Communication Negotiation

The one simple skill every creative worker needs – and usually fears

If you’re in the arts, entertainment & media industries there are many skills you can (and probably should) learn that complement your creative chops and will help you succeed professionally. For example, even as a lifelong “mathophobe” I’ve found it invaluable to improve my financial management repertoire (although it took many years and several courses in finance for non-financial managers to finally get it). And given my background in marketing I can’t recommend highly enough that every musician, filmmaker, or game developer learn the fundamentals of the “four Ps” (or six, or nine Ps, depending on which model you follow), however distasteful or daunting the concept of marketing can be to some creative folks. There are others I could list, and the reality is not everyone has the time, money or desire to learn them. Besides, you can always hire an accountant or a marketing consultant. There is, however, one critical skill that every creative worker should learn. And it’s one that most never do, either out of fear or out of false confidence in their current abilities. It’s also one you can’t readily farm out to someone else to handle on your behalf, without substantial risk personal and professional risk.

Handshake image
By Tobias Wolter (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s a relatively simple skill, and it has immeasurable impact not only in the professional domain but in the personal as well. In plain monetary terms, research shows that if you applied this skill you would likely earn an average of $1.2 million more over the course of your career compared to those who don’t (the figures differ for men and women who negotiate their salaries, but that’s a story for another day). Have I got your attention yet?


I’m talking about negotiation. Don’t mistake negotiation for merely bargaining over deals, contracts, or compensation. Sure, in a professional setting, it’s clearly useful for that. In its broader sense, negotiation is something we do every day in almost every facet of our lives without even realizing it. One definition of negotiation is “a mutual problem-solving and decision-making exercise invoked whenever we need at least one other person to do something.” Seen through this lens it means every time we want to borrow the car from Mom & Dad, or get a roommate to clean up their mess, or figure out how to split a songwriting credit, we have a de facto negotiation. It’s ubiquitous; we can hardly avoid it. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re good at it.

Yet people in general, and creatives in particular, often fear negotiation. The very word provokes anxiety, either because they’re afraid of appearing demanding or greedy, or they’re worried that a botched negotiation could lead to conflict, or perhaps they’re concerned that they would “lose” the negotiation due to unequal bargaining power.

Unfounded fears

Like most common fears, these can be crippling – and they are largely unfounded. Most parties in a negotiation have more leverage than they realize. (Hint: it’s about using your creativity to brainstorm and solve problems). And one of the few reasons that negotiations go sideways is if the parties instinctively use the old-school, confrontational approach to bargaining, which is about claiming more value than the other guy. (To get a sense of how this “win-lose” style works – or doesn’t – try pushing a piece of paper across a desk while another person tries pushing it in the opposite direction. Mostly you’ll get stuck in the middle, and the paper winds up crumpled into a ball. Or try pulling the paper; the result is almost always a torn sheet which is seldom fairly split.)

Besides fear, another common reason cited earlier for failure to learn to negotiate is false confidence. This comes from thinking one’s self a great negotiator because s/he consistently make gains at the other person’s expense. But the cost to that other person is not only financial (which is bad enough) but emotional as well. This is a recipe for short-lived, unsatisfactory relationships, whether they’re business, personal or creative in nature.

A better way

There is a better way to negotiate. If you’ve read Getting to Yes: How To Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In by Fisher and Ury then you’re already familiar with this “win-win” negotiation method, one I teach my clients and students. (If you haven’t read it, please do — you’ll be glad you did.)

I say it’s simple because it really boils down to observing the four basic principles. It’s just not necessarily easy. Like acquiring any new skill, there’s a learning curve and it takes consistent practice, review and reflection. But it’s worth the temporary discomfort; it will save you time, money and aggravation in the long run.

What most people don’t realize is that negotiation is also one of the first vital steps to successful conflict resolution. If you have an issue with your co-writer, director, or lead level designer, negotiation is essential unless you want to call in a mediator every time you need to have a conversation. That can get expensive. It’s bad for business, bad for employee/team morale, and it doesn’t serve the parties as individuals and human beings.

Done right, negotiation offers extraordinary (and satisfying) opportunities to exercise your creativity. It also makes many aspects of your life that much more stress-free. So I encourage all those engaged in the creative industries not to fear negotiation but to learn it. It’s a worthwhile investment that will pay dividends over and over.