How To (Mostly) Negotiate Away Your Stress

by Mike Sturm 3 years ago in advice / business / workflow

A common-sense to help you manage your time and workload.

How To (Mostly) Negotiate Away Your Stress
credit: asmuSe

I’m guessing that your day is filled with stressors — whether physical or virtual. People come to see you, call you, email or message you, and they want something.

They want answers. They want updates.

They need to know the next action, or need you take the next action — now! If this isn’t the majority of your weekdays, then count yourself lucky, and skip the rest of this article. Continue sipping your tropical drink, and dig your feet further into the sand.

For the rest of you, you’ve got plenty of stress being heaped upon you by others. You watch the emails pile up in your inbox, you look at your calendar filled with meetings — most of which you probably haven’t prepared for as much as you’d have liked to. You hear the ping of your IM app.

Your shoulders are now pulled up to your ears by your tensed muscles. You’re under stress, my friend. You’ve got too much to do, and not enough time to do it. You want to know how to do it, how to do it all more quickly, and more efficiently. That’s where the productivity writing racket comes in. They’ve got the secrets, they’ll show you how to more efficiently meet all the demands that are being made of you.

But that’s not what you need. In fact, that’s the opposite of what you need.

You don’t need to do all the the things that are thrown at you. In fact, you don’t need to do most of them. You merely need to learn to negotiate better. You can negotiate away most of the stress you feel. You just have to do it artfully.

Everything is Negotiable — But Choose Wisely

Ever hear someone (likely a salesperson) say “everything is negotiable”? Well, they’re mostly right. Everything is negotiable, but not everything is worth negotiating — meaning you may waste more time or money negotiating than if you hadn’t. Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a quick example.

Let’s say you want to negotiate a lower price for a latte at Starbucks. You can do this; it is negotiable. You can go up to the barista and try to haggle about the price on the menu. You probably won’t get far, so you’d have to get more creative about it. You could ask to see the manager and explain that the quality of a previous latte was just terrible, and ask for a replacement for it. That will probably work one time. Voila! You’ve negotiated the price of the latte. Was it worth it? If you spent more than 5 minutes doing it, probably not. Also, you stained your integrity a bit by lying to someone who honestly cares about the quality of the product, and used that for your own very minor personal gain. Not worth it.

My point is that while everything is negotiable, not everything is worth negotiating. You may spend more time and/or money negotiating than you stand to save, or you may do irreversible harm to your relationship with the other party by doing it.

You have to take all of that into account. Just like with any negotiation. But you can negotiate anything — especially demands placed on you — you just have to choose things that are worth negotiating. Realizing that is the first step in helping you feel less stressed — because now you realize that you have an element of control over the situation. And that is the first step.

Stealth Negotiation: Acknowledge and Clarify Quickly

Think about the emails that are currently in your inbox, and the projects you have had sitting around for a while. What keeps you from doing them? There are really only two things: either other things are currently more important to you, or you’re unclear as to what exactly needs to be done on these projects, so you put them off.

After a project or email has been sitting for a few days or so, someone emails you and asks you what the status is on it. You tense up. Damn, now I need to take care of this thing! you think to yourself.

Not quite.

You obviously de-prioritized this thing, or deemed that it wasn’t clear enough to begin working on. So don’t hide that, bring that up to those who tossed it at you, but do it tactfully.

All you really have to do when someone throws a project or task at you is two things: acknowledge and clarify.

First, you acknowledge that you’ve gotten the email, the message, or you get that the person is asking you to do something. There are myriad ways to do this, but the goal is simply to acknowledge.

Next, you clarify the what and why. If someone wants you to do something — boss or peer — there are 2 possibilities.


  1. They know exactly what they want back from you, and why they want it.OR
  2. They’ve given it appropriate thought. They aren’t really sure what they want back from you, they just had a vague idea of a “nice to have” because their boss flipped out in a meeting, and they’re just reacting. They really haven’t thought it through.

Whichever of the above is the case, asking them what they want and why they want it is going to do one of two things for you. Either your questions will serve to bring out a clear goal of the project, as well as detail about the work to be done. Or your questions will serve to show that perhaps one or all of the following is true:

  • This project doesn’t need to be done
  • This project doesn’t need to be done now
  • This project doesn’t need to be done by you, or
  • This project doesn’t need to have as wide a scope as originally thought.

In any of the above scenarios, you win, and it took just a few pointed and tactfully asked questions (emphasis on tactfully asked).

A knock-on benefit of this practice is that people will hesitate to give you work that is (a) not well-defined, or (b) likely unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. In the case of your boss, you could indirectly teach them to do the same thing to their bosses, which can have the great knock-on effect of keeping your company’s vision clear and pointed. All of this applies equally well to your personal life.

The Takeaway

Remember, in many cases, in the most effective negotiations, only one party will ever know a negotiation took place. To an outsider, it would barely register as a negotiation. Honey, not vinegar, you know? Be cordial, be cooperative in spirit, and mind the other party’s mood.

Here’s the tldr (for the skimmers)

You can drastically reduce your stress by reducing the amount of things you’re expected to do. You can do this by negotiating your way out of them. You do that by quickly acknowledging and clarifying — asking questions of why and what. Why are we choosing to do this? What exactly is the scope of what we’re looking to do? The benefits are numerous and sustained.

Mike Sturm
Mike Sturm
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Mike Sturm

Pulling together the ideas to make your life better, and putting them in writing.

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