Principled Bargaining: Sell for Mutual Benefit

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "To Sell Is Human" by Daniel H. Pink. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is principled bargaining? If a used car salesman can convince a customer to buy a lemon, why isn’t that considered a win?

Principled bargaining is when both the customer and the salesperson gain something from the sale. If only one side gains something, then it’s a fail.

Here is how to practice principled bargaining.

Practice Principled Bargaining

Never have a “win/lose” perspective—always seek a “win/win” outcome. Make your partner (in theater or a sales transaction) look good. Create or paint the possibility of a result that will benefit all involved. In an improvisation scene, this means making choices that allow all the actors to perform their best, rather than focusing on one actor’s performance. 

In a sales context, if you’re a used car salesman, and you can manipulate a client into purchasing a poor quality vehicle so you will make a large commission, you might call this a “win” by traditional sales standards. In principled bargaining, however, you’re willing to put extra energy into finding your client a car that fits her needs, even if it means taking a smaller commission. This allows both of you to win, but with integrity.  

Tips for Principled Negotiation

When it feels difficult to pursue a win/win outcome, keep the following tips in mind.

“You versus the problem,” not “you versus each other.” Refrain from seeing one another as opponents. Keep communication clear, respectful, and focused on listening. 

Be aware of everyone’s priorities and contexts. Keep in mind that people come from different backgrounds, statuses, and value systems and respect these differences equally. 

Create solutions that benefit all involved. Stay open-minded and actively negotiate based on the key needs of those involved in a transaction. 


Elements of Principled Negotiation Getting to Yes lists four elements of principled negotiation: Separate personalities and emotions from the issue. Focus on the interests of each side, not on positions. Come up with multiple options based on mutual interests. Base the agreement on objective (fair and independent) standards.

The Value of Having a Sense of Humor

Humor can also be an effective improvisational technique, boosting your ability to connect, increasing positive energy, and relaxing those you’re selling to. Here are four ways to incorporate humor into your sales game:

Use simple jokes as icebreakers. If you can get someone to crack a smile, they’ll likely feel more comfortable with you. Research indicates that humor makes people more likable, and the more likable you are, the more likely you are to persuade a buyer to buy. 

Set strategic limits. Humor, while valuable for connection, interrupts critical thinking, which makes it harder to persuade buyers to make a purchase. Keep your humor in check by using it before and after key moments during the sales transaction.

Use humor to make your pitches and presentations more memorable. When you’re able to make people laugh, you seem more confident, connected, and trustworthy. For example, if you’re selling a service to a company, and you make lighthearted jokes about the company’s competitors, you remove tension and build rapport.

Incorporate humor into your marketing strategies. Humor makes your message shareable, which expands your digital network. For example, the official Twitter account for Wendy’s playfully “roasts” other fast food places with humorous “clapbacks,” often going viral and attracting new customers in the process.
Principled Bargaining: Sell for Mutual Benefit

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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