When we ask the question “What is your biggest challenge when it comes to negotiation and conflict resolution?” the most common challenge we hear is by far a lack of confidence and this concern is more often expressed by women.
Why is this important? We live in a society where success correlates with confidence. Studies have shown that in some cases, the appearance of confidence is given more consideration than competence when determining leadership positions. Lacking in confidence can have a huge impact on your negotiation outcomes. It can impact your likelihood of getting what you want and getting the best possible outcomes for both parties involved. Those who show a lack of confidence are more likely to give in or cave too quickly during a negotiation, pursue a less-aggressive ask, and miss out on opportunities by not asking in the first place.
However, it’s not a simple as telling women to “just be more confident.” Despite making great advances towards gender equality in the workforce, gender stereotypes are still very much an issue and play a big role not only on how women behave, but how the rest of society behaves towards women.
Beginning in childhood, girls are taught to be compliant, agreeable, nurturing, and discouraged from risky activities. Societal pressure for people to conform to their rightful gender role has been linked to a continued lack of confidence as often times, women receive negative feedback and consequences when they behave in a way deemed belonging to the opposite gender. This results in women being often hesitant to pursue opportunities and ask for things they want in fear that it will damage relationships.
Social Psychologist, Amy Cuddy, suggests your body language may shape who you are, that simply by changing our posture to displaying signs of power (i.e. taking up space, having open body language, sitting upright, etc.) – even if faking it - not only changes how others perceive us, but also how we perceive ourselves.
While walking through a particularly crowded mall one day, I decided to test this theory. One of my biggest pet peeves was how invisible I felt when walking through a crowd. People always seemed to bump into me unless I went out of my way to manoeuvre around them. I knew that I would go out of my way to make myself smaller in order to fit in between people and to avoid unwanted contact. So what would happen if I changed my posture? I stood upright, put my shoulders back, held my head up, and walked forward with the goal that I would not change my trajectory even if someone was headed straight for me. I would let them run into me.
An amazing thing happened. Not one person bumped into me. Groups of people actually split to avoid running into me. And this happened from the entire length of the mall. I also noticed that I was less fearful of people running into me and more confident that others would concede and move out of the way. I was floored.
While this is true for both males and females, changing your posture requires little effort and can be a huge boost in particular for women. Nonverbal cues are noticed largely on a subconscious level, meaning people react to the cue but are not really cognisant of that reaction. Therefore, women can adjust their posture and communicate their confidence in a positive manner without receiving the negative feedback from others for “acting outside of their gender role”.
Displaying confident body language in the midst of a difficult conversation is one of the simplest, and most consistent, ways to improve your negotiation outcomes. Confidence by itself is persuasive. When you show that you are confident in your position, the other side will respond with more deference and be more compliant.
You know the old saying that it takes more muscles to frown than to smile? While there is controversy as to whether or not this is actually true, scientists do agree that facial expressions transmit thousands of nonverbal messages depending on how much or little we lengthen or contract the muscles in our face.
A smile is received across cultures as warm and friendly. By appearing friendly, people are more likely to open up. This not only strengthens the relationship, but it also builds trust. Smiling also comes across as more confident because when people are more relaxed and comfortable, they smile more.
For women, this has an added advantage. When women assert themselves, they are often mislabeled as aggressive or too pushy despite exhibiting the same characteristics a confident male would. Smiling can help reduce that perception by lightening the mood of the conversation, making women not only appear confident, but also approachable.
The tone of your voice and the words you choose can also impact how confident you are perceived.
In a study by Tali Mendelberg and Christopher Karpowitz, they found that in small-group discussions, especially when males outnumber females, women not only participate less, but they’re also interrupted more when they do speak up. “With respect to the percentage of speaking terms that receive positive interruptions from either men or women, the results are consistent with our expectations. Women receive less positive reinforcement—signals of afirmation, support, and active listening—than men in majority-rule groups with few women” according to Mendelberg and Karpowitz, and whether it’s because of an increased sensitivity to negative feedback or lower self-confidence, women spend a lot of time speaking in defence of their position or justifying that they deserve to be where they are.
So how do we combat this? Avoid apologising for and avoid minimising yourself when you speak. When you need to interrupt, avoid announcing yourself with “I’m sorry…” or “Pardon me…” These phrases convey weakness and a lower status. This is not to say don’t apologise at all. Interrupting is generally seen as a societal “don’t” whether you are male or female, and if we just throw apologies out the window, we run the risk of being labeled as rude. This can do more harm than good. Instead, the idea is to not apologise for yourself, but to apologise for the behaviour of interrupting. A great way to do this is to address the person you are interrupting by name, quickly apologise for interrupting, use positive reinforcement to summarise what you heard, and then move onto what point you wanted to make. For example, “John, I’m sorry for interrupting, but that is a really great point you made about XYZ, and in addition…” This asserts yourself in a way that provided positive reinforcement to the others in the group but also that you are a valuable addition to the team.
Keeping your voice even, level, and calm is also important and is especially valuable when tensions are high. Going too extreme on either end with your tone holds negative connotations. Speaking too soft or engaging in uptalk- ending sentences with a rise in tone as if asking a question- suggests weakness and a lack of confidence. When you engage in uptalk it’s as if you’re subconsciously asking for permission to speak and seeking their immediate validation. Raising your voice too loud not only comes off as aggressive, but also invites the other party to mirror that volume.
I’ll be honest, writing this article was difficult. I realise that by advising women to subtly adjust their mannerisms (i.e. “smile”, “don’t talk too loud”, or “adjusting your body posture to display confidence”) in order to gain the confidence needed for their negotiations and in the workplace, there is an underlying message that women still need to conform to gender stereotypes of being quiet and docile in order to get ahead.
As a woman myself, encouraging women to break gender stereotypes and forge ahead despite how society tells us we should act would be ideal. However, it would be unhelpful to have women displaying confidence in the same way their male counterparts do if it would only be met with resistance and negativity. Despite the limitations, sometimes we have to negotiate with society a little and meet them halfway in order to move forward.