TMG at the MA Women’s Conference – Reflections on women and negotiation

By: Amy Rebecca Gay

While at the MA Conference for Women last month I had a chance to reflect on all the great women I meet. Why is it important for a community of professional women to gather? And are there ways in which women approach negotiation and resolve conflict that are different from men?

Feminism dispelled of the idea of some “essential” woman ages ago. And I think we all know intuitively there is no one way women negotiate and engage in conflict. However, women face a societal expectation that men don’t, which is that women are expected to be relationally oriented. What’s the connection, though, to conflict resolution and negotiation?

First, not all women are relationally oriented. Those who are not often face backlash that impedes their ability to be as effective as their male counterparts.  Not because they are less skilled. Plenty of research as well as anecdotal evidence tells us women are not any less skilled than men. However, their negotiation behavior is perceived differently, and these different perceptions contribute to a variety of penalties, including lost job opportunities, missed promotions, and relationship damage to name a few. Hannah Riley Bowles at Harvard has done a lot of research on backlash against women negotiators who step outside of the cultural and societal norms. More on this in a moment.

Second, many women are relationally oriented and that is a real strength. However, their perceptions of how they need to negotiate and resolve conflict in order to preserve their relationships often means that they don’t negotiate the best possible deals. Consequently, they trade away value to preserve the relationship. Or they accept that damage to the relationship as a necessary consequence of negotiating a substantively beneficial agreement. And then many women are somewhere in between or perhaps they oscillate between these two poles depending on the circumstances. So what to do?

Adjust your mindset

Many people – and not just women – assume that they must choose between getting what they want in a negotiation (the substance) OR maintaining the relationship. This is a false choice, but one that nonetheless plagues many negotiators. Your first step is to shift your assumptions – it is possible to negotiate the substance firmly and fully meet your interests AND build the relationship. Interest-based bargaining provides many of the essential approaches and skills that enable this.

Take the I/we approach

Preserving the relationship is not solely within the negotiator’s hands, however. The other party’s perceptions play a role, as well, and women who negotiate firmly on their own behalf are often subject to greater backlash than men who exhibit the same behavior. According to Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard, women experience far less backlash if they couch their skillful and assertive negotiation in a relational context.

Bowles recommends that when negotiating for what you want that you also signal to your negotiating partner that you are considering his perspective. First you explain why it’s legitimate for you to be negotiating. Bowles draws on Sheryl Sandberg’s negotiation with Facebook when Sandberg argued that one reason she was a good hire was because of her negotiation skills. Then you signal that you care about the organizational relationships. So it might sound something like, “My negotiation skills will really serve you well and once I’m hired we’ll be on the same team.”

We can debate whether women should take this approach another time, but if you have experienced backlash or are afraid of backlash, the research supports that this strategy reduces the other party’s negative perceptions women who negotiate assertively for themselves.

Clarify your values

When negotiation and conflict get tough, it’s not always easy to say everything that needs to be said. The reasons why many of us hold back are varied – and can include things like the assuming it’s a false choice between substance and relationship or fearing backlash, among other things. And while this is not just a challenge for women, the social and cultural bind that expects women to be relationally oriented can make speaking truthfully harder for some women.

As a coach, working with my clients’ to mine their values helps them clarify what’s really important. These values then serve as a North star when faced with difficult choices and circumstances, including speaking your mind about tough issues. So next time you feel you may be faced with a situation where fully speaking your truth will be hard, consider what values are at stake for you in that negotiation or situation. For example, do you value honesty? If so, what will you need to do in order to be true to that value? What about articulating what’s going on even if it might be hard for someone to hear? How do you remain true to this value?

Part of what this approach leverages is the power of intention. If you enter a tough situation with a very clear intention to be true to a closely held value, you significantly increase the likelihood that you’ll do it. This approach works throughout one’s life and not just when you’re negotiating or having conflict.

At TMG we want to help people and organizations unlock their untapped potential to successfully negotiate for what they need without feeling like they have to damage or sacrifice an important relationship.  We offer a full suite of services including negotiation skills workshops, coaching, mediation and training, and organizational development aimed at cultivating individual, team and organizational capacity to negotiate and leverage conflict for creativity, productivity and change.