Why Women Want To, But Don’t, Learn Negotiation Skills
There are dozens of reasons women want to, but don’t, take the opportunity to learn negotiation skills. Those reasons include a culture-bound disinclination to be competitive; the societal push-back women routinely experience when they ask for something for themselves; and, our desire to enhance relationships through authenticity, transparency, and self-sacrifice.
Because we’ve mostly watched men negotiate, we believe best negotiation practices would interfere with our relationships and make us do things we don’t want to – or can’t do.
I get it. I sat in my law firm office looking at my copy of “Getting to Yes” for twenty-five years without cracking its spine.
Roger Fisher’s and William Ury’s ground-breaking guide to interest-based, mutual-benefit negotiation strategies and tactics – is a slim volume that you can read in a day at the beach. It was published in 1981, mere months after I passed the California Bar Exam and began my career as a litigator and trial attorney.
Did I need to learn negotiation? You bet!
During my first year of legal practice I negotiated dozens of settlements involving minor injuries suffered by my law firm’s clients. I was so green, so naive, that when one claims examiner taunted me with what are you, a dominatrix? I had to ask my boss what the word dominatrix meant.
I didn’t have a non-anxious moment during my first year of practice. I was, frankly, always just barely short of being too terrified to accomplish anything, let alone duke it out with grizzled old claims adjusters just getting used to the presence of women lawyers in their industry.
If I was already coming across like a bully or, worse, a shrew! why didn’t I pick up Getting to Yes as the life preserver it would have been for me?
I didn’t pick that book up because I feared it would tell me to do something I wouldn’t be able to do. I was afraid it would advise me to engage in sharp practices, be deceptive, and, refuse to budge on whatever position I’d staked out even if it – and I – were ridiculed and humiliated.
I didn’t pick it up because I believed it would confirm what I thought I already knew about myself – I was an incompetent negotiator and always would be. I was too weak-willed, too eager to be liked and too shy to get any better at the bargaining game than my lousy baseline already was.
It was difficult enough to go to court and argue my client’s case to a stern old judge who questioned my right to be there.
If I’d opened the pages of Getting to Yes, I might have given up on legal practice altogether since even then 90% of all cases reached a negotiated resolution before they reached trial.
The Law Firm Tries to Help
In the mid-80s, my 100-year-old national law firm scheduled a special course during the firm’s annual meeting described as an opportunity for the firm’s women attorneys to learn how to negotiate with men.
We responded with a single outraged voice. No!
The assumption that we needed some kind of remedial training to get us to “catch up” with the male lawyers was offensive, demeaning, humiliating and, we said, untrue.
That was a couple of decades before Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever would write and publish Women Don’t Ask, alerting us to our partial responsibility for keeping the gender wage and income gap firmly in place. Our law firm, it seems, was way ahead of the times and we, still aping male styles of business, gave up the chance to get ahead.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
It’s not just women who are disinclined to learn better negotiation skills. When I launched my mediation practice in 2004, I started a negotiation blog and began training local litigators in negotiation strategies and tactics as a way of assuring my market that I was a hard-headed no-nonsense business woman and not some guitar-strumming-Kumbya-singing-marshmallow-roasting peacenik.
It was in these training sessions that I learned what I should already have known. No litigator or trial attorney has the patience to negotiate. The legal weapons of mass destruction – burdensome document requests; hundreds of interrogatories; dozens of senior management depositions; and, game-changing pretrial motions – are far too ready at hand.
In dispute resolution school, we’re taught that the number of concessions made by your negotiation opponent is more important to your partner in agreement-making than achieving the number or terms he was aiming for. A simple “yes” in response to a proposal brings on immediate buyer’s or seller’s remorse. If they said “yes” to the first set of options placed on the table, they were obviously prepared to do better than that and you blew it.
Unfortunately, litigators and their clients simply don’t stick around long enough to generate the number of concessions (3 to 5) that most Americans find satisfactory. It’s just too easy (and too tempting) to say “see you in court, sucker.” Besides which, we’re taught to win, not to accept less than everything. One of my clients was fond of quoting this piece of dialogue from Conan the Barbarian.
Mongol General: What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.
It’s So Much Better Than You Think
Here’s what I learned when I grew weary of the fight, dusted off Getting to Yes, put aside my fears, and learned to negotiate. We women are naturally good at the most successful negotiation strategy that is being taught to the Fortune 500, the AmLaw200 and in all of the major business schools around the country – interest-based, mutual-benefit negotiation.
When we learn to lead with the benefit we’re prepared to provide, how to trade across issues so that we can offer you something that’s low cost to us but high value to you, and to have interest-building conversations leading to agreement, the barriers to getting what we want at home, in business, and in the workplace, are replaced by a new set of options that not only satisfy our needs and desires, but that enhance rather than harm our existing relationships.
Practice, Practice, Practice
It’s one thing to read a book and marvel at the successes other people have negotiating in a way that benefits both parties more than splitting the baby in half ever could. It’s quite another to gain confidence in your newly found knowledge and skills. To do the latter, you must practice.
And that’s precisely what you can do if you’re willing to set aside your fears and reservations about negotiation training and join me at 3-Plus International for a four-week on-line interactive role-playing open-mic bargaining experience.
When we women learn to negotiate, we close our own personal wage, fee, income, and leadership gaps by successfully bargaining for promotions, bonuses, a raise in fees, credit for results accomplished and, of course, raises in pay. We even get our kids to go to bed on time.
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