Should You Have A “Pain In The Ass Tax”? Strategies To Define Your Negotiation Goals

Have you ever walked out of a negotiation only to immediately ask yourself, “What the hell just happened?” Both personally and professionally, there have been many times where I’ve been so concerned about the other person’s needs that I either didn’t articulate my goals or – worse yet – forgot to even consider what I wanted. 

Because my heartstrings were pulled, I’ve found myself taking on client projects I actively didn’t want and that didn’t pay enough to justify the aggravation. If I had created an ideal client profile and list of deal breakers beforehand, I would have known what I was looking for (and what to avoid like the plague) with each new prospective client.

While it can seem like a silly homework assignment, actually writing down your goals in advance has two benefits. First, it helps ensure you’ve thought about what you want and need in a calm state, rather than in a potentially emotional state in the midst of the negotiation. Second, it provides something tangible to help you stay grounded in your priorities. 

One consultant friend has a “pain in the ass tax”. For projects she doesn’t want or clients who are particularly difficult, she increases her hourly rate up front to justify the aggravation. It’s not designed to prevent her from getting the contract but instead to ensure she feels fairly compensated for her time, since, as she puts it, “my life may end up a shit show because of the nature of the project or the client themselves.” 

The tax only works because she’s reflected in advance about the kinds of projects and clients she wants and has prioritized her needs. For a lot of money, she’ll give up a little sanity.

You want to outline your goals without creating rigid expectations about what you want. You can think of this as the difference between your position and your interest. A position is your desired outcome – the best way you can think of to resolve the negotiation. Generally speaking, my consultant friend’s position is that working with pain in the ass clients isn’t worth it. 

Alternatively, an interest is your underlying goal or motivation. My friend has many interests that impact how she approaches client negotiations. She wants to:

  • Bring in revenue to build a profitable, sustainable business
  • Do quality work for her clients
  • Value her time fairly
  • Work on projects that align with her values, are interesting and challenging to her personally

Her standard rate helps her meet those interests for most clients. The pain in the ass tax allows her to adjust her position (no pain in the ass clients) and accept the occasional difficult client in a way that still balances those interests. 

Staying grounded in her interests can also have the reverse effect on her hourly rate. While frustrating clients pay more via the pain in the ass tax, my friend is also willing to discount her rate for clients she’s particularly excited about or when a project will teach her something new. 

Whether a new client is a gem, a pain in the ass, or somewhere in the middle, my friend allows her interests to determine her approach to the negotiation.

Negotiating a New Job

Let’s say you’re negotiating a new job. You’d want to consider all the factors that determine how your work life will look. While tangible goals like the amount of vacation time are easy to quantify, don’t forget about intangible goals like establishing credibility as an expert in your field. 
As you make your list and prioritize the areas that are most valuable to you, think of the different facets of the job offer as levers you and your employer can adjust to make this role optimal for you both. For example, if you had the opportunity to make significant commission, perhaps you’d be willing to accept a lower salary.

Consider the following questions to identify your interests: What’s my ideal situation? Why is that my ideal? 

Pretend for a moment that one of your goals is to secure a part-time assistant. If your employer says a part-time assistant isn’t possible but offers you a corner office and a company car instead, how you’d reply depends on your interest.

If your interest in getting an assistant was to impress clients, a corner office and company car could serve as alternative “ooh la la” social markers of prestige. Alternatively, if your interest was to be more efficient at your job, the car and office would not exactly meet your goal. 

Focusing on interests helps us avoid getting distracted by what we think we should want, or what our counterpart is trying to convince us we want. Your employer may try to encourage you to accept the offer on the table, but if you’ve already defined your goals and interests in writing, you’re more likely to stay focused. You’ll also be better equipped to get creative about how else to meet your interests.
Clarifying what you want before going into a conversation is valuable for any negotiator, but it’s particularly important for women. Since we’re socialized to be concerned about everyone else’s well being, we can more easily lose sight of our own goals.  

By starting with a clear written list of your goals and interests, you’re less likely to be distracted in the negotiation by things that don’t matter to you and are therefore more likely to achieve the things that do.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.