How to Negotiate Your Way into a Job: 4 Tips to Nail Your Next Interview


Job hopping can be a slog, but it’s also one of the most effective ways to move up and earn more. The average person will change jobs around 12 times in a 30-year span, or once every 2.5 years. And the pressure to keep moving is real—a study done in 2014 showed that those who stuck out a job beyond two years ended up earning a whopping 50 percent less over the course of their lifetime than their job-hopping counterparts.

Despite the fact that interviewing is such an integral part of our careers, the interview process is flawed. Like many other things in life, the most qualified person doesn’t always land the gig and hiring standards change based on a myriad of factors, not all of them logical. People value what they feel matters to them. In other words, someone may hire an employee because they feel they can trust them to get things done or they think that a candidate will mesh well with their other staff. Neither trust or the ability to interact with other humans is based on data or logic, but on the decision-maker’s perceptions and emotion. Contrary to what the latest business article will tell you, there’s no universal right answer to most questions—or if there was, it stopped being right after the 10 people before you used it.

In such an uncertain process, there’s one thing you can be sure of: From the time you first make contact with a company to the moment when you accept an offer, you’re engaged in a negotiation. A guided discovery process rooted in labels and calibrated questions will get you a long way.

Before you panic, use these four tried-and-true negotiation tips to nail your next round of interviews.

interview tips

1. Prepare a Cheat Sheet

Creating a cheat sheet doesn’t mean writing a script or compiling an archive of facts on the company in question. Instead, your sheet should outline your goal and lay out some negotiation tools you’ll use to achieve it.

Write out calibrated questions you know you’ll need to ask and brainstorm labels you can use to uncover your interviewer’s core drives, standards, motives, and perceptions. Asking “what” and “how” questions will help turn your interviewer into your mentor and intrinsically tie them to your success. It will also encourage them to think about implementation and get behind-the-scenes “deal-killers” involved in the negotiation process.

Can you avoid the inevitability of having to negotiate salary, benefits, or some other term you’re bound to receive pushback on? Prepare labels and calibrated questions that anticipate your counterpart’s reaction and help you learn what you need to know. Unlike preparing a speech, labels can be made positive or negative or flipped into calibrated questions on the fly, improving your Jedi-like reflexes under pressure.

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2. Uncover What They Meant, Not What They Said

Ask 40 people how to use a golf club and you’re bound to get 40 different answers. Why? Because we all process information differently and use our own values, experiences, and perceptions to inform our responses. When it comes to gaining influence and avoiding misunderstandings, specificity is king.

More important than any question you may be asked is the reason you’ve been asked that question. Labels and calibrated questions are great tools for uncovering the meaning and intent behind someone’s words. If you’re afraid that countering with a question or a label will come off as confrontational, soften your delivery by using your “late-night FM DJ voice” and qualify your question with an honest admission: “Forgive me, I just want to make sure I’ve understood you correctly.”

Before you reveal how much you made at your last job, wouldn’t you like to know why they’re asking and how they’ll use that information?

“It seems like what I made at my last job would have an effect on what I make here.”

“What makes you ask?”

Both responses encourage your counterpart to expand on their point and reveal their thought process. You may discover that they’ve not yet decided on a salary or that they already have a number in mind. Either way, it pays to know if you’re the favorite or the fool.

3. Negotiate Other Valuable Terms Beyond Salary

“We don’t negotiate on salary.”

It’s not uncommon for companies to close their offer with this whale of a statement that leaves many people fumbling for a response.

It’s easy to be blinded by dollar signs and forget about other aspects of an offer that you and your counterpart may value differently. Bringing those items into the negotiation will help expand the realm of possibilities and enable you to work around hard-and-fast standards. If they don’t negotiate on salary, what do they negotiate on? Vacation? Benefits? Use the guided discovery process to understand where their values lie and where they may be more flexible.

Would you accept their salary offer if it meant more time off? Would they sooner pay you more money than grant you more vacation? By trading things that you value unequally, you’ll work toward a more satisfactory agreement for both parties and avoid leaving anything on the table.

4. Don’t Ignore Implementation

Countless deals crash and burn or never see the light of day simply because the negotiation process didn’t account for implementation. Before you sign a contract and make a commitment to follow through, you need to understand what challenges you’re up against and actively plan for your success. Asking calibrated questions that force your counterpart to address potential pitfalls, consult their team, and participate in finding a solution will lead to stronger agreements. No matter the circumstances, a “yes” without a “how” is a dangerous thing.  Do you want to run into surprises after the agreement has been made?  Is it out of line to say that you have in the past?

The Takeaway

Labels have a cumulative effect—in other words, they become more powerful the more you use them to build on one another. Think of them like those old potato chip commercials—one label is never enough. Underestimating the potency of labels will make you significantly less effective.  In addition, remember that calibrated questions are an equally-viable information gathering tool. Every interviewee knows that they need to ask good questions, but only a Black Swan negotiator knows to focus their efforts on “What” and “How” constructions. Knowing how to get the information you want in the most organic way possible will make you a more adept communicator and a more persuasive negotiator.  

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About The Author

Brandon Voss is the Director of Operations and an Instructor/Consultant with The Black Swan Group. Brandon has been instrumental in adapting the FBI’s hostage negotiation techniques to the business world. In addition to training clients, Brandon has guest lectured at USC Marshall School of Business and Georgetown McDonough School of Business.