Gender Differences in Negotiation Styles:
How Women Lawyers Can Play to Their Strengths

By Teresa Zink

Women lawyers who want to be effective negotiators need to understand one thing:  men and women have different negotiating styles.  The key to being successful is to recognize those differences and play to your strengths, attorney Maureen McBride of Lamb McErlane told the attendees of HB Litigation Conferences’ February teleconference on Effective Negotiation Skills for Women Lawyers.

What are some of the differences?  “In general, I think women tend to accept less and concede more than men,” says McBride.  “Studies have shown that when men are negotiating against women, they tend to play hardball or tend to be more aggressive and concede less than they would if they were negotiating against a man.  I think it is important to keep that in mind so that you understand before you go into a negotiation what the ground rules are.”

In addition, she says, “a lot has been written about the fact that women tend to value personal relationships more than they do a win, if you will, in a particular negotiation.  Women tend to want to be liked or be perceived as good or nice and that may be antithetical to a tough, aggressive negotiating style.”  She advises that women who hold back because they are afraid of being perceived as overly aggressive or as confrontational should strive to cultivate a communication style that is direct and straightforward.

Focus on Strengths
Women also tend have particular strengths that can play well in negotiation, according to McBride.  “Women tend to ask more questions to try to gain more insight, to try to get to know the person better.”  In addition, she says, when women ask questions, “they often ask more open-ended questions which will elicit more information.  Anyone who does any negotiating knows that the best thing to do is ask questions and find out what your opponent is thinking because that will certainly help you formulate a strategy.”

She also points out that “you can really learn a lot by listening.”  Listening is an under utilized skill in negotiations, McBride says, but “you will learn a lot more from listening to what your opponent has to say than by laying your cards on the table.”

Anyone entering into a negotiation needs to make sure that the goals are clear, reasonable and achievable, McBride points out.  She said it can be helpful to consult with a mentor or partner to help you make sure that you are not setting your goals too low.

Preparation Is Key

Whatever the differences in style, preparation is critical to the success of any negotiation.  “Anything you read on negotiation will tell you that the number one mistake people make in negotiations is trying to wing it; not having a clear goal and not having a clear plan about how to achieve that goal.  You can’t just rely on your past experience, on your familiarity with a case.”

She suggests that you write everything down, “what your bottom line number is, what your opening number is, what concessions you would be willing to give up or be willing to make, and whether there is any creative solution other than the exchange of money that may satisfy you or your client.”   It is also important to analyze the other side’s position.  “You have to know that if you make a certain demand, the other side is likely to do something or say something and you have to be prepared to meet that objection and provide a reasonable rationale for your position,” she says, and “always make sure you give yourself an out.”  All of this has to be discussed and vetted with the client before you go into the negotiation, she says.

She also cautions women to keep the goal in mind, but also remember that negotiation is a process.  “I think men often perceive negotiation as a game that they can win.  If it takes longer, that doesn’t bother them.  Women, maybe because we don’t delegate enough and are overly busy, we tend to want to get in and reach a conclusion and move on.  You have to be aware of your opponent’s goals,” McBride cautions.  “You have to be aware of what your opponent is looking for.  If it is not a quick solution and it is something that your opponent needs to save face and have it take a little bit longer or appear that he is not giving up as much, then I think you have to be careful to allow that process to continue.”

Panelist Linda Dakin-Grimm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy agreed.  She said she has seen the tendency of some women lawyers to want to get a result and “drive to a finish” exploited by men and other women in negotiations.  “If you understand that your opponent wants to get a deal and is not as willing as you are to walk away or to play the game, you have a big advantage,” Dakin-Grimm cautions.  “you have to cultivate a kind of patience for the game of negotiation that is not natural to everyone.  It certainly wasn’t natural to me.”

Overcoming Obstacles

Negotiation can be uncomfortable for even the most successful and confident women lawyers.  How can women lawyers identify and overcome the obstacles that keep them from being as successful as they would like to be in negotiations?

First and foremost, says McBride, is practice.  “Women should not shy away from the opportunities to negotiate.  It is sort of like decision making.  It is a muscle that if you use it enough you will feel more comfortable doing it.”  She advises women to seek out opportunities to negotiate and resist the urge to defer to others.

McBride also noted that there are subtle actions that establish power and authority that women need to be aware of.  For example, where do you sit at the negotiating table?  McBride noted that “Women tend to sit in areas around the conference table that are known as the ‘dead zone’ while men will sit at the head of the table and seek to take control.”   While these things are often subconscious, it makes sense to be aware of them, McBride says.  “You want to make sure that you are not giving up power unnecessarily at any given point in a negotiation.”

Panelist Eileen Kavanagh of Litchfield Cavo elaborated on the subject, noting that women have a tendency to behave like “good little elementary school girls.  We don’t like to take up a lot of space.  We tend to keep our hands in our laps and our materials neatly in front of us.”   Contrast that to the men who “lounge in and will take two chairs, not just one.  They will lean back over their chair and drape an arm over the arm rest of the one next to them.  They spread all of their stuff out everywhere; coats on one chair and they’ll take up two or three spaces with their material.  They are establishing territory.”  She says it is important for women to recognize these tendencies.  “You don’t want to give out silent cues that say that you don’t consider yourself powerful.”  For example, she says, if you are a player in a mediation “don’t be afraid to take a seat at the head of the table, near the head of the table, or directly across the middle of the table from the mediator.  Set your position up.  Take your papers out; spread them out.  Do whatever it is that you want to do to establish a physical presence at the table.”

The Audio Package of the Effective Negotiation Skills for Women Lawyers Teleconference recorded February 12, 2009 is available for $150. The full transcript is $50. To order, contact Allison Emery at or 484-324-2755 x205.