Negotiate More Fruitfully As a Freelancer

Two years ago, a friend sparked my interest in negotiation, talking about a course he’d taken while studying law. I’d never thought about negotiation as a subject to study. Growing up in the UK, I had the idea that negotiation was just for haggling and hostage situations. I was wrong.

As social creatures, we’re constantly negotiating – with our partners, our friends and in business. Another way to say that is that we’re always trading with the people around us. People vary in their skillfulness here, and negotiation is a skill. It’s not easy to get what you want from others without risking damage to the relationship. Here are some of the most important things I’ve learned about negotiation:

Haggling (positional bargaining) is wasteful.

When you haggle, you try to get the most value possible from your counterpart by adopting, often ludicrous, positions. A car salesman might state his product is worth twice the market value with the knowledge that the customer will likely work the price down to something acceptable (but still high). Negotiating this way is relatively simple, but has definite costs.

Positional bargaining erodes trust: every time you dig yourself into a position and then arbitrarily move it towards your opponents’, you lose credibility. In any transaction that might be repeated, you want to build as much trust as possible. Principled negotiation is a strategy that moves the focus of negotiation away from outsmarting an opponent towards collaborating with them to meet the underlying needs of both parties. The following are a few of its tenets.

Don’t negotiate for the best deal; negotiate a fair deal. 

In the long term, it doesn’t pay to be greedy. An experienced negotiator knows that unfair deals are unlikely to be upheld or repeated. Your aim should always be to create the most value for both parties at the lowest cost.

Adopt objective standards of value.

Artists may struggle with this, as there’s a greater tendency to value your work by subjective measures, like how famous you are or how much your work means to you personally. For the purpose of negotiation, it’s best to synchronise your position with objective standards (like market value) which are independent from either party. This removes any arbitrariness from your reasoning, and a reasonable position is more easily defended.

I work out what to charge for commissions with a mix of advice from the Association of Illustrators and statistics from the Graphic Artists Guild. The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook shows statistics on the rates illustrators receive in various sectors of the industry. My personal rates reflect the industry standards, modified by my years of experience.

Attack positions, not people.

Do your best to understand your counterpart’s position – ask clarifying questions and signal your understanding with active listening. Then, if their position seems unfair or arbitrary, insist on fairness and adherence to objective measures of value.

Work out your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement).

It may seem obvious, but you negotiate to create a better situation for yourself than you’d otherwise have. Consider your alternatives in case negotiations fail. What would you spend your time/money on instead? Do this and you’ll strengthen your position by understanding the minimum of what you’d need from the agreement in order for it to be worth making.


Putting these tips into practice has gotten me to the point where I’m confidently estimating the value of my work and time; I’m not afraid to challenge deals I see as unfair and doing so isn’t such a risk to professional relationships. If you want to learn more about principled negotiation, I’d recommend starting with this lecture. Then, consider reading ‘Getting To Yes’ for an in-depth breakdown of negotiation theory and practice.


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2 thoughts on “Negotiate More Fruitfully As a Freelancer”

  1. Brilliant article Ben, thank you! Good point about negotiating being a useful skill for all our relationships and interactions. I like your whole approach to negotiation having to work for both parties and to hold to your own integrity. Sounds like you really have to do your homework first to work out your position and minimum needs, while respecting the other person/people.

    1. Thanks Elizatavalon!
      Exactly. It takes a lot of work to negotiate well – you need to be firm on principles, but very flexible with people. Best of luck in yours :)

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