Negotiation is a Power Tool

Just like ice cream, negotiation styles come in many flavors.

Every so often — nearly weekly at this point — someone writes another article about how negotiation has a harmful effect on women. It started when Sheryl Sandberg quoted Dr. Linda Babcock’s work — that men negatively perceive of their women counterparts when women negotiate — and the post is nearly always on the topic of salary.

I took Dr. Babcock’s classes in graduate school and the first time I saw the Sandberg article, I felt a visceral reaction. This simply could NOT be true, I thought, and fired off an email to Dr. Babcock. Dr. Babcock had not only taught me negotiation skills, she gave valuable advice on my first job negotiation and I got everything I asked for. The articles quoting Sandberg did not match with my experience at all.

Gracious as always, Dr. Babcock wrote back, yes, actually Sandberg was partially correct — or at least the data in experiments (and for some women) indicate that men negatively perceive of their women counterparts when they competitively negotiate. The word competitive is critical here. It is a style of negotiation — not an adverb. Competitive negotiation usually connotes hard bargaining — a zero-sum situation with fixed and finite outcomes. If I “win”, you “lose”. Dr. Babcock then mentioned that women don’t seem to create as negative an outcome when they use collaborative negotiation, which is a style she teaches students and executives. Collaborative and issue-based negotiation are styles that expand and generate more options as outcomes, where bargaining places common goals over personal gain.

So to use the zero-sum metaphor, a competitive negotiation style would dictate that if one person gets a larger piece of a pie, the other person gets less. Each person will try to maximize their size of the pie — either through discussion or posturing or — depending on how hungry they are — aggression or force. Because there is only ONE pie and they are hungry and the object is to win as much pie as possible without regard to future actions or outcomes.

Collaborative negotiation is a whole other game. Taking the same scenario of a pie but using a collaborative style, the goal is to create more and new options that create more winners. We won’t fight over the pie because we’re figuring out how to bring more things to the table. We are willing to take smaller pieces of the pie because we all realize that a common goal is to relieve hunger. So I will bring ice cream, and you might bring coffee and all of a sudden there is more to have, rather than aggressively fight over a fixed or shrinking set of outcomes.

There are all sorts of styles of negotiation — and ultimately it breaks down to communication styles and the choices we make when we negotiate.

My issue with articles and posts that claim that negotiation is harmful to women is that this difference in style is rarely mentioned. All negotiation is not the same. My concern is that those that need to learn the skill most will be scared off from practicing the skill at all.

In the 14 years I have worked in electoral campaigns and within the Labor Movement, I have had to constantly negotiate — for myself, for candidates, for leaders, with members and constituents, and with dozens of vendors and consultants. I have learned a lot about creatively getting things done when working with a team of people. A few books were critical to that learning process and I am going to list those books below.

But here’s the secret to being a successful negotiator (that you will not find solely in a book):


Books, articles, videos and finding a good mentor are all helpful as you acquire that skill. Negotiation, though, is exactly like riding a bike or a surfboard or becoming an extraordinary craftswoman. You have to practice it by doing it, over and over again. And you should not start with a high risk scenario — like negotiating a salary or a raise. Practice only builds confidence when you are unafraid of failure and when that failure can help you learn and adjust.

Start with a farmer’s market or a street vendor or a flea market — a scenario where the seller has the ability to change the price and you have a chance to see how your offer will be received and be able to change it, as well.

Negotiate with your friends or partner with an eye towards taking turns (something I learned from Dr. Babcock) or add more options or benefits to a new outcome. Ask friends to go to a different bar or restaurant — maybe its closer to your home and you offer to buy the first round. Offer to make dinner if your partner does the dishes. Choose low risk opportunities to build up your confidence, and then as you learn your authentic style, move on to the higher risk scenarios.

Whatever you do — PRACTICE. And know that although there are studies out there that journalists and bloggers like to link to, those studies present a few data points, which may or may not mirror your own experience.

In fact, our lives exist within a dazzling constellation of possibilities — and while those studies are data points, it would be a shame to miss the million other points out there available to you. The only real danger is believing one truth, when there are so many others out there, waiting for you.

Books to help your practice:

Three other suggestions are books that were enormously helpful to me but they are about reading body language and communication styles, not negotiation. This is another point that is often left out in the media coverage. How you say things matters — so understanding non-verbal communication — your own and others — is vitally important.

  • Gregory Hartley wrote I Can Read You Like A Book. He doesn’t do a great job of hiding his partisan disposition — but if you can look past that, his analysis, technique and tips are extremely valuable.
  • Deborah Tannen has spent decades understanding how men and women communicate. You Just Don’t Understand has helped me understand so much about non-verbal cues that we constantly put out — and that in general, men and women have vastly different communication styles. She also wrote an article in 2007 that lays out the broad strokes of difference in styles.
  • Compelling People is also an extraordinary read. The authors have worked with political candidates, academics and all manner of leaders and offer very valuable insight and tactics on how to fine tune our communication style.

Photo credit: Julia Smith.

Tanya Tarr is Director of Political and Legislative Mobilization for the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. A naturalized Texan, she also blogs haphazardly about her life.