Q&A: Negotiation can be learned, expert says
Being a good negotiator isn't a skill reserved just for corporate CEOs and United Nations diplomats.

It's an everyday tool useful for all of us, whether we're asking for a raise, interviewing for a job, buying a car, deciding on family vacations, even dealing with our kids over bedtime.

And most of us could be a whole lot better at it.

That's the message of Michael Colatrella, an assistant professor at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law who teaches mediation and negotiation skills to lawyers … and anybody else who wants to sharpen their techniques.

At $999, his three-day Advanced Negotiation seminars aren't for every budget, but he sat down recently with McClatchy Newspapers and shared a few tips. Here's an excerpt:

QUESTION: Most of us aren't high-powered attorneys or corporate dealmakers. Why do we need to be good negotiators?

ANSWER: Negotiation is a life skill. Everyone negotiates every day: with our spouses over housework, with our bosses and colleagues over job responsibilities, with our kids over chores and homework. …

Negotiating can be learned. It's a skill like playing the piano … or playing a sport.

Q: What's the essential skill in negotiating?

A: Setting a goal. Let's say you're buying a car. You go online, do your research, see what it's worth. You pick a number, say $24,000, and tell yourself, "If I don't go above that, I'll have a good deal." But all it really means is you haven't been taken. …

Statistically speaking, you do better when you set optimistic but realistic goals. Some people set goals too high; some too low. Neither are good.

There's nothing more important than preparing in a systematic way. It makes it very difficult to be taken advantage of. You can't anticipate everything but you prepare as much as you can, and adjust accordingly.

Q: How do you prepare for a negotiating session, say, asking your boss for a raise?

A: Whether it's a raise or a starting salary, it's important to have a number in mind. Know what your goals are: a $5,000 raise, the benefits or the vacation (weeks) you want. … Have a picture of how you want the interview to end.

If you know what you're worth, it's to your advantage to make the opening offer. Ask for as high as you can credibly ask, based on your performance, your peers, the industry. For example, if you start at $7,000 a year and the boss had in mind offering you $2,000, then he will counter at something higher, say $3,000. When you negotiate higher, you can influence the middle. Statistically, you increase your chances of doing better.

Q: Is being a bully or a tough guy ever appropriate? And how do you defuse a hothead in negotiations?

A: If you shout back, you'll incite them even more. It'll escalate. It's just like when your kids have a tantrum. If you lose your cool, it sends them into an even greater meltdown.

The better approach is to calmly point out: "I don't appreciate being shouted at. It's not going to help solve this problem. … I know this is important to you. But if we are going to make progress, as I think we can, you will need to speak to me more respectfully."

Q: There have been research and books contending that women don't negotiate for themselves as well as men. Do you feel that's true?