Planning and Advancement, which hit #5 on Amazon’s Career and Resume Best Seller list.

Jack also produces the LavaCon Conference on Technical Communication Management:

Jack is always happy to hear from readers, so if you have any questions or success stories to share, contact him at

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