Want to Win Your Next Negotiation? Ask a Simple Question

“Like going to the dentist.” That is the metaphor some women used to describe negotiating in a survey conducted by Linda Babcock, co-author of Women Don’t Ask. By contrast, men used metaphors like “winning a ballgame” to describe negotiation. If you fail to negotiate, studies show that over time you can leave as much as half a million dollars on the table.

There are a lot of great resources for learning how to negotiate – books, blogs, courses, workshops – so why aren’t women, as a group, negotiating effectively? Why are women are less comfortable than men in negotiating settings? Finally, is there a style that might fit women better?

Why women don’t ask

Gender stereotypes—one of those cognitive shortcuts we all use to navigate the world—create a dilemma for women who are in a negotiation situation. Women and men applying gender stereotypes expect females to be kind, collaborative and to serve as “connectors.” In other words: “Be nice and play nice.” But negotiation requires a woman to advocate and show strength, putting her in violation of her gender’s stereotype and risking being seen as “pushy” or “too aggressive.”

This leads to the dilemma: what style of negotiation can both feel right and avoid pushback from this double bind?

Just ask a question.

Jacie Stivers is an ace negotiator —she started Commercial Investment Real Estate in 1983 with less than $500 of her own funding, eventually expanding it to one of the premier commercial real estate brokerage firms in the Space Coast of Florida, handling over $100M in closings. Jacie has developed a simple technique: ask a question.

Here’s how it works. In a negotiation situation, instead of making a demand, ask a series of questions. You will shift the pace of the conversation by putting the other side in the position of providing information. And, their answers will reveal important information about the precedents and boundaries guiding their offer.  The qualitative and quantitative things you learn will help you feel more confidence in presenting an offer of your own.

The “asking technique” has other advantages too.

It is less pushy or self-serving because the approach is simply one of a polite, inquisitive, interested party who wants to fully understand the situation. How can you pull it off? Suppose you have are being offered a raise. Start by composing yourself to offer a demeanor of frank and well-intentioned curiosity. Then:

Step 1: Begin with a question that will provide the most important information you need from the other side for a counter offer. 

  • Example:  “Where does this offer fall in the range of previous or current promotions given to similar individuals in this position?”

Step 2: In response to their answer, come up with another question to go a layer deeper.

  • Example: “I see, in the top 25%. What are the qualities or performance standards for those who received offers in the top 1%?

Step 3: Keep asking until you feel you can make a counter offer that fits.  Keep the tone in information-gathering mode.

  • Example: “I see, candidates in top 1% have 10 years of experience. Do you count just years of experience or does diversity of experience or level of responsibility factor into the calculation?”
  • Example: “To get to that top 1%, what have other candidates done to show their worthiness?”

Step 4: Summarize and counter offer, using the information you have gleaned.

  • Example: Thank you for answering my questions. It was really helpful to understand how the decision was made. Here is how I understand the situation. This offer is near the high end of offers made. Those who got the highest end have about ten years of experience. I have been here 8 years, but in that process have much deeper experience than others because I have been dealing with assignments across the various functions of the firm. So, I’d ask for that to be taken into consideration. You also mentioned that to be at the top requires that the candidate show exceptional promise—here is how I fit that… (from your preparation documenting your accomplishments). Using this logic takes me to a higher number than in your initial offer—such as $$$. 

The counter offer is not based on aggressive behavior or self-promotion. Instead, it is built on logic and a series of answers from the other side. It takes practice, but whether you’re female or male, mastering the art of negotiation by asking questions is well worth the pay off.


About the Author

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Deborah Streeter is an award-winning professor of entrepreneurship at the Dyson School in Cornell University’s College of Business. She recently authored Cornell’s new, all-online Women in Leadership certificate program, which gives professional women in every industry and function a personalized framework to break through barriers to career success. Learn more about the program here.