A Competitor Wanted To Pick My Brain — Here's How I Handled It

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I had a strange experience recently. I’d been introduced to someone through a mutual contact and we arranged to get a coffee together. I knew we had common professional interests and assumed it was a friendly networking chat. Turns out she wanted to pick my brain… so she could compete with me.

At first I thought maybe she was gearing up to ask me for a job. I quickly realized I was flattering myself.

“I want to start a side hustle giving negotiation advice to women. You’ve been in business over a year now, so what advice do you have for me?”

One of the key areas of focus in my small consulting company is working with women to close their personal gender wage gaps, so I was surprised by her forthright question. Competitors don’t usually come right out and ask for recommendations. I wanted to give myself a moment to gather my thoughts before responding. I said, “Let me reflect on that.”

I’m constantly working to grow my consulting practice. I prefer to stay focused on my priorities rather than get distracted comparing myself to others, and the conversation felt almost too direct. Of course, every business has competitors, I reminded myself. Still, I was caught off guard. To be face to face with someone asking directly for my hard-earned insights was unsettling. Was I misinterpreting the situation, or was she just bolder than I expected?

This was my moment to make a conscious decision about how to approach the conversation, and I went with what comes authentically to me: empathy. If I were in her shoes, it would have taken some guts to be so frank.

So I decided to put my negotiating skills to work in handling the conversation. The important technique that I needed to rely on here was understanding the other person's needs. So rather than getting defensive, I decided to give her what she wanted (advice) without giving away my hard-earned secrets.

I offered some tips about easily avoidable mistakes I’d made when setting up my business. Though I wasn’t willing to divulge anything too specific, it felt easy yet helpful to share some insights on the logistics of getting an LLC.

I even asked if she was interested in working for me: she had valuable startup experience and demonstrated an impressive depth of knowledge. Though that was a non-starter for several reasons, it seemed at least worth exploring.

And finally, I shared with her my sincere belief that women should lift each other up as we climb. Perhaps there were ways we could collaborate down the road.

A successful negotiation is one that not only achieves your goals, but enhances your relationships. Eventually our conversation transitioned from business to life in New York, politics, shopping… things that girlfriends chat about over coffee. When we went our separate ways that evening, I felt glad that we had met.

This post originally appeared in Women@Forbes, where Alexandra Dickinson is a contributor. She writes about how to use a negotiation mindset to achieve your goals.

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Alexandra Dickinson

Alexandra Dickinson is the CEO and founder of Ask For It, a boutique consulting company working to close the gender wage gap by effecting change at both the institutional and individual level. We work with companies, schools, organizations and individuals through a combination of trainings, workshops and consulting. Our goal is for women and men to be paid based on their talents and skills, regardless of gender, and for our company to have been an important part of that change.