Increase your power during negotiations

Negotiation is a key skill to master, both in the workplace and outside it. In this episode, Fotini Iconomopoulos, founder of negotiation training company Forward Focusing, based in Toronto, and author of Say Less, Get More: Unconventional Negotiation Techniques to Get What You Want, shares advice for succeeding in negotiations. She talks about how to reduce your anxiety when negotiating, tactics that can improve your position during a negotiation, what women should know heading into a negotiation, and much more. 

Iconomopoulos will be speaking on negotiation at the 2021 AICPA & CIMA Women's Global Leadership Summit, held live online 3–5 November.

In this episode, you'll learn:

  • Ways to reduce your anxiety about negotiating.
  • The biggest mistakes people make during negotiations.
  • How to attain a more powerful position during a negotiation.
  • What a BATNA is and why you should have one.
  • What women in particular should keep in mind during negotiations.
  • What to do when negotiating with people who might be biased against you.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Courtney Vien, an
FM senior editor, at


Courtney Vien: Hello, and welcome to the FM Podcast. I'm Courtney Vien, a senior editor with FM. Today I'll be speaking with Fotini Iconomopoulos, author of Say Less, Get More: Unconventional Negotiation Techniques to Get You What You Want. Through her company, Forward Focusing, she trains executives on conducting high-stakes negotiations, and she is also an MBA instructor at York University in Toronto, Canada. She'll be speaking on negotiation at the AICPA & CIMA Women's Global Leadership Summit. We're happy to have her. Hi, Fotini.

Fotini Iconomopoulos: Hi there. Thank you for having me.

Vien: Many people think of negotiation in the context of negotiating a job offer, and that's certainly important. But what are some other reasons that negotiation is an essential skill?

Iconomopoulos: Well, in essence, what it comes down to is negotiation is a conversation between two people. It's two people trying to reach an agreement and we are trying to reach an agreement well outside of job offers and car deals and things like that. We find ourselves in circumstances all the time where we're trying to reach agreement with people daily, whether it's with your partner, with your manager, with your client, with your child. There are lots of opportunities to practice negotiation skills to remove some of the obstacles that can create conflict for us and get to a resolution a lot faster.

Vien: Many people are anxious about negotiating. Why is that?

Iconomopoulos: There's certainly a fear attached to the word "negotiation". When I say the word, it sends a shiver down some people's spines. Usually, it's associated with conflict. In pop culture in general, we get these references from movies and TV and so on where it's, "Oh, negotiating, that must mean you're beating each other up", and it's like, that's actually not the intention.

People always ask me, they're like, "Well, your life must be like that show Suits." I'm like, "Actually, no." My life is preventing those moments from actually ever happening. My life is quite boring, and effective negotiation is actually quite boring. Most people assume that there's going to be a lot of drama attached to a negotiation. That's where the fear kicks in. It's this primal instinct we have when we're faced with an uncomfortable situation, where all rational thought leaves our brain. That's when we have those moments that make us go, "God, why did I do that? Why did I say that?"

If that's what you think is going to be looming, that's only going to create even more buildup and more fear. Once people understand what negotiation truly is or some tools to help them through some of what they perceived to be a very difficult conversation, a lot of fear starts to dissipate. That part of my job is to help people understand that, it actually doesn't have to feel like a boxing match in order to make both people satisfied.

Vien: That's one technique you can use to reduce your anxiety around negotiating. You can reframe and tell yourself, it doesn't have to be a confrontation. What are some other ways people can cut down on that anxiety?

Iconomopoulos: One of the easiest ways is simply to pause. I talk about finding your mental pause button. It is literally to stop talking. The title of my book is called Say Less, Get More for a number of reasons. But this is the primary one. Spend a moment thinking instead of talking, spend a moment reframing the situation in your brain, spend just a moment taking a meditative breath. Breathe in for four, hold for six, and out for eight. Just taking that time to think before speaking to allow yourself to calm down and allow some of that adrenaline rush to wear off a little bit will get you much better results.

There's also a lot of studies from the psychological world. For example, one of my favourites is a 2013 study from Harvard that tells us that when you can reframe the situation in your mind. Instead of telling yourself, I'm anxious about this, can you say, I'm excited. I'm excited to finally get to a resolution. I'm excited to show this person all the preparation I've done for our conversation.

Whatever that moment is going to be, if you can go, I'm excited to show them what I'm made of. All of a sudden, you will actually get much better results. You will change your cognitive abilities to handle the moments that come your way.

Vien: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see people make during negotiations?

Iconomopoulos: Yeah, again, this comes from some of those misconceptions from our pop culture or what we perceive negotiations to look like. One of the biggest ones is we talk too much. People assume that the successful people or those slick, fast-talking sales guys in sharp suits. That is not the case.

Again, I go back to the title of the book. I chose Say Less, Get More for a reason. People will often talk themselves out of a deal if you just give them the space to do so. If you can be quiet, if you can train yourself to say less and you're uncomfortable doing that, but you know, you're doing it for a reason. Imagine how much more uncomfortable the other party is going to be.

What happens when we get uncomfortable is we start to fill that silence and people will give you information. Knowledge is power. I think we can all agree on that. When you think about it, the more you talk, the more knowledge you're giving them, the more power you're giving them. One of the biggest mistakes is simply, we do far too much talking. The other mistake that I think people often make is they only think about things from their own perspective.

If you are going in to have a job offer or salary negotiation, or you are going in to talk to a new client about something and you're going, "Here's what I want, here's what I want to get out of this, here's why I think this is a really great way of managing things." They don't care. Everybody is a little bit selfish.

Can you flip the perspective around? Can you think about things from their perspective? Can you go, here's what would make your objectives move further. Here's how I can be a member of the team that will help to move objectives X, Y, and Z forward in a more efficient way. Here's what I propose in order to achieve your objectives a lot faster. You're still getting what you want. You're thinking about that, but you're framing it up in a way that's going to make it sound more appealing to them.

You've got to think about what is valuable to the other party if you're going to get them to engage in conversation with you. Again, that's another one of those big mistakes that I see in the negotiation world.

Vien: You mentioned power, which is a crucial aspect of negotiating. In your book, you talk about both real power and perceived power. What are some things that accountants could do to increase their power going into a negotiation?

Iconomopoulos: Well, the perceived power bit starts with really just your attitude when you go in. How do you look when you are having this conversation? Whether it's in the same room, whether it's on a camera, whether it's on the phone, or even on an email. What are those things that you are doing that are subconsciously sending a message to the other person that you are confident in what it is that you are saying?

So your body language when we're live or when we can see each other has a lot to do with things. If you're hunched over a computer and they can't see you or you sound really quiet and they [say], "What did you say to me?" Those are the types of things that will signal to the other party that this person doesn't sound really confident in what they're saying. Perhaps I don't trust them, perhaps they are weak, and I can take advantage of them in this moment. It starts very much with that perception first.

The other thing that you can do in terms of increasing power is use things like diplomas and things of that nature to increase our credibility, to make us look more authoritative as if we're more of an expert in our field. If they know that you have X number of degrees or you have a certain amount of experience and so on, that can certainly change their perception again of your authority in the room.

If they know you've worked with some other really big clients and that you have experience in their particular niche, that again can change the dynamics of how they perceive your confidence and how much they're going to push back on some of the things that you're telling them. Because if I don't think you know what you're talking about, I'm going to push back a lot. But if I have the perception that, well, this person knows their stuff, this person has experience in my field, and so on. You've now changed the power dynamics and I don't feel like I can challenge you quite as much, and so that might make the conversation much easier instead of it being constantly full of conflict and obstacles.

Vien: Having information can also increase your power during a negotiation. Can you talk about that?

Iconomopoulos: Of course, the number one thing that you can do in terms of changing the power dynamics is get information. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Information is power. Know who you're dealing with, know what industry you're dealing with. Have that information at the forefront of your mind, so that you can structure what it is that you want to say in order to be most effective and so that you have that authority in the room as well.

Find out who it is that you're working with. What challenges have they faced in the past and so on. Do you have a questionnaire that you can send out in advance? Can you spend the first few minutes of your conversation getting to know a little bit more about them and understanding and downloading what's going on in their world right now? Did you get a referral from somebody? Can you ask more information about that?

There are so many sources of information out there, and that's going to help you feel much more confident and prepared. It'll start to show in the way you physically show up, in the way that you sound to them, and even in the way that you write your emails because you're going to be more definitive and you're going to be more declarative in your statements instead of wondering, is this OK with you? You don't want to give them the power to shut you down. It's about making sure you've done your homework so that you feel confident and then that starts to shine through as well.

Vien: People often have more power in a negotiation than they realise. In your book, you give the example of credit card company that had a very successful rewards programme. You helped them with a negotiation with a bank. In this negotiation the bank acted like it had all the power, when the credit card company actually had a great deal of leverage.

Iconomopoulos: Yeah. This one blew my mind. It was the first time I realised that even very talented, bright people, successful people can underestimate how much power they have. I was approached by a client, and they went, "Oh, the bank has us over a barrel. They've got all this power", and they gave me a tonne of information and PowerPoint decks to read through to get me up to speed on the situation at hand.

As I started reading through, I was like, what am I missing? Because when I look at it objectively, without the history of how I feel going into or how the client felt going into that room, or without some of the relationship noise that was going into it. Objectively, I went, these people have a bunch of loyal followers. The other folks desperately need them to get access to those loyal followers. Who then has the power? The dependency here was very different.

The way I saw it as an outsider looking in, then the people who would been caught up in the fear for so long. Because the bank had been treating them as though they were insignificant, as though they were nothing. The behavioural part of what the bank was doing was having a huge impact on the psychology of the people that I was working with. I had to go, guys, let's look at this for a second, from 20,000 feet. Who has what dynamics going for them?

What do you have? What are the pros and cons of your situation? How would that look to somebody else? What if we remove that for a second? We brought somebody completely new, and how would that change things? So by pointing out to them some of the strengths that they brought to the table, and how that would be perceived by somebody else, we broke free of some of the misconceptions of the stories that they had told themselves for so long.

We started crafting a new story for them, and they started behaving that way, and that completely changed the dynamics of every meeting they had thereafter.

Vien: The takeaway is to think about your strengths, and what you're bringing, and maybe recognise when you're selling yourself short.

Iconomopoulus: Yeah. Even for students that I talk to, when I speak to so many MBA students, and even younger students who are coming out of school, and negotiating their first job offer, and they go, how can I negotiate when they can just go to the next person on the list? Then I go, but why did they choose you? How did you get to the top of the list? Why are they talking to you in the first place? What is it that you bring to the table that they recognised, that you can now use to your advantage so that you can cite for them?

That you can now build upon to make sure that they recognise that they do want you. They've already indicated it, so you need to believe it, and you need to behave that way as well. You have much more power than you think. Yes, they could have gone to 500 other people, but they didn't. They didn't for a reason.

Vien: Another tactic you mentioned that can increase your confidence is knowing that you have an alternative if you choose to walk away from a negotiation, and in the world of negotiation, it's called the BATNA.

Iconomopoulos: Yeah.

Vien: Can you explain what this acronym means?

Iconomopoulos: BATNA is a Harvard term, and it is the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. What that means is the Plan B, if this doesn't work out, can I go to somebody else?

Going back to the company example, when I dealt with this company, and I said, "Well, if the bank doesn't work out, what is your BATNA? What's your next alternative?" They said, "Well, we can go to that bank, and we go to this bank."

I'm like, "Oh, so what you're saying is, you are not fully dependent on this one outcome. Because if you said look, we have nowhere else to go. If this bank doesn't work out, we're screwed. Our business goes under. That's a very different scenario. That means you have very little power. But the more BATNAs you have, the more alternatives you have. The less dependent you are on this other person, the more power you then have."

Vien: You'll be speaking about negotiations at our Women's Summit. Do you have any advice about negotiating for women in particular?

Iconomopoulos: Yeah. Women are wonderful advocates for others. Women will work really hard to stand up for others on their team, and negotiate on behalf of somebody else, and push really hard. What they don't do as frequently, according to some data and a lot of anecdotal evidence that I see in front of me every day, is that they will not go to bat for themselves quite as much. There's going to be some discomfort. There's going to be some very real backlash in some cases where they can be perceived as greedy or bitchy or aggressive, and so on.

Because of that potential backlash, women will hold back. My message to them is, don't. There are ways to manage it, and do it in a collaborative way that will minimise some of that extra noise. The potential for being perceived as greedy or bitchy or any of those things. What I want women to ask themselves is when they go into a negotiation of any kind, try not to become a victim of your own empathy.

What I mean by that is, you may go, hey, this is for the good of the team. That's what drives us to go, and bat so hard for others. But what about you? What can they afford to do for you? is a great question. We're service-oriented people, many of us, anybody who works in a professional service is going to want to do the best for their client.

But have you flipped it around, and gone, what can they afford to do for me? I'm not trying to make them go bankrupt. I'm trying to make sure that I'm getting paid in a fair and equitable way. I'm trying to make sure that I'm not being taken advantage of in taking more time than is appropriate for this session or whatever it might be.

It's having the courage to stand up, and go, yes, I deserve to get compensated appropriately. I deserve to make sure my voice is heard. I deserve all of these things that I'm going after, and then going OK, well, what is in their capability to be able to do for me? I'm not asking for the moon. I'm not asking for too much here.

So craft that out, and then you can use language in a very collaborative way to say, how can we work together to work this out? Or if you have a proposal, it's putting that proposal out there going, here's what I would expect from this. How close can you get to that? How can we work towards that together? There's lots of language you can use to dispel some of the potential backlash. I worry less and less about that every day because I work with so many women, and I get such wonderful success stories out of them.

Vien: What's a good tactic to take if you perceive that the person or people you are negotiating with are biased against you, or might be?

Iconomopoulos: Yeah, I'd say, I think we all fall into those types of situations from time to time as women. But even other minorities will find that kind of thing. For me, I see that as another example of knowledge is power. If you know that they are going to be biased, if you'd expect that they're going to say something stupid to you or behave in a way that isn't appropriate, being able to anticipate that is a very powerful thing because you can prepare for it.

You can actually practise, what am I going to say if and when they say this insulting thing? How am I going to manage that moment? For some people, it might be simply saying nothing at all. For some people, it's going to be asking a question. Like, I was called "little girl" once on a workshop. I could just stare them down and be really quiet, or I think in my case, I said something to the effect of, and how would my age change the lesson that I'm about to teach you? How would my age change the circumstances that we're about to work on together?

They're now going to put their own foot in their mouth. They don't want to get into that. I'm not shooting them down. I'm not insulting them. Even though I want to throw my best playground insults at them. I'm asking them a question that's putting the onus back on them by recognising that that could have happened. It's like my brain went, "Oh, I prepared for this. I saw this coming, I know how to handle this", versus, if you don't anticipate some of those things, you might be more likely to have some of those, "Oh God, what just happened?" Those deer-in-the-headlight moments. If the deer-in-the-headlight moment comes up, it's about pressing your mental pause button.

Instead of being reactive and saying something that can get you into trouble or something that you might regret, it's about taking that five seconds to just take a meditative breath, and either say nothing at all and let their ridiculousness linger and have other people recognise it, and now you get to be the poised one that is rising above it. That's often one of the easiest things to do, or it's about asking a question to challenge them on it.

Vien: Another tactic that can work is to make sure you have an ally in the room with you.

Iconomopoulos: I recall one time I was interviewing somebody. I was on a team of consultants, and we were interviewing a new consultant. I picked up really quickly that this potential hiree was ignoring me as the only woman in the room and seemingly a lot younger than everybody else there. He paid all of his attention to the CEO, who picked up on the same dynamic.

When he asked a question of the CEO, the CEO turned to me and said, "well, Fotini is actually the one who's best poised to answer that." You need to have an ally in the room who's going to be able to pick up on some of those things if you were being interrupted. It's having the unspoken rule with the other women and some of the allies in the room to go, "I'd love to hear what you're talking about as soon as Courtney is done."

So it's easier to fight those battles when you've got allies on your side. That is probably one of the easiest ways, so take some of the tension out of the room. If you can go and advance, go, "Hey, if something like that were to happen, can you just do me a favour and do this and I'd be happy to do the same for you."

Vien: Do you have any advice on how to develop that pause button?

Iconomopoulos: It takes practice, I will say. I hear a lot of people talking a lot about meditation. It's certainly become at the forefront of our minds during a very stressful time for many people. I'd say meditation can sound very intimidating to a lot of people. It might sound too woo-woo for a lot of folks. But it's really just taking a moment to take a breath. That breathing in for four, holding it for a little bit longer, and breathing out as slowly as possible can really help to calm your mind. It does change how your brain functions.

It has a halo effect as well. If you're going into a very difficult meeting, can you do that in the car before you get there? Before you turn your camera on, can you calm your mind so it's almost like you're lowering your blood pressure a little bit so it doesn't shoot up quite as quickly. There are studies that show us that even things like yoga and Pilates and running and things like that have a halo effect. It doesn't just calm you in that moment, but there's some lingering time where it also helps, so do something that you really enjoy.

Have a visual. When I used to do public events live and in person, I gave everybody in the audience, had one of these little cards on their seat. It's a little pause button, and it says, "Use frequently in moments of stress." Years later, people will get on camera with me. They'll still show me they have their little buttons everywhere. Some of my clients and students have used it as a screensaver. I used to use a Post-it Note next to my camera that said, "Slow down", because I speak really quickly.

I was just giving advice the other day where I encouraged people to just practise when it's not stressful. For example, when you're having a conversation with your kid or your spouse or your boss, or just in those everyday examples where we are talking to one another, when they ask you a question, can you count three before you answer? If you can do it in those really easy moments, it now becomes a habit. That becomes much easier to access and those more stressful moments. Are there little things that you can train yourself to do in the downtimes that will work during the stressful times?

Vien: Again, that was negotiation expert Fotini Iconomopoulos. Thank you for listening.