Do we really need gender specific negotiation courses?

Over the past five years, there has been an increasing interest in negotiation training programs designed specifically for women. As these courses become more widely available, questions are being raised as to whether they are really relevant in today’s world.


This article takes an evidence-based approach to exploring these questions. First, I outline the rationale for developing gender based courses on negotiation skills. Then, I describe how the curriculum for a female focussed negotiation skills course might differ from the curriculum in a traditional negotiation course.



What’s the case for gender specific negotiation training programs?

Anthropologists, sociologists and sociolinguists have produced a solid body of research indicating that communication is a gendered experience. Socialisation processes result in males and females learning different behavioural norms for communication. This does not mean that all women conform to one set of rules and all men conform to another. It does, however, mean that there are predictable patterns of gender difference during communication. In this article, I explore gender differences which are specific to negotiating within an Australian corporate context. Gender differences are apparent in three main areas of communication:

  • The mental models adopted when entering a negotiation context
  • The verbal exchange patterns used during the negotiation process
  • The structuring and sequencing of concession exchanges during negotiations

Mental models are mindset ‘templates’ which underpin thinking and behaviour patterns. In general, males negotiating in the workplace are more likely than females, to adopt distributive mental models about negotiation. Women, on the other hand, tend to adopt integrative models more often. Essentially, this results in style differences which are experienced as males taking a more ‘hard-line’ approach and females being ‘softer’ in their negotiation styles.

These style differences strongly influence the verbal exchange pattern used during negotiations. Males tend to have better developed skills in boundary setting, concession making and responding to tactics or games during negotiation. Women, on the other hand, tend to have better skills in active listening, rapport building and collaborative solution building. It is not surprising that traditional negotiation skills courses (which developed in contexts where males were more likely to be the core participants) stress the micro skills men required development in. These are pretty much identical to the skills which women excel in:

  • Active listening
  • Rapport building
  • Collaborative solution finding

Finally, there are marked differences in the tactics employed by males and females when exchanging concessions during negotiation. Men, for example, are more likely to offer a counter proposal when their negotiation counterpart raises an objection or says ‘no’ to an offer. Women, more frequently, take the objection or the ‘no’ as a close to the concession exchange process. Obviously, this means that women cease offering concessions earlier in the negotiation process than men do. Given these stylistic differences in negotiation, it makes sense to emphasise different micro skills development in training courses for men and for women. While all negotiators do require the same basic skills, trainers need to adjust our programs to cater for the strengths and skill gaps being brought into the training environment.

What would a training program specifically for women look like?

A robust training program for women would build on and reinforce existing capabilities in integrative negotiation. It would also build a woman’s capacity to handle and deal with distributive negotiation contexts. In particular, I’ve found that women require training in three key areas:

  • Boundary setting
  • Concession making
  • Responding to transactional patterns

Here are some quick thoughts on what an effective training program for women need to address in relation to these three areas.

Firstly, in order to adopt assertive stances in negotiation women need to develop better boundary setting skills. The specific micro skills which women require are setting BATNAs and developing back-up plans, using verbal patterns for saying ‘no’ and limiting concession exchange when concessions are not reciprocated. These skills assist women to avoid ‘giving too much away’ during negotiation. They are best developed through a combination of cognitive reframing, process instruction and experiential practice sessions. It’s particularly important to give women opportunities to roleplay and practice new skills, so that they can be performed fluently in real life situations.

Practice is also important for developing women’s concession exchange skills. For many female participants in negotiation skills courses, learning to stage the concession exchange is a key experience. The staging process prevents negotiators from giving away too much, too early. It essentially works by teaching participants to adopt a ‘If I give you this, then you give me that’ approach. To use the process effectively, women need to learn how to:

  • Use verbal exchange patterns in live situations
  • Ask their negotiation partners for a concession
  • Manage their emotional states during concession exchanges
  • Reprogram their automatic response to objections

To teach these skills effectively trainers need to provide theoretical models, step-by-step process instructions and opportunities for course participants to try out the skills in real life situations.

Finally, any effective training for women would cover the difference between transactional and relational approaches to negotiation. So what is the difference? Transactional communication focuses purely on content and concession exchange. Relational communication, on the other hand, focuses on relationship building. Neither style of communitarian is better than the other. In fact, effective communicators adapt and flex their styles. For many women, though, the transactional approach can feel ‘harsh’ or ‘unfeeling’. This can pose a problem in negotiation contexts where a women encounters a transactional approach and ‘takes things personally’. This is why a robust course for women will include training on how to notice the difference between transactional and relational styles, how to flex your response mode and how to handle the common debate tactics which are associated with transactional style interactions.

In summary, then, there is a strong case for offering gender specific training in key skills such as negotiation and communication. We have ample evidence that building women’s negotiation skills improves career outcomes and leadership capability. Thus, both individuals and organisations benefit when we provide well designed negotiation training for women. To find out more about my programs on women and negotiation, visit our website.

About the author of this article

Eleanor Shakiba is a well-known trainer and coach. Since 1994, she has been teaching talented people – like you- how to think, communicate and behave in ways that build success. Eleanor holds qualifications in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.