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Ingredients to Make a World-Class Negotiator: Peas, Kebabs, and Tahini Sauce

By Kaitlin Lavinder

How do you negotiate? Whether it’s at work, when buying a house, or trying to get your kids to eat their peas. And are women inherently at a disadvantage?

These were the questions swirling in the minds of highly accomplished SAIS women alumni, as we gathered around Juleanna Glover’s dining room table and munched on rice and kebabs during the SWAN Negotiations Dinner this fall.

Glover, a successful negotiator in her own right, is a corporate public affairs consultant and previously was Vice President Dick Cheney’s Press Secretary and a senior advisor to Senator John McCain’s 2008 bid for the White House. She is also a SWANer.

But the guests seated in Glover’s dining room were not there to hear about her illustrious career. Rather, they were there to hear from a panel of seasoned professional negotiators – and SAIS women alumni.

You can learn a lot from your kids, said Ambassador Marcie Ries, the former U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria and one of the distinguished speakers. Peas are a perfect example, she said. You give your kid a bowl of peas, and what’s the first thing she says?

“I’m not eating these, mommy.”

“But you have to,” you implore.

“Why?” asks the child.

“Because,” you say sternly, thinking you’ve made your point.

“How many?” the child continues, with a mischievous smile.

This goes back and forth, and back and forth, until your child eats merely a handful of peas, and you leave the situation with a headache.

Kids are blunt, they’re convicted, and they always ask why – good skills for a negotiator.

Carmen Suro-Bredie and Nancy Adams, both former U.S. trade representatives, agreed. Another helpful attribute? Being a woman, they said.

There were many times when the U.S. walked into the negotiating room with a team full of women, while the other side boasted only men, said Adams. That, in fact, could be a huge benefit. The girl power thing threw the men off, she said, and, thus, helped us in our negotiating position.

Beyond possessing the innate quality of being female in a still male-dominated world, you have to understand the culture you’re going up against – and not just the fact that it’s male.

Amy Celico, also a former U.S. trade representative and now a Principal at Albright Stonebridge Group where she leads the firm’s China team, explained how her Mandarin Chinese language skills and her experience of living and working in China for seven years boosted her abilities as a negotiator.

Understanding is the key, she said. Understanding who the other side is, what exactly they want, and what they’re willing to give up.

At the end of the discussion, Lynn Wagner, who received her PhD from SAIS and is now a SAIS professor teaching negotiation processes and outcomes, particularly in environmental negotiations, closed the evening by thanking the speakers and Ms. Glover for opening up her home.

The guests left with a sense of determination and a taste of tahini sauce.

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