Succeeding in negotiations is all about balance. Push too hard, and you drive the other party away. Don't push enough, and you end up with a less than optimal deal. You're always looking for that Goldilocks spot when it comes to assertiveness--not too hot, not too cold.

So how are most of us doing at finding it?

Pretty terribly, it turns out. According to a new study by Columbia University management professor Daniel Ames and his collaborator, doctoral student Abbie Wazlawek, many negotiators are clueless about how they're being perceived, completely misjudging the other party's impressions of their assertiveness.

Too Hot or Too Cold

"In the language of Goldilocks, many people are serving up porridge that others see as too hot or too cold, but they mistakenly think the temperature comes across as just right--that their assertiveness is seen as appropriate," Ames said, summing up the research. "We also found that many people whose porridge was actually seen as just right mistakenly thought their porridge came off as too hot. That is, they were asserting themselves appropriately in the eyes of others, but they incorrectly thought they were pushing too hard."

That inability to gauge how we're coming across can have serious costs, Ames told When he thinks he's been perfectly reasonable, but the other party sees him as overly assertive, he notes, "I may be perplexed by your reluctance to come back to the table with me in the future. Missing the chance to do more business with you can have real costs to me. It can also cost me when you tell others to steer clear."

On the other hand, if he worries that he's crossed the line into pushy or combative, but the other party has no issues with his negotiating style, that hurts him in a different way.

"We found that a third or more of negotiators seen by their counterparts as being appropriately assertive mistakenly thought they were seen as pushing too hard," Ames reports. "They were getting it right, but thought they were coming across as a monster. We followed this mistake through to its costs. People who cared about their relationships were likely to take a hit in a second encounter with a counterpart, trying to repair their relationship. But they were attempting to fix something that wasn't broken. Ironically, this led to less value for both sides."

Getting It Just Right

So how can negotiators do better at gauging how they're coming across? Ames offered three, down-to-earth suggestions to help you ensure your negotiating style is neither too hot nor too cold:

  • Get good input. There's a huge chance you're rotten at evaluating your own level of assertiveness, but others are more clear-eyed, so feedback is key. "Seek candid evaluations from people you trust, and pay attention to what they say about your assertiveness," suggests Ames.
  • Be skeptical of strategic signals. "Some negotiators feign offense as part of their strategy, and their drama should be taken with a grain of salt," cautions Ames. "If someone acts taken aback in a negotiation, probe to understand what's behind their reaction. They might really be offended, because they know something you don't that makes your behavior look extreme. But they might also just be hoping you'll roll over." 
  • Assert yourself effectively. When it comes to knowing what's acceptable and what's outrageous, preparation and knowledge are key. "Do your homework so you know what is reasonable and what the precedents or comparables are," says Ames. "Be prepared to explain your thinking and justify your proposals so that others understand why what you're asking for is appropriate. It can also pay to understand your counterpart's position and point of view, so you can tailor your requests in a way that will be persuasive and relevant to them."