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Job Well Done: Asking for It

From the spring 2013 issue of OPEN, the McCombs School of Business magazine.

Learn the negotiating trick that has saved students millions.

By Mike Agresta

how to negotiate

Many of the most successful people in business are assertive negotiators, but among the general population, they are the exception rather than the rule, says Doug Dierking, senior lecturer of management. 

“It’s very common for people to feel reluctant to ask for things, even things they really are entitled to,” Dierking says. “If something is a mistake or an inconvenience, people just accept the inconvenience.”

To combat this timidity, Dierking and other teachers of the popular “Art and Science of Negotiation” class at McCombs have developed an assignment that encourages students to start negotiating—in the real world. 

The ASK assignment, as it’s known, requires students to ask for something, large or small, that they wouldn’t otherwise request—an upgrade at a hotel or on a plane, free cookies at a sandwich shop, or a beneficial change to an important contract. Students have about two weeks to complete the assignment, and they each must turn in a short paper explaining the circumstances of the ask and their negotiation approach. 

Taken together, these small asks can add up. In one Houston MBA class, the total reached a stratospheric $5.16 million, mostly due to students in the energy industry who negotiated small changes to enormous oil and gas contracts. Back on earth, one evening MBA class averaged $1,000 of negotiated benefits per person.

The assignment’s main lesson is one that holds power long after a student leaves the classroom: the most important step to successful negotiating is to ask.

According to Dierking, a great negotiator regards everyday situations as opportunities for negotiation. 

“We tend to only think about negotiating in certain circumstances where it’s thought of as okay, such as purchasing a house or a car, or at a flea market,” he says. “But in other cultures, people negotiate for everything. I tell my students that they can negotiate at Home Depot or even the grocery store sometimes.”

The two keys to negotiation success, Dierking says, are confidence and perspective-taking.

“Most of the time, when people look at negotiation they only consider their own perspective,” he says. “They only think about what I want. People who are very successful are good at putting themselves in the other sides’ shoes.”

For instance: “Picking the right time is important. If you’re at a store and there’s a long line, and the ask would inconvenience the person or make their job more difficult, then it’s probably not the right time.”

Equally important, Dierking says, is to ask for something reasonable, something the requestee can conceivably grant. “If you’re at a Lowe’s or Home Depot, you have to get a store manager or assistant manager,” he says. This principle also extends to higher-stakes negotiations over salary or contracts. 

The ASK assignment discourages students from offering requestees anything in return. 

“We're building a specific skill that will be part of a toolbox of negotiating skills,” Dierking says. When askers feel trepidation about completing the assignment, he advises that they ask for something low-risk, such as free shipping.

According to Dierking, inexperienced negotiators make three common mistakes: asking for something that is not reasonable, making a demand instead of an ask, and not asking in the first place. The last, of course, is the most common.

“The worst somebody can do is say no, but you’ve already got no,” Dierking says. “You’re working from no.”

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