Whether you’re aware of it or not, everyone approaches a negotiation differently. People instinctively default to an approach they feel most comfortable with, depending on the specific situation they find themselves in and their level of negotiation skills.

While you might have a default negotiation strategy you prefer, once you have a solid understanding of what approach you naturally lead with, you can tailor your discussion so that it plays to your strengths. Skilled negotiators can adapt to a variety of situations. For example, negotiating with a car salesman calls for different techniques than negotiating your salary.

You might also adjust your negotiation tactics over the course of the discussion as you learn new information, or if you sense a shift in the emotional characteristics of the conversation.

There are four key elements that describe a personal negotiation approach: Creating value, claiming value, empathizing with others, and asserting yourself.

No style is good or bad, although some can be more effective in certain situations, and the elements represent scales of behavior rather than all-or-nothing traits. Understanding your tendencies and how to leverage them will aid you in your future negotiations, no matter the situation.

Common Negotiation Styles

1. Creating Value

People who create value during negotiations are creative and always look to expand the pie so there is more potential value to distribute between themselves and the other negotiating parties. They’re particularly successful at negotiating multi-issue deals or with long-term, repeat customers, who tend to have value-creating potential.

Finding out more about your negotiation counterpart is an important step in this approach. To create value, you need to better understand what kind of outcome they’re looking for. This sharing of information will help both parties build trust and feel comfortable, which can lead to a better outcome in the long run.

If you lean toward value creation, you might benefit from altering your style and trying to claim value in price-driven negotiations, where the potential to create value is slim, and the bottom line is crucial.

Regardless of your style, you should always consider value and needs when approaching a negotiation. Keep these questions in mind to determine the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA), or bargaining range:

  • What’s my bottom line? What is the bare minimum that you need to achieve at the bargaining table in order for the negotiation to be successful?
  • What’s their bottom line? Am I being reasonable with my requests, knowing that they also have to meet similar requirements?

2. Claiming Value

Value claimers are particularly successful in price-driven or business negotiations, where the bottom line is of top importance and they seek to claim most of the value. If you tend to be a value claimer, but also negotiate multi-issue deals or with long-term, repeat customers, try to see if you can create value rather than focusing on claiming existing value.

These scenarios are more likely to have opportunities to expand the pie, and setting a precedent for creating value could bolster your long-term relationships with customers and vendors, which creates mutual gain.

Understanding and being realistic with your requests is going to give you the best results when trying to claim more value in a deal.

3. Empathizing

People who are empathizers manage the difficult challenge of seeing everyone's point of view because they understand the role that emotions can play in negotiation. Empathizing with a negotiating partner can be difficult, but doing so is crucial to successful outcomes.

Using this negotiation technique is generally the most cooperative approach and best for problem-solving. Don’t forget to balance your empathic tendencies with your ability to assert yourself, which is essential to achieving a positive outcome. In other words, don't sell yourself short in your desire to show concern for others.

Understanding and using what your negotiation partner stands to lose is a good tool when approaching this type of discussion.

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4. Asserting

People who tend to lean toward assertion like to take charge in negotiations. Asserting yourself is critical to achieving the best outcome for yourself, but don’t forget to consider your counterpart’s perspective, too. To achieve your goals, you must be able to advocate for yourself while still considering all sides involved in the negotiation.

Being able to adapt your style requires both self-awareness and agility, especially when using an assertive negotiation approach. Gravitating toward one of these traits more than others doesn’t mean you’re a bad negotiator. In fact, realizing which style is most comfortable, while also understanding that other styles exist, is a crucial part of learning to become a stronger negotiator.

Developing Your Style

The next time you’re going into a negotiation, take some time to think about your goals and how to accomplish them. Is this a one-time deal, or will you have repeated interactions with your negotiation counterpart? Are you negotiating a single issue, or do you have a list of terms to agree upon? Different goals call for different negotiation strategies.

Consider altering your style to achieve certain goals—it might seem uncomfortable at first, but adapting your style can help you become a master negotiator.

To learn more about the different factors that affect negotiation, and to master these skills through practice, collaboration, and reflection, learn more about our eight-week online course Negotiation Mastery.

This post was updated on October 4, 2019. It was originally published on May 24, 2018.

Natalie Chladek

About the Author

Natalie is an Associate Product Manager at Harvard Business School Online working on Leading with Finance, Negotiation Mastery, and Sustainable Business Strategy. She received her B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University and M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson. In her free time, she enjoys running, cooking, and staying up too late rooting for her Bay Area sports teams.