The best start

Hostage Negotiator: How to negotiate your first salary

5 min read

If you’re a recent graduate you’ll already know that finding a job can be tough, and finding one in the field you studied for can be even tougher. So it’s understandable that when the first job offer finally comes, many of us take it gratefully and accept the salary on offer. We’re here to tell you it’s OK to ask for more money right off the bat.

After all, employers are unlikely to take back a job offer just because you’ve asked for more money - you’re still the same person they liked the look of in the first place and the worst that can happen is they say no.

But of course, it’s easier said than done, so to help you negotiate your first salary, we talked to someone who knows his stuff when it comes to negotiations, real life hostage negotiator, Lance Burdett. Lance founded and runs Warn International, an agency specialising in helping people communicate. Before that, Lance spent 22 years with the New Zealand Police, 13 as a crisis negotiator in some of the most intense situations imaginable. Here’s his best advice for getting the outcome you're after.

Keep it short

“Most of my work these days is showing others how to deal with challenging people and how to hold difficult conversations. Those conversations are ones we don’t know how to start. In the old days we used have all this waffle beforehand and then we used to get to the main point and we’d try and finish off with some sort of agreement. It just doesn’t go well these days. Instead I use something called the Triple Sentence© technique – which covers what you want, why you need it, and what they’ve got to say about it.”

Using Lance’s Triple Sentence technique means your conversation starter might look something like this: “I’d like to ask you about my starting salary. I’ve looked at starting salaries in this field and believe I’m worth this much. I wonder if you’ve got a moment to talk about it?”

Obviously this approach needs you to be schooled up on the salary range of people with your qualifications and experience (or lack of) so do your homework first and have a figure in mind.

Control your voice, slow things down

Asking for a pay rise before your first day can be nerve-wracking, so when you walk into the room, you’re going to be nervous. Your heart will be racing and the adrenaline will be pumping - that means you’ll speak too fast. If you’re ever going to convince the other person you’re worth more money, it’s vital you stay in control. Here’s Lance’s advice on how to achieve this and stay on top.

“When adrenaline gets into your system you speak louder, longer, and faster. Your breathing becomes shorter, your heart is pumping and you go from your logical brain to your emotional brain, which is a danger area. Unless you’re in control of that, things are going to go astray. So before you walk into the room, take a deep breath, hold it for at least three seconds and in your head either count to three or use the mantra I like which is saying “slow is smooth, smooth is fast. That way, when you walk in you’ve filled your lungs with air, which means you’ve controlled your breathing. You’ve held your breath which has slowed your heart rate. And then you’ve controlled your thoughts by saying to yourself ‘slow is smooth, smooth is fast’. You’ll be in a much better position, your voice will slow down and you won’t speak as loud as you might otherwise.”

Present yourself properly

Before you even open your mouth to speak, the other person in your salary negotiation will be judging you. It’s not necessarily a conscious thing they’re doing, Lance notes it’s something called unconscious bias, but what it means is the way you physically present yourself is important. Non-verbal cues play just as important a role as everything else.

“Stand or sit with a front-facing posture so your shoulders are square to the person you’re talking to. Try to lean forward slightly with hands on the table where they can be seen, don’t sit with your hands in your lap. People like to see your hands. Show a genuine interest in the person and listen to what they’re saying.”

Be an active listener

People love to talk about themselves, and that goes for the person you’re negotiating your salary with, so it’s important you’re able to listen to what they’re saying and respond to it. This skill is called active listening and is the art of making the conversation about the other person by keeping them talking to help you get what you want. This can help build empathy and rapport. One useful technique to achieve this is to use paraphrasing.

“Clarify what the other person says by paraphrasing. Do that by saying ‘That’s an interesting point you’ve just made’ and then paraphrase what they said.”

So, if your potential new boss says, “We have to make sure everyone starts on the same salary, or all hell would break loose.” you could say “That’s an interesting point you’ve just made about ensuring all employees are treated fairly, and I think the same applies to fairly judging new starters on their different merits and abilities.”

Remember to be HOT

One last piece of advice from Lance is to be HOT - Honest, Open, and To-the-point. When you’re talking about your fist salary, your new boss will likely be busy and will appreciate your getting straight down to business.

“We used to be quite long winded in how we communicate, these days it’s what I term HOT. We know that meetings go on longer than they should and people’s attention spans are shorter due, so when you’re meeting people for the first time, a couple of basic rules to stick to are - short is best and make it about them. This will help you engage with them in any situation.”

Read more from Lance on his blog -