Modal Verbs in Negotiations

What are negotiations?

Negotiating in English can seem daunting at first, but the Oxford English Dictionary describes negotiation as a “discussion aimed at reaching an agreement”. It’s likely you engage in negotiation in English or your language daily without even thinking about it. Using modal verbs in negotiations can help you express attitude, add more nuance, and remain polite.

Have you ever asked your boss for a pay rise or agreed on a new role? Chances are, you used some negotiation techniques. Have you ever tried to plan an office party or a birthday surprise for a colleague? You probably had to negotiate the details with others. Have you ever tried to persuade someone to make you your favourite dinner? You may have even offered something in return to sweeten the deal.

Negotiating is not just about getting your way. If one side gets their way, then the other side may leave disappointed and discouraged. A successful negotiation leaves everyone satisfied. This is why it’s crucial to make sure to stay polite throughout any negotiations.

What are modal verbs?

We use modals to express things that are wanted, allowed, or likely. Most modal verbs have multiple different meanings, depending on the context. In this blog post, we will only focus on some examples of modal verbs used for politeness.

Can and Could

In addition to expressing permission, possibility, and ability, can and could are used for polite requests. Generally, could is more polite and indirect than can, but both are considered polite requests. Using can and could gives the other party the ability to refuse if something is preventing them.

The four sentences below express the same thing but with different levels of politeness. To show you the nuances better, we arranged them from the least to most polite. Pay close attention to the differences in word choices. Can you see the difference?

1. The deadline for the sample is next week.
2. We need the sample next week. Is that possible?
3. Can you deliver a sample next week?
4. Could you deliver a sample next week?

May and Might

If you wish to be polite and formal when requesting something, you can use may. Similarly, you can use it to give permission or a suggestion. You can use might to make polite suggestions. When using may and might to make suggestions, you should make sure you sound genuine and not patronising or mocking.

Read the following sentences and their uses. Can you rephrase each example sentence without using “may”?

1. You may go now. – Giving permission.
2. May I say something? – Asking for permission.
3. We may need to delay the shipment if we can’t get it done today. –  Making a suggestion.
4. You might want to call the supplier after the meeting. – Making a suggestion.


In addition to conditional sentences and “will in the past”, would is used in many polite sentences and negotiating. You can use it to talk about your desires and preferences. In those cases, it’s often paired with words such as love, hope, and rather. It expresses willingness or consent, and in questions, it’s used for polite requests.

Look at the sentences below. Can you see the differences in the meaning of “would”?

1. I would rather show you around the factory tomorrow. – Preference
2. Would you call me after the meeting finishes? – Polite request
3. No one would confess to stealing the food from the fridge, so we installed cameras. – Willingness
4. Would you like some water? – Desire
5. Is there no way they would share their software with us? – Willingness or consent

When used for requests, would focuses on willingness, whereas can and could focus on ability. Look at the example sentence from above, transformed to use would. Do you see the subtle difference in meaning?

Would you deliver a sample next week?

Can you deliver a sample next week?

Could you deliver a sample next week?

Must for logical deductions

The modal verb must is one of the most common ways to talk about obligations. Additionally, you can use must to express a logical deduction or a strong assumption. It can also be more polite than a more direct statement about the same topic. Look at the examples below. Below are two sentences that sound a bit harsh. Using must instead can soften them a bit.

1. I expect her to be nearly done with the project.
2. You are probably having problems with keeping up with the demand.

Examples with must

1. She must be nearly done with the project.
2. It must be challenging to keep up with the demand right now.


Finally, we come to “should”. Most often, we use the modal verb should for advice. In negotiating, you can also utilise it as a soft demand.

1. You should review the prototype before we move onto the next step.
2. The shipment should arrive before the end of the month.

Similarly to must, you can use should for logical deductions.

1. She should be nearly done with the project.
2. The construction should be finished on time.

What can I expect from the BESS Negotiations course?

Throughout the course, you will find a wide variety of examples, and you will work with your work context. This course has four chapters providing an overview of negotiation techniques, vocabulary and grammar specific to negotiating. You will find coursework, quizzes, business-related articles, podcasts, and TED talks throughout the course.

Book a free trial lesson today and talk about your learning goals with an experienced English teacher. Say goodbye to boring English lessons! If you’re not sure what you want to learn, let your teacher choose from the range of English courses that have been designed to help our students to achieve their goals.

This blog was written and recorded by Intrepid English Teacher Lida.

Find out more about Lida on her Intrepid English Teacher profile page. 

If you have any questions, or you would like to request a topic for a future blog, you can contact us using the chat box, or email us at Intrepid English.

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