Negotiating Nicely

Whenever I think about negotiation, I recall an exercise we did in law school to practice negotiation. I got demolished by the other guy. He would not budge one bit, To come to any agreement at all, I had to give. He would rather have failed than give at all. So by the rules of that exercise, he won because I compromised and he got everything he wanted.

I had numerous reactions to that event:

  1. I realized that I really didn’t want to be doing this for a living.
  2. I never wanted to work with that guy ever again.
  3. I thought I was wrong in how I approached negotiation.

Years later, I realize #3 is untrue. Negotiation is not about gets a higher score — it is about finding the closest possibility to a win-win situation for any given scenario. That was my goal then – to understand the other side’s needs, compare them to my own, and find common ground. I don’t believe in a combative approach to compromise. I believe that two sides who genuinely want a productive partnership can be open with each other, discuss their needs, and get to a middle ground where both are happy.

There is a somewhat well-known concept that a good compromise is achieved when both sides are equally dis-satisfied. But that doesn’t have to mean both sides are unhappy… put a positive spin on it, and both sides can come out of a negotiation with equal feelings that they found the best possible deal. I feel it is a bad precedent for a working relationship to have one side feeling they got the better of the other.

When thinking about this in the context of your own work, think about your ongoing negotiation with your boss. What will provide the best long-term benefit? A combative relationship? Or one where you both understand each others needs, and look for ways to help each other achieve personal and professional goals? When an employee and employer both want each other to succeed, they often do.

Anger-Checking Your Email Responses

Maybe it is just me, but there are times where someone sends me an email that ticks me off. I can assure you, the worst thing to do in such situations is to reply right away. Instead, slow down and think about it. I have a 3 step process

  1. Go away for a while.
  2. Re-read the email, one sentence at a time. This slows me down and makes me truly listen to what the sender is trying to communicate, which often will let me get past any problems with the overall tone of an email.
  3. Fact-check it – If an email is causing such an emotional response, clearly it is pushing my buttons. Breaking out which pieces of the email are correct facts vs. incorrect facts vs. opinions helps to respond appropriately, which is often a balance between correcting my own reaction and figuring out what they said they made me react. If there is disagreement on facts, research which is true. (I am wrong sometimes.) This often will clarify the difference between our perspectives, either by laying out the correct facts or highlighting differing opinions.

When replying, I have a few more guidelines for myself:

  1. Ignore their tone. Which is a polite way of saying “Don’t feed the trolls.” Just reply to what the email said, not how they said it.
  2. Correct pertinent facts. Don’t be petty, just trying to prove someone is wrong, but if incorrect facts are driving an unreasonable request, correct them.
  3. Respond politely.
  4. Respond to the most important concern raised in the emails first.
  5. Respond to other important concerns after the primary point is covered.
  6. Ignore anything that doesn’t matter. (Sometimes nothing in an email matters, and no response is required.)

Intrinsic Team Motivation

I’m currently reading a book, ‘The Neuroscience of Creativity‘. One bit that caught my eye was a listing of 6 factors that drive intrinsic motivation in a work environment. The source was cited, so I looked it up, and it can be found at:

From the article:

“What managerial practices affect creativity? They fall into six general categories: challenge, freedom, resources, work-group features, supervisory encouragement, and organizational support.”

The article goes on to give details on those categories, and I feel that anyone who is looking for a stronger team, in particular an engaged team striving for innovation in their work would benefit from reading the article.

Assuming Good Faith

I recently participated in a thread on Hacker News, where someone had posted a horror story of a bad boss, and how it went badly for them when they went over said bosses head, telling upper management that their boss was incompetent.

I replied, saying in short, that going over your boss’ head is seen as a communication failure because you are expected to be able to work through problems with your direct superior.

The response was interesting. While my comment was quite well-received, as measured by how many points it got, many of the responses were negative. It was full of people saying that you cannot trust management, you should just quit if you have problems with your boss, and a general tone that all managers in corporations are evil political beings, just out for their own personal gain, and never to be trusted. 

One comment ins particular struck me when it said, “You are assuming good faith.”

Yes. I am.

I feel that that vast majority of people in leadership roles got there by trying to do well for their teams, their company, their products, and themselves. They are not sociopaths out for their own gain at the expense of everyone else. And they do not look at their team as adversaries, trying to cut them down. On the contrary, most leaders want to build a team up and help them succeed. Not everyone is good at this, but even if they are bad leaders, that doesn’t mean it is their intent to hurt you.

So yes, I am doubling down on my assumption of good faith. I believe everyone deserves it. Even people who you do not like, do not agree with, or do not think have sufficient skills for their current role. Those people are imperfect humans, like the rest of us. They have strengths, and they have weaknesses. 

If you are focusing 100% on their weaknesses, allowing that to be 100% of your perception of them, then proceeding to insult their competence around your team and to your upper management… then you are right that there is a toxic member on your team. But it isn’t your boss. It is you.

Know yourself and Your Audience

Know your audience

“Know your audience” is almost a cliche, but for good reason. People listen to the messages they care about, and filter out the rest. They also internally translate everything they hear into seeking to understand how it will impact their own life. If you want to communicate successfully with those around you, you need to know who they are.

This is easier said than done – when talking to a group, you will get as many different reactions as there are people in the group. And everyone has their own personal agenda – Your manager has different goals than your peers. Each member of the team has their own career and their own slice of the work to worry about. Those add up to a wide variety of perspectives that will hear what you have to say, and an equally varied set of responses. 

There are a few main tasks to improve your awareness of how everyone’s perspective will change their response:

  1. Think about who your teammates really are. You’ll get to know this over time as you worki with a team and build trust. No matter what you are trying to communicate, use your knowledge of who they are to pro-actively and empathetically predict how it might impact them. Tailor the message to address the concerns that you believe they may have. It may feel awkward or even neurotic to put this much thought into your interactions with others, but it can make a world of difference. It works and it builds a stronger team. The strongest teams are made when all people put in this much effort not only to know each other, but to act on that knowledge.
  2. Consider the level of detail the other person needs to know. A coder talking to another coder might be able to skip the big picture and just talk through an algorithm or architectural detail. But when talking to QA, the context within your system matters more, including understanding why a feature is being coded in the first place. Your UX designer doesn’t need to know anything about the code, but does need to understand the workflow on a screen, where a user is coming from or going. Your product owner just needs to know that you all have it covered so they can focus on what comes next, and your manager needs to know when you have a problem that is blocking your work so they can help you.
  3. Think about your own interests. Although you want to tailor your messages to the audience, you don’t want to trivialize your own needs. Decide what you are trying to get out of a conversation, and envision the intersection of their interests and your own. I like to picture a venn diagram of our roles and interests, and keep conversations within our shared interests. This also keeps conversations focused – it makes sure that you when you do engage with your co-workers, they will feel like the conversation was worthwhile and that they helped with the work.

As a Product owner, this focus on the goal of a conversation and the shared interests of people on a call is what I use to keep a meeting focused. When talking about future features and how to implement them, we go on tangents frequently. Sometimes, that is good – it is driving us to think through details with the exact group of people who have the knowledge, and it can roll back up to a solid definition of a feature. Other times, we have too many people on the call, and we are only engaging with half the group. In those cases, it is better to pull the conversation back to the topics that interest the entire gorup, and set aside details for smaller group discussions at another time. You don’t need full resolution of every topic, in every conversation. Take a conversation as far as you can with the group at hand, and take notes of what conversation needs to happen later to finish out details. Keep conversation laser-focused on the immediate goals for the meeting.

When I do need to cut off a conversation, I say so explicitly. As mentioned before, they will almost always be thinking about how the current conversation directly impacts their life. The tangent we were just going down might be their area of expertise, and they truly want to keep getting into it. Cutting off a conversation in their area may make them feel dismissed, or leave them frustrated because we did not answer their own questions. So I make sure to always say why we are cutting off a conversation, that I am making a note to get back to it, and give an estimate of when we will get back to it. 

Listening Skills

Listening isn’t a tough skill to acquire, but it can be difficult to put into practice. Improving listening skills is often about breaking self-focused habits and establishing new habits to keep your focus on the person you are listening to.

  1. Just listen. Try to understand what they are saying. Forgive any quirks of their communication, stumbling over words, and just focus on the points they are trying to make.
  2. Don’t hijack the conversation. Many people have the habit of turning conversations back to themselves — to be sure they express their own opinions, share their experiences, and sometimes to one-up the other person. It is advisable to pay attention to your own conversation to see whether you have this habit. If you do, stop. This might take some practice. Find someone who you like well enough to be happy just listening to them… and have them tell you about things that you already know. Practice having the patience to let them talk. Remember that it is OK to just listen to someone else’s perspective even if you already know more about the topic than they do. It is also OK for someone to be wrong… you can still listen to their perspective, and correct them later.
  3. Ask questions. If you don’t understand what someone is trying to communicate, ask questions until you do. Once you do understand, you may disagree – but then ask more questions to be sure you understand why they came to the conclusion they did. Even in disagreement, you can learn from what other people think. 

Becoming a better listener will not only broaden your own perspective, it will make people comfortable talking to you, and will earn trust and respect, which ultimately helps the entire team to work better together.


One benefit you will see from truly listening to others is that it will build your empathy – the ability to understand and share the perspective of someone other than yourself. Some people are better at this than others, but there are things you can do to improve your own talents:

  1. Remember that everyone has a full life story outside of your work interactions. Their stories are all different, but they make up far more of their life and their perspective than the limited time you spend interacting with them. Their life will impact their work, so one of the best way to understand how they are feeling and what is going on in their life is to ask. “How are you?” can be more than a  pleasant greeting. It can be a sincere question. If someone is doing great, maybe it is a good time to work on a more difficult problem together. If they are struggling, maybe it is a better time to cut them some slack.
  2. Try to envision how someone’s feelings will impact any work you are doing together. If they just got back from vacation and are trying to just catch up with everything they missed, maybe it is not a good time to call the whole team together to revamp your processes. If you just got out of a retrospective meeting and found that the entire team has low morale, maybe this is not the time to ask everyone to speed up the work. And if they are feeling great, loving the work, and are inspired, maybe it is time to encourage them to take on something larger and more challenging. Maybe you should even volunteer to do some of the more boring, simplistic work to let the member of the team with the highest morale tackle the work that needs such a spirit.


The flip side of all this focus on the people you work with is to know yourself. We all have different personalities and preferences in our working environments and our communication styles. And knowing your own inclinations and preferences can help you work with others.

As an example, if you are the type of person who avoids conflict, you will not be able to engage in productive conversation with someone who uses conflict as a tool to draw out a variety of perspectives. You need to know yourself enough to recognize that you have the opposite approach to collaboration as the other person, and actively seek different ways to work with them.

Likewise, if you prefer to think through problems slowly and analytically, you need to know that you cannot commit to decisions on a phone call the first time to hear about them. You need some time to process and can give a tentative answer, but the real answer will take take. 

Once you have learned more about yourself, and have a reasonable amount of knowledge to guess how you react in different situations, it is time to evaluate yourself. Are all of your actions and reaction reasonable? Which ones might not seem reasonable to people who differ from you? 

Another aspect of self-knowledge is your personal values. You probably know what you care about, but it may be worth listing them out, in particular to contrast with values that may differ in a corporate environment. Not all personal values are universal. They are personal, and you will need to decide which differences are OK for healthy working relationships and which are not.

As an example of a different value that can exist in a healthy working environment is a software engineer who cares about the meaning their work has on the world vs. a sales guy who just wants to make more money. While diametrically opposed, this does not have to be a conflict because they each control the area of the business where their personal work impacts their own value. The coder can make a product that improves the world, and the sales guy can make money, and everyone gets what they want. There will still be conflict, but you can embrace the difference to resolve the conflict – draw boundaries. Talk about the differences in values, hopefully agreeing that if each person sticks to their own area, conflict is avoided.

You also do need to decide whether you can work with people who are different than you. I think most people can – but it is easier to do so deliberately, as it helps you understand where they are coming from when you are on different sides of an issue.

Building Trust

Trust brings safety to a team. If you have a team that trusts each other, they talk more. They feel free to bring all ideas to the table. They point out problems and concerns, and figure out how to improve. They do not build up grudges or frustrations.

A lack of trust feels like you are walking on eggshells. You are thinking about how to communicate problems without causing additional problems. You may have an “us vs. them” perspective when looking at different team members. When your leadership doesn’t tell you something, you take it personally instead of respecting the confidentiality that comes with their role. And that builds resentment. You may start to feel that you are being held back from your full potential. And you may start to feel competitive towards your teammate instead of being happy for everyone’s progress. You won’t raise all your ideas, and you may start hoping that certain team members leave, potentially even sabotaging the success of the team’s work. 

Each person will have a different experience of what a trusting team feels like vs. an untrusting team, but no matter how you personally experience it, the result is the same – trusting teams collaborate well and succeed in working together, while untrusting teams isolate themselves and slow down progress. Even aside from the team’s success, it just isn’t pleasant to work on a team without trust.

If you do not trust you team, there are many things you can do to improve the situation:

Talk More

This sounds so simple, and too easy of an answer, but it works. Talk more to each other, even if not about the work. Break down any barriers that make you hesitant to approach each other. If you are in a team where you don’t talk to the boss on a regular basis, start. Ask them to start having one-on-one meetings with you. If you work in an office, say hello to people around you. Have lunch together, walk together to go get coffee. 

Simply talking more at all, even meaningless small talk, will make it easier to talk about more important topics. It builds your comfort level with each other, and it will improve team communication.

If your team is already talking frequently, but it is always small talk, you can start looking for ways to bring more meaningful topics into the conversation. As an example, I once worked on a team that all sat together in an open office, which led to nobody talking because we just all put on headphones and chatted with each other on Slack and via comments on github. When we needed to talk about new features in the code, a couple of us would go find a conference room and talk in private. While this scenario is a valid argument against open office plans, the bigger problem was a breakdown in communications because people were not in the habit of talking.

We improved it by a simple move of bringing conversations out into the open. We moved the desks around to make sure that people who worked on the same features together also sat near each other. We put up whiteboards. When we wanted to talk through a problem, we got up and just started talking and drawing. And fairly soon, the entire team was fully involved in all conversations. All of our different perspectives started to come together, with the features being better designed, resulting in higher quality work. Personally, I liked the team better and enjoyed the job more after we made those changes.

Of course, your team will have different problems, and different solutions. To figure out if there are small changes that can be made, start watching how your team communicates for a few days. Are there behaviors that close off people or conversations? Are there topics you avoid? Do you use online communications for conversations that could be more efficient by just talking? Take note of those, and find ways to bring those conversations out with the team.

Some people will balk at this suggestion – they’ll want to keep conversation online and asynchronous, to let them keep their focus. If your team is working well, this is a valid point. But odds are if your team if working well, fixing communications is more important and will have a larger long-term impact. Communicating as a team is a foundational skill to make your work environment healthy and productive. Talk first, then optimize your focus once you trust your team. 

Trust by default

It sounds scary, but start trusting other people even if they haven’t proven they deserve it. This isn’t always easy – if you don’t trust someone, just telling yourself to stop feeling that way and start trusting them can seem impossible. But trust has to start somewhere – it feeds upon itself, both for the better and for the worse, and to turn around a team that doesn’t have trust, someone needs to take the lead. Why not let that some be yourself?

It doesn’t require you to actually trust them. You just need to behave like you do – their response will often show you that they do deserve trust, and you can keep moving forward. If they really don’t deserve it, they will prove it to you fairly quickly. You’ll catch them in a lie, they’ll do something harmful to you or the team, or in some other way prove they are not worthy of trust. But I’m going to be optimistic for now and talk about how it will go for teams who do deserve your trust.

Start by being open with the others on your team. Share your feelings with them about how the work is going, how you feel about your processes and meetings. Let them see what you are doing, how you are doing it, and the impact it has on how you feel. 

Give others the benefit of the doubt – when they do something you do not like, assume they have valid reasons for their actions that have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with their belief in how to best move the work forward.

When you make a mistake, own it. Admit it, fix it, recover from it, and try to not let it happen again. 

You’ll know whether or not your behavior changes are helping the team by watching whether they reciprocate. Are they talking to you more? Do they start talking to each other more? Are there more discussions about how to approach specific problems in your work? Are people simply increasing how nice they are… asking how everyone is doing? If these types of small behavioral changes are visible, then you are on the right track. If not, your team has deeper problems, and some of the other suggestions on this page may be a more appropriate approach.

Once you start to see improvement, you can increase the transparency about what you are doing, why, and what you hope it will bring to the team. Share with them that you have been trying to open up more, trying to believe in everyone else and trust them more, and that you have seen the team improve. Ask them to start doing the same. This will solve two problems – it will bring forward the best behavior of team members who can be part of a high-performance, trusting team. It also will be obvious which team members are not in a place to do so. If one team member is bringing everyone else down, that will become clear and become a problem for your manager to resolve.

Let me be clear – I’m not saying that everyone needs to step up or be shipped out. I’m saying that not everyone can change their behavior easily. Those people need more involved coaching and guidance. Avoid the temptation to think of them as lost causes, and embrace the idea that you’ll need to help them as you would a friend who has suffered a loss. However, frequently when someone is in this state, they need different help than the whole team telling them to just smile and talk more, which takes me back to my point that it is probably a problem for your leader, not your peers.

Get to Know Each Other

Once your team has a basic level of trust with each other – you are talking about the work and engaging in small talk, start to focus on truly getting to know your team. Understand (as much as they are willing to share) who they are, who their family is, what they enjoy, and how their life outside of work is going. Aside from the friendship that will bring to the team, it also has a practical effect, of helping you understand what they care about, what events in the world might be impacting their own emotions. This will help you get to know their communication and work preferences as well. Everyone is different, and if you can learn those differences and treat people how they want to be treated, it will go a long way to having a pleasant team and work environment. 

As a specific example, do you have someone in your office who likes to come in and say hello to everyone in the office, while at the same time annoying those people who don’t want to be bothered with hellos and small talk? Knowing who wants a “Good Morning!” and a brief chat and who does not can go a long way. It also carries across into work discussions – some people still want to be greeted and chatted up for a few seconds before getting to the work, some people are annoyed by it. Learn who is who. If you don’t know – ask. Asking will bring clarity to such concerns, and will also resolve potential misunderstandings. Because despite knowing that one person does not want to be greeted by everyone each morning…they still may feel excluded even though are respecting their wishes by not saying “Hi.” You can’t win that situation without communication. It would be worth openly telling them that you know they don’t like to be bugged, so you skip them out of respect for who they are, not because you are excluding them from your world. And maybe still make eye contact and smile as you walk by.

If you are in a leadership position, these kinds of actions are greatly magnified. A CEO who says hello to everyone in the office except for one person, without making their reasons clear, is going to not only make that one person feel left out of the whole company, it will make other people notice and exclude them as well. Leaders need to excel at transparency behind their actions, in order to prevent misunderstandings that can trash the morale of an entire company.

Listen to Others

People trust others when they feel safe with them. One reason we feel safe with others is when we feel they understand us, and hear our perspective. The best way to help someone know you can be trusted is to listen to them. When they talk, just listen and focus on understanding what they are saying. 

This sounds simple, but many people don’t truly listen – they seek opportunities to pull the conversation back to their side, to put in their own opinions and perspectives. While both sides of a conversation do matter, there is a difference between understanding two sides of a discussion to drive the conversation forward vs. trying to overwhelm the conversation to put your perspective on top.

The reasons behind this behavior are somewhat circular – if you do not trust your teammate, you feel more need to inject your thoughts. Which leads to a cycle of failing to listen. Break the cycle by deliberately not jumping in. Slow down, and truly listen to them. Ask questions to clarify their point if you do not understand. When they say something interesting, ask them to say more. Repeat summaries and re-phrase their own points back to them, which not only indicates you are listening, but reinforces the points to reduce misunderstandings. It also will help them talk through their own perspectives – we don’t always have our thoughts fully developed in our minds, and talking through them forces us to address any gaps in our own thoughts and logic. Being a listener for someone else helps them through this process.

Once they’ve explained their side of a discussion, be gentle in how you switch to telling your side. Don’t say “My turn!”. And don’t just launch into a monologue. In my experience, one of the best ways to move on to sharing your side of the story is to contrast your points with theirs – tell them where you agree, and where you would like to present another perspective. And feel free to be transparent. Sometimes it can feel awkward and cliched to say something along the lines of “I want to push back against the idea that…”, but it helps frame the discussion that you want to discuss specific points, sets them up to hear why you feel that way, and is arguing against a point they made, not against them personally.

Flag Untrustworthy behaviors

We also need to be realistic. Not everyone is trustworthy. But we need to always keep in mind that their lack of trustworthiness comes from their habits and their history. They started making poor choices in their behavior because of their own experiences. Most people who behave poorly in a work environment are decent people with bad habits. So we can help them change. Tell them when something isn’t an acceptable behavior. If you’ve already started some of the above advice and are talking to each other more, flagging a poor behavior can be just a quick comment, not a conflict.

When you do flag a behavior, address the behavior, not the person. They are not a bad person, they just acted in a way that eroded trust. At the same time, be clear and transparent. Subtlety can be lost when addressing a problem. Say what you mean, directly, but kindly. 

There may be valid reasons for poor behavior. Our goal is to accept those reasons, but look for alternative behaviors that still meet the goals. For example, micromanagers often act that way because they are seeking high quality work that will not need to be fixed down the road. That is a valid business need, especially in the software world. But there are other ways to get there – establishing practices for test coverage, code reviews, and documented standards to make it clear what the expectations are for the team. Implementing better practices can reach the same quality goals, while freeing the team to do what they are good at in their own ways.