As a business professional, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be required to participate in negotiations from time to time, regardless of your job title or industry. In fact, chances are that you already participate in negotiations more often than you realize.

Negotiating a job offer, asking for a raise, making the case for a budget increase, buying and selling property or equipment, and closing a sale with a customer are just a few examples of the many deals you might be involved in. Outside of professional settings, you’re likely to flex your negotiation skills in your personal life, too.

If you’re not confident in your ability to strike an effective deal or want to improve the outcome of future negotiations, there are a handful of skills you need in your arsenal. Investing time and energy into developing them can prepare you to maximize the value you and your counterparts leave the bargaining table with.

“Enhancing your negotiation skills has an enormous payoff,” says Harvard Business School Professor Michael Wheeler in the online course Negotiation Mastery. “It allows you to reach agreements that might otherwise slip through your fingers. It allows you to expand the pie, create value, so you get more benefits from the agreements that you do reach. It also, in some cases, allows you to resolve small differences before they escalate into big conflicts.”

Here’s a list of six essential skills for mastering the art of negotiation, along with ways you can develop your knowledge and confidence.

New call-to-action

Negotiation Skills

1. Communication

To achieve your ideal outcome at the bargaining table, it’s essential to clearly communicate what you’re hoping to walk away with and where your boundaries lie.

Effective communication skills allow you to engage in a civil discussion with other negotiators and work toward an agreeable solution. Deal-making naturally requires give and take, so it’s important to articulate your thoughts and actively listen to others’ ideas and needs. Without this skill, key components of the discussion can be overlooked, making it impossible for everyone to leave the negotiation satisfied.

2. Emotional Intelligence

Emotions play a role in negotiation, for better or worse. While it’s important not to let them get in the way of reaching a mutually beneficial deal, you can use them to your advantage. For example, positive emotions have been shown to increase feelings of trust at the bargaining table, while feelings of anxiety or nervousness can be channeled into excitement.

A high degree of emotional intelligence is needed to read other parties’ emotions. This can enable you to more easily pick up on what they’re implying rather than explicitly stating. In addition to understanding what you and others are experiencing throughout a negotiation, emotional intelligence can help you advantageously manage and use emotions.

Related: The Impact of Emotions in Negotiation

3. Planning

Planning ahead with a clear idea of what you hope to achieve and where your boundaries lie is an essential step in any negotiation. Without adequate preparation, it’s possible to overlook important terms of your deal.

First, consider the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA) between you and the other negotiating parties. ZOPA, sometimes called the bargaining zone, refers to the range in a negotiation in which two or more parties can find common ground. A positive bargaining zone exists when the terms that both parties are willing to agree to overlap. On the other hand, a negative bargaining zone exists when neither party’s terms overlap.

Next, it’s beneficial to understand your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). If your discussion lands in a negative bargaining zone, your BATNA is the course of action you plan to take if the negotiation is unsuccessful. Knowing your BATNA ahead of time can help ensure you have a backup plan in case an agreement can’t be reached and avoid leaving the table empty-handed.

4. Value Creation

Creating value in a negotiation is one of the most powerful skills you can add to your toolkit.

To illustrate its importance, consider this analogy: When participating in a negotiation, each party is typically concerned with obtaining the biggest “slice of the pie” possible. With each party vying to maximize their slice, this inherently means some will be forced to leave with a much smaller piece.

To break free of this traditional idea of negotiation, experts suggest shifting your goals from growing your slice to growing the whole pie. The benefits are twofold: First, each party can realize greater value; second, a sense of rapport and trust is established, which can benefit future discussions.

5. Strategy

In addition to thorough preparation and the ability to create value, you need a clear understanding of effective negotiation tactics. Knowing what works and what doesn’t can allow you to create a tailored strategy for every negotiation you participate in.

To develop a strong negotiation strategy, consider the following steps:

  • Define your role
  • Understand your value
  • Understand your counterpart’s vantage point
  • Check in with yourself

Following this process ahead of each negotiation can enable you to formulate a clear plan of action for the bargaining table. By understanding the roles of those involved, the value each party offers, and your counterpart’s advantages, you can better prepare to work toward a common goal. Checking in with yourself throughout the discussion can also help ensure you stay on the path to success.

6. Reflection

Finally, to round out your negotiation skills and develop your proficiency, you need to reflect on past negotiations and identify areas for improvement. After each negotiation—successful or not—reflect on what went well and what could have gone better. Doing so can allow you to evaluate the tactics that worked in your favor and those that fell short.

After evaluating your strengths and weaknesses, identify areas you want to work on and create a plan of action. For example, if you had trouble aligning your goals with your counterpart’s, consider reviewing concepts like ZOPA and BATNA. Or, if your negotiations often leave you feeling dissatisfied, you could benefit from learning new ways to create value.

Elevate your leadership skills | Explore Our Certificate Courses

Becoming a Master of Negotiation

No matter your strengths and weaknesses, practice is a surefire way to develop your skills. The more negotiations you take part in, the more prepared you’ll be for future dealings.

Structured learning opportunities can also prove to be highly beneficial. Negotiation books and articles are a great starting point for learning the basics of striking a deal. Resources that explore real-life examples of successful negotiations can give you perspective on how others navigated difficult discussions and prepare you to face similar scenarios.

Another effective option is to take an online course, such as Negotiation Mastery. In addition to hearing from real experts—including public officials, executives, and military officers—learners benefit from interactive negotiation simulations that allow them to apply their knowledge and further develop their skills. Participants are also exposed to content on the more emotional aspects of negotiation and learn how to conduct an “after-action review” to gain insights for future dealings.

Do you want to further hone your bargaining skills? Explore the eight-week online course Negotiation Mastery and discover how you can be a more effective deal-maker.

Kelsey Miller

About the Author

Kelsey Miller is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.