The Most Important Negotiation in Your Life

Life is a series of negotiations.

You negotiate all day, every day, from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep.

Contract terms and conditions. Hiring, managing performance, and firing. Defining deadlines, scope, and deliverables. Collecting fees. Seeking alignment about business strategy. Enlisting stakeholders. Creating partnerships and joint ventures. Dissolving them. You make offers, counteroffers, and agreements to settle. You say yes. You say no. You stall for time.

Finally, lunch.

When you go home, the negotiations continue. Over buying a new car, switching carpool days, or how much screen time the kids are allowed. The stakes of negotiating at home can feel sky-high: which medical advice to follow; how much to spend or save; how long your aging parents can live at home; whether to stay together.

From the major to the mundane, negotiating is the way we get things done. One of my clients told me, "my toughest negotiations are with my dog."

If you're like most people, when you think about negotiation, you picture people talking to "the other side." Whether they're pitching to a customer in an office, brokering a peace deal at Camp David, or arguing over curfew at the kitchen table, negotiators are people trying to persuade other people of their point of view.

That's only half the story.

After nearly 20 years of teaching negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the same years spent advising and training thousands of executives, public sector leaders, consultants and lawyers from all over the world, I see things differently.

Actually, the most important negotiations we have — the ones that determine the quality of our lives and the impact of our actions — are the ones we have with ourselves. Learning to communicate well and to influence other people are essential skills in business. But even more fundamental to your success is learning to negotiate effectively with yourself.

Negotiating with yourself?

Yes. Better results, stronger relationships, and more of life's deeper rewards, all come from learning to negotiate with yourself.

At first this sounds strange. Can you talk to yourself without being crazy? Can you disagree with yourself? If you have an argument with yourself, who wins?

At the start of my leadership development programs, I ask people for examples of "negotiating with yourself." It's not hard to brainstorm a list once you think about it.
People usually come up with personal examples first: Should I eat the ice cream or stick to my diet? Make a scene with the garage for charging more than the estimate, or just pay the bill and move on? Should I raise that difficult topic today — or wait? Accept a "friend" request from my college nemesis, or have 25 years not removed the sting?

Soon, the list of topics grows more serious, and turns to work:


  • My plate is completely full, but my boss just asked me to start a new project. There's no particular glory in it. Do I say yes to please her? What about ever eating dinner with my family?

  • I want to approach my colleague who's back from bereavement leave, but then I tell myself it's none of my business.

  • My client is pushing me hard to do something questionable. Technically speaking, it's not against the written rules. On the other hand, it feels a bit unethical. Should I say no?

  • We're nearing our fundraising target, but we're not quite there. Our biggest donor said I could ask him for more money if we fell short, but I feel awkward going back to him again.

I suspect you're no stranger to this inner tug-of-war.

As you go about the ordinary business of every day, there are inner commentators competing for your attention. At times they speak nicely. But often their voices debate each other like hostile adversaries on talk radio.

I think of them as negotiating parties, what I call your "inner negotiators." Like actual individuals, these internal negotiators have a range of styles, motivations, and rules of engagement. They have their own interests and preferred outcomes. They also correlate with different regions in our brains.

Meet your inner negotiation team.

Leading mythologist Joseph Campbell described each of us as "a hero with a thousand faces." Mastering a thousand faces sounds a bit daunting. If you have all of these different sides of you, how can you even begin to get a hold on them, no less negotiate with them all successfully?

To help people develop in their leadership and in their lives, I honed in on a small set of those hundreds of faces. I call this group "The Big Four." Since I advise a lot of businesses, I sometimes describe the Big Four as a top team, occupying your internal executive suite. I also use more general names because their functions transcend professional titles.

The Big Four are:

  • The Chief Executive Officer: your inner Dreamer
  • The Chief Financial Officer: your inner Thinker
  • The Vice-President of Human Resources: your inner Lover
  • The Chief Operating Officer: your inner Warrior

These inner negotiators govern your capacity to dream about the future, to analyze and solve problems, to build relationships with people, and to take effective action. Each one enables you with its own skills, unique characteristics, and particular values about leading and living.

The Dreamer is led by intuition, and fuels your ability to innovate. Look at Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post. His Dreamer is strong, so he sees a world full of possibilities. Facing an industry others see as dying, Bezos senses opportunity to create something wonderful and entirely new. Or last week's remarkable commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose immortal words articulate the signature of the inner visionary, "I Have a Dream."

The Thinker is led by reason, and equips you to analyze and evaluate information. Larry Summers and Janet Yellen are final contenders to replace Ben Bernanke because they have strong inner Thinkers, respected for sound judgment on complex issues. Political baggage aside, they're first-rate economists who base monetary policy on hard data. The inner Thinker excels at challenges like managing interest rates and defining ways to control inflation.

The Lover is led by emotion, and knows how to manage relationships. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde recently appealed to U.S. policy makers to deploy the communication skills of the Lover. She wants them to explain plans to safeguard global markets in light of changing American economic policy. The Lover's ability to get communication right is essential now to avoid a downward spiral in reactive global markets.

The Warrior is led by willpower, and excels at taking action. In the work world, the inner Warrior steps forward to tell the hard truth, to take a stand for your values, and to roll up your sleeves to get things done. Think of Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard CEO. She concedes that HP has a long way to go. And yet, she says time and again, she's facing the challenges with a results-focus. As she wrote in a blog, "I don't want excuses. I want action." Whitman's determined to turn a once-great company around by taking aim at the Warrior's targets: improving execution and operations; making tough calls to control costs; and telling the hard truth to investors until HP is fully back on track.

Despite the temptation to ask yourself, "Am I a Thinker?" or "Am I a Warrior?", those aren't the right questions. You have all of these inner negotiators in you. The right questions are:

  1. How do the Big Four operate in me today?
  2. How do I tap more of their skills and inner wisdom in the future?
  3. How do I best balance them with each other, as four inner executives working as one team? In other words, how do I negotiate effectively with myself?

These are good questions whether you're managing a team or running a global organization.

At the end of the day, a company will find itself in trouble if it doesn't envision possibilities, can't formulate a nuanced perspective, fails to care for its people, or turns in lackluster performance. This is true for you, too.

The most important negotiation in your life is "getting to yes" with yourself. When you learn how to do that, you'll start winning at everything else.

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