Creativity is the secret sauce of negotiation

A nature scene, with rocks, trees, and mountains reflected in the Bow River in Canmore, Alberta.

Whether it’s for a new job, a partnership, or for a conversation with your family, creativity is the secret sauce that helps us to navigate a difficult conversation to find a mutually beneficial solution. Creativity is the factor that sets a negotiation apart from simply offering concessions or compromises. Curious? Let me tell you about how creativity can help you take your negotiation to the next level.

Creativity exists in all of us

Before I share where to use creativity in your negotiation, let me lay the groundwork for how you can cultivate it in your life. Despite a long career where I was responsible for creating policies, programs, and new solutions to public policy problems, I had never really thought of myself as a creative person. I always reserved that title for people who I thought were actually creative – artists, musicians, the wizards who make beautiful advertisements. But the truth is, we all have creative muscles. We just need to know where to look.

You might need to take a step outside of yourself to see where you’re creative. Consider asking someone who knows you – where have you seen me be creative? Maybe you’re like me and you’re a problem solver at work – a person who can take in a wealth of information and produce a net new solution or idea. Maybe you’re creative in the traditional sense – with paints or a piece of clay, in music, or the arts. Maybe you are known for your kitchen experiments or your diy projects, your crafts, the stories you make up for your kids. Or maybe you’re creative in how you manage your life – balancing work, family, friends, and your passions. No matter who you are, I promise, creativity is in you somewhere.

How to cultivate creativity

Once you find it, don’t lose it. Invest in it. If you’re a writer, devote regular time to writing. If you’re a baker, carve out opportunities to do it more often. In this world, our time is one of our most valuable assets. Devote some of it to cultivating the parts of you that make you tick. And protect that time like a mama bear with her cubs. Start with one hour a week. Pick a time where you’re less likely to be interrupted. If it feels good, add more.

Then level up. Consider what inspires you. A walk in the forest? A trip to the art gallery? People watching at the mall? What activities help you to generate new ideas, spark innovation? Spoiler alert – inspiration doesn’t usually come from just doing more of your creative activity. It comes from challenging your brain in different ways – engaging with new people, seeing things that spark memories, exploring new places and building new connections in your brain.

The photo in this article is one I took on a recent vacation to Canmore, Alberta. I had five days away from the office, where I focused exclusively on doing those things that spark creativity for me. I hiked, sat in the forest, perched on a rock and watched the river bubble by me. I read. I looked at art. I slept and then analysed my dreams. I looked at the world through fresh eyes. When we got in the car to drive the 13 hour trip back to Winnipeg, I started to pour my creativity into my notebook with the force of the water I had pondered – constant, gentle, yet powerful.

Creativity is the foundation of the work I do. In a world where 99% of research on negotiation has been conducted on men, my work is about assessing what we know about women’s negotiation behaviour, exploring what we don’t, and creating articles like this, workshops, and programs that fill the gaps in new ways. Whatever it is you do, I promise that cultivating creativity in your own day will have spillover benefits in every part of your life.

Creativity in negotiation

Contrary to what you might believe if you grew up thinking about negotiation as a rich man’s sport, negotiation isn’t about bullish tactics and intimidation. It’s about working together (from two different starting points) to find a mutually agreeable solution. The very definition of negotiation demonstrates why creativity is so important.

When two people come together and want to work together in some way (that could be in a marriage, in an employer-employee relationship, in a partnership, etc) they will always have their own priorities. In some cases, there will be alignment among some of those priorities. There will also be priorities that are of differing significance to each person. Coming to an agreement is an entirely creative process, where you work together to consider what each person offers, what each person wants, and design a creative solution that optimizes benefits for both people.

Men tend to struggle more than women in this creative process, because women are socialized from the time we are young to be empathetic to the needs of others. Men don’t experience this same socialization, and so identifying creative solutions that meet your needs can sometimes be a stretch if your negotiation partner is a man. But don’t worry – this is where your skills can shine and help you build a stronger relationship and a beneficial outcome.

Creative exploration

Early in any negotiation, a key step is understanding what the other person really wants out of the agreement. For that matter, a key step is also understanding what YOU really want out the agreement. Your creative muscles will come in handy in the exploration phase of a negotiation. Take the opportunity to ask creative questions that help you understand the priorities of your negotiation partner.

Also, dream your wildest dreams and define the most beneficial outcomes for yourself. If you could wave your magic wand and define an agreement that exceeds all of your expectation, what would that look like? What elements would you benefit from? What skills or abilities would you contribute? What does ideal look like for you?

Creative development

A negotiation can be as simple as a series of trades of roughly equal value that are made to satisfy each person. But it doesn’t have to be that boring. Together, you can define what an ideal agreement would look like – what benefits the agreement would create for each of you and for you both as a team. This is where your creativity shines. This is what sets an effective negotiation apart from simply offering concessions or compromises.

Consider what the bigger outcome might look like. Explore what would need to be in place to achieve that agreement. Assess where there are opportunities to take steps in that direction.

An example of creativity in action

I feel like this might be a little too theoretical. So let me give you an example. In a traditional job negotiation, salary is usually the one divisive item that both parties can’t easily agree on. You want to take home as much as possible; your boss wants to pay you the lowest amount possible. If you focus only on the specific benefit of the salary, you’ll just end up splitting the offer down the middle, like a boring garage sale transaction.

A client of mine recently found herself in this situation. But after taking Strategic Salary Negotiation, she used her creative muscles to explore and understand her boss’ priorities related to the long term vision for the position. Through a discussion about the future projects she would be responsible for leading and the skills she’d need to succeed, she was able to secure a commitment from her boss to pay for the second year of her MBA – and give her a half day every week – paid – to focus on her coursework.

Strategically, her education was worth far more than she would have been able to negotiate in her salary. She might have been able to increase her salary by up to another $8,000 by bartering back and forth. But the financial commitment of her boss to pay $24,000 in tuition was a much sweeter deal. It also positions her for a promotion. As part of her conversation, she discovered that her new boss was planning to retire in 18 months. With her MBA done by then, and the company having invested in her education, she is already positioning herself as his natural successor.

Flexing your creative muscles has the potential to inspire new ways of thinking, working and being. As humans, creativity is what sets us apart from the rest of the Earth’s creatures. As far as we know, we are the only beings that create art, poetry, and theatre from our imaginations. For too long, I did not believe I belonged in the category of creatives. But I have ditched that limiting belief – and I hope you, also, can see the role that creativity plays in shaping your life, your work, and your world.

Keep learning

If you enjoyed this article and want to continue learning about how to leverage your natural abilities to negotiate for more money, benefits, and opportunities in your life, then be sure to subscribe to my weekly newsletter below. You won’t be spammed. But you will get more value – special offers, early spaces in programs, and my unique take on life through the lens of negotiation. In the meantime, you may also want to read Rest is a Revolution, which goes into more detail about what happens when we give ourselves the freedom to fill our cups.

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