5 negotiating tips for women in family business

By Beth Braverman

:Leaning in is key 

As women continue to take on more leadership roles in family businesses, they’re also more often finding themselves taking part in negotiations. While many women are skilled negotiators, research shows that female negotiators tend to outperform their male counterparts when negotiating on behalf of others but fare less well when negotiating on behalf of themselves.

There are myriad reasons for this, including subconscious biases in which women using the same tactics as men are perceived differently as well as a culture that teaches women to avoid conflict from an early age. But women also have some factors working in their favor when it comes to negotiating.

“Women are often better at problem solving, and that is key to being a successful negotiator,” says Carrie Menkel-Meadow, a professor at the University of California Irvine Law School and author of Negotiation: A Very Short Introduction. “We teach negotiators to be empathetic to the situation and think about what the other side wants. To the extent that gender stereotypes are true, women have been socialized to do that.”

Women in family businesses face even greater challenges when negotiating with family members, which can add another level of complexity to the process. That said, there are several strategies that women can adopt to become more formidable opponents at the negotiating table, no matter who—or what—they’re negotiating for. As with many skills, the best way to get better at negotiating, experts say, is through practice.

“A lot of people look at good negotiators and think that they are just naturally good at it and that they can wing it,” says Carol Frohlinger, attorney and president of Negotiating Women Inc. “My experience—and the research—say that’s not the case. People who look so good at negotiation really do the work ahead of time.”

The following strategies can help in your question to become a better negotiator:

1. Take every opportunity to practice.

Leaning into the opportunity to negotiate—whether it’s for a promotion for yourself, a salary for a new hire or a deal with a potential business partner or bank—is key to succeeding in those negotiations as well as in the broader world of the family business.

You’re negotiating all the time, both at work and at home, whether you’re doing it consciously or not. When asked how often they negotiate, women who don’t work in sales or legal roles often say once a year or less, an estimate that drastically underestimates how often they negotiate, says Daniella Kahane, executive director and CEO of the WIN (Women in Negotiation) Summit.

Every time you work with your spouse to determine the school pickup schedule or settle on pricing with a plumber fixing a leak, you’re working together to find a resolution that works for both of you. Understanding that is important because it also means that you have many more opportunities to practice (and improve) you negotiation skills than you may realize.

“Most women are actually negotiating on a daily basis, they just don’t see it as a negotiation,” Kahane says. “When you’re able to label the skill of what you’re doing, you’re able to see yourself doing it more and intentionally practice it.”

When it comes to negotiations in the workplace, Frohlinger recommends keeping a negotiation journal.

“Jot down, on a fairly regular basis, negotiations you’ve done, what worked well, and what you won’t repeat next time because the behavior wasn’t successful,” she says. “As a result of that, you’re going to end up self-coaching and learning from your own experiences.”


2. Lean into your listening skills. Women tend to be naturally curious and strong active listeners, both skills that can benefit you as a negotiator. But it’s also easy to make assumptions when you’re negotiating with someone with whom you’ve known for your entire life.

“People tend to get more upset when they don’t feel like they’re being heard of understood, and even in family dynamics where you might already think you know what the other person wants, people still need to be heard,’ says Alexandra Mislin, a professor with American University’s Koger School of Business. “It can be helpful to reflect what they’re saying back to them what you’re hearing and what you see them feeling to make sure you’re understanding it correctly.”

That type of active listening can help keep both parties calm and make the person with whom you’re negotiating more inclined to listen to you, she adds.

Social psychologist Jennifer Goldman-Watzler suggests being careful about how you frame your questions. Moderate your tone of voice and soften your questions when possible.

“You don’t want to be perceived as attacking, antagonizing, or cross-examining someone,” she says. “You want to use language like ‘Tell me more about your point of view.’ Sometimes that language can help people open up more than simply using the word ‘why.’”

3. Anticipate challenges. With many negotiations, you already know where you’re going to get pushback from a counterparty. You father, for example, may not think that you have the experience to move up to the C-suite just yet, or a client may not be comfortable with a price hike. Knowing this, you can prepare—and practice—a detailed response to such concerns.

“You want to be able to clearly articulate why what you’re asking for is justified, while also taking into account the other person’s perspective, what’s valuable or beneficial to them,” Mislin says. “It’s a matter of making sure the negotiator is confident in what they’re asking for.”

In some cases, this also means recognizing that the first “no” need not be the end of the conversation. Even if you don’t get what you wanted in the first round, look for ways to make progress toward your larger goals.  

4. Don’t ignore the personal aspects. Formidable negotiators know the value of gathering personal intel on their opponents. If you happen to be negotiating against a family member, you have an inherent advantage there. But you also have strong emotional times and a literal lifetime of history interacting with each other. While it’s important to focus on the current issue, it’s also likely impossible to ignore the sensitivity of your relationship.

You want to use what you know about your parents, sibling, uncle or whomever you’re negotiating with, to connect with them in this situation and inform your understanding of their goals right now without bringing up conflicts or other issues that you’ve had in the past.

“Whenever there are people involved, there are emotions,” Frohlinger says. “Even if you’re negotiating a lease or with a supplier, and you don’t have that family dynamic, those people have emotion and so do you. It’s important to consider the interpersonal dynamic.”

5. Avoid the urge to “negotiate like a man.” Negotiation has evolved in recent years from the (more masculine) traditional “all or nothing” goal to one in which everyone emerges from the transaction satisfied with the outcome. 

“There’s a past association of negotiation as a very dominant, masculine process, where you’re trying to get as much as you can, where it’s a zero-sum game,” Kahane says. “That’ snot what good negotiation is, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Instead, focus more on the solution and a common goal — moving the family business forward.

“In most negotiations, there’s a relationship there, and the relationship matters,” Kahane says. “When you layer in the family angle, that makes it even more loaded and complex in terms of negotiation, because you are layering in on the psychological, deeply rooted familial roles and baggage.”

Given all of that, you want to take care to think about how the negotiation could influence your relationship with your family members, now and in the future. You want act in a way that before, during, and after the negotiation enhances your relationship with your family members, Frohlinger says, even if it involves conflict.

The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll feel as a negotiator, which will give you more confidence and further improve your performance and the outcomes of negotiations.

“Women need to be themselves,” Menkel-Meadow says. “Know the research and be armed with the knowledge and then go in and do what you do best. Get training and coaching if you need it, but the best negotiators are people who are comfortable in their souls and bodies and act from a place of confidence.”

Beth Braverman is an award-winning writer and frequent contributor to Family Business magazine.





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