The First Person to Say a Number Loses

821 words. Time to Read: About 8 minutes.

Preface: I’m not a professional negotiator. Even meeting new people for too long wears me out. So, this isn’t meant to be preachy. It’s just some advice that I received that keeps popping up and being useful that I wanted to share.

Negotiation is hard. You want to collaborate, work with the other person, not insult them, and not be rude. On top of that, different people, cultures, and regions all have different communication styles. Especially if you are introverted, it adds pressure to give the other person what they ask for. Which is a good instinct! It means you are compassionate, polite, and trying to be kind! But. Sometimes, that can backfire and make your life harder in the long run. This may even strain the relationship if it happens repeatedly! You might start to feel like they are taking advantage of you.

I had a manager at work who told me:

“The first person to say a number loses.”

I wouldn’t say it’s a phrase that I’ve taken as a hard and fast rule to live by, because not everything is competitive or zero-sum, but it has stuck with me and bounced around in my head since then, and seems like a good thing to at least think about when going into some sort of negotiation.

Here’s the gist of it. Anytime somebody asks you a question, and the answer that they’re looking for is some sort of number that you’ll then go back and forth compromising over, it will often benefit you to not be the one to say a number. If you can get them to say a number, then you’ll be in a better place, leverage-wise.

Here are some examples. A- is the answer that they’re looking for, that will help them get the most out of you. A+ is a response that may help you get the most out of the exchange.

Q: When do you think you can get this done by?

A-: Hmmm. That’s quite a bit of work. How about Friday?

A+: Hmmm. That’s quite a bit of work. When do you need it by?

Q: So what is this going to cost me?

A-: We’ve done some projects in the past like this for around $X.

A+: It depends on how we do it. Do have a budget/know how much you were hoping to spend?

Q: What kind of salary are you looking for?

A–: At my last company, I was making $X.

A-: I was really hoping for something around $X.

A+: You know, why don’t we see what you think my work is worth after the interview.

Note: If someone interviewing you is asking a salary question, you should never, ever say a number and in some places, there are laws that say they can’t make you.

Q: Woah! How tall are you?

A-: 6’1”

A+++: Wouldn’t you like to know? Height is a societal construct!

But Y Tho?

The reasoning behind it is that, in a lot of negotiations, one party would rather be lower and one party would rather be higher. When you say a number, you start the negotiation at that point, and the back-and-forth happens from there with not a huge relative change once that’s set.

The number you say reveals something about your intentions. If it your number is not extreme enough (not high or low enough), then the other party will jump on that and get more out of you than they expected. If your number super extreme, you show that you either have unrealistic expectations or that you’re trying to be shifty/pull one over on them. And that range is hard to gauge properly. It’s easy to unwittingly be either rude or a naive yokel.

You know what’s not as hard? Letting the other party do that, and then working based on their number. It’s also a little like the fact that a first draft is hard to crank out but revising is much easier. And when they pick the first number, then you get to take that information and use it to gauge their intentions.


Like I mentioned before, this advice doesn’t apply to every situation. Sometimes, the situation requires that you just say a number, and anything else would be unacceptable. Sometimes, you’re not negotiating, you’re trying to come up with accurate estimates for teammates. Not every situation is a competition where one party must win and one party must lose.

With that being said, having this phrase bouncing around your head will help tune your spidey senses to tingle when people do ask you for numbers, and you can be a little more deliberate about what answers you give, rather than just defaulting to telling them the first number that pops into your head.

The first person to say a number loses.

Author: Ryan Palo | Tags: interview soft-skills negotiating | Buy me a coffee Buy me a coffee

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