There is a commonly held belief that women can’t negotiate well. Even though this has been proven to be a myth, the misconception hangs on just the same. Sadly, both men and women alike hold this mass delusion. So, let’s take that out-dated delusion, hold it up to the sun and twist it around to see how the belief scatters, shatters and refracts under the light. This is an important exercise in this and so many areas where limiting beliefs, that have no foundation, hold women back. These limiting beliefs are passed on generation to generation, as if through our mothers’ umbilical cords and cemented through cell memory.
And it doesn’t always stem from some sort of malevolent attitude. Rather, it’s often rooted in a misguided belief about women and what they’re capable of. For example, the erroneous belief that women don’t make good negotiators can be traced back to long-held perceptions that women are incapable of being assertive (as assertiveness was traditionally viewed as a masculine quality).
Let’s touch on this misconception first. Studies of female lawyers and law students, for example, have disproven this expectation that assertiveness is a male domain, finding that female negotiators can be just as competitive as their male counterparts.
More importantly, however, the belief that women aren’t good negotiators because they can’t be adequately assertive is doubly erroneous as it suggests assertiveness is the sole skill needed to be an effective negotiator. Not true. A range of skills determine who or who is not a good negotiator, including but not limited to:
The most effective negotiators will use all of these skills. Arguably, the ability to use all these skillsets has nothing to do with the gender of the negotiator. In fact, some would say that women have (or should have) a distinct advantage in these areas.
So let’s take a few moments to break down the skills above and consider how they apply to women and determine if the belief that women are somehow inferior negotiators holds up.
Intuition includes an ability to read your negotiation counterpart and use the cues you pick up to smooth the interaction of the negotiation. These cues include non-verbal factors like eye contact, body language, tone of voice, pace, and verbal factors like use of humour or other tactics to build connection. Women are usually rated high based on these factors (and in fact, higher than men). Specifically, women tend to be more effective at reading mood, body language, and tone and they also tend to give non-verbal cues that they are listening to their counterpart. This connectedness between negotiators is important to build trust.
Whether one accepts that these things can be gender-based or not, it’s interesting that people buy into the concept of ‘women’s intuition’ and yet dismiss this value when assessing women’s effectiveness as negotiators.
Empathy refers to your understanding and ability to put yourself in the position of others – to imagine walking a mile in their shoes so to speak. To see where your counterpart is coming from and to understand their emotions, even (or especially) when you don’t agree, can be a powerful tool in a negotiation. Understanding the motivations and triggers of the other party positions you to persuade on their own terms. Winston Churchill’s famous quote is apt: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”
Empathy can also kick-start increased creativity in the negotiation process, allowing the parties to seek and discover joint interests and creative win-win solutions. Empathy is also more likely to trigger acknowledgements of mistakes, a trait which can give traction in negotiations.
Empathy is increasingly being recognized as a crucial skill for success in life generally and in negotiations. In fact, this is perhaps the skill in negotiation most written about after assertiveness and yet women’s seeming advantage in this skill is typically underplayed. Women are usually seen as having an advantage in virtually all the above-noted perks of empathy, yet we don’t credit women with this skill in the context of assessing negotiating abilities.
Flexibility can apply to process and/or outcome in a negotiation. Process flexibility is the ability to shift styles or approaches as needed to get what you want out of the negotiation. In other words, if an assertive approach is not getting you the traction you hoped for, you can seamlessly switch to a collaborative approach (or whatever other approach you see as better fitting the particular negotiation or party). Outcome flexibility is more end-result/solution focused. More effective negotiators will be able to find different and creative ways to meet their interests.
This is typically an area where women excel. Some would say this is out of necessity. The nature of our often harried existence (the need to juggle many balls at the same time, to multi-task in multiple areas, and to manoeuvre through the many minefields that come with being a woman) makes us well-equipped to bring flexible approaches to life and negotiations.
Relationship or rapport-building is an important skill to bring to the negotiation table. The stronger the relationship, the higher the trust and the more likely mutual ground will be found. This skill typically involves a combination of factors including empathy, intuition, active listening, flexibility, collaboration, trustworthiness and an ability to shelve ego when needed. Again, this is an area where women excel. Women have historically been required to develop rapport-building skills to survive in a world where for so long they had so few rights.
Not surprisingly, reputation and trustworthiness are key, especially for long-term negotiation relationships. Also not surprisingly, women’s skills in relationship building can be a significant advantage here. Women’s perceived openness and candour can serve as a benefit as does women’s perceived openness to ensuring everyone’s voices are heard. (Incidentally, this active listening has also been held to improve decision-making.)
This skill set is sometimes referred to as ethicality. If higher ethical behaviour leads to better reputation which in turn leads to better outcomes, then women arguably have an advantage under this necessary skillset heading, particularly during negotiations which extend over a longer term.
Assertiveness requires knowledge of the negotiation matter and confident presentation skills to make the argument. One can see how women could be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their male counterparts if this is the only skill being measured. Some argue that women’s lack comparable resources to market and other ‘data’ due to their relative lack of networking circles and/or ‘inside information’ adversely impacts on their knowledge about the subject matter. On that argument it follows that this lack of knowledge could transform an otherwise persuasive speaker into someone less assertive (as they lack the requisite confidence about their knowledge of the subject matter). Added to this, or perhaps even more importantly, is the problem that many women suffer from conditioned limiting beliefs which undermine their confidence and propensity to self-advocate in assertive ways.
However, it is telling that when women advocate for others they routinely step up in the assertiveness column. One need only think of a mother advocating for her child to see an example of this. It’s when women self-advocate that they are more likely to hold back. This is not surprising given their social conditioning – studies suggest as early as kindergarten young girls reining themselves in to seem self-effacing for fear of being shunned. The good news, however: the fact that women can bring assertiveness when advocating for others reinforces that women do have this skill. We just need to encourage them to tap into it more regularly.
On the basis of just these six key negotiation skills it seems clear that not only can a woman be successful in negotiation, but arguably women are better-equipped than their male counterparts to succeed in the art. There is only one skill in which women, in some instances and in some studies, are rated lower than men. We know that the most effective negotiators bring all of these skills to the table and utilize them as needed. So, if women are highly rated in 5 out of 6 required skill sets, how is that we have bought into the myth that women can’t negotiate well?
Ironically, perhaps we should be questioning how men, with seeming comparative lack of empathy, social intuition, or relationship-building skills have been considered superior in this regard at all. Maybe it’s because women have not been stepping into their feminine power in negotiations, but rather, have allowed themselves to be held back by long-held limiting beliefs without foundation. Maybe it’s time we taught young girls and reminded women that they have the toolkit to negotiate at the highest level. Maybe it’s time women start recognizing the impressive skillset they possess and embracing the potential power in practising and refining those skills in all areas of their lives – from the boardroom to the bedroom and all the spaces in between.