Words: Florence Robson
Natalie Reynolds is CEO of globally respected negotiation firm advantageSPRING, author of bestselling book ‘We Have a Deal’ and Honorary Visiting Professor of Negotiation at Cass Business School. Natalie has worked with many of the world’s leading companies, business schools, governments and NGO’s including the United Nations and has a reputation as one of the leading voices on women and negotiation. In 2018 Natalie founded The Make Your Ask Project, a global initiative to challenge conventional thinking that negotiation is all about aggression, tough talk and win/lose. Make Your Ask promotes a method of negotiating based on collaboration, understanding, problem solving and creativity. In a bold bid to make negotiation more accessible to everyone, Natalie has bottled up her expertise and created an online course priced at only £10, a fraction of its market value. In addition for every £10 course sold, The Make Your Ask Project will gift a copy of the course to a woman around the world who really needs it.
You’ve founded a negotiation training firm, are a Visiting Professor of Negotiation at Cass Business School and have even written a book on the subject. What sparked your fascination with negotiation and how did you come to specialise in this area?
My background is a very varied one and I have worked across both the public and private sectors in roles that always required me to negotiate, whether that was negotiating changes to legislation and mediating policy disputes between government departments or negotiating multi-million pound contracts for FTSE100 companies or reviewing commercial supply chains for renegotiation opportunities. In 2008 I qualified as a Barrister and that really stoked my love for negotiation. I was fascinated by how the science of influence and persuasion played such a major role in getting to an agreement. I was particularly shaped by my experience of negotiating an agreement between a well-known charity and local government after a difficult and contentious Judicial Review about funding. I realised that when passion and emotion is brought to the negotiation table this can be both a help and a hindrance to reaching a workable solution. I was then approached to go and work for a big negotiation training firm and spent time training executives in large corporations; however, I disagreed with their style and approach and so after a difference of opinion about the importance of diversity in the negotiation process I left and founded advantageSPRING in 2013. Since then we have gone on to work with some amazing companies and well-known brands, as well as with leading business schools and various governments and NGOs.
Why do you think negotiation is such an essential skill for women?
I think negotiation is an essential skill for everyone! The ability to negotiate effectively can have a huge impact on everyone’s life. However, the question of women and negotiation has been a key focus for me for a number of years as there are still a number of very negative stereotypes and assumptions about women as negotiators. Examples include women not being as ambitious in what they ask for, capitulating too quickly and being less likely to negotiate in the first place.
My approach has always been to encourage a discussion about the validity of some of these stereotypes and to provide tools and tips to address them if needed. My view ultimately is that men and women are equally as capable as each other when it comes to negotiation, however we are viewed very differently when we do it. Multiple studies over the decades have shown that women are perceived as more aggressive and unlikeable when they negotiate and many women are keenly aware of this. I refer to this as ‘social penalty’ and it is one of the biggest barriers that women face, as for many of us it will them impact how we go on to ask for what we want. For me, the bigger focus is that when women are involved in negotiation processes outcomes are vastly improved. This has been evidenced in both commercial environments and in diplomacy, particularly peace negotiations. Outcomes are vastly improved for everyone when women have a space at the table.
What triggered you to launch the Make Your Ask project?
A combination of frustration and optimism! The frustration was borne out of nearly a decade in the negotiation training field and seeing so much bad advice and a constant perpetuation of the idea that to be a good negotiator you have to be aggressive and domineering. I have always believed that there is a better, more sophisticated way to negotiate that can illicit fantastic results without compromising credibility or relationships. I realised that whilst my firm was making a difference with the companies we were working with, and that I was helping to improve people’s confidence through speaking at conferences and events, there is still a long way to go.
Negotiation is at the heart of every human interaction. It shapes all aspects of our existence. My belief is that as long as people view negotiation as a battle or a competition there will be a negative impact on business, politics and society more generally. So, this needs to change. We need to reframe and reclaim negotiation. I launched Make Your Ask to do just that. Using the material I have taught at leading companies and business schools worldwide, I have created an 8-part online negotiation course that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere for only £10, as opposed to the hundreds or often thousands of pounds charged for most negotiation courses. My aim is to make good quality negotiation training available to as many people as possible. I am optimistic that the ripple effect of this could, I hope, have a hugely positive effect on how humans interact with each other and give so many people the confidence to use their voice to shape and influence the wider world.
How does your approach to negotiation differ from the more aggressive stereotypes?
My approach is to focus on people. People are the key ingredient in every negotiation as we bring ourselves to every negotiation that we do. It is essential that we understand each side’s motivations, circumstances, hopes and fears so that we can then use that to help navigate to an agreement that works for everyone. I also focus on simplicity. So many negotiation courses rely on complex approaches or are too theory heavy, so are not accessible to most people. My five step DEALS™ method is designed to provide a robust and easy to use framework for anyone on any negotiation. It has been proven to be effective in every type of setting so far, including salary and fee negotiations, complex commercial transactions, political disputes and diplomacy. Finally I like to make clear that my approach still encourages people to try and win if they can. I believe we should all focus on being the best we can be, utilising our ambition and succeeding. However, I do believe there is a big difference between winning at all costs and winning in the right way. My approach allows people to win, without actively trying to make the other side lose.