After a recent negotiation seminar, an attorney asked a great question: “Are there any observations for women negotiators, or negotiators from other countries?”
Yep, there are patterns in the negotiation styles of people of different genders or cultural backgrounds, and understanding these patterns can make you a more thoughtful, deliberate negotiator. Many of these patterns parallel those we see in public speaking styles across gender and cultural lines as well.
But first, a few disclaimers. These generalizations reflect observed patterns, and like any generalizations, they do not apply in all cases. The patterns stem from a combination of “nature” and “nurture,” and no one should make assumptions about someone based on these generalizations. To avoid having to repeat these disclaimers about overgeneralizing, I’ll use words like “tend” in the rest of the discussion below and you’ll know that I’m speaking about tendencies and patterns, not universal rules.
Let’s take gender and cultural differences separately.
First, gender differences:
- Men and women tend to use qualifiers differently. As you may have read in Lean In or other books on the topic, for societally-influenced reasons, men tend to “pitch” their ideas using more absolute language, while women tend to use more qualified language. By “qualified language,” I mean, for example, framing an offer as a question (e.g. “Do you want to take this offer?”) or a suggestion (e.g. “I think this is a pretty good offer, and you should really consider it”) as opposed to a declaration or imperative (e.g. “This is a fantastic offer–accept it”). Again, the gender differences here are tremendous generalizations with countless exceptions, but there are patterns nonetheless. The key here is that neither extreme is good. Unqualified language evokes confidence but also cockiness which, if overused, weakens the speaker’s credibility, while qualified language evokes reasonableness and open-mindedness but, if overused, may suggest you believe your position is weak. The key is to know the difference and control your use of both to maximize the effectiveness of your presentation.
- Men and women tend to express anxiety differently. In a moment of anxiety, such as when being asked a question in a negotiation you did not expect, most people will manifest a pacifying gesture, such as scratching one’s arm or rubbing hands together. The act of rubbing or scratching at our bodies is wired into us by evolution because it physically/mentally distracts and “soothes” us in a moment of anxiety. But there is a common gender difference here: men tend to scratch at the back of their necks, and women tend to scratch their face or chest. Because these pacifying gestures are “tells” that reveal anxiety, they provide a lot of information to the observer about what the person is thinking, so watch for these pacifying gestures in others and try to avoid them yourself. (For self-improvement, you may need to watch yourself on tape or have a coach observe you in negotiation expressly for this purpose, because chances are you won’t even know you’re doing it.)
- Men and women tend to express confidence differently. Psychologically, when people feel in power or in control of a situation–or more broadly, when they feel confident–they express this confidence physically. When seated, as in most negotiations, men who feel confident tend to take up more physical space by sitting with their legs apart and arms out, and sometimes they lean far back or far forward in their chairs. For societal reasons, women tend to close their legs and sit upright when confident, a position that is sometimes incorrectly perceived (especially by men) as a a sign of tension and nervousness. Learning to identify and control these positions can help ensure the person with whom you are negotiating does not come to believe your position is “weak” when you meant to show confidence. Also, watch for changes between positions; if a man or women shifts from one of these power positions to a less confident position (less confident positioning being, e.g. taking up less space by slouching shoulders, crossing hands and arms, etc.), this change tells you that the negotiation has likely hit on a sort spot, which you may exploit or back off from depending on the context.
- Men and women tend to have different vocal challenges. There are some common vocal (meaning sound or quality of voice) differences between men and women, although it is especially difficult to generalize here. Both men and women tend to be quieter and/or speed up when nervous, but women tend to incorporate upward inflection more often than men. (By “upward inflection,” I mean one makes a statement sound like a question by going up in pitch at the end.) I could say a lot more about vocal issues, but I find generalizations here less helpful than other areas because there is so much variation.
As for cultural differences, there are almost too many to name, but let me point out a few things. First, cultural differences are present even within countries, not just between countries. For example, negotiating a deal with someone from the deep South can be very different than with someone from New York City. Second, cultural differences can influence negotiation process as much negotiation style. For example, in Latin American countries, it is often considered rude to begin a negotiation without spending significant time on non-business, casual conversation first, and American negotiators who jump to “business” too quickly can put off their foreign counterparts. In Asian and Middle Eastern countries, there are so many ways to accidentally offend another person in a negotiation that I would recommend doing specific research on cultural differences for the particular region before you enter into an important negotiation.
In general, for inter-cultural negotiations, I recommend taking your cues from your foreign counterpart early on in the negotiation. Let the other side determine procedural issues, such as time, place, and location, and let them guide the conversation in the beginning, including letting them make the opening offer. This will give you time to calibrate yourself to the setting and ensure that neither your behavior nor your first offer have unintended consequences of offending the other party and derailing the negotiation. If you find yourself surprised or offended by the other party’s behavior, keep in mind cultural differences may be in play, and do not be afraid to ask about such differences directly, e.g., “You seem frustrated by my offer — is there any I have done to offend you? I would hate for our deal to suffer because of a cultural misunderstanding.”
Understanding gender and cultural patterns in communication, whether in negotiations, public speaking, or management styles, can give you insight into how you may be perceived by others and help you read others better. At the end of the day, this is what strategic communication is all about: controlling your verbal and nonverbal messages to maximize your impact, and reading others’ messages (conscious and unconscious) so you can respond effectively.