How to Use Your Intuition the Right Way in Negotiation

As a designer, I’ve long prided myself on my intuition and ability to “read the writing on the wall.” After working with hundreds of Creatives over the years, I’ve learned belief in our intuition is a common trait. But as helpful as our intuition is, it sometimes relies on assumptions. Unless we question these assumptions, we’re wasting the opportunity to use our intuition in negotiation.

Let me explain in the following three examples (based on past coaching clients).

Intuition is Activated

Mary and the Purchasing Department

Mary was sure she’d won an international packaging assignment. Her firm’s experience was an exact match with the client’s need. In the process, she developed a close relationship with two senior players on the client team. They hadn’t said it, but it sure felt like the stars aligned and the project would be hers.

They said that they just needed budget approval to move ahead. But then they told her that their purchasing department required two competitive bids. Mary went through the range of anxiety symptoms: her hands got clammy, her chest tightened and she wanted to run out of the room. She didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, she didn’t say much and excused herself.

Harold and the New Brand Manager

Harold worried he was about to lose a long-term client. His regular contact at the company told him about a new brand manager: word on the street was that he was a fan of crowdsourcing. Something in this conversation made Harold uneasy, and he hadn’t even spoken with the new manager yet.

Sharon and the Subsidiary

Sharon had a close relationship with a long-term client. Her contact at the corporate headquarters sent her an RFP from one of its subsidiaries. The client begged her to respond. The problem was, Sharon heard through the grapevine that the subsidiary’s marketing team thought of her as “un-strategic.” Worse, the RFP was, in Sharon’s view, stupid. You’re “un-strategic” and they’re “stupid.” Two very negative assumptions; one based on gossip, the other an angry reaction. Not a great place to start.

Notice the different emotions? Anxiety, unease, anger — you may feel something different when your intuition is activated. For each of these clients, the crucial next step was to examine their emotional response. What facts did they assume? What information would help them decide whether the concerns were valid, or if the opportunities were worth pursuing?

Assumptions are Challenged

Mary Asks for Clarification

After she’d thought a bit, and talked with her team about the situation, Mary asked her prospective client:

  • “I understood that my firm’s experience in Europe with this category was in line with your new packaging needs. Is that true?”
  • “Did you think the process, deliverables and costs we scoped in our engagement description were appropriate?”
  • “Help me to understand what has changed?”

Mary discovered that, yes, purchasing was involved because of the size of the budget. That, yes, two competitors were being consulted. But, she still had a significant advantage because her expertise was a perfect match. They also said her budget seemed appropriate, but that there was a company-wide effort to control costs and that’s why purchasing was involved.

Harold Talks to the New Manager

Harold discovered that the new brand manager was a real fan of his firm’s work. Harold asked:

  • “Why are you using crowdsourcing on this new brand?”

The new manager said that he’d found that getting a wide range of solutions quickly and cheaply gave him insights into the creative possibilities. Then he asked Harold to help him develop the criteria for the effort and to critique the results of the crowdsourcing.


Sharon asked for various clarifications of the assignment as described in the RFP. Then she explained:

  • “We’re not responding to your RFP. We believe there is another way forward that offers more opportunity to grow the brand.”

The Results

Mary Gets the Contract

Mary made a series of presentations to her contacts and to procurement. She even got the opportunity to meet the CMO and CEO. The purchasing team questioned her closely on every aspect of her proposal. She did adjust her plan — not to lower the costs, but to more precisely meet her client’s needs. And the contract was hers.

Harold Keeps the Clients

Harold’s client went ahead with the crowdsourcing. However, they gave Harold a respectable budget to do the creative and participate in the critique of the crowdsourced effort. Everyone won; even the crowd folks received small fees.

Sharon Wins Over the Subsidiary

Sharon presented her vision to the snack food subsidiary and presented a plan that was three times the budget in the client’s RFP. Still she won the assignment.

Sharon, Harold, and Mary each used their intuition to get more information for their negotiations. As a result, each learned more about their client’s needs, and came out far ahead of any other competition.

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Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former Global Creative Director of FITCH Worldwide. He helps creative workers define their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. His specialized approach to negotiation for creatives has been featured in Fast Company, Communication Arts, HOW Design and other publications. He is the author of Nail It: Stories for Designers on Negotiating with Confidence.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Graphic Design.