Book Review: Transformative Negotiation Strategies for Everyday Change and Equitable Futures

Transformative Negotiation: Strategies for Everyday Change and Equitable Futures, by Sarah Federman (University of California Press 2023). Available from the publisher, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

So you think you know how to negotiate? You’ve done some deals, maybe a lot, maybe some for big bucks. Maybe attended some classes. Maybe read some books. Surely you can’t have all that much left to learn, right?

You may see things differently after reading this book. It’s like no other negotiation book I’ve encountered. It’s different because it has an unusual author and an unusual genesis.

Author Sarah Federman’s credentials include a doctorate in conflict resolution as well as practical experience, including a decade as an international advertising executive negotiating in 12 countries with companies such as Google, Discovery, Bloomberg, and the NFL. None of this completely prepared her to teach a negotiation class at the University of Baltimore. As she explains:

While the concepts in traditional negotiation books offer much wisdom, the examples did not resonate nor do the assumptions that strategies can work for “all readers.” My students at the University of Baltimore, for example, told me Black women couldn’t say things white women could. Research backs their claims. After two semesters of similar stories, I worried that my lessons might get them into trouble on the streets, at home or at work.

It wasn’t just the concepts that didn’t fit. It was the context. Students didn’t struggle with failed product lines or difficult foreign partners, they grappled with school loans, addicted family members, and pervasive violence. Those with good paying jobs often did so as single parents while caring for other family members. They navigated food deserts and sometimes lawless neighborhoods to do this. Hustling for basic needs and mentoring children on how to avoid violent altercations (with civilians as well as police) made them savvy and persuasive in ways I’d never seen.

Federman incorporates insights from over 100 students and others who had success in negotiating from what she calls a “position of precarity.” The result is a rare book that not merely won a 2023 Porchlight Best Business Book Award but explains how to handle an amygdala hijack, as well as including advice on how to negotiate with the IRS over taxes and ways women can negotiate with partners about condom use.

Here are descriptions of the book’s eight chapters, along with my short assessments:

1 Imagine. Understanding what you need and want is the first step toward successful negotiation. Why do you really want swans at your wedding? (page 20). How can a “Come As You Will Be Party” help clarify goals? (page 21). This chapter would particularly benefit the many people I negotiated with who had never thought through or identified their actual needs and wants.

2 Ask. Simply asking for what you want can often get you much of what you need. This chapter may be particularly helpful to people from under-resourced communities or discriminatory environments who have internalized the idea that they are undeserving. This chapter resonated with me since growing up in the West Virginia coalfields in a family that often needed food stamps to survive had made me feel worthless, someone who did not deserve help.

3 Give. Good negotiators get win-win deals. The best negotiators strive for and sometimes achieve win-win-win deals. This chapter will have strong appeal to people like Erik Heels, who founded the Treehouse network, “a support group for givers.”

4 Money. Financial Management 101. “Some basic financial knowledge helps people stay anchored in negotiations and know their walk-away points.”

I never would have expected to see chapters like this and Chapter 5 in a negotiation book, but they make perfect sense. If you are teaching Marines how to storm a beach, you would first help them upgrade their physical and mental toughness. If you are teaching people how to negotiate, show them how to upgrade their financial status and become more proficient using technology.

5 Digital (#Facepalm). “Digital communication can save time but also can destroy deals and relationships far more easily than face-to-face meetings.” Yep.

6 Power. Good analysis of how to understand various forms of power and how to leverage your own. Eminently practical suggestions, including how to handle power disparities like negotiating with governmental entities like the IRS.

7 Gender, Sex, and Race. “Draws on the latest research to explore how negotiation advice may differ for people with different backgrounds.” Essential advice not just for members of disadvantaged groups, but for anyone who wants to negotiate with them.

8 Guns, Addiction, and an Orchestra. “What works in the boardroom will not necessarily work in the streets where drugs and guns take hold.” The section about Baltimore Symphony Orchestra labor disputes does not develop that idea, but convincingly makes one important point: Sometimes changing negotiators can make all the difference. The BSO musician union hired a lawyer to represent them in contract negotiations with management. The results were good initially, but when discussions again bogged down, they brought in a different negotiator, who was able to close the deal.

Again, this resonated with a personal experience negotiating on behalf of management. The agency’s initial chief negotiator had made progress. When he reached a point of diminishing returns, he recommended I replace him. I was not a better negotiator, but I used a different approach and got better results.

It is a blessing that the author avoids common problems with contemporary academic writing:

1. She writes passionately and persuasively about the importance of supporting disadvantaged groups while avoiding coming across as “woke” in the way so many find gratingly condescending on today’s university campuses.

2. She speaks clearly, eschewing turgid prose and impenetrable scholar-speak. For example, rather than engaging in Foucaultian analysis of the dynamics of power, she suggests two simple tests to identify the most powerful in an organization:

  • a. Who can express anger without negative consequences?
  • b. Who, if they did the same thing, would be dismissed or reprimanded?

Teachers interested in using Transformative Negotiations as a textbook will be pleased that:

  • Each chapter of the book concludes with a related set of suggested exercises
  • The University of California supplements the text with Instructor’s Resources, available only to “instructors who are using or considering using UC Press products and are currently teaching at educational institutions.

As an instructor at a prestigious negotiation program I like correctly observed, many, maybe most books on negotiations are little more than collections of war stories or Machiavellian tricks.

Transforming Negotiations is light on dirty tricks but provides a sometimes head-spinning large collection of characters, anecdotes, tips, and examples.

Bottom Line: This book sets itself the ambitious goals of taking the subject of negotiation out of the boardroom and into the lives of ordinary people, while also using it as a way to better society through win-win-win approaches. Transformative Negotiation goes a long way toward achieving these ambitious goals. Those looking for new and thoughtful approaches to negotiation, as well as its goal of advancing social justice, will find it invaluable.

Note: The author revised this article on February 11, 2024.

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