Let me ask you a question: when was the last time you negotiated?

I was reading a study earlier this week where they asked men and women to recount the last time they negotiated. Before reading the results of the study, I decided to ask myself the same thing: when was the last time I negotiated?

I thought back — way back — to a client I work with. I negotiated my rate. That was what…two months ago? Ok, that must have been the last time I negotiated, right?

Turns out my response was in line with what many women think of.

What’s the real difference between men and women negotiating?

In a study of several hundred people, when asked the last time they attempted or initiated a discussion, men said on average they initiated a negotiation 2 weeks earlier. Women said they initiated a negotiation over a month before. When asked about the second most recent time? Men said it was 7 weeks prior and women said it was 24 weeks prior.

So what gives? Are women really not asking as much?

When writing the book, “Women Don’t Ask”, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever asked 100 of their respondents to recall the last time they negotiated. Men described an event that occurred in the preceding week and women named an event that happened several months before.

The difference is that women were thinking of structural negotiation events: a time they bought a car or asked for a raise.

The men mentioned informal negotiating situations, such as negotiating with a colleague about which part of the project each would take on.

What’s even more interesting than the frequency that men and women negotiate is that most women see situations as “fixed”. Many women were unhappy with a situation but didn’t realize they could negotiate, whereas men see (and seize upon) more opportunities with informal negotiation.

The Big N and little n

Shortly after reading this study I came across a talk by Carol Frohlinger of Negotiating Women where she broke down this same situation. What I loved about how she explained it was that there are big ‘N’ and little ‘n’ negotiations.

The big N negotiation is exactly what most of us think about: it’s the structured negotiation like asking for a raise or haggling over the purchase price with a car dealer. We know it’s completely acceptable to negotiate in those situations and if we choose to negotiate, we come prepared.

The little n negotiation is what most of us miss out on each day. These are the opportunities where it’s not really as clear that we can and should be negotiating. This includes things like assignments we’re given at work, resources that can help us be successful, and even negotiating with your partner over household duties.

While most of us don’t acknowledge that we have little n negotiation opportunities, these have a direct and powerful impact on our daily life. Over time these small things that we could continually ask for add up.

For example, think about the last time you begrudgingly took on a project at work, even though you were completely overloaded. Perhaps you could have negotiated to find a solution to your enormous workload, which would have set you, your team, and your company up for success (and could have helped you avoid burnout). Or maybe there was something else that you needed to make the project successful, such as another team member or a larger budget.

That little n negotiation can effect your big N negotiation because average performance doesn’t get you a stellar raise. It can also affect your quality of life each day (have you ever been the one toiling away at your desk for 12 hours a day while your co-worker consistently cruises out of the office after 8? You know what I’m talking about.)

What should you negotiate for? The everyday negotiation

So while it’s important to negotiate for the big things in life (go get that raise and promotion), it’s equally important to take the opportunities that you can for little n negotiation.

Don’t know where to start? Take a look at what you have on your plate right now. Is there something you need to help you be more successful? Is there an opportunity that you’d like to take on? Do you want an introduction to someone you really admire and look to as a potential mentor?

Find something small and then make your ask.

And by the way, there’s a difference between complaining about something and asking for something. For example, “I have so much work there’s no way I’ll ever be able to get through this!” isn’t the same as “the workload is a little heavy right now. Can you help me re-prioritize some of these urgent items or can we work on getting more support to help take the admin tasks off my plate?”

I used to be that Passive Aggressive Polly who would complain rather than asking directly. And guess what? Things got a lot better when I just asked.

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