What if I suggested that women are instinctively and intuitively better negotiators than men? Would you balk? Reject the idea? At a minimum, I’m sure you’d ask, “So why do women still make less money than men? Why do they ask for less than men? Why do they hesitate in speaking up?” All good questions.
But today, let me share my story.
I grew up in a low rental apartment complex in a tough neighborhood. My dad worked shift work in a factory. I remember those early mornings or late nights, if I was up and able to catch him alone as he got ready to go to work. Watching those strong worker’s hands pull the laces taut on his tan work boots, or watching his man-stance as he squatted to see himself in the hall mirror, combing his hair back in that Elvis style pompadour (or whatever they were called). I loved those stolen moments. But I also remember the struggles. The fighting between my parents. There was never quite enough money to make ends meet, even though he’d come day after day from the factory, exhausted, with nothing left, but still put on a brave face for my sister and I.
My dad was a guy’s guy. He was a big man, broad shouldered, big voice, big laugh, filled every room he ever walked in. He trained inner city boys how to box. I suspect he wanted boys himself, but he got stuck with my sister and I. He never taught us to box. Well, I remember once when I asked, and he had me assume the position and proceeded to sneak inside my Swiss cheese fist frame to tap me on the cheek over and over again, showing me how easy a target I was. I’m sure that wasn’t his intention, but that’s how it felt to me. Like an indictment. I wasn’t a boy. I wasn’t enough.
My paradigm shift came in grade 2. I won an ‘academic’ award. Maybe you remember them – those little badges they handed out for exceptional achievement. A light went on. Maybe I could achieve as a girl. And I became driven to ‘succeed’, to have more – more space than that little apartment, more money, but mostly, more respect. I was going to have a different outlook for my family.
And in spite of his background, my dad raised two strong, independent, professional women. Maybe too much so. He always warned us ‘whatever you think a guy’s thinking, it’s 100X worse – if you ever heard their locker-room talk, it would curl your toes.’ Not exactly a healthy model for building trusting relationships. And yet, maybe he was right. Given Trump’s pussy-grabbing comments which were roundly excused as just ‘boy’s locker room talk’ who am I to say?
So maybe I was genetically predisposed – or at least conditioned – to do this work. But initially I was gently pushed to pursue a traditional ‘successful’ career. So I went straight through high school to university to law school, shooting for those straight ‘A’s.
And in law school I took a negotiations course. Our entire grade was based on these simulated negotiations – the class would break into assigned pairs and negotiate against each other – the highest negotiated settlement got the highest mark (no credit for creative win-win solutions – just a straight column from highest settlement to lowest settlement amount). If you didn’t get a settlement you got a zero. You can imagine how those negotiations went with a highly competitive top law school student body. At the end of the year, the professor approached me and said he’d never seen results like mine in all his years of practice and teaching the course. I won virtually every single negotiation. And you can imagine how hard that got as the school year went on and everybody was gunning for me, expecting this hard-ass negotiator that they had to bring their A-game for, coming expecting to be screwed over.
But the interesting thing was that I didn’t approach those negotiations that way at all. Back then, I was still using my natural, instinctual – dare I say – more female negotiation style. I came at every negotiation from a place of rapport building and authenticity, working to find out what the other side wanted, what they needed, working with them to find a way to have them walk away content with the results. And as the year went on and I kept winning each negotiation, suffice it to say that trust-building got harder and harder. But somehow I was always able to win them over, to build that relationship, to find a win where they walked away happy (at least until the grades were announced).
But then I started the actual practice of law – initially in an all-male-partner firm, and later in my own firm, but still in a male-dominated environment – where I got positive feedback and reinforcement for tearing people apart. I still got great results, but I’d lost my intuitive female style. They called me ‘barracuda’. I made people cry on the witness stand. I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I felt disconnected. It didn’t feel good. Or right.
And then it began to spill over into other areas of my life. I found I brought my ‘tough’ negotiator to every problem. Crappy hotel room? Look out, I was down at the front desk giving them what for. Phone company over-charging? Internet not working and the provider trying to blame the router provider? Hide your children, I was not letting them pull one over on me. And forget the ‘get more with honey’ approach. I’d convinced myself that people invariably tried to take advantage if you showed any sign of weakness; that the only way to get quick fulsome results was bringing my badass to the table. The little girl whose dad didn’t teach her to box was Muhammad Ali in the ring of life.
But then one day I was having what I thought was a simple discussion with my son. I saw his frustration mounting and at some point he finally exploded.
“For God’s sake, Mom! Does every conversation with you have to be a debate that you win?”
And just like that, my world changed. I felt my heart torn from my chest as I saw the angst and hurt on this face. And my world view changed in an instant. My sense of self shattered into little pieces on the floor in front of me. And in that moment of profound connection, my perspective on effective negotiations flipped. I realized I’d been duped into negotiating ‘like a man’. And I realized that I didn’t have to. And neither do you.
Stay tuned for future blogs as we navigate how to use your intuitive, natural negotiation style. Learn how to get what you want, need and deserve (from the boardroom to the bedroom) without sacrificing your sense of self. Explore the power of your authentic self, maximizing skills you already have in spades but may have doubted. I look forward to taking this journey with you.