It starts with a feeling: Someone asks me for something, and I instantaneously feel a tiny internal wince. I'm inclined to give it to them, even when I know doing so might impact me negatively. I just can’t bear feeling responsible for disappointing others.
In a word, I'm sensitive. I'm pretty good at empathizing with people and intuiting their feelings. Most of the creative professionals I’ve worked with are, too. But while this sensitivity creates a deep emotional attachment to our work and can make us better artists, it can also turn us into lousy negotiators. I often hear these sorts of complaints from other creatives:
"I never want others to think I’m being pushy or mean."
"I’m afraid I’ll lose the opportunity if I ask for too much."
"I hate confrontation."
Sensitive people all too often give in to these anxieties. Sometimes the easiest way to make that bad feeling go away is just to compromise and take the offer.
But over time, I've learned to tap into my intuitive side when these sorts of emotions rise up and I feel ready to give in during a negotiation. Rather than try and shut down that impulse, I channel it into a productive use. Now I think of negotiation as the investigative stage of the creative process. It’s where I can bring my creative power to the table and use it as one in a series of steps of discovery.
It helps to start by coming to grips with the skills and characteristics that make you so good at your work. Before your next negotiation, take an inventory. If you're a creative professional, or just creatively minded, but think of yourself as pretty nonconfrontational, these traits might describe you:
Analytical skills: Good creative work is surprisingly analytical. It’s the result of a series of deliberate choices, a process of learning, trying things, selecting the best, and improving on it continuously.
Enthusiasm: Our enthusiasm for our work fuels it and helps attract clients' interest and trust. It's what makes others want to play on our team—it's contagious. Those thrilling moments of mutual enthusiasm are when I’m most engaged with my client and my work.
Empathy: Empathy is a critical skill for creative professionals in particular and is common among nonconfrontational people in general. It lets us put ourselves in the shoes of the people we’re working for, even if they're really different than us. In fact, according to a 2010 study published in the Academy of Management Journal, understanding the needs of others can fuel creativity itself.
Vulnerability: This is the flip side of empathy: If you’re seeking to understand someone, you first need to let yourself be understood—it's a two-way street. This quality facilitates the work we need to do as teams and helps us be more open to creative options.
Intuition: In our creative work, we go with gut reactions and leaps of faith. We follow that not-quite-specific feeling to look at a different perspective, or try seemingly illogical methods that sometimes produce amazing results.
Drive: The creative pros I know are energetic, resilient, and tireless in their work. When they get started on a project, they’ll push through sleepless nights and meal-less days to get it done.
So what do all these qualities have to do with negotiating? Well, once you've taken stock of the traits, skills, and habits of mind that help you excel in your work, you can understand how to deploy each of them to drive a harder bargain.
It isn't about becoming the confrontational person you aren't; it's about using the person you already are a little more strategically. Here's how to turn these same, "unbusinesslike" sensitivities into useful negotiating tools.
Analytical skills: Use those analytical methods you've honed in your work to determine what might be going wrong in the negotiation and look for solutions on the fly. Creatives are born problem-solvers.
Enthusiasm: You already have a natural enthusiasm that inspires people—now use it with the people across the table. If you’re truly excited about their project, or about how you can help them, don’t hold back on sharing your enthusiasm. A successful negotiation doesn't require a poker face.
Empathy: Empathize with your negotiation partner in order to understand what they need or believe is at stake. You might find the sticking point isn't what they say it is (price, for example) but has to do with some deeper personal reason (for instance, saving face). This might actually be something that more a argumentative, confrontational person would miss.
Vulnerability: Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you’re a doormat. It means you’re willing to let people know who you really are. In negotiations, that might be as simple as clearly stating why you can’t afford to compromise this time around. Being your real self keeps negotiations transparent and lowers stress.
Intuition: Personally, before I got better at negotiating, I pressed through my share of deals even while my intuition was screaming at me to just get out of there. Listen to your gut. Use your intuitive capabilities to ask more of the right questions.
Drive: When you’re sick and tired of sitting at the negotiation table, remember all those nights you pushed to solve tricky problems and get good work done on time. You’ve got the energy and persistence to resolve this problem, too.
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too soft or sensitive for business. And don’t let those excellent qualities, which make you so good at what you do, force you into compromising unnecessarily. Your next negotiation is no different than your last creative project. You can use the same skills that helped you knock that one out of the park to win what you want out of this bargaining session, too.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.