Deadlines, deliverables, costs, your market value—these things might be top of mind for you when you’re negotiating a new deal or a job offer. But there’s actually more than that on the table. Or, to put it another way, there’s plenty that’s not on any proverbial table at all.
This other category of negotiating criteria is less tangible because it has to do with feelings, not facts. There’s a huge emotional component that each of us brings to negotiations, whether we realize it or not. And the ability to recognize those feelings and manage (not repress) them is as critical to your success as being able to calculate costs and nail deadlines. When you lack that self-knowledge, you risk selling yourself short or caving too easily in high-stakes discussions.
For independent workers, this happens the most while negotiating rates. Instead of really calculating a rate that lets us profit from our work, we often agree to the amount we think will get the contract signed and meet our immediate financial needs. I’ve coached people who fall into this trap, I’ve seen companies do it, and I’ve done it myself as a sole proprietor and (while I hate to admit it) as a leader, too.
In every instance, we succumb to an unacknowledged panic—an emotional reason to accept less, not a rational one. Beating that impulse means mastering our feelings.
How can you protect yourself from your own worst impulses? Two hours before your meeting, do this exercise:
- At the top of a page, write down the price you require in order to profit from your work—not just break even.
- At the bottom of the page, draw a firm line.
- Back at the top, below your profit price, list all the possible objections you can think of. (There's usually a multitude, and while I haven’t heard all of them through my career, I’ve heard some doozies.) Your task now is to list every single one you can imagine, including anything as ridiculous as the one I got years ago: "My brother-in-law will do it for a case of beer."
- Then list how you're going to respond to every single one of those objections. And, yes, you can write, "Sounds like your brother-in-law is an alcoholic!"—though, of course, you’ll never say it.
- Finally, on the bottom line, write your price again. Because your price is the bottom line.
The usefulness of this exercise was brought home to me during the last few months as I coached a professional artist who'd identified a consistent problem in her work life: She resented how little she was paid for all the damn work she put in.
Sara paints murals for clients who own commercial buildings. She really loves what she does, but she came to me because she wanted to earn more money. "Painters like me are undervalued," she told me in our first coaching session.
I wasn’t opposed to that idea, but I knew that only Sara could do something about how much Sara was paid. So I asked her just to consider the idea that she might be contributing to the problematic relationships she always seemed to find herself in.
A while later, Sara was negotiating a new deal around the same time her car payment was due: Her "aha" moment had arrived. "I was across the table from the client, we were looking at my sketches, but the only thing on my mind was that I had to come up with $400 every month," she admitted.
"When we got down to price, I felt this cramp in my gut. I did a quickie calculation of how long the mural would take, how many car payments that would be, and asked for a grand total of $800."
For what was really a $2,000 mural.
When negotiating a new deal, everybody focuses on the facts. Sara wasn't wrong to do that—they do have to be worked out, and they’re comfortingly concrete, undeniable, measurable, and relatively easy to understand and to justify. It's easier to explain (first and foremost to yourself) where that $800 will go once you get it and a lot harder to pin down why the job is actually worth another $1,200 on top of that.
Feelings, on the other hand, are abstract, hard to pin down, and impossible to quantify. They're about relationship, fairness, and entitlement—old hurts and future hopes. They're also about where you think the power in the negotiation lies.
If you don’t learn to acknowledge them and work with them, they have the power to disempower your own deals. So set aside a couple of hours before you sit down to negotiate and get clear on every imaginable objection first. Once you're really committed to your bottom line, your prospective client, business partner, or hiring manager will need to commit to it, too.
Otherwise, no deal—and no hard feelings.
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.