Countless studies show women avoid negotiating because we think we’re not good at it, and because we’ll face certain backlash if we try. We avoid salary negotiations more often than men do, and are often fearful when we do negotiate. We worry about being seen as inauthentic, or that our opponent will think we’re being deceptive or trying to hold back information.
The fear of social backlash is real, and I’ll deal with that in future posts. But the other concerns could be fixed if women only knew the truth: the skills we already have could make us great negotiators.
To get there, we have to change how most women think about negotiation.
Dictionary.com defines “negotiation” as “mutual discussion and arrangement of the terms of a transaction or agreement.”
Sounds a little boring to me, so I’ll take it a step further and suggest negotiation is the art of influence, to get to the terms of a good transaction or agreement.
When you think of a good negotiator, what characteristics come to mind?
If you thought: aggressive, stubborn, bold, tough, single-minded, or intimidating, you’re in good company. But those descriptors don’t really fit with either of the definitions above. And you’d be hard pressed to find a negotiation trainer who would think they’re ideal traits. So what gives?
I think the term negotiation, as an action and a skill, was hijacked by bullies who define it as saying/doing whatever it takes to win. In this mindset, “deals” aren’t really agreements, rather they’re capitulations by the losing side. That doesn’t sound like the stuff of a good agreement to me.
Maybe it’s because I’m a woman who grew up in a male-dominated business world that taught me I don’t have what it takes to sit at the deal-making table with the big boys. I’m not sure the snub was intentional, but it certainly existed.
Today’s business rules were written by yesterday’s men who weren’t concerned if they worked for women or not. But the rules haven’t really changed along with our increasing participation in the workforce. As women, we aren’t taught the unwritten rules of the Old Boys’ Club, but we are expected to abide by them. For good reason, we end up feeling like fish out of water.
So why don’t we change the game? Or at least, change how we’re playing it?
Women shouldn’t have to act like men to succeed at negotiation.
That’s not real equality. It doesn’t respect the individual strengths each of us (regardless of gender, race, or any other identifier) brings to the table. And experience has shown us it will backfire on us anyway.
We can’t change the world trying to be like it.
So what should women do?
Could it be as simple as living up to expectations instead of wasting energy trying to defy them? If that sounds defeatist, I hope you’ll read on to see why it’s not. What if we use our socialized strengths (empathy, listening skills, and relational leadership) to our benefit, with the understanding that they’re both expected of us AND helpful in the negotiation process? What if women knew we already bring some of the best negotiating skills to the table, but we’ve been suppressing them trying to play a man’s game?
Many professional negotiation trainers teach just that:
- the listener has the power;
- being quiet is often a helpful tactic; and
- the person who listens more than they talk often gets their way in the negotiation.
If information is power, it’s easy to see how a good listener has an advantage. Interestingly, studies have also shown women listen differently than men. In fact, one study showed women use their whole brain to listen while men only use their left side.
When actively listening with our whole brains, we’re also figuring out ways to empathize with the other person’s needs. When speaking, as long as we’re asking questions we’re also building rapport (by showing interest in the other person) and learning more about what’s important to them in the negotiation. It’s easy to see how this could help us strategically to come with alternative options if an agreement stalls.
Finally, women tend to focus on relationships and collaboration over winning (or win-win vs win-lose). Since negotiation is a human skill, based on conversation with other actual people, it’s not hard to see how this becomes an advantage. Trying to win at all costs turns your partner into an opponent and it’s much harder to find agreements with “opponents”.
Which mindset offers the most pathways for success, and would give you more confidence from the outset as a negotiator?
I hope this post gets you thinking about your negotiation skills in a different light. Hopefully, you see how you can be great at it and that this one mindset change gives you confidence in a skill you didn’t realize you had.
Let me know in the comments what you think – or share stories about your successful (or not so) negotiation experiences. Is this a new perspective for you? Does it give you more confidence about trying?
No one breaks the mold alone – let’s learn about this together!
P.S. Here’s a fascinating interview in The Atlantic with a hostage negotiator that confirms some of the ideas above. It’s not written for women specifically, but many of the points are made clear by example.