Good Negotiators Share Common Traits:
How Women Lawyers Can Develop and Hone Their Negotiation Skills

By Teresa Zink

While it often looks like crack negotiators were born that way, attorney Nancy Peterson of Quarles & Brady maintains that skilled negotiators have common traits that can be observed, leaned and adapted to your personal style.

“Depending on where you are in your career, I highly recommend you to sit alongside a skilled negotiator, particularly one who you feel comfortable with and who has a style you think you could adopt, just to learn by observing.”    She says, “there are those negotiators who really appear to be naturals.  I have worked with some in my own firm and I have learned not to be fooled or to be discouraged.  Yes, people have some natural talent, but really their advantage comes from practice, preparation and consciously employing skills that they have adapted to their own style for greatest effectiveness.

Peterson made her comments as part of a panel of skilled women attorneys at HB Litigation Conferences’ February teleconference on Effective Negotiation Skills for Women Lawyers.  She outlined four key characteristics of skilled negotiators.

Speak With Authority

First, she said, skilled negotiators speak with authority.  This applies not only to the words you chose but also to non-verbal messages you send.  “It is really important to recognize that people that you are dealing with in negotiations will size you up immediately.  You need to be conscious of everything about how you look, your demeanor, your posture, your dress, how you are making eye contact, and your gestures,” she said.  She suggests taking advantage of any opportunity to have yourself videotaped leading a meeting or giving a presentation so you can “see how you appear to other people and think about what you can do to give yourself more stature.”

It is also important to think about what you are going to say and choose your words carefully, she said.  Avoid “opener phrases,” like “well, you know, in my opinion” and filler words like “um” she advises, “People will listen to you more carefully if you just make your statement,” she says.  Don’t be afraid to pause for a moment, then say what you mean.

Silence can also be a useful tool if you use it to your advantage, according to Peterson.  “In negotiations there are tense moments.  Sometimes your best tool is to just be quiet and let the other side ramble.”

Listen Carefully
Second, skilled negotiators know how to really listen.  “You have to hear what others are saying,” according to Peterson.  “Don’t make assumptions about what they are telling you.  Use your intuition… that will often tell you that what you are hearing might not actually be what is meant.”  Being aware of body language and non-verbal cues can help.

Think Strategically
Third, people who are successful negotiators are strategic thinkers.  You need to “think strategically about what it is you are trying to achieve, have really sound communications with your client, and you also need to be aware of emotions,” according to Peterson.  “Sometimes the pace of negotiations will be really quick.  You can see people making their own negotiation positions or decisions as you are sitting around the table, perhaps without all the facts being out or all the interests really being exposed.  You need to keep your own thoughts on your client’s objectives and sometimes actually try to slow down the pace of the negotiations by asking questions of the other side or maybe even turning and asking a question of your own client, just to make sure that your client’s objectives are going to be forefront, and the pace doesn’t take you in a direction that you are not happy with.”

Be Prepared

And last but not least, successful negotiators are always well prepared.  According to Peterson, “you really need to not only have outlined with your client your objective and your bottom line, but it is really important to have a Plan B.  If the negotiation gets framed as a take-it-or-leave-it situation, oftentimes it will fail.  If you have thought through not only what you want to get out of the negotiation and what you need out of the negotiation but have a softened second line position, a Plan B, both for your client’s position and the opposing party’s position, you may be more likely to come to a conclusion that everyone can accept.”

Litchfield Cavo attorney Eileen Kavanagh, another panel member, added that another benefit of being prepared is that having a firm grip of the facts will “give you the confidence not to be shaken by anything that someone else says at a negotiation,” and to make sure others don’t succeed in spinning the facts to benefit their side of the argument.

Panelist Maureen McBride of Lamb McErlane re-emphasized Peterson’s point about practice.  Women should know that “that there is no such thing as a born negotiator,” according to McBride.  “It is a skill.  It is one that can be learned.  It is one that has to be honed over time.  Again, for women, they should continue to look for those opportunities and not hold back, but actively participate in mediations and get out there and really learn that skill.  It is obviously something that is useful in all aspects of life, not just in the law.”

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.