top of page

Negotiations for Women in 5 Easy Steps

Updated: May 6, 2023

A venn diagram showing the five steps of negotiations for women.

Before becoming a creativity and growth executive coach, I spent over 30 years in leadership positions for industries that relied on unionized labor. As the chief negotiator, I was often the only woman at the table. Part of being a leader is understanding that negotiations take place every day in all professional and personal domains. They include business transactions, compensation, major purchases, social planning, community building, and personal/professional relationships. And not all of them are a home run, but most of them conclude in some sort of an agreement. Whether at the table or in the board room, I learned that women are excellent negotiators if they are prepared, well-trained and know how to tap into their strengths. Yet, a study by Harvard University found that women tend to negotiate less than men, in part because they are more likely to anticipate negative social consequences for doing so and women are more likely to feel anxious, nervous, or uncomfortable when negotiating.

The truth is, in all my years of negotiating, I never took a strike, and I found a way of reaching interest-based solutions in both personal and professional domains; debunking the myth that women aren't great at negotiations. Here is what I learned about negotions for women, distilled down to 5 Easy Steps. (Hint: they work for men, too.)

Step #1 - You Can't Negotiate an Emotional Outcome.

Regardless of gender, negotiations can stir up emotions. But understand, you can't negotiate an emotion or feeling for yourself through someone else. For example: You can negotiate a compensation package, but you can't negotiate happiness. 80% of potential outcomes of a negotiation are achieved through preparation. That means knowing what success looks like, what are your non-negotiables, how will you keep your limbic system in check (flight or fight response)? Are you as thorough in discovering what the other interests (other than your own) are? Do you know their non-negotiables? Do you have strategies to keep the negotiation interest-based versus positional? If you are the negotiator, what are you doing to keep your emotions in check and keep in the curious mind or the scientific mind? How prepared are you to deal with an emotional outburst from the other party? Emotional intelligence in a negotiation is key. It's about managing the emotions, not relying on or denying them.

Step #2 - For Women, Language Matters.

Whether we like it or not, women have to be cognizent of how they come across through language, whether it is written, spoken, or via electronic messaging such as email. In addition to the spoken filler words such as "so," "just," "um," "like," etc. women often pose their statements in the form of questions or hypotheticals which make them sound more like optional ideas or thoughts. By using both punctuation (cadence between talking and pausing) and listening skills, women can overcome the double bind of sounding too aggressive if they communicate in statements versus sounding wishy-washy if they communicate in theoretical or what if questions.

Verbal or written language is just one domain for women leading negotiations. The non-verbal or body language elements are equally important as physical or facial expressions traditionally signal power, agency, and reciprocity. Women are burdened with the very-real fact that in order to gain competency and trust, they have to be perceived to be more open, friendly, and welcoming than their male counterparts. Yet, at the end of the day, what matters most is leading and negotiating with authenticity. Incongruent words, behaviors and actions that don't reflect you as a person are highly detectable and erode trust.

Sound like it is alot to juggle? The best advice I can give is to stay authentic, but don't be lazy. Tighten up habits that won't help move both parties to a common interest. Look at how you can show up and not give off unintended signals. And know what personal values you bring to the negotiation and stick to them.

"Authenticity requires vulnerability, transparency, and integrity.” — Janet Louise Stephenson

four women gathered together representing different ages and ethnicities

Step #3 - Collaborate on Common Interest

Pronouns matter in everyday life just as they do in a negotiation. The majority of your time should be spent on what is "ours." What interests overlap? How can we broaden the pie so we increase commonality? Women often pick up the commonalities much quicker than men. My advice is understand that is your super power and run with it. Use your venn diagram super hero vision to accomplish quick wins. Avoid focusing on the "mine" or "yours" until you've built some trust on areas where agreement is easy. Then, approach the "big divide" topics with curiosity. Why is that important? What is the core issue?

Studies have found that cultures with genderless pronouns are much more egalitarian, and that's a good thing when it comes to resolving issues and negotiating. The most successful negotiations also stick to the issues and avoid focusing on personalities (i.e. he said, she said, they said, etc.).

Step #4 - The Lost Art of Objectivity

Perhaps it is because I studied journalism in the era of objectivity that negotiating successful outcomes were not only possible but happened without fail. Think of the television shows such as Dragnet (just the facts ma'am) or news anchors such as Walter Cronkite that presented the facts of both sides of an issue and developed unwavering trust by giving agency and time to hear different points of view without judgement.

Successful negotiations require the ability to convert a demand into an interest, and that benefits from a scientific or journalistic inquiry. My favorite questions to ask are: What problem are we solving? What concerns you most? Once that is clear, what is beneficial to both parties? What is feasible? And finally, what is acceptable. Concessions have gotten a bad rap. They are necessary to move from feasible to acceptable. Once I let my 4-year old daughter jettison the socks in order to get her to agree to wear shoes after a prolonged stand-off. Protecting her feet was the issue, not fashion etiquette. Finding out that wearing socks made her feet "sweaty" was the key. Wearing only shoes was an acceptable solution. Socks weren't necessary to get to that outcome.

Step #5 - Creativity is a Strategy in Negotiations for Women

Women still have the onus to navigate multiple domains in society whether it is family, social planning, career, or leadership. Anthropological research on women of Tibet found that historically two elements made women more productive in any environment: leaving the family home for marriage (ability to adapt) and the tasks delegated to women required them to work harder than their male counterparts. Whether we are aware of this historical conditioning or not, finding new ways to solve problems or finding common interest requires both adaptation and productivity. Both of these work together to build an interest-based negotiation approach rather than relying on positional power and personal leverage.

Women aren't beholden to the traditional mindset of using influence and power to "win." In my experience, that approach only has temporary success. Winning the point doesn't win the game. Women who tap into their strengths to see a negotiation from a sustainability viewpoint are more likely to have long-standing results. And we all know, there is nothing more creative than "Mother Nature."

Break the Tape Leadership helps leaders unleash creativity and potential in themselves and the organizations they lead to generate meaningful momentum. (And we believe in the power of women as they negotiate, collaborate, and create more sustainable outcomes.)


bottom of page