14 Small Changes for a Grand New Year

Improving your negotiation skills doesn’t take super human strength or mythic amounts of talent.

Improving your negotiation skills requires changing the way you approach conflicts – seeing them as puzzles to solve, instead of insurmountable mountains of emotion and fear.

And changing your perspective on conflict doesn’t have to be a Herculean task. Instead of trying to go from negotiation newbie to ninja master in one fell swoop, there are a number of small tweaks you can make to how you run your freelance business that will help you feel confident when faced with a negotiation.

By Amodiovalerio Verde via Flickr.com

By Amodiovalerio Verde via Flickr.com

This week I’ve put together a list of 14 small changes you can make to improve your negotiation skills and help get your 2014 off to a good start.

The point of this list is not to do everything on it at once. Instead find one thing that you think is a manageable change for you and do it.

If you get really good at what you’ve chosen, congrats! After a well-deserved pat on the back, come back and pick another.

Here’s to a successful and productive new year!

1) Start Using a Contract
Start using contracts – and the best contract of all is your own. A standard contract that fits the way you work can be an incredibly helpful tool for managing your clients’ expectations and ensuring you’ll get paid. Too many freelancers avoid using a contract for fear that it won’t be the best contract. That’s silly. It’s like saying you won’t use a seat belt until they invent one that can prevent car accidents from ever happening.

Check out Freelancers Union, Docracy or Shake for examples of good starter contracts you can use to protect yourself. If you find one you like and have a few dollars to spend, hire a lawyer to go over it with you so you understand how best to use it and how to change it to suit your specific needs.

2) Meet New People
It’s easy to get taken advantage of when you don’t know what “standard” looks or sounds like in your line of work. Make sure you’re plugged into your community and have the chance to meet other people who do what you do (even if it’s just online). Not only will you learn more about what gigs should look like, you’ll have a new wealth of resources to call on when you don’t know what to do in a particular situation. Speaking of which…

By deVos via Flickr.com

By deVos via Flickr.com

3) Ask a Friend
You don’t have to know the right thing to do in each and every situation. If you get a funny feeling about a potential client, don’t know how to price a job, or get stuck trying to decipher a client request, don’t reinvent the wheel trying to find a solution on your own. Reach out and ask a friend. Someone who works in your industry is grand, but, honestly, just having another freelancer’s perspective on a situation can make a huge difference.

4) Make a Playlist
It’s hard to show off your sweet negotiation skills when you’re shaking like a leaf. Before a big conversation or on your way to a negotiation, give yourself a leg up with a playlist of songs that make you feel amazing. Pick songs that get you excited and make you feel like you can take on the world. Listen to the playlist whenever you need a pick-me-up before a negotiation or difficult phone call. It doesn’t matter if it’s Disney princess ballads or death metal (or mashups of princess ballads and death metal), as long as it makes you feel good.

5) Pick a Lord or Lady
In medieval jousting tournaments, knights would often fight in tribute to somebody else (generally a lord or lady). There’s evidence that people are better negotiators when they’re representing someone else compared to when they negotiate on their own behalf. So pick someone you’ll negotiate for. Does your freelance income help support your family? Were you referred by a friend for this gig? Do your cats demand more kibble?

Before staring a new negotiation say, out loud to yourself, “This is for my wife/Jack/Mister McFlufferson; I’m negotiating for her/him/them. She/He/They need me to do this in order to_________.” Repeat this at least three times before jumping into the thick of things.

6) Ask Your Clients More Questions
Before you give a quote on a job, ask more questions. Value-based pricing is charging for your service based on how valuable it is to that specific client. In order to know how valuable it is to them, you need to ask questions. Here are a few of my favorites:

“What will you be using this [website, logo, design, presentation, article] for?”

“How will it help your business?”

“How will you be measuring how successful this project is?”

7) Ask, “Why?”

By  Kibondo via Flickr.com

By Kibondo via Flickr.com

Interest-based negotiation is effective because it doesn’t limit your options; instead of reducing the negotiation to a “yes” or “no” answer, using interests allows you to explore and evaluate a lot of different possible solutions. In order to negotiate using your interests, though, you need to know what they are.

A position is wanting $100/hour for a particular gig. An interest is wanting to have enough cash this month to pay your bills. When you find yourself getting stuck on positions (things) in a negotiation, ask, “why?”

Why is that thing important to you? Why do you want it? If your client is really stuck on their own position and won’t move, asking them why that position is important can help you understand their interests and break the impasse.

8) Take a Breath
Before you say “yes” or “no” to a client’s request, take a deep breath. Too often we say “yes” to clients out of habit, or because we think we don’t have another option, or because we’re worried that job offers will stop coming if we ever say no. By taking a deep breath you give yourself a chance to reflect and determine if this is really something you can or want to do.

Sometimes you need more than a breath. It’s always OK to say, “I don’t know; I’ll have to think about that and get back to you,” and take time to really consider your answer.

By Nanagyei via Flickr.com

By Nanagyei via Flickr.com

9) Write for 15 minutes
Negotiation outcomes are due about 20% to the actual conversation between the negotiating parties, and 80% to how they each prepared.

Don’t try to rush into a negotiation. Give yourself at least 15 minutes to sit down and write out what’s important to you in the negotiation, what you think is important to them and what different options you might have for settling the negotiation.

Sometimes it can be helpful just to write out what you want to say to the other person. 15 minutes is the minimum amount of time you should give yourself to prepare; if you want more time, by all means go right ahead!

10) Figure Out a Back-Up Plan
You will stay in a negotiation, trying to fight out a solution, even a bad solution, if you think you don’t have any other options. You can avoid this horrible, but unfortunately common, situation by figuring out what you can do if the negotiation doesn’t work out…before you start negotiating.

A good back-up plan is something that helps you meet some or all of the goals the negotiation is supporting, is something you can do without convincing someone else to do something, and is something you genuinely want to do.

11) Don’t Assume
This is a tough one. I’m not sure why but just about everyone I talk to about negotiations spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the other person is thinking and why they’re acting the way they are.

“See, I think he sent the email on Wednesday night, instead of Thursday morning, because he knows I have yoga from 2-3:30 and he thought he could catch me in a compassionate mood. Well, I’ll show whim!” Um, okay.

I know it sounds like a tempting game, but please don’t do it. You will waste precious time and end up chasing your tail trying to figure out what someone else is thinking or feeling.

By sea turtle via Flickr.com

By sea turtle via Flickr.com

Instead of assuming, just ask. Ask tactfully, but ask. “Tina, I’m confused why you’d ask for these terms given what we discussed about how you’ll be using this design. Can you help me understand?”

12) Keep a Business Journal
Keep track of your accomplishments! A business journal can help you reflect on past negotiations, identify patterns in how you approach business and give you a safe place to learn from your mistakes (we all make them but sometimes we don’t feel like sharing).

Being able to look back on what you’ve done in your business will give you incredible insight not only in how you’re handling your negotiations and where you might improve, but where you’re going and what you want.

13) Practice
Natural negotiators are few and far between. The rest of us have to practice.

If you’re nervous about negotiating, pick low stakes situations where you can practice. A conversation about where to go to dinner or what movie to watch are great opportunities for you to practice your skills listening, articulating your interests and asking questions. Once you feel confident using those skills in a low stakes situation, you can graduate to more challenging negotiations.

14) Say, “Thank You!”
“Thank you” is nice and it’s polite, but it’s also helpful. Saying “thank you” when someone has done something you like tells them that they should keep doing that thing.

Paid the invoice on time? “Thank you!”

Returned your phone call? “Thank you!”

Did not subject you to a five-hour brainstorming conference call with the full Design Committee, half of whom work in accounting? “Thank you!”

Saying “thank you” can also make the other person feel good, and that can ease a tense situation. Be genuine in what you’re thanking them for, but make the effort and don’t waste time worrying that they haven’t thanked you for anything recently. Gratitude isn’t a tit-for-tat game.

By jilleatsapples via Flickr.com

By jilleatsapples via Flickr.com

Thank you for another great year of Work Made For Hire! It’s been nearly five years that I’ve been writing this blog and I can’t wait to see what the new year brings.  A safe and happy New Year to you all!

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