How many times have you had that meeting where the HR person or your boss ushers you in, smiles warmly, and takes you through a long rant about your value and potential before handing you a package that looks like it should come with a free happy meal?

No, don’t answer that. Instead make a commitment to yourself that the next time this happens, you will negotiate like a ninja!

Negotiation is a word with quite a lot of baggage, a word that can simultaneously excite you to the possibility of getting things to go your way and creep you out because it just sounds, well, icky. Like an oily used-car salesman trying to sell you a piece of junk or a silver-tongued lawyer trying to get an unfair out-of-court settlement worth millions.

But, negotiation is a key life skill, an inherently interpersonal activity that requires a good understanding of human psyche, and it is vital to your success.

The Basics

This paper by Russell Korobkin, professor of law at UCLA, tells us that when deciding whether to accept or reject an offer, a negotiator performs two cognitive tasks. First, she must evaluate the content of the available options for their fairness, a task we can call “judgement.” Second, she must determine which available option she prefers, a task we can call “choice.”

By knowing the mental process the other party is going through, you can successfully employ some of the techniques that have been psychologically proven to make her see your option as not only good judgement, but also good choice.


Ninja Technique #1: Use a Red Herring

Normally when people negotiate, they put up their demands in one solid “my way or the highway” style offer. This approach doesn’t let the other person choose, only pass a judgement—which is tricky and dangerous because she might feel that she has been cornered and coerced into making a decision.

So, instead of making one single offer, try offering three possible scenarios:

  • Scenario One: Something that works for you but can be very expensive for the other party. A win-lose.
  • Scenario Two: The red herring. Something that is a lose-lose for both parties. An option through which no one wins.
  • Scenario Three: Something that is a middle ground and a win-win for both.

Research in social psychology shows that when you throw in one more option on the table (the red herring), the odds of the other party saying no to all three are very low, and your negotiating partner will be inclined to choose the best of the three offers (which, in this case, is the win-win). It passes the judgement test and the choice test, and you appear flexible while still getting what you want.

Ninja Technique #2: Give Them an Anchor They Can’t Refuse

Research into human judgement has found that how we perceive the value of an offer is highly influenced by the first number that enters the conversation. Once this number—or anchor—is set, other judgements are made by adjusting away from that number as the reference point.

So, even before you get into the discussion of your package, casually throw in a number with reference to salaries. For example, say something like:

“Who says graphic designers don’t make good money? My friend who graduated with me is making $80,000 a year!”

Or, in an interview, you can give an example in response to a question, saying something like: “So let’s assume I make $70,000 a year…”

Setting this anchor early on during the conversation gives you an upper hand when the time comes to talk about your actual package. Your counterpart will unconsciously use your anchor as the reference point, and you are one step closer to getting the package you want.

Two important points with this technique: First, don’t quote a number that is unrealistic for that particular role and that is too distant from the typical salary ranges at that company. (Hint: Check out Victoria Pynchon’s advice for doing a little reconnaissance work on what you should expect before you go into negotiations.) Second, don’t throw this number in response to the question “What are you making?” but in response to “What are your salary expectations?” Lies will never get you anywhere worth going.


The general assumption is that some people are just better negotiators, but in reality, small psychological hooks like the ones above are routinely used by expert negotiators to psych their opponents into making favorable agreements. So, next time you go in for the dreaded “package discussion,” keep them in mind.


Photo of ninjas courtesy of Zach Dischner.