I have, over my lifetime, had a tortured relationship with the asserting of my personal power. When and how do I act with an agency in meeting my interests and when do I act to accommodate the desires and agendas of others. Consider, for example, situations in which there are limited valued resources – whether those resources are dollars, time, influence, or personal reputation. How do I go about getting (more of) what I want of these valuable assets? For me, the answer over the last two decades has involved negotiating. Yet it has taken me quite a bit of time and study to come up with what I believe to be a better way to embrace negotiations with confidence.
Thinking about how most folks conceptualize negotiation, the most common association with negotiation is a battle. And that battle is characterized by my trying to get resources from you that you don’t want to give up; and you are trying to get resources from me that I do not want to give up. Especially for women, this notion of negotiation as battle is off-putting. In fact, the most common association that women have for negotiation… going to the dentist (something to dread and no disrespect meant to all the dentists who might be reading this!). So, early on, what did I do? I went along to get along. I was conflict avoidant. But over my young adult years, it became increasingly clear that this was not working for me – because being conflict avoidant meant that my voice was not heard – not at work, not in school, not at home, not in my relationships. As I started my PhD program, I decided to be that stereotype of an academic that you have all heard about – I studied what I was worst at! And in this case, in collaboration with my doctoral advisor, that turned out to be to begin my study of negotiation.
Being conflict avoidant meant that my voice was not heard.
At that point, I was still in my avoiding conflict stage. As I conducted research into various factors that made negotiators more (or less successful), I realized that I had to walk the talk. I needed to put into practice the knowledge that I was discovering. So, as difficult as it was for me, I intentionally started to negotiate in a variety of situations. Let me suggest that if you were like me, finding safe places to negotiate is a great idea.
I am a real shoe addict. I love shoes but I face a few challenges – my feet are really long (11.5 narrow) and shoes are expensive (especially the ones I like). So, when my favorite department store has its semiannual shoe sale, I am there early in the morning of the first day. Yes, it is an opportunity to embrace negotiation. Does that surprise you? And it is a safe place to try your negotiating skills. After all, even if you are not successful, you can still buy the items over which you were negotiating! What is my secret to negotiating with the store associate to get an additional discount on the sale shoes? Get ready for it… I ASK, “I really like these shoes, but they are too expensive. Can you help me?” Now, I am not always successful. But I succeed a surprising number of times. Why? Because I ask and because it turns out that people really do like to help. So, on your next shopping trip, think about all the ways you can practice your negotiating.
Getting a discount is nice, but I suspect that you may have bigger ambitions in mind. Absolutely! And here is where my latest research and perspective on negotiating can help. I suspect that many of you who are reading this avoid negotiation not only because you don’t want to get into a fight with your counterpart but also because you are concerned that your counterpart will think that you are greedy, demanding, or simply not nice; that you will face a negative reputational backlash if you attempt to negotiate. Your fears are grounded. Women face a different negotiating playing field than men. It is not level. But there are ways to negotiate that can mitigate this inequity.
Rather than expecting a battle when you negotiate, envision your negotiations as collaborative problem-solving. But, hold on! This is not what most of you are expecting. You see, when I say collaborative problem solving, I am not talking about the win-win, everybody-feels-good-at-the-end-of-the-day, unicorns-and-rainbows type of negotiation. My type of problem-solving has three criteria.
First, you are looking for a solution that makes you better off; better off than your alternatives; better off than had you not negotiated. While that may be a really low bar, think back (honestly) and I suspect there have been many times you have negotiated and been worse off with the agreement that you got than you were before you negotiated. So, you must be searching for a solution that makes you better off.
Second, negotiation is an interdependent process. You cannot force the other side to an agreement. All that you can do is to present proposals that your counterpart believes either keeps them whole or perhaps makes them better off. Why would any reasonable negotiator say yes to a deal that makes them worse off? Even though you probably just thought of times when you took deals that made you worse off, you should not rely on your counterparts’ irrational behavior as your ticket to negotiation success. You need to understand your counterparts. What is important to them? What are they trying to achieve in these interactions?
Third – and most important – the problem to which you are searching for a solution is not your problem but it is a problem that your counterparts face. Framing a solution that makes you better off but solves a problem that they face makes the negotiation more challenging; but it has colossal upside. How can your counterparts perceive you as greedy, demanding, or not nice when you are helping them solve their problems?
And here is another benefit to adopting this collaborative problem-solving perspective on negotiation. Because you are not fighting with anyone, so many more situations become open to negotiations. So, get out there. Embrace negotiation and negotiate to get (more of) what you want!