When money is at play in a negotiation, we tend to prioritize it above all else, often at the expense of our ultimate goals. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of money, but focusing too closely on the numbers can cause us to lose sight of the big picture.
Even though teaching negotiations is part of my business model, I have found myself struggling with this common challenge. Here’s how I got past the numbers and on to what I really wanted.
I co-host an event called Adult Sex Ed with two female entrepreneurs who run a shop called Dynamo Toys. It’s a ridiculously fun event where we answer anonymous questions about relationships, sexuality, identities and more. Think of it as MTV’s Loveline in real life at your favorite neighborhood dive bar.
When we decided to do it every month, I brought up compensation, and the Dynamo team said they’d been considering it as well. We agreed enthusiastically to a trade: my time in exchange for Dynamo gift certificates, which I like to think of as Chuck E. Cheese’s tickets for grown-ups. We just had to decide on an amount.
Initially, I started thinking about this negotiation from a structural level, considering my hourly consulting rate, what I’d been paid for similar projects in the past, the value the event brought to Dynamo’s business, etc. Then I recognized that I was making all these tallies without first considering what my priorities were.
Once I stopped thinking about the money for a moment, I realized that my main goals looked something like this:
1. Continuing to host the events: I’d enjoyed being a sex educator but hadn’t had an outlet for it in years.
2. Feeling valued: The Dynamo team had always expressed appreciation, and we loved working together. Once it switched to a regular event, though, planning time increased, and I was having to skip other events that conflicted. I didn’t want it to start to feel like an obligation or like my contribution wasn’t valued, so it felt important to formalize the partnership.
3. Having a positive impact on my friends’ business: I was conscious that the new business did not need additional overhead, which further helped me realize that the amount I received in trade each month was not my biggest priority.
With these goals in mind, I realized that what I was really looking for was a gesture rather than real compensation. As long as there was some sort of trade to reflect my contribution to the event, the amount barely mattered to me at all.
Two years later, with a ridiculous amount of unused trade stored up at Dynamo, the team and I are still good friends and love hosting the event.
How to recalibrate
The experience negotiating with the Dynamo team has stuck with me. Even in this low stakes environment – and as someone who teaches negotiations – I initially found myself trapped by focusing on the numbers.
Part of the reason we ascribe so much value to money is that we think it determines whether we’re being treated fairly. Money becomes proxy for fairness, which isn’t always a good thing.
When negotiating compensation, I’ve had clients who were terribly conflicted about accepting a fantastic job offer that was just a few thousand dollars short of what they were hoping to receive.
While salary is important, after you reach a certain point in your income, another couple thousand dollars per year amounts to a pretty small increase on each paycheck. That recognition can help you prioritize other perks that may have a bigger impact on your quality of life, like the ability to work from home or have flexibility in your schedule.
I had another client who realized that, in asking for a raise, what mattered most to her was feeling valued. Sure, a raise would’ve been ideal, but when she walked away from her annual review with only a small bonus, she wasn’t too disappointed. Since she’d reflected in advance about what her true priorities were, she achieved her goal of feeling listened to, valued and affirmed.
Again, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t advocate for more money. Instead, it’s to consider what’s at the core of your request. If making more money is at the top of your list, great! Go for it. If there’s something else – or maybe several other things – that are important to you, pay attention to the way the numbers can become a false priority. You’ll be more likely to end up with the outcome you want.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.