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Columbia University professor Alexandra Carter finds kayaking to be a good metaphor for navigating your career.

watcherfox/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

When Columbia University law professor Alexandra Carter teaches people to negotiate, she shows them a picture of a kayak navigating a series of sea caves. It seems an unlikely metaphor, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of negotiate is “to successfully travel along or over.”

She loves the metaphor because to get anywhere in a kayak, you need the right information and must steer, which comes by paddling with a steady rhythm. Outside forces can also carry you away. “Everything you see, hear and feel helps you to steer with accuracy toward your goal,” she writes in her recent book Ask for More.

Translate the kayak to your career, and she says the first lesson is that you don’t wait for a contract to come due with a client or the end of the year to negotiate salary with your boss. Instead, you are continuously piloting those relationships in every conversation you have. Also, you need the right information to steer you toward your goal, which comes by asking questions.

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The core of her approach are 10 questions, the first five to ask of yourself and the next five of the other party. Those first five, which she calls “the mirror,” are:

  • What’s the problem I want to solve? Negotiations, after all, are about steering. Most people figure the fun part of negotiations is figuring out the answer, but the juicy part is defining your problem.
  • What do I need? People often prepare for negotiations by thinking about their worst case, bottom line for a deal. But she says research shows those who instead focus on identifying their goals get more from negotiations, especially if their aspirations are optimistic, specific and justifiable.
  • What do I feel? Feelings are facts. They are real and must be dealt with in any negotiation.
  • How have I handled this successfully in the past? Considering a past success boosts confidence and helps you to return to the successful mindset from that previous time, allowing you to access your inner wisdom and generate helpful ideas.
  • What’s the first step? There may be many issues on the table in the negotiation. Which one should you start with? Make sure you are likely to have success with it, so you can build momentum.

Now shift your eyes from the mirror to “the window” and ask these five questions to work with the other party:

  • Tell me … ? Cast a wide net by asking that person to share their view of the goal or problem that brought you together, any important details relating to it, their feelings and concerns, and anything else they feel like adding. “No question unlocks trust, creativity, understanding and mind-blowing solutions like ‘Tell me,’” she says. Sometimes the issue is not what you thought.
  • What do you need? This can be a game-changer, helping to dig underneath the other person’s demands and figure out what is driving them.
  • What are your concerns? This not only gives you information that you can use in the discussions but also makes the other person feel heard. If concerns are left unsaid, the negotiation will likely end unresolved.
  • How have you handled this successfully in the past? Again you travel back in time, but this time encouraging the other person to remember ways in which they have handled similar challenges successfully. “It triggers our memory bank of experiences to allow us to expand our pie of potential options for our current situation,” she says.
  • What’s the first step? You don’t have to accept what they say, but by asking you increase the chance some option they offer fits with your needs.

So get in your figurative kayak, armed with questions rather than paddles, and move ahead.

Quick hits

  • If you unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it? It’s unlikely your reaction was the same as renowned fashion designer Phillip Lim: “I just sit still and do nothing. ... This is the ultimate luxury.”
  • With the future so uncertain, London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra recommends in Harvard Business Review conjuring up a diverse portfolio of options rather than sticking single-mindedly to one: “Today, more than ever, the path to your next career will be circuitous.”
  • The hardest thing of getting things done is doing one thing at a time, says career coach Dan Rockwell. The second hardest part of getting things done is choosing the right task.
  • Consultant John Linkner says you can sell better if you fill in the blanks on these three statements: After working with me, customers will have no more _____. After working with me, customers will have a good deal more _____. After working with me customers will have less _____.
  • To quickly open the Explorer window in Windows 10 hit Win+E on the keyboard.

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