While negotiations are inherently risky, there are proven ways to reduce risk and improve your odds of success. To do so, you must focus on the very basis of your relationship with the other party: trust.
Think about a time when you lost trust in a fellow negotiator. Did you try to renegotiate the terms of the relationship, or did you ignore the problem and hope it would go away? Did you adjust the extent to which you trusted him? We often enter into negotiations with an assumption of trust—an assumption we carry through our relationship with the other party. When things go wrong, as they often do, we are typically unwilling to renegotiate the terms of the relationship for fear of destroying the very basis of trust. After all, when you communicate a loss of trust, the other side is unlikely to take this change in stride. The resulting anger and hurt feelings can leave you worse off than if you had not trusted at all.
As Nobel Prize–winning professor Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and the late Amos Tversky of Stanford University showed, people generally dislike departures from the status quo. In contrast, when negotiators build trust incrementally, a healthy skepticism signals merely a lack of trust, not a betrayal signaled by loss of trust.
When you begin talks with someone new, it’s important to discuss ground rules—including the basic beliefs about trust that you both bring to the table. Rather than assuming mutual trust, explain that you are a conservative risk taker who prefers to build trust slowly over the course of a relationship.
Communicating your preference for building trust over time avoids the need to signal mistrust later on. Consider that many patients find it hard to tell their longtime doctor they want a second opinion, fearing the doctor will be offended and perhaps even give them inferior care in the future. But if you tell a doctor during your first checkup that you value second opinions and make them standard procedure, you will avoid this uncomfortable situation.
Adapted from “How Much Should You Trust?” by Iris Bohnet (professor, Harvard Kennedy School) and Stephan Meier (professor, Columbia Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, March 2006.