By Sarah Federman, author of Transformative Negotiation: Strategies for Everyday Change and Equitable Futures

When people hear “negotiation,” many imagine a boardroom or maybe a diplomatic forum. Or perhaps their recent attempt for a raise or home purchase. Negotiating well, however, affects our health, the quality of our relationships, and even the amount of time spent engaged in meaningful activities. Of course, it helps with money too. For the middle class, the ability to negotiate can mean the difference between a comfortable retirement and just getting by. For those on the margins, however, negotiating well can save lives. 

My new book, Transformative Negotiation: Strategies for Everyday Change and Equitable Futures takes seriously those navigating from positions of historical marginalization and economic precarity. Individuals in these communities benefit tremendously from negotiation skills, but many also have skills lacking in the middle class. Learning to code switch, finding ways around discrimination, and negotiating for one’s safety develops different talents. This book draws on their savvy to help all live more fulfilling lives while interrupting cycles of oppression.

I call this my accidental book because I had no aspirations to write about (or even teach) negotiation nor did I have any street cred to write about underestimated communities. It’s not that I didn’t know how to negotiate. I came to the University of Baltimore with a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution and spent a decade negotiating contracts all over the world as an advertising executive. Based first in Manhattan and then in Paris, I had negotiated in French, Spanish, and English with companies in twelve countries around the world. I survived negotiations in small windowless rooms at Googleplex and at a leading Chinese data company in Beijing. My experience was diverse in some senses, but flat in others. Even the wonderful Key Executive Program at Harvard Business School couldn’t prepare me for Baltimore.

This book project emerged from my embarrassment at teaching traditional negotiation pedagogy to Baltimore adult master’s students. While the concepts in traditional books translate offer much wisdom, the examples did not resonate nor do the assumptions that strategies can work for “all readers.” My students at the University of Baltimore, for example, told me Black women couldn’t say things white women could. Research backs their claims. After two semesters of similar stories, I worried that my lessons might get them into trouble on the streets, at home or at work.

It wasn’t just the concepts that didn’t fit. It was the context. Students didn’t struggle with failed product lines or difficult foreign partners, they grappled with school loans, addicted family members, and pervasive violence. Those with good paying jobs often did so as single parents while caring for other family members. They navigated food deserts and sometimes lawless neighborhoods to do this. Hustling for basic needs and mentoring children on how to avoid violent altercations (with civilians as well as police) made them savvy and persuasive in ways I’d never seen.

While writing up their stories and wisdom, I became increasingly convinced that they could be some of the best leaders. Those who thrive despite oppression know how decisions made at the top affect others. They know the best and worst of what people are capable of: They’ve seen parents abuse children as well as people selflessly care for others. They don’t write off people with imperfect pasts and can leverage their skills for good. In the book I write about Safe Streets, a group of formerly street-involved individuals who interrupt violence. These violence interrupters have many of their own challenges and imperfect pasts, yet they are the best negotiators when it comes to calling off a shooting. I talk about what they do and how we can learn from them.

Transformative Negotiation brings together the insights of over 100 students and others successfully negotiating from a position of precarity. Many of them read the chapters and added or edited the examples. They told me what didn’t resonate and what did.  They share what activities they tried and how their lives shifted.

When I presented this book at the U.S. Department of State and at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies (where I now work), I worried that the examples would now be foreign to those with more socio-economic power. To my pleasant surprise, the insights resonated. Being rich doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced assault, neglect, or discrimination. Even the chapters on finance resonated with wealthier people as did the condom negotiation discussion.

To expand beyond Baltimore, I drew upon experiences of Hispanic students in Los Angeles and First Nations individuals in Canada. I hope the book inspires those from other contexts to write their own negotiation instruction manuals. In the meantime, this lively book can enhance the life of anyone who reads it alone, with friends, or as part of a course in negotiation, sociology, urban studies, social change, personal growth, or conflict. I was delighted that the Porchlight selected the book as a Best New Business Book of 2023.  I’ll be teaching from the book this fall and hope anyone else who does so too will share their stories with me at