Interview with Leadership and Negotiation Expert Selena Rezvani: How to Negotiate Meeting Culture

Interview with Leadership and Negotiation Expert Selena Rezvani: How to Negotiate Meeting Culture

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Selena Rezvani is a highly sought-after expert on leadership and negotiation who promotes a more female-friendly workplace culture through her award-winning writing and speaking engagements. 

If you've ever been told no, if you've ever been cut off at a work meeting, and if you want to close the gender and racial wage gap, you won't want to miss this podcast interview. 

We discussed: 

- How you can leverage the power of cognitive dissonance to flip a “No” around 

- How tiny, everyday way of negotiating meeting culture can have a huge impact on your career 

- What remains the biggest barrier for women to be heard and respected at meetings 

...and so much more. 

Full Episode Transcript

Jamie:  Hello, Selena!

Selena: Hi, Jamie. How are you?

Jamie: I’m doing awesome. How are you doing?

Selena: Great, great! Are you having a good week?

Jamie: Yes, I’m having a really wonderful week. How about you?

Selena: Good! Yeah, we haven’t spoken since you’ve kind of branched off on your own, so congratulations!

Jamie: Thank you so much. I just want to say thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom and your expertise on my podcast.

Selena: My pleasure.

Jamie: I’m all about leadership, I’m all about negotiation and you’ve been doing this longer and you’ve written an award-winning book called Pushback that I and many of my peers have read, so again I really appreciate you taking the time on this beautiful day.

Selena: It is beautiful, isn’t it? Finally!

Jamie: Yeah, finally it is. Well, let’s get started.

Selena: Sure.

Jamie: I’d love to hear your personal experience. I’d love to hear about a negotiation in your life or career that had the biggest impact on you.

Selena: For sure. I’ll tell you about one that happened to me in early days. As a teenager, like a lot of kids, I dreamed about going to college, but I knew that was going to be kind of a hardship for my parents. I’m the youngest of four, after all, so I knew that was not gonna be an easy process, but I bounced along, optimistic that that would happen and life kind of had other plans.

I lost my father very suddenly in my teenage years, and aside from just the devastation of that, financially, it became really hard for us as a family and when it came time for college, my wonderful mom who made miracles happen, she said, “Honey, I can just swing everything with the financial aid package you’re getting this year,” (my first year), and I loved that year at college, that first year.

I received my financial aid package for the second year, and to my very shocked upset, it was almost like half as much, despite having a really strong year at school and my mom sat me down and she said, “Selena, I just can’t swing it this time.” And I knew in that moment that the only thing that was going to drive an outcome that might change the situation was gonna be me.

And so I wrote a very long, rambling appeal to the financial aid office at NYU and I was so delighted when they changed my financial aid package to make it doable for my family, not just for that sophomore year, but for the next three years, so that I could finish.

Jamie: Yeah, you asked. You made a bold and vulnerable ask, it sounds like.

Selena: Yeah, you know, so often I find with my clients and in my own life learning to become a more bold negotiator, you get even a whiff of no or here’s how it is, here’s what we can do, and it’s so, so easy to kind of slink away feeling like, well, that must be how it is. That is the final limit. That is the bottom line. And it’s so rare that it actually is the bottom line or the final word.

Jamie: That’s a really inspiring story and I love that you started with a no, right? They were like, “No, this is how much you’re gonna get,” and you were like, “Wait, no! Let’s negotiate. Let me ask you something.”

Selena: Yeah, and I mean there are so many nos you’re going to get in life, and that’s a lesson I wish I had learned earlier as a young person. It’s not if you’re gonna get the no, it’s when. So what are you gonna do? How will you be ready? How will you pivot or who will you engage? What will you do when that happens, not if it happens?

Jamie: Right, right. And what you shared with us is that there’s still room for conversation. You can still ask again.

Selena: Yeah, in fact, I would actually say that the odds are stacked in your favor. Often when you’ve been told no, there’s a cognitive dissonance, a psychological factor that makes it hard to say no to the same person over and over again. So, I would actually say when you’ve been told no, you can almost see it as A) corrective information to change your pitch a little bit or do something slightly different, but B) ask again. It’s very uncomfortable to say no to somebody three times in a row.

Jamie: That’s interesting. That leads me to my next question. I know that a lot of your work is centered around research, and I’m curious to know what are some of the most interesting research findings that you’ve come across on women’s leadership.

Selena: Yeah, well there are so many. This is one of my favorite arenas, I think you know, just to really see the future when it comes to the experience of working women. I’ll tell you one thing I’m really interested in right now, and it’s a tiny, everyday way that we negotiate at work, and it’s negotiating meeting culture.

So, this is an area I’m particularly interested in because you’re an expert at this Jamie, you know that so often people focus on the kind of major pitch or the once a year professional development meeting, but it really is this everyday skill, and you know, you think about meetings, many of us spend hours on end in meetings.

They signal what’s important to a company, what we meet about. Once we’re there, we’re negotiating to make a point in a meeting, we’re negotiating to stand up for our point or somebody else’s when it’s being attacked. We negotiate to try to change the minds of folks if there’s a popular direction we don’t agree with. I think one of the major things that’s almost rampant in workplace culture is around interrupting and I think women need to negotiate that. I think that is an everyday negotiation.

Jamie: Absolutely.

Selena: Yeah. You look at that research, and it almost, it really pains me to say this, but one research point that came out of Journal of Language and Social Psychology - that’s the kind of premier journal - said men and women are both likelier to interrupt when they’re talking to a woman than when they’re talking to a man, so the sex of the interrupter is less of a strong force on interruptions but it’s more the sex of who’s being interrupted.

We are all more likely to interrupt a woman and that’s really a shame because there’s other data that when it comes to groups being most productive and strong, they are most likely to share airtime equally. This is kind of the kindergarten lesson all of us learned, which is take your turn, you know, wait your turn. So, that conversational turn-taking serves teams better and yet interruptions happen to the point where there’s multiple apps, things like Gender Timer.

Jamie: Really?

Selena: Yeah, just to promote this awareness in workplaces. It shows who’s speaking the most, who’s dominating the airspace. There’s even an app, a newer one, called Woman Interrupted. Really! There’s an app for that. It shows that it happens more than we think.

Jamie: It’s almost painful, because it brings back, for me, memories of being an analyst at this financial firm and my manager would ask me to prepare documents to present at the meeting and whenever I would get one word in, I would say, “Okay, this shows…” and then he would immediately cut me off and he would just run the meeting. And I remember it was like that every single time. I would put together the documents, I would say, “Okay, this is…” and then he would cut me off every single time.

Selena: Wow. At least you can say he’s predictable, but wow. I would go so far as to say it can feel dehumanizing, it can feel almost humiliating to be cut off. And it’s even worse, I think when you find your own self saying by default, “Oh, please, go ahead,” without even thinking. I know I’ve done that myself without even noticing I’m doing it. I yield at points and will say, “Oh, please, go ahead.”

Jamie: Yeah. I’ve done it many times.

Selena: Right. And there’s solutions to this and I talk to women about it and men alike because I think they’re part of this just as much, but I think one of the first things is, first of all, having allies in the room who will say something like, “So and so just said that,” or, “The way you’re speaking is making me uncomfortable.” Or encouraging women to say, “Stop interrupting me.” If you are the woman interrupted, I think negotiating that is quite an art. You can keep talking. So one method is keep talking as if you didn’t hear the interruption.

Jamie: Right.

Selena: Truly. Another is to do what I do with my 5-year-old twins, which is just as you would with a child, say to the interrupter “One moment,” while you continue talking or, “I’m not done,” and continue the point you were making. You can kind of shift in your chair. I have done this and seen it have an effect. You’re kind of making your body bigger or showing some physical discomfort and a change and continue speaking a little bit louder. Whatever you do, don’t ask, “Can I finish speaking?”

Jamie: Yeah. So don’t look for permission. Don’t yield. Have your say.

Selena: Have your say. Absolutely. I mean, there is something so programmed and so deep in many of us that women should really accommodate and avoid things that feel escalating or somehow less communal behaviors and it’s up to each of us to kind of change that programming by disrupting it. I think that’s one of the best ways.

Jamie. Yeah, my mentor, Lisa Gates, she says you have to interrupt interruption.

Selena: Absolutely. That’s a perfect way to think of it. Because what will keep it going is that polite dance, the polite but frustrated dance of, “Sure, go ahead,” “Sure, jump in here. What I was saying wasn’t that important anyway.”

Jamie: Yeah. That’s really important and I’m kind of pained to self-reflect and think about have there been times where I’ve thoughtlessly interrupted other women? And probably so, because I did have women reporting to me in my career and I probably did it unconsciously.

Selena: Yeah, I mean, listen, I think it takes a big person, to say that, first of all, and to do that kind of reflection but I think we all do it to an extent. I mentioned that I had twins earlier, they’re a boy and a girl and I’m in this line of work of trying to improve workplaces, to make them more gender equal, to empower women and I correct myself sometimes, too. I correct myself.

I notice if I say, “Can somebody come help me set the dinner table,” if my son kind of is dismissive or distracted, I’ve noticed in the past that I’m a little bit more lenient with that then when my daughter is like, “Well, I want to play more.” As though she should, for some reason, be more communal and be more helpful. I mean, we all have this programming to overcome and it’s so deep it’s almost invisible.

Jamie: Yes. So it takes a lot of mindfulness and practice.

Selena: It does, and sadly I think a lot of organizations today, like you can do the once a year training or the once a year town hall to raise awareness, but it’s not enough for any of us. None of us can have biases continually disrupted and to be reminded consistently if we’re just doing something very, very occasionally to interrupt it. So I think how you weave it into your culture, how you weave it into your life so that it’s an ongoing discussion item.

Jamie: Like a meeting, which happens on a recurring basis every week and so every week you have that opportunity to initiate a brief conversation, to have your say, to speak up, to ask for what you want. I think that’s what you’re saying and I think it’s so important.

Selena: If it’s not part of the company’s operating norms to divvy airtime, to not interrupt, it’s one of the most basic things all organizations can do, that all meeting organizers can do to change the status quo.

Jamie: Yeah. And I can see how that will have a spillover effect into how you are evaluated, how you are perceived by the leaders and the decision makers when they go to think about okay, who’s gonna get promoted, who’s gonna get that plum assignment. The person who speaks up, the person who takes up as much airtime during meetings is probably going to be top of mind, just because they’ve been seen and heard more often than the people who have not.

Selena: You’re a hundred percent right, and I’ll never forget a story that a CEO shared on a panel that I was on, and she said, “We were interviewing for a position. We had one candidate who we knew of but had a reservation or two about and another candidate who looked great on paper but that nobody knew, nobody had really heard them speak.” Who do you think got the job? The flawed but known person. Not the possibly incredible but quiet person and that’s very illustrative I think of the workplace today.

Jamie: Yeah. So, moving on, I’m curious to know what three pieces of advice you have for women who do want to close their wage gaps.

Selena: Yeah, that’s so important, and thank you for asking that question and the first thing I would say is talk to people who don’t look like you about what you make. At one of my first consulting jobs - I grew up in management consulting - I did this. I talked about what I made with my peers, but guess who I talked to. I talked to my two best friends, and they were an African American woman and a Chinese American woman. So, do you think that what the three of us made was really representative of the entire band or level where we sat? Heck no!

According to research, all three of us were probably underpaid, but I used their information as my anchors and to inform what I should be making. I shouldn’t have done that. I needed to talk to white men and men of color. I needed to really get out there, to diversify who I was seeking information from, and I think that’s so important.

I often will say to women, if you feel uncomfortable doing this, bring along a little give. So you can diffuse some of the tension by saying like, “Oh, I have an industry salary report. I’d love to send it to you and share what I learned.” Bring some sort of third party gift if you feel funny asking out of the blue.

You can also ask people things like, “Where do you hope to be?” You don’t even have to ask the question of, “What did you come in at when you joined the company?” but “Where do you hope to be at performance review time or bonus time?” A second thing I think is really important, and I just ran a workshop where some of the women said this made a difference, is shift your mindset from taker in a negotiation to giver.

Jamie: I like that. Tell me more.

Selena: So, this is kind of remembering the oxygen mask phenomenon in the plane. It’s realizing that the more you negotiate for yourself, the more responsibility you have, the more money you make, the more license you have to drive decisions within your organization, the more you can give opportunities to other people, for example. The more you can nominate that very worthy person to lead a division or lead a department. The more you can give to charity. There’s so many ways you can think about this. The more you can do for your family.

And I think that’s important. I think that resonates with a lot of women, that I’m not just like taking for the heck of it when I negotiate. I’m actually looking to make a bigger impact in the world and wow, I can do that if I have more say-so and more money in the bank.

A third thing I would say is, we all kind of know that if you make your ask more communal, it will help you in a negotiation and that’s certainly in line with gender stereotypes that we know.

But I would add one more thing that I think a lot of women have success with and it’s counterintuitive. It’s bringing some humor into negotiations. And I say that because I think a lot of the blowback we get is because of this trope of you’re a strident, demanding woman asking for whatever it is. I think when you have a sense of humor, even one playful, funny comment like, “Research shows that when I ask you for what I’m about to ask you, you’re gonna like me less.” I mean, really, like, diffuse the tension,  even call out the absurdity that a woman asking is gonna make her a little less likable.

Jamie: It’s also calling out the elephant in the room at the same time. It kind of makes them step back and think, “Oh, hmm, interesting.”

Selena: Exactly! It does kind of undress and humanize the conversation a little bit and people have even done this in funny ways with contentious group negotiations.

I read one example where somebody started the meeting knowing this group had a kind of negative history by saying, “Look, I’m gonna be part Oprah, part Dr. Phil, part Jerry Springer today and I hope none of you throw any chairs.” It was a way to diffuse the tension, it was a way to inject some levity and maybe even remind people, is it worth it to get so carried away or so combative? So I think that was really effective. I do think it can help.

There’s also some newer research that shows humor is seen as a form of intelligence by people when they use it “appropriately” so not too extreme in form.

Jamie: Yeah, I love it, because it’s a way of strengthening the bond between you and the other side. We do know when there is a strong bond, you’re, I read, about four times more likely to get what you want.

Selena: Yeah, it makes complete sense that the same reasons you would do small talk or rapport build,  you know that you would also have the occasional laugh.

Jamie: Right, and that makes people relax and just be at ease. If you’re more at ease, you’re being creative, you’re being more forthcoming and that will help you negotiate better, absolutely.

I want to add to your idea of coming to the negotiation table as a giver. I also think it’s helpful to think about how you can give more creative solutions, more value. If you are negotiating for a raise or a promotion, I think you do want to say, “I am committed to bringing more value, and this is how: X, Y, and Z.”  So that way, you’re giving.

Selena: Yeah, I think that’s really smart. It’s really almost like reframing from “Can I have this?” to “Here’s a value proposition.”

Jamie: That’s right, yeah.

Selena: I like your point a lot. You know that that leads to more yes answers than just the “Can I have…?” for my own sake.

Jamie: Yeah, instead of “Can I have…?” be like, “Alright. I want to do more for you, how can we make this work?”

Selena: Exactly.

Jamie: Yeah.

Selena: You stole my line!

Jamie: It’s everyone’s line. So, I’m curious to know from you, you are an expert on negotiation, leadership, on creating more female-friendly workplaces and from that place, what does the word thrive mean to you? What does it look like?

Selena: You know I think it’s very simple. For me, it’s about having a voice. And maybe that’s why I’m so interested in meeting culture, what I was bringing up earlier about interruptions and being talked over or feeling shushed in life. I think a lot of women have felt shushed in their life in some way or another. I have.

And so, I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to write columns about the experience of working women, to write books, to have the agency to say my say-so, to have that self-expression. I tell my kids the same thing. I encourage them, “You can do whatever you want as a grown-up in your career but make sure you have a voice. Have a say in what matters to you. Steer the conversation. Use your articulation to shine a light on something that people aren’t seeing.” That is such a gift, and it’s one I will never stop appreciating.

I had a job early in my career and it was at the kind of firm where anything you said outside of the firm in a blog or in an interview like this needed to be checked by about twelve PR people and sometimes massaged before it could be put out there in the world. I could not stand that and I couldn’t live that way and so I think that’s really important to have a voice and use it.

Jamie: I love it. I have to say throughout all this time I’ve just been nodding my head. You just can’t see me, but I’m like, “Yep. Exactly!”

Selena: I love it. The vigorous nodding. I’m feeling it, Jamie, I’m feeling it.

Jamie: Yeah. So, just one quick personal question: What’s your favorite color and why?

Selena: Yeah. This has not changed in my entire life, but purple. And I really love the dark, kind of almost the color of an eggplant. That’s my favorite kind. Mysterious.

Jamie. Nice. Okay, cool. So where can people learn more about what you do and your work with Be Leaderly?

Selena: Yeah. is a great place to find us and we’re also on Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram, we have lots of lively dialogue and share as many super usable tips as we can, so please join us on those and we can continue the conversation!

Jamie: Yeah, this was a really valuable conversation. I love the tips about how to interrupt interruptions at a meeting so you can have your say and use your voice so you can thrive! I love that!

Selena: Well, thank you so much. I hope we get to do this again, Jamie, it was awesome.

Jamie: Same here. Thank you so much for your time, your expertise and your voice.

Selena: Thank you.

Jamie: Okay. Bye-bye.

Selena: Bye.

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