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A creative person’s guide to negotiating

As a creative writer, freelancer, and mentor, I find myself negotiating constantly. Whether I’m negotiating in a professional capacity (over a client’s rate, for example) or negotiating within my personal relationships, I’ve found that although these two types of negotiating can take place under quite different circumstances, there is a lot of overlap.

In November, I curated and moderated a panel conversation at The New Museum with four creative women of color from my community around the subject of negotiation, especially as it relates to being a person of color. The conversation that unfolded not only touched on topics of money and understanding our value in professional contexts, but also on the idea that negotiations have a lot more to do with the value and worth we ascribe to ourselves across all aspects of our lives, and not just our salaries.

In this guide, I’ve consolidated some of our key learnings, and asked each of the panelists to provide some additional insights based on subjects related to negotiations that they are most passionate about. The sections of this guide appear in the theoretical order of what a person should consider before entering a negotiation, and are written by Akilah Scharff, AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston, Regina Dowdell, Celeste Layne, and finally, myself.

Ashley Hefnawy, writer, DJ, and mentor

Understanding the differences between professional and personal negotiations

This section was written by artist, curator, director, and arts advocate AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston

Professional and personal negotiations can often feel very similar. I find myself negotiating constantly, and often with myself. It can be as small as bribing myself in the morning: “If I get up by 7:30AM I can get breakfast from Fosters Sundry on my way to work. Or, I can get another 30 minutes of sleep.”

Though we might not notice it, this type of personal negotiation comes into play when assessing bigger things like our own pay, and whether we think we deserve a raise at work. Every day, we perform thousands of tiny negotiations with ourselves that enable us to lead up to bigger decisions. Once we become aware of the fact that we’re actually negotiating our existence almost every single day—and not just when bigger issues like salary or job offers come into play—we can understand the power we possess as experienced negotiators, rather than seeing negotiating as something that scares us. Just like deciding whether the sleep or the breakfast matters more, negotiating is all about assigning value and then determining the best approach to getting what you want.

Do personal negotiation tactics play into professional negotiations? And vice versa?

At the end of the day, all negotiations stem out of a desire to gain something. It can be hard to separate the personal from professional in its purpose, but perhaps the main separation of the two lies in approach and tone. For instance, consider the tone difference between a lively debate about which ramen spot in Brooklyn you and your partner should eat at vs. justifying one’s merits for a raise during your year-end review. Though I can imagine myself approaching each with passion and fervor, I’ve seen people negotiate over preference of food with far more energy and intensity than in their own financial interest. It’s interesting how that works.

Negotiation style, tone, and behavior can be as varied as the different personalities humans possess, and for some of us the divorcing of one’s personality from professional discourse can feel impossible.

Recognizing our own tendencies as “micro” and “macro” negotiators allows us the opportunity to practice negotiation tactics in our daily lives before we end up in more major negotiation scenarios. From this, we gain a sense for how to stand up for ourselves, when to compromise, and how to suss out what we really want from any negotiating situation.


How do personal values play into negotiations?

This section was written by tech, design, and business consultant Akilah Scharff

To understand how our personal values play into negotiations, we must first understand how personal values shape our lives.

When most of us think about how our personal values are formed, what might come to mind is an aggregation of an individual’s lived experiences and learnings over the course of their life, acting as an internal compass that guides their beliefs and actions. Personal values can also take shape as a grounding force which we project into the world, whether consciously or subconsciously, with the hope of finding other like-minded humans to live with, work with, and love. However, there are myriad factors which heavily influence our values: Community, profession, tax bracket, culture of parental origin, culture of the country that we live in, ego, social sphere, our romantic partners, and often our political affiliations.

The above factors affect our psyches in both overt and subliminal ways, and the effects that our value-driven actions have on our respective environments can vary from positive, to innocuous, to catastrophic. Simply stated, our surroundings and lived experiences affect the ways in which we receive and perceive the world, and conversely, these receptions and perceptions result in how we take action and represent ourselves in the world—who we are, what we stand for, what we think we deserve, what “kinds” of people we want around us, and how we treat them.

So how, then, do our personal values play into negotiations, and the value we bring into situations?

What influences us to negotiate the way we do is tricky. In addition to the factors I brought up earlier, most sentient beings are in a constant state of flux as it pertains to their perception of self. Not necessarily in an “emotional rollercoaster” kind of way, but instead it’s more like a series of evaluations and re-evaluations of ourselves and the ways that we affect the world around us. This is coupled with the ways we believe other people should treat us. Additionally, our own self perceptions are often in a symbiotic relationship with the way others perceive our value.

In cases where we are attempting to illustrate our value in exchange for money or status, the negotiation process often starts privately within the negotiators, long before they actually come to the table to directly negotiate.

Here’s why negotiation gets complicated quickly:

  • Both negotiators’ lived experiences, coupled with societal and cultural inputs over the course of their lives, will affect their perception of self, and of each other.
  • Their perceptions of self and of each other can affect the ways in which they interact.
  • The way they interact affects the amount of “pressure” or “tension” within the negotiation.
  • The negotiators’ desired outcomes may or may not be in alignment, based on what they can offer each other, their lived experiences, plus societal and cultural inputs over the course of their lives—which can even further complicate the negotiation.

See the pattern here?

Negotiations are more likely to be tenuous in societies where certain groups of people are perceived as superior or “more valuable” than others, whether or not those assessments are true. At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m describing how cultural values and societal bias can affect how we receive, perceive, and treat ourselves and others in negotiation situations. Ultimately, the two parties involved in the negotiation need to find alignment on some level, in order for the conversation to proceed.

Assessing your wants vs. your needs

This section was written by marketing and PR creative consultant Regina Dowdell

When negotiating, it’s important to distinguish between your wants and needs. This is because while satisfying your “wants” can lead to short-term happiness, satisfying your “needs” can lead to long-term growth and sustainability. For example, you could want an extra $10,000, and an offer might come through that would get you just that. However, taking the offer might also force you to sacrifice what you’ve assessed as your real needs—work/life balance, creative freedom, growth opportunities, and a nurturing environment.

When negotiating, it’s up to you to think through your wants and needs, and factor them in as you make decisions. This applies across the board, whether you are negotiating for work, within your relationships, or simply with yourself.

Before entering a negotiation, try making a list to help you understand what you want out of it, vs. what you actually need to get out of it. Here are some examples to get you started:

What I want from this negotiation:

  • More money
  • Flexibility to work from remote locations

What I need from this negotiation:

  • To feel heard and fairly compensated for the value I offer
  • To be trusted that I can deliver excellent work no matter where I work from

By doing this exercise, you may find that some of your wants are less specific, and that your needs are where you can actually begin to identify why you think you want something. Sometimes, this process can actually help you clarify how to articulate that want. In a way, wants and needs can feed into each other, but this exercise can also help you identify wants that are not as powerful as your core needs.

When do you walk away from a negotiation?

When entering into a negotiation, it’s important to clarify your wants and needs—but it’s even more important to recognize when a negotiation isn’t going to get you closer to getting either. The point at which to walk away from a negotiation is when you feel like you’re moving too far away from your needs, core values, and/or who you truly are. An opportunity could seem perfect based on your current wants, but as you get into the thick of a negotiation for a potential job, relationship, or other opportunity, you may get to a point where you realize you’ve strayed so far from your actual needs that it isn’t a good fit for you anymore. At that point, if you continue negotiating, you may potentially find yourself with an outcome that doesn’t make you happy or add value to your life.

If at any point in a negotiation you feel uncomfortable, know that it is always possible to hit pause, and agree with the other party to revisit—or simply to drop the negotiations altogether. Stepping away is sometimes better than being forced to compromise on your true needs.


Negotiating when you’re desperate

This section was written by Ashley Hefnawy

How do you keep sight of your values in the face of desperation?

Values are what drive the work that I do. Personally, my main values are mutual respect, trust, and compassion at every stage of the working relationship. Actually, these values apply not only to how I engage with my work, but how I engage with my life.

As I’ve experienced it, values are a two-way street—I find that living my values are half about what I bring, and half about what the other party brings to the relationship. As an example, let’s say I bring empathetic communication to a job as a sought-out skill. Perhaps the other party is a company or person who claims to value trust and honest work. These two sides (good communication and trust) complement each other well! But what if the other side thinks they value honesty and trust, but then after beginning to work with them, it comes to light that they actually don’t have those values at all? This would likely result in the relationship evolving to one where I’m being micromanaged, which would not allow me to live true to my core values.

I bring up the above example because while it’s impossible for me to know how a relationship will shake out before we’ve worked together, there are red flags I can look out for during the negotiation process. Certain ways of communicating can tell you right away if a person trusts you or not. If they’re communicating at all hours of the day and expecting responses immediately, for example, that may be a red flag that they don’t respect your time. Whenever you’re negotiating—and especially when you’re desperate—be extra careful to look out for red flags. You’ll know the flags because it won’t feel good, and your intuition will tell you something is up. This is a sign for you to notice that your values are being disregarded.

If you know better than to accept a less-than-ideal negotiation outcome, then why do you still do it?

When it comes to what I think I know, I’m constantly questioning myself—but often, when something is not going to be a good fit, something deep down will let me know. For me, the more challenging matter has actually been accepting opportunities that come my way and are things that I deserve, which while scary-seeming, I can grow from. I’ve also had to learn to move past that gnawing feeling of “Let’s quit!” or “Let’s back out,” which is actually related to fear and anxiety, more than a true feeling that an opportunity is the wrong fit. So much of navigating opportunities for me is about understanding whether I’m actually equipped to handle the job, or just scared to stretch myself and grow.

Recently someone told me that the difference between anxiety and intuition is that when you’re explaining your hesitation to someone else, intuition-based reservations feel calm and non-urgent to express, like you’ve already worked through what’s going on. Anxiety-driven reservations, on the other hand, will sound more clouded, less clear. If it’s anxiety that’s driving you away from taking on an opportunity, you might have to sit down and figure out what causes you to feel scared about it, as there may be an opportunity for growth hidden beneath all the fear.

That said, I’ve taken on opportunities that I thought were right for me, but later realized my thinking was motivated by desperation. Anything can seem right when rent is due and your savings are running low. However, after taking on an opportunity out of desperation, you might find yourself up against a wall where you’ve sacrificed your mental health, core values, or worse for something that doesn’t fit your true needs. So, what do you do at that point?

Sometimes you need to take a job because you’ve got no other option. When that’s the case, negotiate for things that will help protect your mental health (a couple days a week where you get to work from home, perhaps?) and protect your physical health (if gyms and exercise are your jam, set those expectations about your time and ask for benefits upfront). I would actually argue that I need these protections all the time, not just when I’m desperate, so sometimes you’ll find that desperate moments teach you about what you need even more than regular times. Ultimately, I’ve learned so much from the ill-fitted opportunities that have come my way—about how I stand in my power, and how I show up for myself—that I actually don’t regret any of the jobs I’ve taken out of desperation.

Know what you’re worth, and not just from a salary perspective

This section was written by software engineer Celeste Layne

Before negotiating, feel confident in your own worth.

One of the challenges with salary negotiation is that it can feel like a confrontation where there is a winner and a loser. However, I try to think of it as a win-win situation where both sides of the conversation can come out ahead. Before you go into a negotiation with your current or potential employer, know that you are adding value to the company. The fact that you are negotiating a salary in the first place means that they want you, and this is your opportunity to ask for what you want.

Before entering into the negotiation, start from a place of knowing your worth. I believe that I deserve as much (if not more) as anyone else going into a role with a similar professional background and education, so I tend to do quite a bit of research—both online and through my network of peers—to determine a fair salary range. Going into my current role as a full-stack developer at a startup in New York City, I researched the going rate for a full-stack developer’s salary and determined my floor—the amount at which I would walk away from the opportunity.

Once you’ve determined a range that works for you, there are non-monetary asks you can request to sweeten the opportunity, like a flexible work schedule, medical and dental health benefits, company-provided technology, or the ability to work remotely on a regular basis.

Before negotiating, brainstorm what you’d like to gain besides money

Technology is an industry that can be fraught with controversy around gender and race, and I was firm about the culture of the organization that I needed to work for: one that is mission-driven, with a truly supportive team that would help set me up for success doing work that challenges me on both a technical and managerial level. My previous position showed me what that can look like, and I wanted no less in my next role. Now, based on asking for what I not only wanted, but needed, during negotiations, I have the flexibility to work remotely and schedule my day in a way that works best for me. There are a few local coffee shops in my West Village neighborhood that I like to frequent. I use my time there as an opportunity to make connections and build a community with people in industries I normally would not encounter while putting in a full day at the office. So, before you head into any job-related negotiations, think of things you’d like to ask for that can fulfill your needs holistically, and be ready to ask for those things in addition to any salary requirements.


How to prepare for a negotiation

This section was also written by Akilah Scharff

What kinds of conversations are important to have before negotiating?

When negotiating, I don’t believe that there is a finite set of questions that will help two people understand whether or not they’re on the same page. However, below are some questions which have been useful in my professional life thus far. I’ve divided the questions into two buckets: Questions for a creative person who is negotiating with a client, job, or other party, and questions for the client, hiring manager, or other person who will reap the benefits of a service.

Questions for the person being hired:

  • What exactly is the outcome I am seeking?
  • What is the true reason why I desire this outcome?
  • Is my desired outcome attached to short-term or long-term goals (or both)?
  • Am I fostering an equitable exchange?
  • Do I trust the party with whom I’m negotiating?
  • What level of time/energy/emotional commitment am I willing to make—both in the negotiation itself, and in the relationship as it evolves after the negotiation?
  • What value does the market suggest for my offering? Is that in line with my initial perception of the value I bring?

Questions for gatekeepers, clients, hiring managers, etc:

  • What is the ideal outcome you hope to achieve from negotiating?
  • What is the minimum viable outcome you are willing to accept?
  • At this point, what do you believe is required to achieve your ideal outcome? Are you willing to make shifts in scope if necessary?
  • How will both the ideal and minimum viable outcome affect others?
  • How invested are you in achieving the ideal outcome (emotionally, financially, etc)?
  • To help achieve your desired outcome, are there conversations you need to have with other major stakeholders/decision makers?

In conclusion…

The goal of this guide is to help you feel equipped to approach any negotiation with helpful tools and knowledge so you can articulate exactly what it is you need and deserve. This is not an exhaustive how-to guide by any means, as negotiating is a subject with limitless opportunity for discussion and exploration. It’s important to know your personal values and needs before going into any negotiation, and to consider what you’re hoping to get out of it—whether that’s money, flexibility, trust, or something else. We hope you’ll share this guide with anyone—creative or not—who you think might be inspired or encouraged by this dialogue, and go forth and start your own conversations within your communities. The more this subject is discussed, the less scary it will feel, and the more negotiating you do, the better you’ll become at it. We hope this guide helps you understand the value you bring to the table, and encourages you to shape your life and your strengths.

For more on this topic, read related guides on TCI:

About the Author

Ashley Hefnawy

Writer, DJ, Mentor

Ashley Hefnawy is a creative writer, DJ, and mentor. She enjoys public speaking, community engagement through events tied to music and skill sharing, and writing in various formats, including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her writing work can be found on her website and DJ work can be found on Instagram and SoundCloud.