The First Person to Say a Number Loses

rpalo profile image Ryan Palo Originally published at assertnotmagic.com ・4 min read

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 is 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.

Posted on Mar 28 '19 by:

rpalo profile

Ryan Palo


Ryan is an engineer in the Sacramento Area with a focus in Python, Ruby, and Rust. Bash/Python Exercism mentor. Coding, physics, calculus, music, woodworking. Message me on DEV!


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If you consider this as a game with an end result, you can quickly learn that it can be in your favor to say a number first.

You usually come to the table with a number in mind that you call your "ideal income" (let's call this X).

Two mistakes already:

  1. The company might be willing to pay you way more. Your true ideal result is not a number, but a half-open range: [X, infinite[
  2. If the company tries to negotiate on this number, you'll feel compromised/defensive.

To skip the whole silly "game of negotiation" and win, just don't play.

Not giving in, standing your ground, and explaining yourself, will show the company you know how it works and you can work out of the box.

  1. Option 1: If they're being dicks about forcing you to give a number, tell them €1 million a month. Explain that they are asking for a number, and you can give any number, but that's absurd because they're asking you to either guess their budget or undervalue yourself. Because even if you offer the perfect number, many won't feel satisfied about the process without having haggled down at least a little.
  2. Option 2, when they're not dicks: Explain that you did some research on market rates but that these vary wildly depending on a lot of variables (e.g. industry, company size, company growth & funding, expected responsibilities, client base), and that you'd like to know their budget so you can accommodate for it.
  3. Imagine they don't want to budge and absolutely need you to give a number. If this happens and you want out, give them a number between [X+30%, 2X] depending on how much you like them/the job. Either way, even if they try to negotiate, you'll be above what your ideal income was and you walk away happy while they maintain some dignity in being able to have their "negotiation". If you were way off, they now have to tell you their budget or waste everyone's time. Just try not to smile too much while they "negotiate".

Finally, the true end option: walk away.

If a company isn't willing to respect your boundaries in an interview, they won't respect them when you're an employee. The choice is always yours, the company needs you at least as much as you need them, and you will only ever feel fulfilled if you make decisions with meaning and intent - not depending on the €€€ you get at the end.


I see what you’re saying, but what if you tell them 2X and they would have offered you 3X because they really need you? Wouldn’t it still have been better to let them make an offer? I’ll agree with you that, if you must say a number first, then it’s not always the end of the world and your strategies are good ones. It’s good to do research, know your worth, and go in with goals. But I still don’t think I see any situation where it behooves you to say a number first... especially for salary negotiation. As far as respect and intentionality, though, you are totally right. How they treat you during negotiation is a big indicator of how they’ll treat you as an employee. If they try to squeeze every last penny out of you and don’t respect your needs/wants, that may be a warning sign.


but what if you tell them 2X and they would have offered you 3X because they really need you

Change jobs frequently, when it makes sense, and after properly preparing your current employer (help them hire a replacement and inform them on time).

If you're getting 2x what your perceived optimal is, you're already winning. By moving horizontally, you can keep challenging the market for what your highest optimal is. You'll find that you'll quickly settle for less than 100% maximum when you find a team you enjoy working with.

If you go in one conversation looking to get 100% of the maximum they'd be willing to pay you, even if it's way above your 2x optimal, then there's something to be said about your own greed.

Hm. I don’t know that I agree that greed factors in at all. You make a good point that often a good team or good environment is worth a little less pay. And changing jobs is a good option for optimizing your situation. But, I’m not taking about beating them up or expecting 2-3X. All I’m saying is that you are potentially leaving money they are willing to pay you on the table. And that seems foolish if avoidable and if you can do it without being rude/uncooperative.

All I’m saying is that you are potentially leaving money they are willing to pay you on the table. And that seems foolish if avoidable and if you can do it without being rude/uncooperative.

If they have the same attitude about squeezing you to the lowest you could possibly go, without being directly rude/uncooperative, we're unhappy.

The same goes for their point of view.

It's not because you can, that you should. Empathy and meeting in the middle is also value.

In the case where they wouldn't mind giving you that extra money in any way (e.g. they wouldn't even have noticed), there is still value in knowing that you can prepare, ask your worth and walk away happy without being a slave to needing to get the maximum.

A perfectionist is in a prison of their own making. Being able to adjust to any situation will get you further.


There's a lot of truth in this. I've also read about multiplying estimates by 3. If you are tempted to give someone an estimate of 1 week, multiply it by 3. The theory is that, that's the more realistic estimate. Nx3


I'm gonna apply this to salary negotiations.

"How much are you looking for in terms of salary?"

"$270,000 sounds about right."


That's handy. Someone once told me that you can multiply by pi to feel extra engineer-y :)


Thank you for sharing!

How should I react though if they say a number first, but their price is not satisfying?

Thank you for your time!


That’s a good question, and it varies a lot depending on the situation and the other person’s personality. Do you have a more specific example? Is it a salary thing with someone you’ve never met? A pricing thing with a client you have a good relationship with? A time estimate with your boss?


Sorry, I should’ve been more specific.

I’ve never been to an interview, but I hope that this moment will come soon. So it is a salary thing.

I’ve read that when they say a price that’s not satisfying I should express my discontent through non-verbal gestures: sigh or a doleful face expression.
But what should come after? What if they don’t say anything?

Hm. I don’t think I agree with the nonverbal cues thing, but I’m also a pretty straightforward communicator. I usually don’t like to give “hints” about how I’m feeling. I’ll just say it (albeit politely). You may be different and that’s fine.

In a salary situation, having them say a number that’s far less than expected is a good time to double check your expectations and do some research. Make extra sure your expectations are reasonable. You don’t have to respond right there. Since this salary talk should hopefully be happening at the end of the interview, it’s ok to ask for a day to think about it and email them the next day.

Once you’re sure your number is reasonable, it’s not rude to counter with a suggestion of your own. How assertive you can be with it is directly related to how close your number is to theirs. If you’re pretty close, a simple “how about X” might be ok. If you’re much farther away, maybe “I was really hoping for something around X. What can we do to get closer to that?” If you like them, keep in mind that at this point, you are collaborating with them to find a solution. You can also try to fill the gap in other ways: “ok, but if that’s the case, I’d like to be able to work remote/get some extra benefits/extra vacation/etc.

I’ve heard that it is reasonable to counter once. Maaaaaaaybe twice if you have a good relationship with them. But they will probably come back and counter your counter. At that point, decide if you can live with it or tell them no thank you.

I’m definitely not the end-all expert, though, so read a lot of other people’s ideas. John Sonmez has good advice. There has been a Syntax FM podcast episode or 2 on negotiating.

I’d also recommend interviewing at several companies that you don’t care if you get the job or not, just for the experience. It’s good to get the jitters out and see what works for you personally.

Above all, keep in mind that your reputation is the most important thing, always treat them with the respect you’d like to get and like everyone in the industry is watching. Does that help?

Also, culture affects things, so depending on which country you interview in, and the cultural background of your interviewer, what is “accepted” and “rude” may vary.

Thank you for such detailed answers! It definitely helped!

I’m looking forward to my first interview and when it will happen I want to make sure that I’m prepared.
Because of shyness or lack of confidence I might not counter their offer. But you (and other people here as well) gave some really good advice. This kind of increases my confidence.

Thank you!

Good! You’ll do great! And if it doesn’t go great the first time, you’ll learn from it and do better the next time. Have someone you know, or, a friend of someone you know, give you a practice interview and then pointers on how you did!


So what if both parties stick to this rule? O.o


I know that joke, but seriously, how to break the deadlock? I've had some smartasses say to me, "We're really open about the budget". (facepalm)

Yeah, you’re right that that can’t go on forever. Usually what I’ll do is give them a pretty wide range. Like, “We’ll, if you want to go full fancy, all the bells and whistles, do features x,y, and z, it could be upwards of $big number more than you expect them to want to pay (sometimes they go for that!). Oooor, we could go bare bones, just get the minimum done with only i and j but not k, and that might be closer to $reasonable dollar amount but probably less than they will realistically need. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.” And then you gauge their reaction to each price. If the situation is specifically they are asking you for a quote, the onus is probably eventually on you to provide an estimate. But, if you can get them to say a number, it’s like an unexpected but nice win for you.

Yup, that's how it generally goes for me. Another strategy is to provide a quote and simply refuse to budge into negotiation. Would you recommend that?

That’s OK, but it has 3 downsides:

  1. You build a reputation as somebody who won’t compromise with your customers if you do that all the time. Maybe not a good or bad thing. Depends on your preferences. But sometimes, if the quote is already on the low-side, there’s no room to help them out at all. You have to make money too!
  2. You may quote too high and, when you don’t budge, they might walk away, losing you the job.
  3. You may quote too low, in which case, they’ll accept without a word, and you are leaving money out there that could have been yours. Again, not always a bad thing. You won the job, right? But if you find yourself winning all your jobs without even a little whining/bargaining, you might want to try slowly raising your rates until you lose some percentage of jobs.

What do you think about that?