Career & Success

Talking a Walk Could Be a Step Toward Better Negotiation

Getting out of the boardroom for a stroll changes how women feel about one-on-one negotiating.

May 12, 2023

| by Dave Gilson

Walkers must sync their pace as they head toward a common destination. | Alvaro Dominguez

Many people think of negotiation as a fight, but it’s really about collaboration, Margaret Neale explains to me as we begin our walk. “What negotiation is to me is joint problem-solving: let’s find a solution to a problem that we’re facing.”

Right now, the problem Neale and I face is how to get across the Stanford campus without getting soaked by an unseasonable shower. Where’s one of those famous covered walkways when you really need it?

Neale, a professor emerita of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, is an expert on negotiation and, to paraphrase the title of her book on the subject, how to get more of what you want. She’s found that the traditional approach to negotiation — two adversarial parties staring each other down over a table — doesn’t work all that well. “If you’re fighting, you’re not creating value. You’re trying to dominate,” she says. “Reframing it from battle to collaborative problem-solving opens up the opportunities for negotiation in such an amazing way.”

If you’re fighting, you’re not creating value. You’re trying to dominate.
Margaret Neale

I’ve joined Neale on this stroll to hear about her latest article, which explores an easy way to break out of the boardroom-battle model. Recently published in PLOS ONE, it details an experiment in which around 160 volunteers were split into same-gender pairs and given a 30-minute exercise where they had to hammer out the details of a fictional job offer. Half of the recruiter-candidate pairs talked while sitting across from each other in a room; the other half haggled while taking a walk outside.

Neale and her six Stanford-affiliated coauthors were curious if the well-known cognitive and psychological benefits of walking would lead to less competitive, more cooperative negotiations. Their findings were promising: the walkers came away liking their negotiation partners more than the sitters did. And there were distinct benefits for women who walked: they achieved more equitable results, as measured by points assigned to their final outcomes. They also reported fewer negative feelings about the negotiation exercise than women who stayed inside.

“We mitigated some of the negative feelings around a negotiation, which actually is a pretty big deal because women face a very uneven playing field in the negotiation area,” Neale says. As noted in the paper, women tend to avoid negotiations and report feeling anxious and uncomfortable while negotiating. And, as Neale has found, when women negotiate from a position of strength, they may be penalized for coming off as too assertive. 

Looking for Equal Footing

The new findings build on Neale’s earlier research on how small shifts in context can affect women’s experience in negotiations. In one study, women who did the recruiter-candidate exercise sitting side-by-side in the same kind of chairs had better economic outcomes than those who sat across a desk in chairs of different heights. Neale and her coauthors on the walking study hypothesized that getting out of a room might similarly benefit women. “We knew historically from research that, on average, women do worse than men in negotiation,” she says. “The question was, can we maybe recreate the environment to mitigate the experience that the women have?”

While Neale’s team had expected walking to positively affect all participants regardless of gender, they were surprised at the results for men. Men who walked had less equitable results in their negotiations and reported more negative emotions than men who sat. It’s not clear why this happened, though Neale wonders if they interpreted this unusual exercise as a competition or a race.

That’s just one of many questions that might be explored in future research that builds on this “proof of concept” study. Does walking boost women’s positivity or performance when negotiating with men? (Due to its small size, this study did not study mixed-gender pairs.) Does walking inside have similar effects as walking outside? What about a virtual negotiation where the parties are on treadmills?

Whatever its practical effects might be, a good walk is a perfect metaphor for the kind of collaborative problem-solving Neale advocates. It requires both parties to sync their pace and focus as they head toward a common destination. As she explained on the Grit and Growth podcast last year, a successful negotiator has to convince their counterpart “to voluntarily walk this path of agreement with me.”

Twenty minutes and one rainstorm later, Neale and I near the GSB, where she’s about to teach an executive education class. I ask her what happens if you reach an impasse while negotiating on a walk. Have you limited your option to call the whole thing off? “No — I could just do this,” Neale says, stopping in her tracks. “It gives new meaning to walking away.”

The study was coauthored by Marily Oppezzo, instructor of medicine at Stanford Prevention Research Center; Margaret A. Neale, professor emerita of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business; James J. Gross, professor of psychology at Stanford; Judith J. Prochaska, professor of medicine at Stanford; Daniel L. Schwartz, professor of educational technology at Stanford Graduate School of Education ; Rachael C. Aikens, PhD student in biomedical informatics at Stanford; and Latha Palaniappan, professor of medicine at Stanford.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More