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Why You Should Be Making The First Offer In A Negotiation (guest post)

This is a guest post from the fabulous Alexandra Dickinson, who teaches negotiation as part of Ask For It. – Lillian

The conventional wisdom for job seekers around who makes the first offer goes something like this: never put the number on the table first. If you give the exact number they were planning to offer you, you may have missed out on an opportunity to go higher. If you lowball yourself, then you won’t be able to recover. And if you overshoot… what’s going to happen? Will they rescind the offer? Will you be humiliated and run screaming from the room?

In reality, if your opening number is well researched and presented respectfully, it’s likely that your counterpart will say “that’s too high, but how about X?”

In my experience as a negotiation trainer and coach, the two most common issues around making the first offer are easy to fix. The first is that people are more likely to wait it out and hope for the best — or, they go in unprepared and throw out an unreasonable number.

That second version was once me. I was negotiating for a job (that I ultimately was not offered) and took an opposite, similarly ineffective tactic. I knew she was going to ask me how much I wanted to make, and I was determined to have an answer. I picked a high, round number, somewhat arbitrarily, and managed to say it out loud when she asked.

The look on her face told me there was no way it was going to happen.

Looking back, I now know my ambition was in the right place, but my research was nonexistent. That’s the second issue: if you haven’t done the right research, you won’t be able to make a reasonable first offer. If you come in too high with a first offer that’s way out of left field, like I once did, it’s very hard to recover your credibility.

Why is it so important to put the number out there first? It all comes down to a psychological bias called anchoring. The first number in a negotiation sets the tone for what seems reasonable going forward. It’s essentially why you’re hoping for them to put the number out there first: you want to know that you’re in the right ballpark. But anchoring gives you the opportunity to invite them to your ballpark.

It’s ok to open with a high number as long as you can meet two criteria: you’ve done your research to know that it’s an ambitious but reasonable ask given the context of the role, and you can demonstrate based on previous accomplishments that you’re worth it.

You might be wondering how to research salaries given that your title or industry isn’t cookie cutter. Or you’re a freelancer, contractor or entrepreneur thinking about how to set your rate. You can start by looking online. But the best information comes straight from the source: other people in your industry who are familiar with the salary for your role. People who are willing to share what they charge and why.

Think about who would know how much someone in your role makes and cast a wide net. That could be your colleagues at your same level, someone who’s recently been promoted, someone who recently left your company, someone who works in a similar role at a competitor, or even someone at a higher level who hires for your position.

When you’re asking around, be aware of unconscious gender bias in your research. Make sure to ask both women and men to share their salaries.

Not sure how to say it? Try this straightforward request: “I’m doing research because I’m about to negotiate for a new role/ask for a raise/bring on a new client. I think you have some information that could help me. Would you be willing to share your ballpark salary/rate with me?”

If that feels too forward for you, you can turn the question the other way: “I’m thinking of asking for X, does that seem reasonable to you?”

When you’re confident in your research and your evidence for why you’re worth it, then you’re ready to play ball.

Are you tired of waiting for a raise that hasn’t come? Ask For It is launching Secrets To Negotiation Success, a free 5-day online class, to help you achieve your biggest career goals. Sign up for our mailing list to save your seat.

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