Win-win or give-give: A key distinction for female negotiators

In the 20 years I’ve been teaching negotiation, I’ve noticed a key psychological distortion that holds women back from getting what they want during negotiations. It centres on the way that women interpret the term ‘win-win’.

At a theoretical level, this term is meant to imply a balanced relationship between negotiators. The idea is that each person gets their needs met during negotiation and therefore experiences a win. Although women understand this at a purely cognitive level, their behaviour often reveals a gap in meaning. Rather than expecting an equal balance of wins within the negotiation, many women operate in ways which allow more wins for their counterpart, than to themselves. Essentially, this means that women are confusing ‘win-win’ with ‘give-give’. This can be a problem, because it results in:

  • Loss of status in the negotiating frame
  • Unbalanced distribution of power
  • An unequal exchange of concessions
  • Unfair or unethical tactics being tolerated within the negotiation

Why does this happen?

At a deep level, these behaviours are the result of social norms regarding communication. In particular, it is interesting to explore the ways that women approach being collaborative. For many women, there seems to be a confusion between collaboration and capitulation. In order to take a ‘win-win’ approach, women need to understand the difference. Collaboration involves working to meet everyone’s needs. The important point for women to understand is that this includes their own needs. The collaborative approach underpins ‘win-win’ negotiation techniques, but it only works when all negotiating parties understand the rules of engagement. These include: having an implicit understanding that everyone is there and willing to collaborate; hat everyone has an equal voice within the negotiation; that relationships matter as much as the deal being discussed.

Given the imbalance of power in many negotiation situations at work, taking a collaborative approach to negotiation can pose difficulties for women. At an unconscious level, therefore, they resort to capitulation. This involves backing down, or sacrificing your own needs in order to allow others to have their needs met. From a communication styles perspective, capitulation results in a passive communication style. Capitulation can be expressed by women in negotiation contexts through:

  • Remaining silent rather than expressing concern
  • Agreeing to unfair proposals rather than rocking the boat
  • Giving away too much
  • Being overly conciliatory in order to make peace

As one-off behaviours, perhaps, these actions may not be cause for concern. However, when they become habitual they can undermine a woman’s power in negotiation. This is why it’s important that negotiation skills training includes an assessment of negotiation styles. Raising a woman’s awareness of her strength and challenges in negotiation allows her to start shifting her negotiation style from capitulation to true collaboration.

Why do women capitulate more than men?

Capitulation behaviour can be sparked both by individual psychology and by social norms. In this article, I will explore four social norms which promote capitulation behaviours for women. Firstly, many women are reluctant to express their opinions or their needs strongly. This reluctance is caused by subtle negative social sanctions which females experience as they’re growing up and learning how to communicate. For example, a young girl who strongly expresses her opinions, may be told that she’s being impolite because she’s not listening to others. Numerous experiences like this socially condition females to hold back in expressing their needs, concerns and thoughts.

Secondly, women tend to be socialised to have lower entitlement expectations than men. This social norm is very apparent in salary negotiation contexts. There is clear evidence that female executives, for example, have lower expectations when negotiating their salaries than their male counterparts. Negotiating from a position of lower entitlement expectation means that a woman is more likely to accept an unprofitable deal.

Thirdly, women are socialised to use low status language patterns. The consequence, in a negotiation context, is that even when females express their needs, they are not necessarily taken seriously. This means that female negotiators need to master the art of speaking to be heard.

And finally, females are more likely than males to capitulate when their counterparts use aggressive negotiation tactics. For many women, learning to stay calm under pressure is a key objective in attending training in negotiation skills.

Understanding these four social norms and how they impact on women’s behaviours can help us design training or coaching programs that equip women to negotiate assertively in today’s corporate context. Here are some of the techniques I’ve found useful in teaching women to be truly collaborative.

What’s the solution?

Understanding the problem allows us to find practical ways to solve it. The task of teaching women to operate from a truly ‘win-win’ position involves changing verbal and behavioural patterns. Basically, this means learning new habits which position a woman to be in a truly ‘win-win’ stand.

To assist women in expressing their needs and opinions, it’s often necessary to eliminate the use of unconscious agreement signals. These are non-verbal behaviours which suggest that a woman agrees, when in fact she doesn’t. For example, many women unconsciously smile or nod when they feel threatened. The best way to re-train this behaviour is to video a woman during roleplay and allow her to see her own behaviours. Once awareness has been raised, we can then work on developing more positive and assertive behaviour patterns. This particular training is best done in a one-to-one context.

To combat lower entitlement expectations it’s important to teach women to plan and prepare before they negotiate. In particular, many women fail to define their ‘walk-away’ points before commencing negotiation. Trainers can play an important role in teaching women how to set their ‘walk-away’ points and how to verbally assert these during negotiations. Teaching this skill involves giving women processes and templates to use in designing their ‘walk-away’ points, as well as teaching verbal frames for setting boundaries and limits.

Verbal framing tools are also essential for overcoming women’s habits of using low status language during negotiation. Effective negotiation skills training for women includes specific instruction on phrases and frames that women can use to assertively place their positions. For example, women might need to learn to shift from saying ‘Would you mind if …’ to saying ‘We can’. Or, they might need to change the pattern of saying ‘Sorry, but that might not work’ to saying ‘That option won’t suit us. What will is …’ Or instead of asking ‘Can’t we just …’ women can learn to say ‘I suggest we …’.

These subtle shifts in language reposition women from low status to equal status in a negotiation. This repositioning is particularly important when women face aggressive tactics from negotiation counterparts. For many women, encountering aggression can induce anxiety. So it’s important that women learn to stay calm and manage tactics which are designed to gain an advantage during negotiation. Trainers can assist women here by teaching them skills for state management, as well as providing useful phrases to redirect away from an aggressive attack, towards collaborative solution finding. These include responses such as ‘You obviously feel strongly about this point, let’s find a mutually agreeable way to address it’. Or ‘Yes, that is important for us to discuss’. Phrases such as these allow women to manage situations, whilst keeping control.

Shifting deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour can take time. For this reason, women learn best when training workshops are supplemented with one-to-one coaching. This approach is reflected in my Wise Women in Business program. Find out more about this program on our website.

About the author of this article

Eleanor Shakiba works with women in high intellect professions – such as academia, education, project management, research and development engineering, finance and health. She specialises in training and coaching high potential professionals who need help overcoming career barriers. Eleanor holds qualifications in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.