hands and paper dialogueWhen Columbia Business school professor Ann Bartel asked a room full of Barnard College alumnae if they had ever negotiated for anything, every woman raised her hand. Then Bartel asked them to write on an index card the one word that best describes how they feel when they negotiate. Later, she read their responses out loud. “Nervous,” Bartel said, laying down the first card. “Nervous. Nervous. Insecure. Nervous. Apprehensive. Nervous....”

She read them all, and no one said they liked it. That didn’t surprise Bartel, Merrill Lynch Professor of Workforce transformation, who led the workshop “Developing Your Negotiating skills” during reunion 2010. Such responses from women are typical during these workshops. Negotiating scares women. Men are more apt to say they feel excited or invigorated by the prospect of bargaining. Women, however, are more apprehensive. They’re often worried that bartering will hurt the relationship, Bartel said. Elizabeth booth ’65, who traveled from Connecticut for the workshop, agreed. “I’m very poor at negotiating,” booth said. “I feel that I’ve lost before I start. I feel that I always give in and never get the best deal.”

But Bartel tried to alleviate such fears by giving alumnae tools they could use to be more confident and get what they want in just about any negotiation. “If women could become more skilled negotiators, a lot of this fear would go away,” she said.

The most important thing women can do to become better negotiators is to prepare and do research ahead of time. “You should spend more time prepping for negotiation than actually negotiating,” she said. Use that research to set a very specific walk-away price before starting to negotiate. Having that number in mind keeps people from agreeing to something they shouldn’t, and keeps them from saying “no” when they should have said “yes.” otherwise, one of the parties could wind up with something she really doesn’t want.

Another critical point: evaluate the other side’s alternatives beforehand. It’s good to know, for example, whether the other party is in a solid financial situation or is struggling in an uncertain market. “In a real-world negotiation, you’ve got to really put your ear to the ground,” Bartel noted. “The other party’s resistance price should be your target.”

When negotiating, listen to concession patterns. Notice when the opposite party starts making smaller and smaller concessions. That’s probably when they’re getting close to their walk-away point. Be sure to have an alternative plan in mind, just in case the current negotiation falls through. That gives the other side room to breathe and keeps them from becoming desperate. Bartel reminded her audience, “If you have the ability to walk away, you have power in the negotiation.”

To demonstrate her point, she had the women pair off to do a negotiation exercise. One woman pretended to be the vice president of sales for a coffee company looking for a new customer, while the other was the food and beverage director of a hotel interested in buying high-end coffee for a good deal. Bartel gave the women background information about the coffee industry and the company they represented. Each side was given information the other didn’t have. Then they set out to negotiate a deal.

Each side already had a set walk-away price. The coffee company wouldn’t sell coffee for less than $6.50 a pound. The hotel wouldn’t buy coffee for more than $7.40 a pound. The final deals diverged widely. Some got great prices for the coffee company and others for the hotel. But most of the women negotiated deals that fell somewhere in the middle of what Bartel calls the “bargaining zone.” in this case, it was around $6.75 a pound.

But the negotiations weren’t based on price alone. Several women included incentives to sweeten their side of the deal. For example, some offered free marketing or advertising so they could either sell coffee at a higher price or buy it at a lower price. And one or two admitted they got a good deal simply by accident.

In the end, the participants proved to be more skillful negotiators than they thought they were. Several said the workshop would definitely help them feel more confident at the bargaining table, whether they’re shopping for a car or asking for a raise. Alice McQuillan ’80 said she would definitely use these tips in the future, particularly when it comes to her career and negotiating for a raise or a promotion. “Sometimes you feel powerless if you’re the employee,” McQuillan said. “You have to show them what benefits them. And now I can.”

-by Amy Miller, illustration by Paul Sahre