July 17, 2008

How Important Are Appearances for Ombuds

Diane Levin posts a provoking piece about the effect of appearance in negotiation. She was inspired by an article in an online magazine that urges women to present themselves in a way that will look good to the other party. Levin argues that a professional appearance and listening to your counterpart are much more important for a successful negotiation. Moreover, she is left uneasy by the emphasis on a woman’s appearance. "Behind it lurks a whole array of social justice issues uncomfortable to discuss but urgent for us to face." (Mediate.com.)

I agree with Levin's emphasis on listening over appearance and concern about social justice issues facing women in negotiation. As an Ombuds, I am personally concerned about the impact of a first appearance. Like most Ombuds since I work with visitors who vary widely in age, education, income, ethnicity, gender identity, etc. It would be impossible and disingenuous for me to attempt to mimic the attributes of the individuals with whom I interact. I find it more important to dress in a way that reflects that I am comfortable with myself, neutral in my outlook and serious about my work. My only “accessory” is a trustworthy pen. That being said, I do keep a jacket and tie handy for mediations, presentations and meetings with top administrators. I would interested in hearing readers' thoughts on these issues.

Related post: Gender Differences in Negotiating.


  1. Great thoughts on a topic that I'm sure people probably have strong beliefs about. My own belief is simply that how I communicate depends on the context of the situation. If I'm brokering a business deal and want to be able to influence the other party of course I'm going to be in a "power suit" and will speak much more differently than if I were coaching someone in the Ombuds setting. Though I don't like the word "mimic" which to me implies a lack of genuiness I do believe that it is important in any setting to be able to truly listen to the person in front of you and that you create a powerful connection, a connection that can sometimes be created by communicating/reflecting the other person's style, energy, etc. I think that the article that Dianne refers to is a little troubling in that the emphasis seems to be on appearance versus substance. I confess I've judged books by their covers but after the first few lines I do discard them if there's no substance. Both matter. The most troubling aspect about the article that Diane refers to is that it ends with this tip for women: Don't be confrontational and emotional. There's that double standard again. Boys (that eventually grow to be man) who are assertive and aggressive are reinforced by society but girls (that become women) that exhibit those exact same traits are labelled problems (and far worse thing than I can mention in this presumably "G" rated forum.)

  2. Tom, thanks for linking to my post and for adding your own thoughts. You make a great point about the need to be authentic. I'm grateful to the anonymous commenter for raising an issue that I hadn't addressed about women and confrontation -- the article I linked to concludes by saying, "Our advice: don’t be confrontational. Getting fired-up and emotional may have an adverse reaction." Arrghh!!

    I can't believe that in this day and age, people are still peddling that old double standard. Is it 2008? Or 1948? Hard to tell sometimes.