Gif of two people dancing

Salary negotiations. They have a certain reputation. A stigma. A stench. A worrying cloud of impending struggle. People tend to tiptoe around the issue, when really, we should dance right through it.

Generally, people don’t like the salary discussion in job interviews. For many, it’s a binary situation set in absolute black and white: you’re either the sort of person to go in all guns blazing, or meekly state what you want and pray you don’t get immediately rebuffed.

It’s known to be uncomfortable, awkward, and depending on the person’s interpretation it can also come across as a one-sided process.

Well, I want to buck the trend when it comes to determining dollar-figures.

Salary negotiation is like dancing. Both parties play an active and essential role.

Whether it’s a two-person waltz or a larger group hip-hop breakdancing session, you and the other dancers all have a part to play and must contribute to reach an ideal outcome. There is a lead and a follow; one person guides the other in collaboration to enact mutual benefit. Like a dance, a successful negotiation is all about interaction, understanding, alignment and coordination.

But before we learn our dance, there’s some context I want to mention that’s relevant to the rest of the article.

Job interviews and hiring processes vary from company to company. This article does not cover the best approach to salary negotiation for all companies. This article is about your mindset during salary negotiation.

By reframing the conversation in your head, you can change the feeling of the negotiation. You can increase your confidence levels and hopefully reach an outcome that you and your potential new employer are both stoked with.

So, let’s dance.

1. Get a feel for the floor.

In order to participate in an informed negotiation — one where you understand the routine just as much as your fellow dancers — get to know how the salary process works. Know who makes the decisions and ask questions. Establish as much context as possible from the ground up.

What is the company’s salary structure? Is there a specific process for determining seniority or experience? How and when are salary reviews conducted? How do you level up? Are there incentives or bonuses on offer for key performance milestones? Is there anything to consider beyond financial remuneration as part of the package? These are all worthwhile and relevant questions.

Be proactive and play your role in sourcing information. Every aspect of an interview process is a two-way street. You should be getting a feel for the business and position just as they are for you. Get on the front foot and get a feel for your dancefloor.

2. What are the steps and style you need to learn?

Improvisation can be dangerous, awkward or an absolute success. Experience has a lot to do with it. Even the freest-looking dancers move within the rigid frameworks of basic fundamentals, expansive knowledge of their physique and environment, and extensive practice.

It’s the same with negotiation. Master the simple steps involved in the outcome and know the style you want to achieve. This knowledge and expectation will help you succeed and make it far more likely for you to enjoy the process.

If you pluck a salary figure arbitrarily out of the air, it’s possible you’ll come across as the first dad on the floor at a 21st — awkward and out of step with the scenario at hand. That approach is haphazard and can be fraught with disappointment for all involved.

In all seriousness, take the time to consider the negotiation process and the company’s recruitment process as well as any potential outcomes in detail. Salary negotiation can be uncomfortable because it is sometimes considered an afterthought — people are often unsure of themselves and their standing in the discussion. It’s also difficult to talk about money — especially in Australian culture. This infographic is a great example of the different styles of negotiation around the world. Before you engage in conversation with a potential employer, you should have a clear understanding of:

  • Your best option or outcome: what are the salary and/or benefits you know you want.
  • Your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). If you can’t get exactly what you want, what is the best alternative that you’ll say yes to? Don’t confuse this with your best alternative option. Think about the best alternative situation if you can’t reach an agreement on salary. This might include applying for another role in the company or restarting the hiring process at another time.
  • Your WATNA (worst alternative to a negotiated agreement). Flipping things around, if the negotiation doesn’t go well in your favour, what is the worst alternative you can contemplate in your situation. That you don’t work for the company you really want to work for? That you accept a role at a company you don’t like? Or maybe, that you change careers. Knowing your WATNA helps you set boundaries for yourself and ensures you focus on possible and realistic options.
  • How you want to be treated throughout your negotiation (this will inform how you treat the other person).
  • Research the salary you’re anticipating for the role you’ve applied for. There’s a bunch of tools available like this one and this one. Don’t take them as gospel, perhaps use them as a guide to get yourself in a range where you can discuss options.
  • How you can provide more value for the business through your position.
  • Other things to negotiate besides money with your potential new employer. An awesome role and salary package isn’t solely based on a dollar figure. Are there other incentives you know of at the company that you could ask about? Consider training budgets, a company paid mentor, travel opportunities, relocation possibilities, guaranteed reviews…get creative.

With a steady grounding, you’re better equipped to soar to greater heights.

dance through salary 1
Don’t try doing this without the necessary fundamentals

3. Practice, practice, practice.

As with so much of life:

‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’

It takes roughly eight to ten years of intense, dedicated training to become a professional ballet dancer. Beyond that, the San Francisco Ballet suggest that a typical day for a performing dancer involves an hour-long morning class, followed by four to six hours of rehearsal, concluding with an hour-long evening performance.

Comparatively, while these guys may or may not have endured a similarly rigorous training regime, I’m willing to bet this isn’t the first time they’ve ever done this together:

The key point is that practice makes the negotiation experience coordinated and far more comfortable for all involved. When you know your role in the situation, you’re more likely to play it proficiently. There’s a high chance the person interviewing you is familiar with their role in the dance, so you should experience your part in training as much as possible.

Try spot-practicing like a musician would. Engage in any confidence techniques that may help. Read about and try different negotiation tactics. Learn the specific poses, fashion choices or attitudes that breed confidence for you. Practice, practice, practice. It really does make perfect.

Yes, it will require you to be introspective. Yes, it will probably feel uncomfortable. And yes, your ego will probably be having an internal argument with you. But shut that all out. Be humble, learn your weaknesses and turn them into strengths. Practice helps you do that.

4. Get a dance partner.

No kidding. Once you’ve got a feel for the floor, have considered the basic steps required to nail your routine, and practiced (practiced, practiced), it’s time to find a partner! Remember, it does take two to tango.

Simulate the negotiation process with someone. Luckily, unlike in dancing, where an ongoing rapport and careful synchronisation can be prerequisites for a partner, you can practice on literally anyone.

It could be a friend, a mentor, someone you can bounce techniques and tactics off, or even a potential employer if you’re engaged in multiple interviews at once.

Like any skill, negotiation is best honed in practical application. Relax and get comfortable articulating what you want out of the process. Know that you may not necessarily get things right every time, but that every experience contributes towards your overall technique.

The more practical applications you try out, the better you’ll get at reading a person’s response to your negotiation style and technique. If you notice a person tenses up around certain phrases, or responds in a negative or confused way, then perhaps that’s a cue to change things up. Every person is different, but it’s worth keeping an eye on body language and other common non-verbal signals.

5. Go time — dance and rock it.

Take a deep breath. It’s show time. Now’s your chance to perform. Combine all of your techniques and draw on your experience in practice, but don’t be overly conscious or contrived. Be aware of the attitude and character you want to project throughout the negotiation. Capture that vibe.

Put your cards on the table and be as open and transparent as possible. Recognise that you can’t control everything. All dancers experience malfunctions: from Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe mishap at the SuperBowl to more mundane instances.

Stay calm if there’s a slip up. Remember when I said that improvisation can be dangerous? The beauty of this process is that by now you should be prepared to solve whatever unforeseen problems arise, or at least be on your way there!

Performers always win the affection and support of an audience when they acknowledge circumstances and then rise to meet them. That’s a trait indicative of true mastery.

During this conversation with your potential employer, it would be in your interest to find out what’s important to the company during a salary negotiation with you. What does the company want out of this process? That answer might be obvious, but it may also surprise you. Your approach to work, your experience and values may all be elements that the company wants in the business — it’s not just a financial discussion. Consider whether there might be elements of unequal value relating to your potential role and involvement with the company that you could discuss.

These might include:

  • Flexibility in working hours.
  • Moving a trip you already have booked.
  • Drawing on specialist skills that you can use to help train team members.
  • Understanding if there’s a preferred start date that would benefit the company.

Remember it’s a negotiation — not a demand. The reality is this is a malleable process, so:

‘Unexpect the expected.’

Even if everything goes absolutely perfectly from your perspective, be prepared to bounce back and forth.

There are two parties involved with potentially differing expectations of how to move through the routine. It takes effort and skill to ensure they’re synchronised, but the payoff (both literal and figurative) can be incredibly satisfying when everything falls into seamless coordination.

Case in point:

Wrapping up.

Approaching salary negotiation differently can change your perception of the process and maybe even your options in the impending conversation.

Negotiations don’t have to be awkward, dreaded, awful, or standoffish. They can actually be an opportunity to learn about people and yourself.

Treat the negotiation like a dance and know it’s always give and take. No one is a perfect negotiator but the more you practice, the better you’ll be.

Even if you’ve got two left feet, follow these tips and you’re far more likely to get the routine right.

This article first appeared on the August blog and has been republished here with the author’s permission