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Who's Talking?

Women are, and smooth negotiations depend on polished skills.

It's been said that women are better negotiators than men. Maybe that's because they have to be. Say what you will about stereotypes, but society gives men the one-up role: They're cheered for being loud, forceful competitors. Yet for women, the playing field has never been level, so dealing with the "boys' club" requires a more sophisticated game plan. Where women can't use intimidation to come out ahead, they can use negotiation to succeed.

Business deals provide special challenges for female negotiators. "Men are presumed competent, and women are presumed incompetent until proven otherwise," explains Dorothy Richardson, an entertainment and contract attorney and lecturer in Woodland Hills, California. Negotiation is all about power, and this presumption creates an instant imbalance. Unfortunately, women haul this baggage into every bargaining room.

As with any power imbalance (gender-related or otherwise), superior preparation is by far the best equalizer. In most arenas, women must work harder to prove themselves. The business world isn't any fairer-so, to get what they want, women must approach the bargaining table with clearer goals, better information, a savvier team and greater resolve.

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and author of Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power (William Morrow & Co.), says women are often relational and cooperative, as opposed to men, who are independent and competitive. From these generalities, you might conclude that women favor win-win over win-lose situations, that they prefer cordiality and good relationships with the other side, and that they're inclined toward reaching agreements as opposed to walking away. Obviously, depending on the negotiation, these tendencies can be substantial strengths.

We can also extrapolate the negatives. Are women more reluctant to use leverage? Does their openness and civility reveal weakness? Are they simply too nice to be taken seriously? Maybe some women are. But, of course, so are some men. And maybe I should be skewered for even considering such stereotypes.

Certainly, I've negotiated with women who are tough, savvy and unrelenting-the best-as well as those who are condescending, difficult and insulting-the worst. In the latter situations, Richardson cautions women about the "fragile" male ego. Regardless of whether you accept this notion, every opponent needs to save face from time to time. A little tact and delicacy go a long way with either gender.

Finally, consider sexual chemistry and flirtation-which pose similar pros and cons. On the one hand, it's easier to make concessions to people we like. If we can intrigue, titillate or flatter an opponent, so much the better. But the other hand points to a standard of professional business conduct. Once charm crosses the line and behavior becomes inappropriately seductive or manipulative, watch out. That's when everyone's negotiating skills could really be tested.

Like it or not, ladies, you are the underdogs. But, believe it or not, a lot of us guys are rooting for you.


A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles,Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size.

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This article was originally published in the August 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Who's Talking?.

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