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.
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
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?
Soon, the list of topics grows more serious, and turns to work:
My plate is completely full, but my boss just asked me to start a new project. There’s no particular glory
in it. Do I say yes to please her? What about ever eating dinner with my family?
I want to approach my colleague who’s back from bereavement leave, but then I tell myself it’s none of
My client is pushing me hard to do something questionable. Technically speaking, it’s not against the
written rules. On the other hand, it feels a bit unethical. Should I say no?
We’re nearing our fundraising target, but we’re not quite there. Our biggest donor said I could ask him
for more money if we fell short, but I feel awkward going back to him again.
I suspect you’re no stranger to this inner tug-of-war.
As you go about the ordinary business of every day, there are inner commentators competing for your attention.
At times they speak nicely. But often their voices debate each other like hostile adversaries on talk radio.
I think of them as negotiating parties, what I call your “inner negotiators.” Like actual individuals, these internal