The 4 Negotiation Tips I Learned from Kenny Rogers

women who ask

Do you know the song “The Gambler” from Kenny Rogers in the late 70’s? It was on repeat on our family car trip to the South Dakota badlands when I was eight years old. Not only is it a great song, but it contains a lot of what you need to know to become a better negotiator.

On that late night train in the song, the Gambler stars by telling his pupil, “If you’re gonna play the game, you gotta learn to play it right.” He takes a swig of whiskey, bums a cigarette, and then basically lays out the playbook for negotiators everywhere:

Know when to hold ‘em

This is one of the most important, yet subtle pieces of advice. In a negotiation, you need to know when to simply hold the line. If you’re early in a negotiation, perhaps having just put an initial offer on the table, then you can translate this to “don’t negotiate against yourself.” Wait for your negotiating partner to counter before you start conceding.

Know when to fold ‘em

An important skill in negotiations is to know when the party you’re negotiating with simply won’t move on an issue. Then it’s time to fold that hand… but perhaps not forever. Circumstances are always changing. You might not be able to get that higher base salary now. But in six months time, the company will be in a different financial situation. And you'll have the numbers that quantify your excellent performance and justify that base salary bump. 

Know when to walk away

A myth in negotiations is that people get together at a table, and hammer out a deal over the course of a (sometimes protracted) meeting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most if not all substantial negotiations take place over multiple meetings. This is true of a salary negotiation for an individual, all the way up to a high stakes union negotiation or a trade agreement.

You must understand when it’s time to walk away for a little while. Either you’ve gotten some new information that you need to study - or the other side has gotten the same. Maybe you’re finding that you keep circling back to the same issues without making any progress. Maybe you’re just tired or hungry and won’t be making the best decisions in this state. In any case, just walk away, but arrange to meet again before you do so.

Know when to run

If you don’t have the ability to walk away from a negotiation, then your negotiating power is compromised. You need to know that you can say “no” to the other party. And just as importantly, you have to know when it’s time to run away. When the terms are too onerous, when the other party doesn’t respect you, when the negotiation seems to be going against you in every single way, you need to make a call. It’s never easy, but often times necessary if you want to achieve your goals.

And one last bonus tip thrown in at the end....

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table

Of course everyone wants to walk away from a negotiation with a great deal. But in the best negotiations, both sides do so. In all cases if you count your winnings - gloat - at the table, you’re undermining your own negotiation. The other party will feel cheated, maybe avoid working with you in the future, or worse, back out of your current deal.

OK, so there are a few more things you should probably learn.

But darn this song is a good way to get your negotiation skills hummin’. If you’re looking to get some more negotiation advice from Kenny, listen here.