Powerful Insights 

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Powerful Insights 

Articles, interviews, inspiration, and tools to help you balance your power with purpose

How women can use empathy for a successful negotiation

innovation negotiation small business Jan 26, 2022
Joanne is shown smiling and displaying with her arms text that reads:

If you are a typical woman, you probably believe you are terrible negotiator. When you think about negotiating, you get waves of imposter syndrome that soak you in feelings of inadequacy; you believe you are in over your head. I'm here to burst your bubble and relieve you of that worry - because you are probably incredible at the one most difficult negotiation skills that you need to master at work and in your life.

Negotiation might seem like the domain of powerful men. I know this because images of boat-tanned, salt and pepper-haired men in expensive suits come up every time I search for negotiation images to use on my website. When I ask women what comes up when they think about negotiating, the words they use evoke mental pictures of hostage negotiators, acquisition lawyers, and pitbull divorce attorneys. The good news is that most negotiations aren't the high-pressure, high conflict, aggressive experiences that we always seem to think about.

Most negotiations are integrative

Integrative negotiations are the ones that we encounter every day. As entrepreneurs, we negotiate with clients, suppliers, partners and employees. And if you don't own a business, you negotiate daily with your boss and your colleagues over projects, partnerships, and even simple things like vacation rotations. If you live with anyone - a roommate, spouse, kids - you have ample opportunities to negotiate every day.

With integrative negotiations, the goal is to reach an agreement that works for both parties. When preserving and strengthening the relationship is a primary goal (which is the case in everything I just mentioned), we approach negotiations very differently than the confrontational ones that we tend to associate with negotiation.

We use different skills. Instead of playing games, we communicate our priorities and concerns clearly. Instead of pressuring the other person to concede, we work to find creative solutions that make everyone satisfied. Instead of making demands, we proceed empathically, listening to the other person, seeking to understand their needs, and hearing what they are actually saying.

Women are conditioned to have empathy, which can be an essential negotiation tool

For my latest project, I was researching the teaching materials available to negotiation instructors through the Harvard School of Negotiation.

I have to tell you, I was floored.

Nearly every teaching aid that is available through their resource hub includes a focus on teaching empathy. Almost every video, case study, and simulation exercise emphasizes the need for negotiators to develop the core skill of empathy to be an effective negotiator.

Of course, that's because most MBA and negotiation practitioner programs continue to be designed around the skill development needs of men. The same is true for the programs and services designed to support entrepreneurs. It's good business to target your products to your biggest client demographics. We can't fault post-secondary institutions for this, but it's important that we start to look at those programs with a critical eye. If you're a woman, you need to ask whether that program has really been designed to help you master the skills that you need to learn.

As I was doing this research and coming to the realization that only a tiny amount of literature on negotiation actually applies to women, I started reflecting on my own experience in systems of higher education. In looking back, I realize that most of my education wasn't necessarily designed with my skill gaps in mind.

As a woman in business, negotiation can be as easy as having a conversation

A number of years ago, I took a class in the MBA program that featured a section on negotiation. Of course, I was terrified of that part of the course, because I assumed I was an awful negotiator. I was scared at how I might embarrass myself with a poor showing. And being a high-achieving nerd, I was hopeful that the negotiation portion of the class wouldn’t bring my grade down by too many points.

But I surprised myself. Stepping into the fictitious role of Sandra, I did my best to work with my partner and arrive at what I assumed to be a moderately ok agreement. I asked lots of questions. I listened to what he was saying between the lines, and validated those assumptions with him. I paraphrased what I was hearing, and offered areas that we might discuss that were outside of the terms identified within the exercise. Basically, I did what I would normally do when working together with a colleague on a shared problem.

I thought I had done a pretty good job, but assumed it would pale in comparison to the competitive, corporate-focused men who made up most of my class.

I was wrong.

At the end of class, the professor showed the ranking of all of the student pairs. I was shocked to see that my partner and I had negotiated one of the best agreements; our agreement was mutually beneficial and achieved wins for both of us. I actually didn't suck at negotiation. I did really well - all due to the high degree of empathy that I naturally brought to the exercise.

Women in business can use negotiation to help others

We know that gender socialization (or conditioning, if we want to be more honest) begins very early. Babies who are born with male parts are given onesies that say Heartbreaker and Ladies Man. And babies born with female parts find themselves dipped in pink sparkles from day one.

The same socialization happens with behaviour. Boys are stereotypically raised to be tough, emotionless, and ambitious. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice - grateful, gracious, kind, generous, and compassionate. In this binary ecosystem, kids grow up and express their personalities as a function of both who they are and who they have been conditioned to be.

Over their lives, these differences persist. When we look at entrepreneurs, we see that 90% of female entrepreneurs have businesses in the service sector. And whether as entrepreneurs or employees, women predominantly choose helping careers. We are seen by society as the gentler, kinder, sensitive sex. And we make a lot of our career decisions in line with what has been expected of us.

How to use empathy in negotiation as a woman entrepreneur or business owner

As much as I dislike this socialization, our conditioned empathy is actually an incredible advantage for women in negotiations. The process that so many men struggle with, and almost all negotiation programs focus on, is something we do naturally every day.

So embrace it. Let your confidence in your ability to be empathic help you to overcome your reluctance to negotiate.

As women, we face plenty of barriers when it comes to negotiating for new jobs, for raises, and for agreements with clients, suppliers, partners, and employees. But the negotiation skill of empathy is actually not one of them.

You have the capacity to be an incredible negotiator. You just need to get yourself to the table.

Learn how to use empathy and other skills in negotiation

My Essential Skills for Entrepreneurs course will teach you everything you need to know to negotiate more than 75% of the deals in your business. As a woman its important to know how to overcome your blind spots, know what you want and how to assess the risks

If you are interested in growing your negotiation skills, sign up below to get my weekly newsletter, which features information, education, and learning opportunities that can help you negotiate more effectively. It's free and you can opt out at any time. In the meantime, you can read more of my blogs on negotiation.


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