flowers labeled with different prices
Photo: Jonny Valiant
We were enjoying an exquisite meal in a fancy restaurant, my friend and I. The room was imposing: gigantic, brilliant bouquets spilling out of crystal vases, Picasso and Degas paintings on the walls, crisp linens on elaborately set tables, and a waitstaff worthy of the Windsors. "I'm writing a story about making a deal for everything I buy," I said to my handsome companion, who was dressed in one of his finest suits. "Mm-hmm," he said, taking a sip of wine between bites. "And I was just thinking," I said, "that now, here in this restaurant, might be an interesting way to start."

His eyes bulged, and he nearly choked on the Gewürztraminer. "No," he said, "please, no, not here."

I won't pretend that I didn't understand his reluctance. In our culture, bargaining, like ripping off all your clothes and dancing on the table, is considered appropriate only in limited situations—and it can require just as much nerve.

Yes, sure, we make deals all day long: I hold the door for you; you let me step onto the escalator first. A colleague asks you to proofread her report; she says something nice about you to the boss. But when I upped the ante, deciding to spend a day trying to make a deal on everything that required a monetary exchange, the notion became suddenly scary—so scary that I put off the dreaded day for weeks, busying myself instead with a stack of books about how to negotiate. Think about it: When was the last time you looked at the price of a carton of milk in the grocery store and decided to try getting it for less? If you're like me, never. Haggle over the cost of a cab ride, or a dental visit? I'd rather have a root canal.

In their illuminating book Women Don't Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever report that women initiate negotiations three to four times less often than men. And when we do negotiate, we ask for—and usually get—less. Why? We're socialized to be compliant (to some degree, at least); we value relationships and strive to preserve them. If we feel that by bargaining we're challenging the status quo, it can make us—and, apparently, our dinner partners—deeply uncomfortable.

The most helpful book I read was Daniel Shapiro and Roger Fisher's practical guide to dealmaking, Beyond Reason. Shapiro and Fisher, associate director and director, respectively, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, believe that deals have a much greater chance of success if they affirm the five basic human desires we all have in relation to one another: appreciation (feeling valued), affiliation (feeling connected), autonomy (feeling free to make decisions), status (feeling respected), and a fulfilling role (feeling...fulfilled). These needs factor in on both sides of a negotiation; the more each need is satisfied, the more successful the negotiation is likely to be.

Getting to "yes" in under 10 minutes