Business Negotiations: How to Improve Your Reputation at the Bargaining Table

Cultivate a cooperative reputation and let that guide your opponent's negotiation strategies

By on / Business Negotiations

Business Negotiations

In multi-issue business negotiations, research suggests that the advantage goes to negotiators with a reputation for collaboration rather than competition. In a series of studies by Catherine H. Tinsley and Kathleen O’Connor, participants were told they would be negotiating with someone who had either a tough reputation, a cooperative reputation, or an unknown reputation. Although this information was fictitious and randomly assigned, it had a major impact on participants’ expectations during the negotiation simulations and, ultimately, on both sides’ outcomes.

Specifically, negotiators with a reputation for tough, self-interested bargaining fared worse than did those whose reputation was unknown. What’s more, negotiators with a reputation for effective collaboration achieved better deals than did those with a competitive or an unknown reputation.

You can’t fully control what others think and say about you, but you can seize opportunities to appear as cooperative as possible during and after business negotiations.

Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

3 Negotiation Tips for Improving Your Reputation at the Bargaining Table During Business Negotiations

1. Build trust by granting early, small wins.

When parties trust each other, they feel safer sharing sensitive information about their needs and interests. Allowing the other side to achieve small wins early in the exchange can go a long way toward building a climate of trust and cooperation. New York Police Department hostage negotiator Lieutenant Jack Cambria often begins his negotiations by asking the hostage taker if he wants Cambria to tell the truth. When the hostage taker replies yes, Cambria agrees to do so—thus allowing the hostage taker to believe he has achieved a small victory.

The same lesson applies to the business world. Consider asking your colleague to choose the meeting place for your negotiation about a tough budget issue, or letting a direct report decide what to discuss today and what to put off until tomorrow. Conceding on seemingly minor procedural points can help build trust, set a cooperative tone, and give the impression that you’re making progress.

2. Communicate your interests.

Once talks are underway, opening up about your interests and priorities can demonstrate a cooperative spirit and promote mutually beneficial deals. Divulging a piece of sensitive information will give your counterpart a more accurate picture of where you stand as well as the boundaries of a potential agreement. Suppose that, as a vendor, you inform a prospective buyer that you prefer a delivery date in late June to meet a quarterly quota. Now you can work together to figure out how to meet this date—and reach a deal that gives both sides more of what they want.

When mutual distrust prevents parties from talking candidly, revealing information can provide an inroad. Because reciprocity is such a powerful norm, contributing insights about your own interests can encourage the other side to reveal something about hers—while also shoring up your reputation as a cooperative negotiator.

3. Focus on “how” as well as “what.”

Experienced managers understand that the way in which a message is delivered can matter as much as its content. In fact, Robert Bies of Georgetown University and Joseph Moag, professor emeritus of Northwestern University, found that even unpleasant outcomes can be acceptable if the news is communicated in a manner that seems fair. Treating someone with politeness, respect, and honesty can give her a sense of being treated fairly.

Imagine that you’re negotiating with your team over the upcoming year’s projects, deadlines, and resources (see also, Putting Your Negotiated Agreement Into Action). Carefully addressing members’ interests, responding calmly to their anxieties, and acknowledging their abilities will communicate your respect for them. In addition, the overall quality of the agreement is likely to increase if the process leaves teammates feeling more comfortable and confident. Encouraging a shift from adversarial bargaining to joint problem solving will also burnish your reputation as a cooperative partner in negotiations (see also, Use Integrative Negotiation Strategies to Create Value at the Bargaining Table).

Do you think your reputation in business negotiations is what it should be? How do you think you could improve?

Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Originally published in 2011.

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No Responses to “Business Negotiations: How to Improve Your Reputation at the Bargaining Table”

  • Debbie D.

    Any suggestions for negotiating a settlement with a large well known bank? Issue deals with a 93 year old woman, bank fraud and 3 denials by the bank. Bank has agreed to to offer a settlement after lawyer got involved. However their offer is rediculously low. Does not cover the loss. Only covers attorney fee and my travel to meet with attorney.

    • I would suggest that you read the book, Bargaining with the Devil, written by one of our faculty members Robert Mnookin, or review our free reports that are all posted online.

  • Angus M.

    “Bargaining with the Devil” is excellent. I’ve always found that asking questions is helpful, especially when any offer is put on the table. Perhaps, these might be a starting point: How did you come up with that? Or, How can we accept that? Or the classic: “What makes that fair?” As always though, I find that my best questions end not merely with the question mark but with me keeping my mouth shut and allowing them to think.


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