Juliet Nierenberg on Women and the Art of Negotiation

How do women fare as negotiators? Being newcomers in a field long dominated by men, what sort of disadvantages or prejudice do women face when they try to cut business deals at the negotiating table?

Juliet Nierenberg who co-authored  the book Women and the Art of Negotiation with Irene S. Ross, gleaned at least one revealing observation on the Singaporean side of the issue during her recent two-day seminar at the Boulevard Hotel.

“The women I’ve spoken to here feel that it is more difficult to negotiate with other women than with men,” she confided with some amusement during our hour-long interview after the seminar. “Several people have told me – of course it’s only their opinion – that they can do much better with men than people of their own sex, who are much more critical of them, and demanding and unkind. I’ve just had lunch with an American at our table who said he’d much rather deal with a man because women negotiators, they’re tough as nails.”

Of course, such pointed commentary from her audience doesn’t come as a big surprise to Nierenberg, who has been studying, researching and lecturing for several years on women and business negotiation. She’s the vice-president of the Negotiation Institute in New York, a non-profit research and educational facility founded by her husband Gerard Nierenberg in 1966, and has traveled around the world heading seminars on negotiation technique. As a “negotiation specialist”, she already knows that women aren’t sissies when it comes to clinching deals. However, she warns executive amazons that being tough presents a set of its own problems.

“A woman thinking she has to act like a man in order to negotiate is a mistake because toughness – if that’s what she perceives a man’s role to be – is not where it’s at in negotiation anyway, ” Nierenberg stressed. “It may win one battle but it doesn’t win the war because people are turned off by that kind of behavior.”

Her own strategy for negotiation is based on the system pioneered by her husband, who has authored some 14 books on the subject and whom Nierenberg rather affectionately described as the Father of Modern Negotiation. She married Gerard Nierenberg at age 18 and raised children full time until her eldest son was in high school before enrolling into Queen’s college in New York. She graduated with a masters degree in library science after which she worked in education for a short spell. Later she joined her husband’s institute as a researcher and, as her interest and knowledge in negotiation science ripened, she started holding seminars for women. Her book, which was commissioned about four years ago, came out of material compiled from her seminars.

Although much of it is her own work, Ms Nierenberg was quick to credit Gerard Nierenberg for forming the basis for what she teaches at her seminars.

“(Gerard) presented a format for negotiating that was quite revolutionary at the time in the sense that negotiating had always seemed a sort of conflict of wills, an adversarial-type relationship. He had come to the conclusion that unless everybody wins in a negotiation, it’s not going to be a stable negotiation. Someone won’t carry out the terms, or else you’d make an enemy and next time you had to negotiate with this person it would be more difficult.

“What she attempts to give her audience, Nierenberg explained, was a structured approach to negotiation – a plan of action for research, understanding the issues involved, organizing one’s strategy and psychological tactics for creating the right “climate”, as she calls it.

“One of the most overlooked features of negotiating successfully is trying to figure everything from the other point of view,” she said emphatically. “We’re so stuck in our own point of view that we don’t stop to consider, how will they look at all of this? What possible things are going on in their minds?

“We want to make things better; we don’t think in terms of winning,” she added. “When you go into dealing with anyone, whether it’s business or personal, with the idea that I’m gonna get what I want, you are not negotiating skillfully. You would get instant resistance. We like to be creative in figuring out the areas of agreement and be skilled in educating the other side to these areas. If I’m certain I’ve exhausted every avenue trying to accommodate, there’s always room to play it hardball. It’s not all goody-two-shoes. But we don’t like to get to that point. We like to keep things on a positive note.” Nierenberg also observed that when one is faced with an arrogant opponent in a deal, reacting emotionally is self-defeating. The more constructive response is to act within the principles of negotiation.

“Instead of just reacting to someone coming at you in a hostile way, you will be making a decision. You’ve trained yourself to make a decision to be either gracious or rotten – it’s not a reaction but a choice in the context of total negotiation,” she pointed out. “Now all this takes time, but the structure will allow you to pull it all together. After awhile it becomes part of your way of thinking.”

To Nierenberg, these skills are especially vital to women in business, as they are often at a disadvantage when competing with men.

“Initially there is a disadvantage generally, but it’s not necessarily the disadvantage of being a women. It’s more the disadvantage of being a newcomer, of being low man on the totem pole, of not having experienced the social climate of that particular business. I do think that women are looked upon with skepticism: ‘Can she really do the job? Is she tough enough? Does she have the technical expertise to sell people products? Would they believe she knows what she’s doing? ‘Women have to prove their worth more than men and they have to be better at doing what they do than men. I do believe that is true.”

The need to excel often induces in women a dreaded fear of making mistakes and this, Nierenberg noted, becomes a stumbling block particularly for women who break into upper management, where quick and cool-headed decisions are necessary for survival.

“Women are very sensitive to being wrong. They want to do the best job and they want to see all the alternatives before they commit themselves to a decision, because so much of it rides on their persona. A man who has been in business a long time realizes that the important thing is to make a decision. Women have to learn that they have to toughen their own hide and accept that sometimes their decisions will be wrong. They have to learn to take more chances, stick their necks out and take the blows that come,” Nierenberg advised.

But even as women have to put up with the frustrations of being the new kids on the block, Nierenberg encourages them to bear in mind that being a woman in business has its advantages too.

“A woman is interested in creating relationships, in talking to people, in finding out about people, ” she asserted. “There is an interest and intimacy in terms of attention paid to detail that come more naturally to women than to men. And I think in a negotiating situation it’s a distinct advantage.”

In an era of high technology, hard-sell and dispassionate corporate takeovers, the Nierenbergs’ system of goodwill negotiation is a much welcome breath of humanity for our silicon-chip world. Although their method is designed primarily for business negotiations, Juliet Nierenberg is not unaware of its personal and political applications.

“It doesn’t matter whether we’re in France or England or Belgium or the United States. These are all very human aspects of how people relate to each other. It’s particularly important at this time when things are so serious in the world. We are at a point in history that is unprecedented in the possibility for destruction. Even the United States and Russia are trying to make accommodations, because what else is left?’ she asked.

by Patrick Lowe, originally published in Candid Female Magazine