The first test of Georgia Swan’s negotiation skills was also her most challenging, memorable and educational. The Tax and Estate Planner with TD Wealth had just been called to the bar by the Law Society of Ontario and was working with a client who had recently inherited her mother’s entire estate. One day, the client called her to say that a sibling was planning to contest the Will. Swan informed her client that, in that case, she would need to retain litigation counsel — Swan didn’t feel ready to take on that type of file just yet. Shortly thereafter, another call came in. This time, it was her client’s opposing counsel — and one of Ontario’s foremost authorities on estate law — requesting a meeting in the hope of finding common ground.

Swan agreed. But she knew that if she had any chance of avoiding litigation, she would need to prepare extensively and negotiate. Although Swan didn’t have the same level of experience as the other lawyer, she prepared for the meeting by reviewing the law and the case until she knew both through and through.

“Even with all the preparation, I was still a bit afraid that he was going to wipe the floor with me,” she says.

He didn’t. Instead, they were able to negotiate a settlement that was equally beneficial to both clients. To this day, Swan attributes her negotiation’s success to preparation. Through it, she found the confidence to push back on suggestions that were not in her client’s best interest and for many years thereafter, until his passing, the lawyer who served as opposing counsel on that case remained a professional mentor and friend.

In days past, if a woman wanted to negotiate a better price on a car, she might turn to her husband or a male relative to haggle. The impression was (and in some places continues to be) that women are unlikely to negotiate well because they should avoid any appearance of aggression or self-assertion. 1 As it turns out, and, as at least one review of 51 studies found, women are often just as successful as men in negotiation when they act on behalf of others: They could just be reluctant to fight for themselves in the negotiating arena. 2 The problem may therefore be one of perception and not skill.

Nonetheless, mastering the art of negotiation may be one of several keys to success for 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, Vice President, Wealth, at TD Asset Management and Executive Sponsor of TD’s Women and Wealth initiative. “Women are told to stand up for themselves, but that shouldn’t be confused with being ‘aggressive or pushy.’ It means learning and honing techniques in the business world that can bring success.”

She adds, “taking the time to develop your negotiation technique can take you to the next step in your career and your life.”

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 avoid situations where they’ll have to negotiate because negotiating is viewed as a blood sport. The prospect of 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 they’re a normal part of life.

Yet Manning, who teaches courses in negotiation and is also a sociologist, says studies indicate women can overcome whatever barriers they may feel exist simply through practice. 3  Manning says people are shaped by their environments, sometimes to their own detriment. Without experience in any particular activity, women may become convinced that the activity, like negotiating or fixing the car, is just not for them.

“I do think that the upbringing that many of us [experienced] and were 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.

But negotiating is not just for men. Women are just as capable of successfully negotiating raises, lease agreements and business deals. Like with most things, it just takes a little practice. 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 a few things to consider.

Make negotiations a joint effort

Manning says the idea that negotiations must be adversarial is a misconception. Rather, one of the keys to being successful is realizing that a negotiation doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all proposition. By re-framing a negotiation as a joint effort undertaken by two interdependent people to achieve a common goal, you can set a more positive and less aggressive tone for both yourself and the person you’re negotiating with. After all, it’s often the case that both sides have a strong incentive to work together.

Before a negotiation, do your homework

There’s no point asking for a raise if you haven’t researched what the average pay is for someone in your position or can’t come up with another reason to justify the bump. “Often the difference between experienced and novice negotiators is less about what happens when people sit down to negotiate than the preparation done beforehand,” Manning says. If you do your research and take the time to understand your opponent’s goals in addition to your own, you are more likely to be successful.

Know what you’re willing to accept in a negotiation

Manning teaches the concept of BATNA to her students — the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. BATNA means knowing what your substitute will be if you don’t come to an agreement. So, if you’re trying to negotiate a salary for a new job, your BATNA might be staying in your current job or taking another job offer (if you have one). Manning says knowing the value of your alternatives ahead of time, you’ll be able to know too when it’s time to walk away from the discussion. That’s important because she says there’s often a strong psychological bias to finish a negotiation, no matter what.

Frame the negotiation positively

Women who are learning to negotiate should also ponder a simple question: Who are you negotiating for? According to Manning, if a woman thinks that her success or failure will only impact her own life, she might shy away from a negotiation. If, however, she can reframe the situation in her mind, and consider how her success might benefit her family or company, she may find renewed confidence.

An example of this might be someone pushing for a raise. Faced with an intimidating meeting with her manager, a woman might overcome her reluctance to negotiate hard by focusing on how the extra money might help fund her daughter’s education later on.

Keep your emotional balance in negotiations

What happens if your adversary offers an insulting low-ball offer that bogs the talks down for weeks? Manning says negotiators should try to laugh it off and request 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 you can use to defuse these types of situations may include taking a quick break or pausing the talks to regroup until you can get back into your comfort zone. After all, there’s nothing wrong with telling the other side that you need some time to reflect or do more research. Take that break when necessary and come back stronger and more prepared.

Keep practicing your negotiation skills

Like most skills, practice and feedback can help hone your ability. Manning even suggests people consider attending a course in negotiation to sharpen their skills. 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 some more: “There’s this notion that a good negotiator is born a good negotiator. But negotiation is a skill that we can develop over time.”

Swan’s first negotiation with the much more experienced opposing lawyer went well, but it wasn’t without effort. For two weeks straight, she studied every aspect of pertinent law and was well prepared by the time the case was discussed. She was also flexible enough to ensure both parties walked away satisfied. As she reasoned, an adversarial approach may have meant a much poorer outcome for everyone. It also helped that the opposing lawyer went into negotiations with the same goal: to come to a mutually beneficial conclusion.