“Dude, I want to give you this.  And I want to tell you why.” I stuck out my hand and my friend of over 15 years handed me $240 cash in twenties, rolled up.  ”I’ve been thinking about it, and I was asking myself ‘what can I do?’ and I realized this is something I can do.  You were there for me in my dark times, more than anybody.  I wanted to do what I could do.”  

My friend was talking about what he could do to repair our friendship.  He’s an artist who made a one-of-a-kind light fixture out of colorful glass for my house.  We had been talking about this project for months and I had agreed to pay him $3,000 for the fixture. He had asked me what I was thinking of spending, $5,000? No. $4,000? No. $3,000 – I swallowed hard and said, “I can do $3,000.”  He said, “ok, I can make something really cool for that – I want to contribute to this sweet renovation you’re doing – I made a similar one that I charged $5,000 for, but I want to help out.”

Before that conversation, I would never have imagined spending $3,000 on a light fixture.  If not for my friendship with Paul, I imagine I would have bought a mass-produced but nice one for maybe $600.  When I decided I wanted to have him do something – and when I figured that he’d give me the “friend” price, I imagined paying $1,200 or maybe $1,500.  I knew he now sees himself as a sculptor, with pieces he hopes to sell for $20,000 – he has moved on from making functional glass pieces.  So I knew we’d be talking over $1,000.  Although $3,000 felt like a big stretch for me, I didn’t see how I could say I wanted something for less than $3,000 without insulting him.

He came over on a Thursday and we spent about 2 hours installing it.  Part way through the installation I said, “by the way, here’s a check for $3,000″ and handed it to him.  He said, “Ok, and the sales tax is going to be like $230.”

Sales tax?  I wasn’t expecting that.  In that moment, it felt like Paul had entirely let go of the whole “friend” aspect of this deal. I had assumed that one of the benefits of a friend deal was that it might not necessarily make it into his books.  I had originally offered to pay him in cash, but he had said a check was fine – I didn’t realize that meant he was going to expect me to pay state sales tax.  Earlier in my renovation, when he had made 3 simpler shades for some pendant lights, and he asked for $300 per shade, I didn’t hear anything about sales tax.  That $300 per-shade price had clued me in that we should talk more specifically about price before he got started on this bigger fixture.  I felt I had already agreed to pay $3,000 as my part of being a good friend, sensitive to his artist’s ego.  Sales tax?  Nope.  Where was his end of the friendship deal?

But on that afternoon, I said “o.k.” and we finished installing the light.  It looked great. I hope the super rich catch on to my friend Paul’s genius and pay him $10,000 for these things.  But as an underpaid transformative mediator, I had been just barely comfortable with the $3,000.  With Paul’s mention of the sales tax, I started to see him as a cold-blooded business man, willing to disregard a friend for the sake of his bottom line.  Or I thought he was at least incredibly thoughtless – his decision to report the transaction meant he’d have to pay sales tax, and it didn’t occur to him that he could just recalculate the price so $3000 included sales tax – he just assumed I’d pay it.

Three days later, he stopped by and I realized I had to let him know how I felt about the sales tax.  I did and he was insulted.  ”You can afford it!  You spent like $100,000 on this renovation; and you can afford to take that trip to Africa with your friend.  Now this whole thing is tainted.  Maybe you don’t think it’s worth $3,000?  Well, you’re a dissatisfied customer.  That happens. You say you were being a friend to me by having me do this?  I’m not a charity case; I don’t need your business”.

“Dude, of course you’re not a charity case.  I’m just saying I wouldn’t have paid $3,000 for a light fixture unless it was you.  I was mistaken, but when we first started talking about this I was thinking 12 to 15 hundred.  I’m not complaining about the $3,000, but that was the maximum that I decided I could spend.”

“Everybody pays sales tax!  Of course, there’s sales tax.  When you pick a price, sales tax is always extra.  You don’t say ‘$3,230 including sales tax.’  You say ‘$3,000′ and everybody knows sales tax is additional.”

“O.k., I get it now that $3,000 was giving me a big discount.  Fine, hold on, I’ll get you the cash.”  I got him the cash, said “I don’t have $230 exactly, take $240.”  He took the $240.  I said “Dude, it’s obviously not about the money; it’s that I felt like you’re not treating me like a bro but like a customer.  But obviously we’re both insulted by what happened here.”

“It’ll be alright. I’ll talk to you later.”

A few days later, we met for coffee.  I had been going over the story in my mind nearly constantly since our last conversation.  I wanted him to acknowledge that it wasn’t crazy for me to have been surprised by the sales tax.  I was surprised again when he said:

“Dude, I want to give you this.  And I want to tell you why.” I stuck out my hand and my friend of over 15 years handed me $240 cash in twenties, rolled up.  ”I’ve been thinking about it, and I was asking myself ‘what can I do?’ and I realized this is something I can do.  You were there for me in my dark times, more than anybody.  I wanted to do what I could do.”

That felt right and I accepted the money.  I told him I hadn’t been expecting that and that I appreciated it.  I believe our friendship is intact.

This sort of situation, where the money is a central part of the story, but maybe not the most central part, seems common among my mediation clients.  I’m curious what other mediators think. Was it about the money? Or is it none of our business, as mediators, to determine what it’s about?  Look for the next blog entry, which will analyze this story from the perspective of the transformative theory of conflict.

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 By Dan Simon

Dan Simon teaches and practices transformative mediation in St. Paul, MN. He also writes the blog at The Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.