What is “fair” and why does it matter?
Joan, who works as a professional organizer, was puzzled when she would offer to help someone out at no charge, then they wouldn’t even show for the scheduled appointment.
Harold, a psychic friend, offered free readings to prospective clients. He found that the ones who called for free never went on to become paying clients.
If you have ever staged a free event, you know that the actual attendance is usually smaller than the number of people who say they will come.
Health care workers who give free sessions may find that the recipients don’t actually get better. Counselors who proffer too much know the result of giving free advice. The person can seem to take your advice and then make the situation even worse because of how they use it! And then, of course, the bad advice you gave is at fault.
It is not unusual for people in the helping professions to feel dubious about asking for money. Whether it is a concern that the value will not be enough to warrant the fee, a sense of not deserving it, guilt for asking, or fear of disapproval, embarrassment, or rejection, it may seem easier to give service away for free or at a discount. Then, having the person not show up or not benefit from what you have given away is a letdown, reinforcing the perception that the service did not have value.
When we give our services away, a funny thing happens. Ramona DiDomenico, founder of the Institute for Transformational Facilitation in Lake Tahoe, first called my attention to this phenomenon. As Ramona pointed out, at a deep level, people actually prefer fair exchange over being out of balance.
Insisting that someone exchange something for your services is not a sign of greed or of a lack of generosity. It is a way to ensure that the value you intend to give is actually received. It is an opportunity for the receiver to recognize the value of investing in themselves.
In negotiation, we understand what it means to say that someone “has skin in the game.” If they have nothing at stake, they will actually bring the value down in their own minds to create a condition of fair exchange.
Business traditions can produce imbalance in the other direction. An old friend of mine had a bias about negotiating being a win-lose proposition. He had been raised in a traditional sales mindset. He always wanted to have the advantage in any deal that he did. His short term gains made others reluctant to negotiate with him over time.
The belief that we should always try to get the better end of the deal goes pretty deep in business cultures. Getting a good deal, and being able to step into the other person’s shoes to ensure that it really works for them too, results in a better deal and a better relationship for both.
In the age of internet marketing, there are many “free” offers out there. We need to realize that the exchange is for our contact information, our attention, and the possibility that we or those in our circle of influence will buy. Free events ask for your time and participation. I know some people who charge a fee for registrants only if they don’t show up.
Many currencies other than money can produce fair exchange. Sometimes we give just for the pleasure of helping. As long as it isn’t a discount to the service or the recipient, and we are not awaiting some form of payback, generosity can be its own reward. Sometimes our willingness to receive is a gift to someone who wants to give.
A good way to stay in balance and make sure that an exchange is fair is for each party to do a “gut check.” Does it really feel right? Or is someone one-up and someone one-down? I have sometimes paid more than I was asked when it felt out of balance. I would rather pay a little more than unconsciously devalue what I am receiving.
Take a look at where your relationships may be out of balance and see what you or the other person may be discounting. Keep your “accounts” current whenever possible. And remember that your investment of time and skill is just as valuable as anyone else’s.
(P.S. This is for humans. Do not try it with cats!)