We can be our own worst enemy in negotiation because of the stories we tell ourselves. More often than not, those stories sell us short.
I am not preaching from a perch of perfection when I say this. I have told myself plenty of unhelpful stories about my value. For years, I was in business with a partner who was older and more experienced than I was. He was my mentor early in my career, before we went into business together, and as a result I was overly deferential. When business was good, the differences in our decision making weren't so obvious, but when we hit major road bumps and financial challenges, the disparity in our approach was clear. In those tough times, I felt the burden of our debt and the guilt associated with the impending layoffs of our employees. I was always worried and felt the weight of our obligations in a very personal way, while his years of experience made him more cavalier. It was difficult to make joint decisions about how to honor our financial commitments when we had totally different feelings about accountability.
I deferred to him instead of standing my ground because of the story I told myself: I still have a lot to learn. I lack self-confidence. I am young and naive. I could have told myself a different story: Yes, he's more experienced in some areas. But I have great instincts and intellect, and I was responsible for bringing in our seed funding to launch the business. I certainly wouldn't have done everything right-in hindsight, for instance, he was absolutely correct about not taking on the financial burden of our employees-but when I look back on that time in my life as a young entrepreneur, I regret that I didn't rest in my power more fully.
In the uncertain faces of students like Dana, I see myself and I want to help them avoid the self-doubt that plagued me at many points of my life. If I can't offer a magic path over it, I at least want to help them recognize their self-doubt, to examine it, to know that it's there so they can figure out what to do about it. Because if it's the story they're telling themselves, they're also projecting their insecurities. That's why the most common refrain I offer my students is, "You can't be the person who diminishes your value-others will too often do that for you."
A woman in one of my classes, Kim, acknowledged that she felt a distinct lack of confidence, and she went on to put herself down for failing to “hold her ground” in a negotiation. And yet even before meeting Kim, I could see that she had a magnetic quality to her. In the prep I’d done for the class, Kim’s photo stood out to me. She had a commanding smile, in which I saw confidence and poise.
When we later discussed her internal uncertainty, I said, “Let me tell you how I saw you before we even met.” Simply hearing how shewas perceived in that photo—as strong and commanding—madeherbreak into tears. It was how she wanted to feel. She understood that the work she needed to do in class had much less to do with calculationsand posturing, and more to do with believing her value.
This was by no means the only time I had an interaction like this—it happens all the time, where I will observe someone in a complimentary way and it touches a nerve that is so raw, they become emotional. In another recent encounter, I asked a student why her opening ask was so low.
“Maybe I didn’t understand the case,” she said. She paused, then added, “Maybe I didn’t think I deserved more.”
I knew she was an accomplished businesswoman, so I said, “Don’t you have twenty years of experience running a company? Who can do this better than you? Why do you think you don’t deserve it?”“
I wish I could tell you,” she said. “I just don’t think I do.”
Lest you assume this is a women’s issue, note that I see it all the time with men, including the most stereotypically masculine of men: NFL players. I have worked with them when they were preparing for their transition out of the NFL, looking ahead to a future that is honestly very scary and uncertain. When they leave the sport, they have to be their own cheering section, likely for the first time in their lives, since so many of them were revered high school and college athletes. That is a lonely, frightening place to stand, and that loneliness makes it much easier to be their own worst enemy. A moment of self-doubtcreeps in, and the enemy within exploits it. “I don’t have any experience besides football,” they say. “That’s what I’m good at. That’s all I know.”
Those of us who work with athletes see it differently. Being on a team is phenomenal work experience. Athletes don’t think they have skills that translate to the wider world? What about discipline? Collaboration? Grit? Resilience? The ability to memorize complicated playbooks? To watch and break down hours of film? Work ethic? Everything they’ve done to prepare for the “one thing” they say they’re good at has so much relevance, whether they want to go work for a company or start their own. They’ve just selectively edited it out of the story they’ve told themselves.
The stories we tell ourselves shape and define us and impact how we negotiate with the world around us. When you grasp this concept, you begin to see it everywhere— in classes you take, in people you work with, and in television shows you watch. One of my favorite shows focusing on this theme is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, wherein the heroine, Midge Maisel, appears to have her story written for her. She is an upper- middle- class housewife living in New York in the late 1950s, filling the supportive role that a wife of the era was expected to (including not putting on face cream or rolling her hair until after her husband falls asleep, so as not to ruin the picture of perfection). When her husband announces he’s had an affair and is leaving her, Midge’s story still seems predetermined: She should keep up appearances until he comes to his senses, and then she should take him back. But she wants more. She recognizes she is more. She is funny and bright and she wants to be a stand up comic. She doesn’t allow herself to be defined by the obstacles in her life or the traditions of her era. Her story evolved from one of “I am a devoted mom and homemaker” to “I am a devoted mom and homemaker and comic— and nothing is going to stop me,” which then becomes, “Nothing’s going to stop me.”
Television shows make it all look so easy, character development compacted into an eight-hour season. But make no mistake—it is not. Telling yourself the right story is actually messy and complicated and, while necessary, also incredibly hard. It is self-esteem, self-awareness, and battling of imposter syndrome all rolled into one. The story of your value is also not a “Kumbaya,” “love yourself” lesson meant for yoga retreats in Sedona and nowhere else. It’s avery practical one, and it has everything to do with how we negotiate. If self-doubt drives our negotiations, we start determining the outcomes of a negotiation before we even begin. And the more confident you are about what your story is, the less vulnerable you are to those who would question it. The stories we tell ourselves can make the difference between a great outcome and a bad one, between going onstage and going home.