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Go for Yours

The art of negotiation.

Illustration by Hattie

I remember my first successful negotiation very clearly. I was seven. I convened a meeting with my parents to recommend that my bedtime be changed from 8 PM to 9:30. I presented Mom and Dad with written terms explaining why extending my bedtime would be beneficial for our household and better for my grades, because I could stay up later to help tidy up and to read.

After listening to my parents’ concerns—mainly, that my later bedtime would make me sleepy and less focused during school—I confidently presented my case. To my surprise, I was granted a 9 PM compromise. The next year, I lobbied for 9:30 again after I learned that Rudy Huxtable on The Cosby Show was allowed to stay up that late. When my parents saw that my new bedtime privileges had resulted in better grades because I had more time to do my homework, they happily relented.

After that victory, I was hooked on playing with my bargaining power. Saudi Arabia, where we lived during my early adolescence, was the perfect place to learn to negotiate. The consumer culture there is fueled by bargaining, so I learned early on that salespeople at the souks and even at Diesel always had a “best price” to offer even when the price tag was labeled “last price” or “fixed.” I was expected to ask them, “What is your best price—for me?” They were never offended, but took this as an invitation to haggle back and forth until we reached a bottom line that we were both happy with.

In my teens, I found a fun outlet for practicing my negotiation skills when I participated in Model United Nations classes and debate conferences. I loved nerding out with students from neighboring schools to practice our bartering while pretending to be members of the UN Security Council. I was able to play-act the art of getting what I wanted, and learned along the way some strong diplomacy skills I could apply in everyday life.

And I took those lessons to heart. One time, I effectively argued to my boarding school administration that I should attend a rock concert on a verboten school night because Lenny Kravitz’s “deployment of religious imagery and progressive Christian allegory” fit in with our campus ideals. While a few of my classmates mocked me for what they thought was a preposterous argument, I went to the show with two friends and forgot the nay-saying when we were out dancing our buns off on a school night.

I was a girl who loved to negotiate without apology. It wasn’t simply that I was audacious (which I was)—I also recognized my own intrinsic value and acknowledged my strengths as a leader, a relationship builder, and a problem solver.

I have often wondered, as an adult, where that younger me is hiding, the girl who always insisted that cake be distributed evenly on birthdays, refused to wash dishes unless my male cousins were also asked to help, and demanded the same rate as the older babysitters in my neighborhood when parents tried to short-change me.

Over the years, I have become rustier in the art of unapologetically going after what I want. Some of the backlash I’ve gotten from the classroom to the office for doing what IMHO privileged white dudes have been celebrated for doing for years (asserting their expertise and value) led me to hide in my own cave for a while—and I’ve had to work hard to get reacquainted with my courage and “go for mine” without apology.

Even though I value being true to myself by honestly expressing what I want and need, I often feel anxious about doing so in real life. Maybe my apprehension emerged from post-traumatic break-up syndrome—I have been told by more than one ex that I am “high-maintenance” because I’m comfortable setting clear verbal boundaries, and I don’t always validate dudes like it’s my job. One guy said I was “rigid and inflexible” because I adamantly refused to agree to an open relationship after we’d dated exclusively for months; another told me that I was “too argumentative” because I dared to disagree with his politics in public. The first guy even told me he was turned off because he viewed me as “openly calculating and strategic,” which I had always though of as one of my best leadership qualities.

Sadly, my experience with this sort of criticism does not end there. I’ve received feedback from authority figures for being too audacious about speaking my mind out of turn. I’ll never forget being sent to detention for refusing to say “yes, sir” instead of a simple “yes” to a teacher during a short stint in elementary school in South Carolina. I felt the same sort of nauseating frustration when I heard that a former colleague talked smack about me to my peers for being “too outspoken” about diversity issues at our old job. I wasn’t surprised when this person later said that I would be more successful if I could take some cues from other staffers who put their head down and “took it.”

In all kinds of settings—school, church, office, family, etc.—I’ve noticed that when you’re a gal who isn’t afraid to dish out some real talk or get your hands dirty by navigating conflict instead of skirting around it, some people will try to shame you into reining in your personal power, silencing your voice, and thinking that it isn’t your place to speak.

Almost two years ago, on my 30th birthday, I had a meltdown about the perpetual lightness of my wallet. Once I was done crying and wailing, it dawned on me that as an adult, I’d always been really good at asking for things on behalf of others, but I would habitually apologize when I expressed a desire for something for myself. This problem manifested after I left the safe haven of my all-girls high school and entered first a coed college, then the workplace.

One glaring example of this new submissive version of myself appeared during a group project in college, when my partners were pretty lackadaisical about getting their assignments done. So I took the lead by creating a timeline, delegating assignments, and preparing a draft just in case my classmates didn’t deliver.

Most of the time I’m all about the team, but in this instance I wasn’t ready to relinquish Dean’s List status for a few slackers. To my surprise, my teacher took me aside and explained that he gave me a B+ instead of an A (even though the paper was “excellent”) because I hadn’t allowed the group process to work organically. He said that he was testing our ability to work in small groups, and didn’t like that I had taken over the project when other people weren’t stepping up. He suggested that I was “too assertive” and needed to “step back” more. Instead of revealing my true feelings, I apologized and asked for extra credit because I was afraid of hurting my GPA. For months, I was unable to forgive myself for refusing to push back and stand my ground.

While that incident taught me about the importance of teamwork, I was pissed that my male classmate who did the exact same thing with his equally idle group did not receive the same lecture. In fact, he was celebrated! He got one of the highest grades in the class. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. I’d seen this happen too many times from the sandbox to the classroom to the office—a female who is outspoken is often considered “bossy,” while men and boys are viewed as ambitious. This double standard is especially pronounced when a woman of color assumes a leadership role—I’d be rich if I had a penny for every time I’ve heard women of color glibly referred to as “angry” or “pushy” because she has the audacity to state what she needs.

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27 Comments

  • SiLK September 18th, 2012 3:14 PM

    I know what I will be working on!

  • angst September 18th, 2012 3:20 PM

    This is so beautiful and inspiring and empowering! As women, we forget so easily how much we give up and how much we are subconsciously thrown under the bus and how little of the time anyone does anything about it.
    http://onmyroadtofindout.blogspot.com/

  • Serena.K September 18th, 2012 3:25 PM

    “Saudi Arabia, where I grew up, was the perfect place to learn to negotiate.” Yay a shout-out to the sandbox!!! (This is so true, though. Negotiating and bargaining are so ingrained in the culture here.)

    • Serena.K September 18th, 2012 3:32 PM

      P.S. This is a really inspiring article! Often I shy away from negotiations for fear of being seen as rude or ungrateful or bossy but reading things like this on Rookie encouraged me to become more assertive.

  • JoanaNielsen September 18th, 2012 3:32 PM

    I think there were times in my life when I wanted so bad to be heard that I caused huge debates between me and my mates just in order to feel more powerful. However, I somehow got lost in that path and found myself adopting arguments I didn’t even truly believe in. I felt so strong while stating my point of view that I totally forgot what it feels like to respect others in order to be respected. I’ve said many stupid things in order to ALWAYS be successful while dealing with other people and I regret a lot of ideals I adopted as my own without properly thinking, because some of them were ridiculous and only degraded the opinions of other people on me.
    Now, I’m trying to calm down and stay away from debates in which I can’t participate for lack of knowledge. I was fooling myself whenever I tried to win arguments I haven’t really thought of before, and nothing will make you look more stupid than trying to impress debating something you know nothing about. You will look ignorant and uncultured and people will hate you.
    I think acknowledging I was wrong is a big step for someone like me who HATES to lose. I hope I can find the balance this article speaks of, and I wish good luck to everyone out there trying to do the same.

  • RockHatesMiriam September 18th, 2012 3:39 PM

    This is so inspiring and empowering! I definitely need to work on my negotiating skills though…haha

    http://www.pompandceremony.blogspot.com

  • la fee clochette September 18th, 2012 3:40 PM

    Thanks for this. Recently was laid off from a most amazing teaching job, and finally found a waitressing job. I was relieved to have something, and I have the experience it past food service jobs to know the hard work it involves.

    However, the boss/owner/lead cook, who is a woman, is verbally abusive, yet I have stayed; trying to convince myself that her words and name calling is justified.

    Though the hours and pay is amazing, her attitude and arbitrary outbursts on me and my other co-worker (and her husband) has significantly torn down my self esteem, and has wrecked havoc on my eating habits, from the anxiety.

    I have told her what she is doing is wrong and ineffective in creating a good work environment, but hse has made no change.

    I am putting in my two week notice tomorrow, and though I am nervous about telling her i am leaving, i am also extremely relieved.

    So thank you for writing this essay, and reminding me to be proud of myself as a worker, and to ultimately have respect for myself.

  • ai-ai September 18th, 2012 3:52 PM

    So inspiring! I think that articles like this are the thing that makes Rookie so great, a balance of important issues and more lighthearted stuff.

  • rayfashionfreak September 18th, 2012 3:53 PM

    Great piece!

  • rayfashionfreak September 18th, 2012 3:54 PM

    There is a meet up for all Scottish Rookie Readers at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow this Saturday, the 22nd of September. If you are interested please email me at fancyfashionfreak@gmail.com (p.s. this is not my usual personal email address, but I will reply to any questions)

  • marimba_girl September 18th, 2012 4:00 PM

    This is so true! My current physics lab partner does absolutely none of the work and refused to even after I confronted him. I spoke to my teacher about both of us receiving separate grades but he would not believe that my partner did not do any of the work. I was so angry and upset that I had no response and just walked away. I still have no idea what I am going to do.

    • Graciexx September 20th, 2012 5:41 AM

      hey marimba girl, I’m really sorry about that, I know how frustrating it is:P You should try speaking to your pastoral care instructor, councillor, homeroom teacher, mentor, heck even the principal! If none of that works, talk to your parents about it and see if they can approach the school. Teachers will usually respond more to parents unfortunately. Good luck!

      Graciexx

  • GlitterKitty September 18th, 2012 4:20 PM

    Very inspiring! I feel like every time I read one of Jamia’s articles I get a little more self confidence and learn something new. I’ve always been a very nervous person and too afraid of conflict but hopefully this will help me push out of that a little. Great article!

  • Abby September 18th, 2012 5:01 PM

    UGH, I am such a pushover. Maybe this article will help me. But on the other hand, I do the same thing as you do when I work in groups. If I’m in a group that has a clear leader, I’ll stay in the background and do as I’m told. But if I’m the only one willing to do work, I’ll do all of it or dictate to everyone else. And I ALWAYS get in trouble for it. Um…. what else am I supposed to do? Every time I try to tell teachers that the other students aren’t doing their share they say I’m complaining and not working together well, so I do all the work, and then they say that I shouldn’t have done that. It makes me nuts.

    But for the most part, I’m kind of a pushover. I have major trouble asking for what I want because my parents always taught me to be happy with what I had and that it was rude to ask for something (like a raise) that you didn’t explicitly need. I obviously disagree… I just have a really hard time putting that into action because I hate conflict and a lot of the time I’ll just say “okay,” and shrink away when people disagree or say no.

  • Jamia September 18th, 2012 5:53 PM

    THANK YOU!!!! I love hearing about Rookies owning their power and taking names. you inspire me.

  • Lamia September 18th, 2012 6:49 PM

    As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but nod at everything. I once made a PowerPoint for my parents to convince them that I actually needed to adopt kittens. In the end, I won them over and we got the kittens.

    An even better coincidence is that my name is Lamia and I also go by Mia.

    Great article, bookmarked for the troubles I will surely face in college in a few days :)

  • Moxx September 18th, 2012 7:36 PM

    I think this is true! I feel like people feel that girls have to be quiet and “nice”, and if you’re not exactly like that, then you’re rude, even if you were being polite.
    “be nice and smile”

    It drives me insane

    Why are brooding boys attractive
    But not brooding girls?
    Angry boys, outspoken boys, audacious boys, aggressive boys
    But not girls?

  • Lucy23 September 18th, 2012 10:36 PM

    Thank you so much for this. Seriously.

    http://safeanarchy.blogspot.com

  • Jessica W September 19th, 2012 2:08 AM

    This reminds me of a little debate I had a while ago about whether it’s okay to be forceful in life (with a somewhat conservative individual). It was the old “go with the flow”… “you deserve what you get”… etc. story.
    Which is just… Stupid.
    Doing, and saying, what you want to get what you want is a sign of self-respect and confidence in yourself. Never cruise along in life. Go negotiating!

    The Lovelorn

  • starpower September 19th, 2012 5:42 AM

    Thank you, this is great!

  • Lila Gracie September 19th, 2012 7:14 AM

    i was talking about how good it is to be ambitious with my friend the other day, and it led onto a conversation about how women need to break out of that awful traditional submissive role and really see that they can be just as and more ambitious than men. i hate that it’s so common for men to be congratulated for negotiating and being ambitious but women in exactly the same situation are often criticised. totally unfair

  • eliza dolittle September 19th, 2012 8:15 AM

    i JUST watched this video before reading this article and now i am so filled with rage
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders.html
    but like a good productive rage that i will always do my best to fight for myself. i went to an all girls high school, so leaving and finding the differences in how i am treated in university and at work when i act the same as my male counterparts is INSANELY FRUSTRATING. 60 year old physics teachers man.

  • miss_kayce September 19th, 2012 11:10 AM

    “In all kinds of settings—school, church, office, family, etc.—I’ve noticed that when you’re a gal who isn’t afraid to dish out some real talk or get your hands dirty by navigating conflict instead of skirting around it, some people will try to shame you into reining in your personal power, silencing your voice, and thinking that it isn’t your place to speak.”

    my truth!

    it’s funny that you mention break-ups, because in my personal experience i get far more backlash from *women* than men. (not that i care about men, as a proud misandrist dyke lol.) but seriously, my unapologetic outspokenness, and desire to assert myself has alienated me from more groups of women than i can count. i’m proud of you for trying to find your voice again, and appreciate you sharing a story that hits oh-so-close to home.

  • a-anti-anticapitalista September 20th, 2012 12:33 PM

    I don’t agree with the idea that we should fight to gain the same privilege that males have. The fight should be to end oppression, not to make opportunities for women to oppress equal to those of men within capitalism, or to make upper/middle class women equal in status to their male counterparts. I do think we should be fighting to end gender binaries, but the fight also shouldn’t be “women have to be more like this or less like that, being aggressive is good and if men get to be it then women should too!” -although that’s not necessarily what they author is saying, to be fair, but many people will probably interpret it that way. Definitely agree with ending the idea that there is an essential female and she needs to act this way, and the equivalent for males, and that we should be boxed in to gender categories, but I don’t think there is anything helpful from this if what you are doing is trying to end one form of oppression while simultaneously encouraging another.

  • Jamia September 21st, 2012 8:58 PM

    To be clear–The goal is equality and countering oppression in all of its forms. By no means is this about reiterating oppressive behavior or promoting “aggression”. Speaking up, being assertive, standing for your truth, and taking one’s rightful place in the midst of sexism, classism, ableism, racism, homophobia, and nationalism is not about reifying patriarchy or domination at all. It is about amplifying our voices and not being afraid to be seen or heard.

  • Deltalima September 22nd, 2012 9:59 PM

    I have about 20 books on Negotiating. The best two are by Roger Dawson, with the best one being “You can get anything you want (But you have to Ask).” He talks about personality styles and elements of power. “Secrets of Power Persuasion” is another one of his books that is good. “Negotiating for Dummies” is good, by Michael and Mimi Donaldson. Most of us can’t go to a special course, but we can go to a bookstore and get a book.

  • gstans September 23rd, 2012 12:31 PM

    THANK YOU! I’m angling for my first promotion in my first real life job right now and this is so helpful. Doing the whole applying somewhere else to get a counter offer thing. I will definitely use these tips to prepare!