IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK: More thoughts on negotiation and gender

Differences between men and women in negotiationWhen I was a kid, one of my mother’s favorite maxims was, “It never hurts to ask.” It was an adage she lived by, testing it repeatedly in restaurants, in motels during family vacations, in the meat department at the local supermarket, with contractors doing work on the house. What never ceased to astonish me were both her courage in asking and the readiness with which people said yes to her. Her daring unfailingly resulted in better tables, a room with a view, or a choicer cut of meat. (My mother also honors one of the key principles of negotiation: relationship building. My mom is wonderful with people, able to connect with complete strangers in a warm and genuine way. I have always admired her social ease.)

Last week I published a post here about gender differences in negotiation, a subject I’m revisiting today. While there is statistical evidence that in certain circumstances men negotiate more favorable outcomes for themselves than do women, and while it is undisputed that failure to or difficulty in negotiating can have serious economic and social repercussions for women, it’s not just women who may be shortchanging themselves when it comes to negotiation.

I spoke with my friend Moshe Cohen, president of The Negotiating Table, and a lecturer in the Organizational Behavior Department at Boston University School of Management. Moshe is also a mediator, a trainer, and a much-sought-after negotiation coach here in Boston and nationally.

What Moshe has noticed in his work as teacher and mediator is that it’s not just women who find negotiating tough. Men do, too. Both genders have a very hard time asking for what they want.

What accounts for this? In Moshe’s experience, people are overly concerned about how they will be perceived if they ask people for what they want. They want people to like them. They don’t want to rock the boat. They worry about what others will think of them later. Worst of all, what if the other person says no? Men and women alike are often terrified of asking for what they want.

My own professional and personal experience bears this out. Generally speaking, women have no more difficulty talking about what they want, why they want it, and how they’re going to get it than do men—which is to say, some of them are good at it and some of them aren’t, in about the same ratio. (What I’ve also found, unsurprisingly, is that the better prepared for negotiation any party is, regardless of their gender, the better they’ll do, and the easier it is for them to ask for what they need.)

To help them overcome their fear of asking, Moshe gives his negotiation students an assignment called “The 10 No’s”. Adapted from Negotiation: Readings, Exercises, and Cases by Roy J. Lewicki et al., this exercise requires participants to go out and ask for things, keeping track of the number of no’s they receive until they have 10.

What is particularly instructive about this exercise is the fact that accumulating 10 no’s is actually extremely difficult. Students of both genders discover that it’s far more likely that people will say “yes” instead–an astonishing revelation.

Over the years Moshe’s students have reported all kinds of benefits flowing from their participation in this exercise: salary increases, job promotions, rent reductions, better deals on consumer goods, you name it.

I encountered a similar story in the introduction to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s book, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide. A professor named Deepak Malhotra gave his students at the Kellogg School of Management an interesting assignment: to “go negotiate something in the real world.” The students, 35 of whom negotiated something for themselves and 10 of whom negotiated something for an employer, succeeded in negotiating in some cases substantial price reductions:

More significant than the amounts saved, however, was the answer the students gave when asked to name the most important tactic that enabled them to achieve such extraordinary results: “Choosing to negotiate at all.” They reported that the biggest benefit of completing the exercise was learning that they could negotiate for things (such as rental fees) that they never knew were negotiable.

So, what does all of this mean?

In order to get to yes, all of us need to begin by negotiating with ourselves. It turns out that getting to yes in the end may be much easier than getting to no. As my mother has been saying for years, it never hurts to ask.

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