The first test of Georgia Swan’s negotiation skills was also her most challenging, memorable and educational. The Tax and Estate Planner was just called to the Law Society of Ontario bar and was working for a client who had inherited her mother’s entire estate — but the woman’s brother was contesting the Will. Swan knew the case would be a battle and she was intently studying a textbook written by one of the leading authorities on Ontario estate law. She knew negotiations and dealing with conflict didn’t come naturally so she was trying to do everything she could to prepare.

The phone rang. When she hung up, Swan learned the lawyer she would be negotiating against was none other than the expert whose textbook she was cramming.

“I was afraid he was going to wipe the floor with me.”

He didn’t. And Georgia went on to spend 25 years honing her negotiating skills, 17 as a family law lawyer.

In days past, if a woman wanted to negotiate a better price on a car, she might turn to a male relative to help argue down the price. The impression was that women were not natural negotiators and avoided them because they often caved in, they could be bullied easily and anyway, women just wanted to be “nice.”

But some believe that mastering the art of negotiation may be one of several keys to success for many women. “My mother was able to thrive in a man’s world because she learned early on that she needed to take care of herself,” says Ingrid Macintosh, Executive Sponsor of TD’s Women and Wealth Initiative. “Women are told to stand up for themselves but that should not be confused with being ‘aggressive or pushy.’ It means learning and honing techniques in the business world that can bring success.”

Negotiation can be a skill you can learn, says Macintosh. “Nothing is going to boost your ego more than learning how this life skill can take you to the next step in your career, or your life,” she says.

Ryann Manning, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour, at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, says many women — and probably as many men — continue to evade negotiations because it’s viewed as a blood-sport. Going head-to-head with an opponent for a potentially humiliating result and a bad deal to boot makes many of us avoid these encounters, even if it’s a normal part of life.

Yet Manning says studies indicate women can overcome whatever barriers they may feel just by getting experience and become just as effective negotiators as men.1

Manning, who is also a sociologist and teaches classes in negotiations, says women are shaped by their environments. Like an education in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), if women are not exposed to these activities or encouraged, they may become convinced it’s not for them.

“I do think that the upbringing that many of us were raised in and socialized in discourages women from negotiating and makes women feel uncomfortable. Whereas men and boys tend to be, in the western context, encouraged to be good negotiators,” she says.

Women can learn to be successful at negotiating raises, leases, and business deals. And negotiation skills aren’t just for financial transactions: Negotiating is a part of any successful relationship with colleagues, friends and family members — even car salespeople. Here are some pointers from Manning on what you should know.

Make it a joint effort

Manning says it’s a myth that negotiations must be adversarial and that one of the keys to being successful is to realize that it doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all proposition. She says re-framing a negotiation as a joint effort for two interdependent people to achieve a common goal puts a more positive, less aggressive tone to the procedure. After all, it can be presumed that both sides can’t achieve their goals without the other so there is a strong impetus to work together.

That’s exactly what happened with Swan’s first negotiation. For two weeks straight, she studied every aspect of law pertinent to the case and was perfectly prepared, as well as flexible enough to ensure both parties walked away satisfied. An adversarial approach may have meant a much poorer outcome for everyone. What also helped was that the opposing lawyer went into the negotiations with the same goals, to come to a mutually beneficial conclusion.

Do your homework

Swan’s anecdote illustrates another area that can make negotiations less intimidating: coming prepared. There’s no point asking for a raise if you haven’t researched what the average pay is for someone in your position, or if haven’t done your homework on why you deserve more money.

“Often the difference between experienced and novice negotiators is less about what happens when people sit down to negotiate than about the preparation beforehand,” Swan says.

Manning agrees that if you do your research, especially if you are clear about your own goals and try to anticipate the goals of the person you are negotiating with, you are more likely to be successful.

Know what you’re willing to accept

Manning teaches the concept of BATNA to her students — the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. This means having in place a next best substitute if you can’t achieve your desired outcome. So, if you are interviewing for a new job but don’t get the salary you want, come prepared with the next best job offer you’re willing to accept. Knowing the value of your alternatives helps you negotiate for a better outcome, and helps you know when to walk away from the discussion. That’s important because Manning says there’s often a strong psychological bias to finish a negotiation, no matter what, once you’ve started it.

Manning recalls the real estate–buying adage: “Never fall in love with one house, fall in love with two houses. If you’re just in love with one house, you will pay too much for it. If you have alternatives, you know when to walk away.”

Put a positive frame on the negotiation

Manning says another idea for women to think about is just who are you negotiating for? She says that if a woman thinks that success or failure will impact only herself, she might shy away from a negotiation. But if she can think about it in terms of how it will benefit her family or her company or how it can help women everywhere, she might push more forcefully for a better outcome. An example might be someone pushing for a raise: A woman might overcome spending a nasty meeting together with a reluctant boss by thinking how success can finance her daughter’s education down the road.

Keep an emotional balance

What happens if your adversary offers a personally insulting low-ball offer that bogs the talks down for weeks? Manning says, laugh it off and ask for a more reasonable offer. She says it’s important to keep your emotions in check when talks become difficult so that your ego doesn’t trip you up. Some of the tactics to defuse these situations may include taking a break and pausing the talks to regroup until you can get back into your comfort zone. There’s nothing to stop you from announcing that you want time to think about what’s been said in the negotiations or do more research. Take a break and come back emotionally stronger and more prepared.

Keep practicing

Like most skills, practice and feedback can help hone your ability, Manning says, and even suggests people consider attending a course in negotiation. She says one of the best things about taking a class is that you get to practice, reflect on what you did and then practice it again.

There’s the notion that a good negotiator is born a good negotiator. But negotiation is a skill that we can develop over time.”  

DON SUTTON

MONEYTALK LIFE

ILLUSTRATION

DANESH MOHIUDDIN