Do you ever wonder how people perceive you during a negotiation?
When you think about the positive impression you want to make, certain postures, comments, and gestures will come to mind. Inevitably, some of these ideas about how to appear and behave will come to you based on your gender.
Just as your own gender orientation informs your behavior, your negotiating partner will form his, her, or their opinions about you based on it, too. Why is this so?
If you think about the stories you’ve heard since you were young, you’ll recognize that what you learned at home, in school, in religious institutions, and in your community was all influenced by gender. Girls do this, and boys do that.
As long as you follow the rules, it’s simple, right?
Well, yes, as long as the world stands still and nothing or no one changes. Otherwise, it’s not that simple at all.
This is because some of the messaging about how we should act—according to our gender—has changed over the years, especially for women. But it hasn’t changed evenly across societies and cultures, causing clashes that often escalate into conflicts.
What research reveals
In recent years, various research studies have critiqued the ways in which women negotiate. The research suggests that women don’t assert themselves enough, nor do they get as much as men in comparable negotiations.
Part of this is due to messages women receive from early childhood on, which are reinforced as we negotiate our way into peer groups, job positions, romantic relationships, and family dynamics, among other things.
These stories about “how women should be” are both explicit and implicit, and they strongly influence the personal stories we tell ourselves about who we should be in the world, how we should behave, and how we should be perceived. I use the word “should” intentionally because these stories create our moral character and sense of what’s right and wrong.
Women, for example, have been told to be likable, to not create waves or cause disturbances. When women assert themselves to get what they want, they’re considered aggressive. They’ve crossed an invisible line and may get called all sorts of unflattering names. For young women, this backlash can be even more intense because self-advocacy is often perceived as disrespecting one’s elders. As a result, young women’s likability goes down, and they’re labeled social failures.
Gender in the workplace
These same perceptions carry over into the workplace. There are implicit biases about what’s expected from men and women and how they should negotiate. Women are judged according to these implicit biases and have been socialized to maintain them if they want to be considered mature and desirable. So, when parts of society encourage women to stand up for what they deserve, chaos ensues.
Women who take a stand are considered sassy or tough. And while they may inspire other women, they are, at the same time, upsetting an established equilibrium—which disturbs the status quo.
When there’s a change in one part of a system, it forces other parts of the system to change or fight back to maintain balance. In this case, society is the larger system, and our family, friends, co-workers, and organizational systems are embedded within it. We know how to maintain the status quo, but we don’t know how to effectively transform what is into something more equitable, fair, and sustainable.
How to move forward
I’m not encouraging women to go out there and be sassy or aggressive; this behavior won’t build relationships or produce sustainable wins; it creates short-term gains, at best. But I am advocating for women to pause and examine the stories we carry with us. Where do these stories come from? How are they serving us? And how are they getting in our way? It’s only when we question the stories we carry (and try to rewrite them) that true change can happen.
Words matter, and that’s why the stories we tell ourselves matter. They permeate our behavior, attitudes, and brains, as recent advances in neuroscience teach us. If we believe society’s antiquated stories and tell ourselves we can’t do it, that the other person is a tough negotiator, or that the system is stacked against us, we’ve already failed before we even enter the room to negotiate.
So what can you do? Here are three tips to manage the stories that influence your negotiations:
- Identify one story you carry that gives you courage. Remember that story while preparing for and entering into a negotiation. It will give you the courage to negotiate on your behalf.
- Identify a story that lowers your self-esteem or makes you doubt yourself. Rewrite that story so that any deficit becomes a strength. For example, if you tell yourself that you hold back and listen more than you assert yourself, turn your listening skills into a negotiating advantage. During a negotiation, reference and reflect back what you’ve heard. It will signal to your negotiating partner that you’re very much present and paying attention with quiet, inner strength.
- Create a story about your next negotiation. Frame the negotiation as an opportunity to build a relationship with the other party. It will keep you curious as you gather information to aid your negotiation and will create mutually beneficial outcomes now and going forward.