Like many people, I’ve never studied or learned how to negotiate, and do not always feel confident when I have to do it. When Pia Owens—a lawyer, writer, and alumna of the Harvard Program on Negotiation who has taught and practiced negotiation, mediation, and active listening skills for over a decade—offered to provide me with professional negotiation tips after I shared some writing advice, it occurred to me that readers of this newsletter might also benefit from our discussion. Last month, Owens and I spoke about how negotiation is a skill anyone can learn, the importance of advocating for yourself in a way that feels authentic to you, and what writers and creatives should keep in mind when entering a negotiation or weighing a professional decision.
Nicole Chung: Can you start by explaining the work and professional coaching you do? What made you decide to start sharing these skills with others?
Pia Owens: My day job is as a lawyer at a company where I negotiate daily. For people who are scared of conflict, or who have trouble speaking up for themselves, I like to teach techniques for negotiation and self-advocacy. I find that a lot of people don’t think they can negotiate. It’s meaningful to me to help them get over the anxiety of entering into this conversation, and feeling comfortable in their ability to identify their needs and ask for them. This is something you can practice, a skill you can develop. Everyone can learn it.
Growing up, I was always hesitant to assert myself. I was so timid and conflict-averse—I was taught never to ask for anything, never to want anything, that it was wrong to do so. I had trouble speaking up for myself, and so I’d end up with haircuts I didn’t like, and sandwiches covered in mayo, which I hate. When I went to law school, I went through Harvard’s Program on Negotiation. I read Getting to Yes, a classic text, and a lot of the recommendations seemed like things I could learn how to do. I used to imagine negotiation as people in business suits shouting numbers at each other. Instead I learned that there’s an actual framework for it, specific things you can say and practice, and that it is something anyone can do.
Learning to negotiate was so transformative for me. I realized that it wasn’t about learning tricks to get people to do what you want, or influencing people with your charisma—which I didn’t necessarily think I could do. It was really about listening and problem-solving and asking, What do you want? What do I want? What can we work toward together? And that’s the approach I teach: It’s much less about arguing, and more about mutual problem-solving.
Chung: How do you teach negotiation skills? What are some of the exercises you typically suggest?
Owens: I give a negotiation-basics workshop, where I teach specific techniques and talk about the three basic things you need to figure out going into a negotiation: what your initial position is, what interests and needs and wants underlie that position, and when you would walk away.
Then I talk about the conversation itself—the importance of a positive opening and closing, the acknowledgment that you and this person are in this together. I’m a former mediator, so I use my mediation experience. In mediation, you’re deeply listening to somebody else. I’ve seen that a very charged situation can sometimes be defused by genuinely trying to understand where the other person is coming from. You can use those same skills in a negotiation. So I encourage people to really spend some time learning about what the other person wants and what their goals are, where their constraints are, and where they may have flexibility.
I also have one-on-one calls with people. Usually this is when they need to make some professional decision—they’re in a situation where they’re going back and forth, they’ve made a pro/con list and still can’t figure it out. I talk them through that decision, which I think of kind of as work therapy. I ask a lot of questions: You say this is what you want; why do you want that? What if you got this—would you be happy? Is there a scenario where you might get the thing you want and still be unhappy, and if so, why?
Chung: I think I went into a lot of rooms feeling or being made to feel as though I was lucky to be there—particularly as someone who saw very few people like me in those rooms—so how could I ask for more than what I was offered? It took years to learn to push back against this. You mentioned that you were always conflict-averse, which is something else I can kind of relate to, and it got me thinking about how common it is to think of negotiation as somewhat adversarial, something between two people with at least somewhat conflicting interests. But that probably isn’t how we ought to be thinking about it!
Owens: Inherently, I don’t think negotiation is a conflict, because both people showed up. And so you have at least one interest in common: You both want to get somewhere. Normally, the two people negotiating have some level of care for each other, even in a business setting—you don’t usually have a situation where one party wants to make the other party miserable. You want a certain outcome, but you also want everybody to feel it was fair. If you do wind up with an outcome where one party feels that they won and the other feels that they lost, that is ripe for dispute. So both people in a negotiation have a shared interest in finishing on a decent note, at minimum, where they can still communicate and both people feel that the process was fair and ethical.
Chung: Most authors who are at the point of selling a book to a publisher have agents to negotiate on their behalf, but representation aside, what do you think writers should know when it comes to negotiating compensation for the day-to-day work they do?
Owens: If it’s a one-off, freelance piece, you can pretty much always ask for more money. This is something editors and publishers expect. You don’t need to do a ton of elaborate preparation—you can just come right out and ask for more.
Now, it can be tricky to know exactly what amount, and that’s where your industry research, your peers, and your experience might come in. As you continue to work and publish, you might develop a standard or baseline rate for yourself. When you get an offer, you can say, “Would this amount work instead?” or “Do you have any flexibility on that?”
Chung: What are some things that can make negotiation challenging for creatives and writers in particular? What should we be aware of?
Owens: A good way to negotiate, especially when you’re talking about things like money or intellectual-property rights, is to be able to say, “Here’s an objective standard—I’m not asking as a favor; I know that this is the market value for this work, so that’s what I’m asking for.” Or you might say, “This is the market value for this work, and I am uniquely qualified to write this, so you should pay me more than that.” This can be tricky for creatives, because it’s hard to know what the market value is; there’s not always consistency or transparency.
Working your networks is important. In addition to having critique partners and people you’re in creative community with, having a community of people who are doing similar work and are willing to talk with you about money and business and contracts and things like that is really useful. Who do you know who’s written for the same publication? Who do you know who’s done similar work elsewhere? You can try to get information and benchmarks from people you know. For people of color and those of marginalized identities, specifically, ideally you’d be able to talk to your peers who also have marginalized identities, as well as peers who don’t—you know, find the rich white guy with the trust fund who does similar work to you, and see if you can find out what terms they’re getting. It’s easy to fall into this trap of thinking you can’t ask for more, but you might be very surprised to find out what others are being offered, and you can use that in a negotiation.
Chung: I always appreciate when other writers are transparent about money; it’s something I wish we would all talk about more, even though I know that so often, it’s kind of like, “What money?” But if we don’t discuss it, it’s another way that writers, especially earlier-career writers, are at a disadvantage.
Owens: I would like to see more writers starting groups to talk about business issues. If you’re in a class or at a writing conference, it’s pretty easy to say, “I’m going to start this group focused on critique; does anyone want to join?” But you could also say, “I want to start a group to talk about money and writing; does anyone want to join?” Having a community of people who have an interest in these conversations and have agreed to be transparent can be so useful.
For earlier-career writers, I think it’s particularly easy to feel that someone is doing you a favor by working with or publishing you. I would just say to them: If somebody wants to publish your work, they’re not doing you a favor. They need your work. They may see you as somebody with a lot of potential who they want to work with in the future. Don’t devalue yourself and your writing by assuming you should just take anything you get and be grateful.
I think a common problem for more-established creatives is having so many opportunities that they don’t know what to say yes to or what criteria to use. You have limited time and energy; you can’t actually say yes to everything. As you think about your own needs and wants and values, think about that too. It might be tempting to take a new offer right away, but it’s often worth taking some time to think, not just act on that impulse.
Chung: Yes—I try not to respond to an ask the same day, even if I’m pretty sure what the answer will be. Building in this time has often helped me recognize when I need to pass on something because I genuinely don’t have the bandwidth. Because my work is important, collaborating with good people is important, but so is my health, so is my time with my family, so is rest.
Owens: I love that point, because I think those are things people often feel they can’t put on a list of priorities. But you absolutely should! And you should know your priorities before you enter a negotiation or make a big decision. If you’re somebody who always feels that you have to be productive, and any time not spent working is wasted, it could be important to stop, give yourself a bit of grace, and make yourself add rest and other things you need to your list of priorities. Other opportunities will come along—saying no to something now may mean that you have the space for something you really want to do later on.
Chung: What are some other things that you think are commonly misunderstood about negotiation?
Owens: I think the biggest misconception is that it’s something that not everyone can learn. Another is that there is a particular way that you must conduct a negotiation in order to get the outcome you want. You can find ways that feel good and comfortable and authentic to who you are, and still ask for what you want. You don’t have to ask for what you want in a forceful or aggressive way, for example. You can, if that works for you—it works for some people—but it’s not the only way to be effective. You don’t have to change who you are in order to advocate for yourself.
Chung: Anything else people should keep in mind as they negotiate?
Owens: Preparation is key for high-stakes negotiations. Go in knowing that you have good reasons for asking for what you want, and that you can justify those to somebody else. Have a solid understanding of what’s important to you and what you absolutely do not want, and know when it would no longer be worth it to you and you’d opt to walk away.
If you get a no, look for other ways to get some of your needs met. Earlier, I mentioned position and interests—your position is what you want going in, and your interests are the reasons why you want that, the things that are really important to you. It may seem obvious why you want a raise—you have expenses and bills to pay—but there’s typically more you want or need. If you say, “I want $100,000,” and they say, “We can only give you $80,000,” that doesn’t have to be the end. Identify the other things you care about, do the work ahead of time, and know what else is important to you.
Remember your own needs and priorities and values, and think about how meaningful all those pros and cons are to you in this particular moment in your life. You might need money right now, or a guaranteed stream of income for a period of time. You might need time to help your family, or a flexible work arrangement. You might need a physical place to work, or want some level of prestige. So there are different things you might need and want, and you should think through those beforehand: What would the trade-offs be? What if they say no to what I’m asking for, but yes to something else I really want—would I take that deal? All of that preparation can help you walk into a negotiation feeling more confident.
Chung: Thanks so much for the conversation, Pia. Where can people go to learn more about this?
Owens: The Harvard Program on Negotiation has a newsletter with helpful bite-sized articles. Getting to Yes was originally published in 1981 but is still essential, in my view, and a great primer to negotiation skills. Getting Past No is a useful companion. Difficult Conversations teaches the same skills in the context of negotiations that are especially sensitive or high-stakes. If you’re an anxious type, I agreed with a lot of what Chris Voss said about negotiation recently on the Anxious Achiever podcast. And I’ve outlined my approach on my website.
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