Getting Off on the Wrong Foot

By — on / Conflict Resolution

Sometimes negotiators get off on the wrong foot. Maybe you and your partner had a different understanding of your meeting time, or one of you makes a statement that the other misinterprets. Such awkward moves at the beginning of an interaction can lead one party to question the other side’s motives.

In a recent article, Robert Lount, Chen-Bo Zhong, J. Keith Murnighan, and Niro Sivanathan, all of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, examined trust building in negotiation.

When talks begin, the researchers found, both sides are likely to be apprehensive about being exploited if they are too cooperative, if they reveal too much information, and so on. Over time, trust serves as a useful social process that helps both sides overcome initial uncertainty.

In most new, successful negotiation relationships, positive developments accumulate slowly, creating trust, and the dialogue improves. Essentially, through a set of reciprocal moves, trust evolves naturally during the negotiation process.

When talks get off on the wrong foot, restoring trust becomes essential. Lount and his colleagues distinguished among three stages of interaction: initial, early, and late. During the initial stage, the negotiators don’t necessarily expect cooperation, nor have they yet committed to the relationship.

It’s in the early stage, once the negotiators have begun to trust one another, that the relationship becomes vulnerable. During the early stage, violating trust can be especially damaging because the nature of the relationship is not fully established. Later, the parties may have built enough trust to overcome what appears to be a violation. But if the violation is strong enough, it may do more harm late in the process, due to the sense of betrayal felt by the injured party.

One careless move can have a profound influence on a negotiation. Recognizing this fact and avoiding missteps and dealing with them if they do occur are critical skills for negotiators.

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