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Hiring, managing performance, and firing


The Most Important Negotiation in Your Life

Harvard Business Review, September 2013

Life is a series of negotiations.

You negotiate all day, every day, from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep.

Contract terms and conditions. Hiring, managing performance, and firing. Defining deadlines, scope, and

deliverables. Collecting fees. Seeking alignment about business strategy. Enlisting stakeholders. Creating

partnerships and joint ventures. Dissolving them. You make offers, counteroffers, and agreements to settle. You

say yes. You say no. You stall for time.

Finally, lunch.

When you go home, the negotiations continue. Overbuying a new car, switching carpool days, or how much

screen time the kids are allowed. The stakes of negotiating at home can feel sky-high: which medical advice to

follow; how much to spend or save; how long your aging parents can live at home; whether to stay together.

From the major to the mundane, negotiating is the way we get things done. One of my clients told me, “my

toughest negotiations are with my dog.”

If you’re like most people, when you think about negotiation, you picture people talking to “the other side.”

Whether they’re pitching to a customer in an office, brokering a peace deal at Camp David, or arguing over

curfew at the kitchen table, negotiators are people trying to persuade other people of their point of view.

That’s only half the story.


After nearly 20 years of teaching negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the same years spent advising and

training thousands of executives, public sector leaders, consultants, and lawyers from all over the world, I see

things differently.

Actually, the most important negotiations we have — the ones that determine the quality of our lives and the

impact of our actions — are the ones we have with ourselves. Learning to communicate well and to influence

other people are essential skills in business. But even more fundamental to your success is learning to negotiate

effectively with yourself.

Negotiating with yourself?

Yes. Better results, stronger relationships, and more of life’s deeper rewards, all come from learning to

negotiate with yourself.

At first, this sounds strange. Can you talk to yourself without being crazy? Can you disagree with yourself? If

you have an argument with yourself, who wins?

At the start of my leadership development programs, I ask people for examples of “negotiating with yourself.”

It’s not hard to brainstorm a list once you think about it.

People usually come up with personal examples first: Should I eat the ice cream or stick to my diet? Make a

scene with the garage for charging more than the estimate, or just pay the bill and move on? Should I raise that

difficult topic today — or wait? Accept a “friend” request from my college nemesis, or have 25 years not

removed the sting?