Preconceive This

Preconceptions suck.

They’re usually wrong, for starters, and in the context of a negotiation, they can mean that you waste a lot of time combating what the other person thinks they know about you rather than dealing with the actual issue.

Common preconceptions in negotiating include:

  • women don’t negotiate;
  • artists are bad at business;
  • freelancers make a pile of money because they don’t have overhead expenses;
  • large businesses have a pile of money to spend because they’re large businesses; and
  • the other side is probably hiding something sinister from you.

But no matter how unhelpful preconceptions are, they persist.  And when you find yourself the victim of one in a negotiation, it can stall or even ruin the deal.

Rather than give up and roll over, try these things the next time you think the other side has they know all about you.

1.  Establish early and often who you are and how you do business.

2.  Let standards fight the battle for you.  It’s harder to react emotionally to the dictionary than it is a person.

3.  Seek out other preconceptions they have and use them to your advantage.

Who You Are & How You Do Business

Presumptions only thrive when left alone.  Locked up and hidden from outside influence, presumptions can fester and grow into full blown truthiness.  Don’t let presumptions have the upper hand; establish who you are and what you do up front.

What does that mean?

It means giving potential clients your rate sheet explaining how much your work costs and what factors can drive the prices up or down.

It means you ask questions from the very beginning and then use that information when offering solutions or pitching ideas.

Take the example offered in this article about negotiating salaries.  It showed that women who negotiate are seen as more difficult than women who don’t negotiate, and are more harshly judged for negotiating than men are.

Roger thinks that women don’t negotiate.  This belief has never been challenged very well, so as far as he’s concerned, his presumption is fact.

This isn't going to go well, is it?

Joan is talking to Roger about a potential job.  They’re exchanging pleasantries, he’s telling her about about the office, her duties, and some of the latest gossip.  She’s trying her best to laugh at his boring jokes and keep smiling through his blather.

oh, roger, really??  really?!

He asks if she’s interested in the job.  She says she’s interested and asks what the pay is.  He tells her, and she explains that it’s not enough for her. She begins to detail why she would want more money before agreeing to do the work.

damn straight

Roger is annoyed by this sudden change in Joan’s behavior and thinks, “There we were, having a perfectly nice conversation and all of the sudden she had to turn it into a fight.”

poor pumpkin head

Waiting until the other person invites you to do something (or not do something) gives their presumptions about you time to flourish.  Your “all of a sudden” change of tactic – in Joan’s case, finally getting around to negotiating – means that you’re actually facing off against a much bigger and more established prejudice.

Joan did what a lot of women do: act polite, avoid asking too many questions and wait until “it is time” to begin negotiating.  Joan wasn’t herself; she didn’t ask after the things she was interested in, talk about her experiences in similar offices or refrain from laughing at jokes that were just plain dumb.

She behaved how she thought she was expected to behave and because of that, when she behaved like herself, it was jarring and confusing.  Instead of making Roger think he’d misjudged her originally, he thought she was being difficult.

Is that fair?  No.  But it happens.  Avoid that unfairness as much as possible by not letting their presumptions fester; be yourself from the very beginning.

Standards Fight Better Than You Do

Standards are facts that both you and I can agree are true.  They aren’t our beliefs or presumptions. They’re dictionary definitions, encyclopedia entries and math equations.  They are the stuff we go to when we want to prove that we are very, very right.

When negotiating, most people don’t turn to standards.  They’ll point to standards in an argument without a second thought, deftly proving that cavemen did not live with dinosaurs and that phonics is the most ironically spelled word in the English language.

But who wants to say “The dictionary negotiated me a better contract” or “ scored me a sweet pay raise”?  It’s not nearly as satisfying as saying you did those things.

When negotiating with someone who thinks they have you all figured out, though, making yourself the focus of the negotiation isn’t always the best idea.

So let the standard take the attention off of you.  Focus the attention on something in black and white – like an ethical pricing handbook, or technical requirements – and they won’t be able to focus on what they think of you.  Which means it will be a lot harder for their preconceptions to impact the negotiation.

Negotiation Jujitsu

Everyone has biases and preconceptions; usually more than a handful.  If one of your counterpart’s preconceptions is working against you, find one that will work in your favor and use the heck out of it.


Photo from

Some men might very well think that women don’t negotiate.  But those same men probably expect businesses to negotiate.  So if you are a female freelancer, it’s in your best interest to remind them that you’re running a business.

If you notice them saying things like “why won’t you be more reasonable?” or “you could do this if you wanted to” and trying to bully you into easing up on a negotiation, gently but firmly remind them that your business cannot afford the concessions they’re demanding and that you must be mindful of how this job will impact your bottom line.

Preconceptions will likely always exist and play a role in certain negotiations.  But you don’t have to let them control your negotiations.

Categories: Negotiation Strategy

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