Negotiation Skills: The Missing Ingredient to Career Advancement

By Jack Molisani | STC Fellow

When Andrea Ames approached me to write an article on the impact of professional development on career advancement, my first thought was to update my research on which tools and technologies are most requested in content-related job postings (Molisani 2015). But Saul Carliner and Yuan Chen did such a great job presenting the results of the technical communication census (2018), I decided to forgo tools and focus on what “soft skills” content professionals need to advance their careers.

To gather data, I posted the following survey question on content-related groups on Facebook and LinkedIn: what soft skills do content professionals need to be successful?

I received a wide range of answers, so I searched for commonalities in the responses and grouped similar answers together. For example, we grouped the following answers under the common heading “Workplace Negotiation Skills”:

  • Negotiation
  • Diplomacy
  • Conflict resolution
  • Finding common ground
  • Managing project scope

Granted, each of the above is a skill unto itself, but we did our best to look for the commonalities in the survey answers.

There were almost 100 different answers (even with grouping), but some answers were more common than most. Here are the top ten:

  • Workplace negotiation skills
  • Listening skills
  • Empathy
  • Leadership
  • Vision
  • Curiosity
  • Flexibility
  • Patience
  • Self-awareness
  • Relationship to management

I have to admit I didn’t expect to see some of the answers (patience, self-awareness), but most people might expect to see the top four: negotiation, listening, empathy, and leadership.

Figure 1. Top 10 responses to informal Facebook and LinkedIn survey.

It is interesting to note how closely related those last four skills are: you must have listening end empathy skills to be a good negotiator, be a good negotiator to be a good leader, etc.

While many of the above skills cannot be taught in an article (for example, empathy, curiosity), the top answer (negotiation skills) certainly can.

Let’s look at what negotiation is and how you can use it to advance your content career.

What Is Negotiation?

For many people, the term “negotiating” brings to mind unpleasant haggling with a used car salesperson. But negotiating isn’t something you do just when buying a large-ticket item like a washing machine or a 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—all of these involve negotiating in one form or another.

Common definitions of “negotiating” include:

  • To attempt to come to an agreement on something through discussion and compromise (Dictionary.com).
  • The process of achieving agreement through discussion (Wiktionary.com).
  • Conferring, discussing, or bargaining to reach agreement (Webster’s Dictionary).

Note that all three definitions include “agreement.” More on this in a bit.

Next, let’s look at the derivation: Latin negotiatus, past participle of negotiari, “carry on business, do business.” So negotiation is just part and parcel of doing business! Interesting, huh?

A Better Definition

After 35 years of conducting workplace negotiations (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 find the above definitions lacking—they just don’t capture the true spirit and goal of negotiation. So I created my own definition:

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

For what would you (a staff or contract content professional) be negotiating?

  • Your compensation
  • Project scope
  • Project deadlines
  • Resources
  • Headcount
  • Comp time
  • Training
  • Authoring tools

What do you regularly give up in order to get what you want in the workplace? Most often it is your free time (deadlines!), money, or job security (if there is such a thing anymore). So negotiation really is the art of giving up as little as possible of what you have in order to get what you want.

Let’s look at where to start.

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: the buyer 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 wholesale killing.

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 they have been cheated.

What do you think a vendor will do if he sold his service for less than what he considers a fair price?

What do you think an employee will do if she accepts a salary that is much lower than what she thinks is fair?

The Negotiation

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

Before You Begin

Before starting any negotiation, do 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 negotiation if you are just not getting what you want.

Note: 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.

Chellie Campbell talks about doing business with “Your People” (2016). 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 start by talking about money. Take time to get to know the person with whom you are negotiating and let them 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).

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 determine if the deal is even worth pursuing.

For example, I own a technical staffing company. When a company comes to me looking for a contract technical writer, I usually say: “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?”

Sometimes a client tells me they want someone for a ridiculously low amount. In that case I don’t even try to negotiate. I just say, “I’m sorry, there is just no way to find someone with the skills and experience you need at that bill rate.”

But if the number is reasonable, I can ask to split the difference or even just agree to their number if it is not too far from what I think it should be.

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 asked my bill rate.

However, I always add a qualifier in case I need to back-peddle. 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 rate! But, if they react negatively, I can quickly add something like, “but … I’m flexible given that this is a long-term contract [given the state of the economy, etc.].”

If they react negatively to my opening offer and I have to back-peddle, I also ask, “What bill rate did you have in mind?” That, too, gives insight into what they are expecting to pay and whether the deal is salvageable (that is, continue to negotiate or just walk away).

Justifying Your Numbers

When bidding projects (regardless of whether you are an internal employee or 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.

Negotiating: Give and Take

Remember, most people consider making and receiving concessions as part of the negotiation process. Knowing that 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.

I always ask the other party what is important to them at the start of the negotiation. 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. When you come to a common agreement, you have a deal.

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.
  • Negotiate to a common agreement.
  • Go for a Win-Win.

Campbell, Chellie. Zero to Zillionaire. Sourcebooks: Naperville, IL, 2006.

Carliner, Saul and Yuan Chen. “The State of the Technical Communication Industry,” Intercom 65.8 (2018).

Molisani, Jack. “The United Nations of Content,” Intercom 62.10 (2015).

Molisani, Jack, and Kit Brown-Hoekstra. “Honing Your Workplace Negotiation Skills,” STC webinar. https://www.stc.org/event/honing-your-workplace-negotiation-skills/

Molisani, Jack, and Bonnie Graham. “How to Build a Business Case,” Intercom 55.6 (2008).

JACK MOLISANI (JackMolisani@ProspringStaffing.com) is an STC Fellow and President of ProSpring Technical Staffing, an agency specializing in staff and contract content professionals (www.ProspringStaffing.com). He produces the LavaCon Conference on Content Strategy and Technical Communication Management (www.lavacon.org), and he 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 Résumé Bestseller list. You can Follow Jack on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JackMolisani.

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