Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re negotiating all the time. When you ask your boss for more resources, agree with a vendor on a price, deliver a performance evaluation, convince a business partner to join forces with your company, or even when you decide with your spouse where to go on your next vacation, you’re taking a potentially conflict-filled conversation and working toward a joint solution.

That’s what a negotiation is — a process in which two parties with potentially competing incentives and goals come together to try to create a solution that satisfies everyone.

Too many people think that negotiation is something that salespeople or procurement professionals do, but it’s something we all do — every day. And it’s not just high-stakes, months-long discussions that warrant a thoughtful approach. It pays to improve your ability to handle all of these situations. This means honing skills such as conflict management (as you’d expect) and creative thinking (which you might not), both of which are critical to reaching mutually beneficial decisions.

I’ve heard many people say that being a good negotiator is about thinking quickly on your feet or being a better orator or debater than your counterpart. Sure, those things are helpful. But the best negotiators I’ve seen in action—the ones who most often get what they want — are those who are the most prepared and the most creative.

First, preparation. Preparation is the key to any successful negotiation, but few people spend enough time on it. I’ve had sales leaders tell me that they prepare in accordance with how long it takes to get to their customer’s office. That’s fine if your meeting is in Tokyo and you live in Manhattan. But it’s a recipe for disaster if you’re meeting the customer in Brooklyn.

Instead of using travel time as a benchmark, you should put at least as much time into getting as ready as you think the negotiation will take — at a minimum.

This is true for even seemingly straightforward discussions. If you’ve scheduled a two-hour conversation, spend at least two hours getting ready. And the more complex the issues at hand, the more you need to prepare — at least double or triple the length of time you’ll spend at the table.

There are times, of course, when you won’t be able to thoroughly prepare: You see your boss on your way into a meeting, for example, and you have to agree on when you’re going to get him that report; a vendor shows up unexpectedly and wants to negotiate a new volume purchase; or a customer calls demanding a price concession. Under those circumstances — and in advance of any negotiation — it’s helpful to start asking yourself what your key interests are and what the other party’s might be, thinking of creative solutions, and identifying persuasive standards. If you think of the discussion as a negotiation rather than a quick check-in, you’re more likely to treat it with the discipline it deserves.

Second, being creative — when preparing and in the room. The goal in any difficult conversation is to end up with the best solution out of many possible options. The more options you have at your ready, the more creative you can be.  When brainstorming options in advance or face-to-face with your counterpart, your goal is to develop possible solutions that meet the interests of everyone involved in the negotiation — those deeper needs behind your positions.

Before you negotiate, write down as many good, bad, and crazy ideas as you can think of; don’t settle for one or two options. Aim for at least seven or eight, even in a simple negotiation, and many more in a complex one. Allow yourself to come up with solutions that seem unrealistic — often from those impossible options, you’ll see a path toward a more viable one. Each solution you come up with may not address every need you and your counterpart have, but each should address at least a subset for both parties.

When doing this in advance, don’t worry about whether you’ll divulge these options to the other party when you get into the room; just be creative. If you run out of steam, go back and consider your interests and theirs, and see if you can come up with new options that address complementary sets of interests or bridge conflicting ones.

Treating every potentially conflict-filled conversation like a negotiation that you need to prepare well advance for and be creative about will help you will help you achieve the results you want whether at home with your spouse or at work with your colleagues, customers, or suppliers.


This post is adapted from the HBR Guide to Negotiating.