Negotiation Metaphors Are Powerful

There’s a frequently cited study about the differences between men and women when it comes to negotiation. These reports look at the metaphors women and men choose to describe negotiation. The results:

  • Men describe negotiation as “winning a ball game.”
  • Women describe negotiation as “going to the dentist.”

It’s obvious to me that women need a new metaphor.

As Mason Cooley wrote, “Metaphors convince at once or not at all.” Once you’ve told yourself that having to negotiate is even worse than going to the dentist, it’s going to be quite a challenge to feel upbeat and optimistic about buying a car, asking for a raise, getting your spouse to pull his weight around the house, and in general asking for what you’re worth. You’ve probably convinced yourself “at once” that negotiation is way too painful for you.

On the other hand, who doesn’t love a good ball game? What I recall from the two short summers I played softball, after several innings and your team finally wins, everyone is ecstatic. Every team member is celebrating and remembering every good play and patting each other on the back. And there’s beer.

Before you get to the beer, each player must cooperate with the others to create a unified entity, the team. When that happens, the team – the whole – becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Finally, it takes time to play a ball game. In baseball, there are several innings, with good plays, mistakes, corrective actions, and strategy.

Women Need New Negotiation Metaphors

I love to dance and a good metaphor for me is how negotiation is a modern dance routine. There’s usually a subject or theme – in a way it’s your goal, to express that theme. Then, there are the basic steps common to every dance. However, modern dance is mostly improvisation. You’re on your toes, paying attention, integrating the new steps and musical ideas that are coming your way. Most often, you are performing with other dancers, creating a tableau, a whole, from the individual pieces. You need to pay attention and focus, taking cues from each other and adapting, shifting as the big picture emerges. And, you get to have a glass of wine when you’re done!

Recently, I was working with Denise, a client who’s very anxious about telling her business partner she wants a salary increase in line with her success in bringing in new business. I asked her if there was a game she really liked to play and even better, really liked to win. She said she really loves Scrabble.

For Denise, Scrabble is a perfect metaphor for negotiation.

  • First, you must look at the individual letters in order to see how they can all work together – just like you need to see and understand what you and your counterpart need and want to achieve through negotiating.
  • Second, it’s important to understand that by joining each Scrabble tile with one or more other letters, you create a word that is bigger than the sum of all the letters. A win/win outcome generates new and unexpected results that takes everyone’s needs into consideration.
  • Third, you expect to take the necessary time to finish the game, and there will be good moves, bad moves, self-corrections and thoughtful strategies. In that respect, successful negotiations take time.

Can you help? I’m looking for more encouraging, upbeat metaphors to help women (and men) become more comfortable and positive when it comes to negotiation. Metaphors that we can use instead of the dreaded “going to the dentist.”

I’d love it if you would share your ideas for new metaphors in the Comments section so everyone can read them. Or if you prefer, I always love getting your emails.



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