When it comes to salary negotiation, the ball is more in your court than you may think.

We've all come to that moment during an interview when the hiring manager asks the dreaded question: “So, what are your salary requirements?”

How you handle yourself during the minutes that follow may mean the difference between walking out with a job offer or walking out empty handed. Here's how to answer this common interview question.

Find the middle ground

Negotiating salary when an offer is not yet on the table may make you feel like you're walking a tightrope. Answer the salary question too high and you might price yourself out of an offer; give a figure that's too low and you run the risk of appearing desperate. Like Goldilocks, the key is to find the middle ground.

A good job search involves preliminary salary research — it will be worth your effort to find out what typical salaries are being offered to others with similar credentials in comparable roles and industries. These sample salaries will help you determine the sweet spot that most employees will be willing to pay a new hire in your desired role.

When opting to low-ball a salary, know full well that your perceived self-worth may come across in your answer. Before answering the salary interview question, be sure to think about how you'll feel knowing that the company you might work for doesn't know your true worth. You've worked hard to earn your qualifications, and now is the time to translate all of your knowledge and expertise into actual numbers. It's not easy, but it can be done.

Do your homework

When you browse through job postings online, you have no doubt experienced the frustration of not being able to spot any salary information whatsoever. Employers keep this information relatively secret, but you can access ballpark salary expectation figures from websites such as Payscale.com, Salary.com, and BLS.gov. The salary comparison features on some of these sites will provide you with a good head start. If you're seeking a position in healthcare, for example, you can browse job categories to get a sense of alternative job titles to research: The salary for a Nurse Practitioner can be compared to salaries of similar subspecialties like NP-ER and NP-Specialty Care. While all three require a master's degree and certification, the in-depth training of the third title warrants a higher salary. Walking into an interview armed with recent salary data posted by federal statisticians will provide you with confidence to answer any interview question about salary expectations, and that confidence will extend to other parts of your conversation with the hiring manager.

Salary research can enable you to effectively field sticky interview questions about your salary expectations. As you search on sites such as Glassdoor, Indeed, and other job aggregators, you'll discover that most positions do not list a salary, but some employers may request a salary history from interested applicants. These businesses may be testing the waters by asking candidates up front for their salary histories; this also helps them get an idea of applicants' expectations, as well. Since the most significant determinant of future salary is past salary, this essential data gives employers ample insight when setting new ranges. Employers will typically pay a new employee somewhere in the range of 10–15 percent more than the person's last salary, which is why knowing what you've made over your past employment history is of such interest to them. They are trying to determine your monetary value so that they, too, can negotiate for the best person at the lowest price. However, this interview question just became illegal in a number of places in the U.S., so the salary-negotiation tactic is going out of style.

Related: Don't Answer These Off-Limits Interview Questions

Be a little calculating

Let's go back to the interview question “What are your salary requirements?” Notice that the question does not ask how much would you like to make in the job position, but what you will require in order to accept. One way to look at this is to present a figure that is a calculation of gross salary plus benefits, not your net wages. Your net — or take-home — pay is considerably less and is not the figure you will want to share. Think in terms of total compensation: salary plus medical, dental, life insurance, 401K or 403B accounts, tuition remission, and other benefits unique to your industry.

Another highly-effective approach is to state your baseline salary expectation as a product of your highest monthly salary previously earned. So, while you may not have always been compensated at this high rate each and every month, you can take that intermittent increase and use it to substantiate a higher potential salary at this new employer.

See the big picture

Because so many employers propose benefits packages that are often promoted as salary equivalents, why not give yourself the leverage to do the same? When you're seeking a new job position, you're looking for the whole package. Employers, too, are seeking additional “benefits” from their prospective employees. While you may find an employer who tries to hire staff at the cheapest rates possible, many other employers are more realistic, realizing that offering the “going rate” will get them the most loyal employees in the long run.

As holding down turnover rates is of primary concern to most employers, you can bet that loyalty is a priority for many companies. While employers do prefer to hold the cards when it comes to keeping salaries private, you'll find that the most successful companies tend to offer the most equitable, competitive salaries to keep and hold their talents — what they offer can serve as a benchmark for other companies.

Find your focus

If you think you are unique in your distaste for salary negotiation while other candidates can run circles around you in their ability to advocate for a fair salary on their own behalf, nothing could be further from the truth. Knowing your worth, knowing what the market is paying, and knowing that the process of wage negotiation is a two-way street will hopefully embolden you when it comes to expressing your salary expectations.

Like you, employers are doing their research, making sure that their offer will be within the norm for their particular industry and for the specific job position they've been asked to fill. To break employers out of the “baseline thinking” pattern, your job will be to get them to focus on YOU — the candidate who can deliver more than the next guy. Ironically, the best way to get them to focus on you is to focus your attention on them: What are their issues, what are their goals, where do their problems lie, and what do they need to move ahead in their markets? Conveying that you have their interests in mind — not just your own — will go far in convincing them that you are that one-in-a-million candidate who is worth your weight in gold.

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Before you start talking numbers, your resume has to get you into the door. Will yours? Let TopResume critique your resume to tell you where you stand.

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