If you’re using the news, popular media, or the latest episode of House of Cards as an example, good negotiators are stern, demanding, and uncompromising. However, when researchers identify the characteristics of successful negotiators those aren’t the traits that come up. Instead, top negotiators listen carefully, collaborate, and empathize with their counterparts.
If you had to associate these qualities with one gender, which would it be?
Women are told we’re not good at negotiation, but many of the very qualities that make someone a good negotiator are stereotypically feminine.
Research from Hannah Riley Bowles and her colleagues found that women who negotiate for compensation are often seen as too demanding and not nice. The good news is that listening, collaboration, and empathy aren’t in conflict with how people think women are “supposed” to behave. In addition to being stellar negotiation strategies, these traits can help you avoid negative consequences for negotiation by increasing your warmth.
Wielded effectively, you can manipulate these stereotypically feminine qualities into a strategy to avoid gender bias and overcome the double bind.
In the book Lean In, Mary Sue Coleman – former president of the University of Michigan, my grad school alma mater – describes being "relentlessly pleasant," combining niceness with insistence.
Right now, you might be asking yourself, “Wait, isn’t it problematic that we are still contorting ourselves around the expectations of our gender?” Yesssssss. It’s positively infuriating that we have to even consider “turning up our warmth” to be effective and self advocate.
Gender is nuanced and deeply personal. There’s no one right way to be a woman or feminine, so this approach isn’t designed to make you feel bad if you aren’t super femme or don’t think of yourself as inherently empathetic.
Being a strong negotiator doesn’t mean you have to be an old white dude in a tailored power suit, nor does it mean you have to teeter around in stilettos, asking everyone how they’re feeling, while striving for the perfect picture of nonthreatening feminine compassion.
My grandmother always says, I’m happy to give you my advice, as long as you promise not to take it. As with all negotiation strategies, it’s about finding your unique negotiation voice and figuring out what feels authentic.
Here’s an example of this concept in action: Since women are expected to be collaborative and empathetic, requesting a raise using collaborative “we” language can help offset some of the gender bias triggered by self advocacy. You can say something like, “We did really well this quarter, and our clients have increased their budget because they were so happy with the team’s last deliverable. I’d like to request a X% raise to reflect my contributions to this work.” You’re making it clear that you’re both an asset and a team player – both competent and warm.
Other studies demonstrate the value of this concept as well. When men and women use exactly the same language to ask for a raise, women are deemed aggressive…unless they smile or do something to demonstrate warmth and friendliness. (Don’t you love it when women are told to smile? It’s basically my favorite.)
You can strategically increase your warmth through “bids for connection,” which relationship researcher John Gottman describes as, “anything and everything designed to promote or restore a feeling of connection and solidarity between two people.”
Sample bids for connection:
- Create a shared goal
- Ask questions
- Create a mutually beneficial outcome
- Make small talk before and after the negotiation
- Make jokes
- Smile and nod (but not too much, then you’ll be seen as less authoritative.)
Fortunately, these bids for connection generally coincide with being a kind, sociable human, and many of them are also key negotiation strategies.
There are many traditionally feminine qualities we can use to our advantage to negotiate more effectively and avoid bias.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.