Does Small Talk in Negotiation Offer Big Gains?

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Does Small Talk in Negotiation Offer Big Gains?

According to conventional wisdom, small talk in negotiation builds rapport and gets both sides a better deal in the end. But in fact, the question of whether to engage in small talk can be highly context-specific. New York City investment bankers, for example, tend to be far less likely than Texas oil executives to engage in small talk at the outset of a negotiation.


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So, rather than adopting a blanket rule when deciding whether to engage in small talk in negotiation, be responsive to the context.

Consider the location of the interaction—your office, their office, or somewhere else? Because you have more control over the pace and substance when meeting on your turf, you should be more willing to use small talk to build rapport. If you’re meeting in their territory instead, look for context clues: Does your counterpart ask whether you’d like some coffee or immediately direct you to your chair? The former situation is clearly more conducive to small talk than the latter; in fact, trying to engage in small talk may irritate your counterpart in the second scenario. Also consider body language: Are you sitting together on a couch, or is your counterpart sitting at his desk with you across from him? Again, the former scenario invites small talk; the latter does not.

The substance of small talk in negotiation matters as well. Suppose that you are waiting for your counterpart in her office, and the diplomas hanging on the wall tell you that you both graduated from the same small college in New England, three years apart. In fact, you dropped your son off at the same school two weeks ago. This coincidence is likely to forge a connection, even if other factors argue against small talk. Yet complimenting your counterpart on her beautiful family based on some framed photos might be a mistake if the context does not otherwise invite small talk.

One Last Point About Small Talk in Negotiation

Even when you skip small talk at the outset of negotiation, always remain open to opportunities for making connections with the other party. Take the recent example of a diplomat who was negotiating a high-stakes treaty with representatives from another country. After more than a week of slow progress, the diplomat noted on a Wednesday that he would need to return home on Friday afternoon for an evening at the opera with his wife. Immediately, a connection was formed on two fronts: a shared dislike of opera and a shared interest in keeping spouses happy. This casual exchange altered the tone of the negotiation. The pace picked up, and the diplomat went home as scheduled on Friday afternoon—with a signed agreement in hand.

Related Article: When Lose-Lose Wins

Adapted from “The Final Word on Small Talk,” by Guhan Subramanian (professor, Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

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