Negotiating Skills: Learn How to Build Trust at the Negotiation Table

Trust goes both ways - learn how to build and earn trust with these negotiating skills

By — on / Dealmaking


Some of the most integral skills negotiators can acquire include bargaining skills and tactics for building trust while negotiating.

Imagine yourself in each of these three negotiation scenarios:

A. Jon, a travel writer, searches an online services Web site for someone to translate his book on the Pacific Northwest for a Spanish readership.

After looking over résumés, he meets with three candidates and hires the one who seems most friendly and competent. The translator does a great job with the first three chapters, but she misses her deadline for the fourth and eventually stops returning Jon’s calls. Under the gun on his own deadlines, Jon wonders how he could have done a better job of screening candidates.

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B. Carol’s longtime doctor diagnoses her with a serious illness and recommends immediate, aggressive treatment.

Carol would like to seek a second opinion, but she doesn’t want to offend her doctor—who, after all, has always provided her with excellent care. Carol decides to go ahead with her doctor’s recommended treatment plan but has misgivings about whether it is truly necessary.

C. The owner of a fine-dining restaurant is having trouble making ends meet during an economic downturn.

Because she has a friendly relationship with Alan, her produce supplier, she feels comfortable paying him a bit late now and then. So she’s surprised when, one day, Alan calls to tell her that he won’t be delivering that day’s order. “You don’t understand how much trouble your erratic payments are causing me,” Alan shouts. “I’m cutting you off once and for all!”

In each of these scenarios, negotiators are dealing with an issue related to trust. The travel writer discovers he put too much trust in the translator’s reliability.

Carol finds herself wishing she hadn’t put so much trust in one doctor. And the produce supplier has lost trust in the restaurant owner’s ability to pay him in a timely matter.

Most of us approach negotiations with the hope that we will share information, build a relationship, and be treated fairly by our counterparts. But once talks get started, most of us have also had the experience of holding back information, viewing the other side’s behavior with suspicion, and feeling distrusted by them.

You might even find yourself making concessions simply to avoid conveying that you don’t trust the other side—even if you don’t.

How can you get negotiations with a new partner off to a trusting start?

How can you turn around a relationship that has deteriorated into hostility and petty behavior?

Below, we present five guidelines negotiators can use to build and sustain mutual trust at the bargaining table.

Negotiation Skills: Trust Building Strategy #1

Make maximum use of your network.

The most obvious way to make a negotiation feel safe and trusting is to choose new negotiating counterparts wisely.

You may not always be able to choose whom you negotiate with, but when you can, seek out referrals and recommendations from those you already trust. Not only are you likely to get some promising leads from those in your network, but when a potential counterpart knows that a friend or colleague recommended her, she will probably treat you better and trust you more than she would if you didn’t share a common bond.

Be careful, however, not to put all your faith in someone just because she has a friend’s seal of approval.

Of course, dealing exclusively within your network could cause you to miss out on promising new negotiating opportunities.

When it does make sense to reach out to strangers, be sure to check their references carefully and verify their claims with independent sources. In the travel writer’s case, he failed to check on the references provided by the translators he interviewed and relied too much on résumés and first impressions.

Negotiation Skills: Trust Building Strategy #2

Build rapport before negotiating.

People tend to respond to others’ actions with similar actions, research in the social sciences has found. If others cooperate with us and treat us with respect, we tend to respond in kind.

If they seem guarded and competitive, we are likely to behave that way ourselves. What’s more, such exchanges can spiral into vicious cycles (those characterized by contention and suspicion) or virtuous cycles (those in which cooperation and goodwill prevail), according to negotiation expert Keith Allred.

The reciprocal nature of trust reinforces the value of taking time to get to know the other party and build rapport before you begin to negotiate. Don’t assume that you can form a bond simply by exchanging a few friendly e-mails before meeting in person. Rather, try to forge a personal connection by meeting for an informal lunch or two.

Even just a few minutes of small talk can go a long way.

In her research, Northwestern University School of Law professor Janice Nadler found that negotiators who spent just five minutes chatting on the phone—without discussing issues related to the upcoming negotiation—felt more cooperative toward their counterparts, shared more information, made fewer threats, and developed more trust in a subsequent e-mail negotiation than did pairs of negotiators who skipped the telephone small talk.

It seems that “schmoozing” and other forms of rapport building not only build trust but can also have a significant economic payoff.

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Negotiation Skills: Trust Building Strategy #3

Set an appropriate trust default.

It would be a mistake to assume that if you’ve vetted your negotiating partner and spent time getting to know each other that you can trust him implicitly.

Negotiators often make the mistake of assuming a fully trusting relationship with the other party. When things go wrong, they are left feeling shocked, hurt, and perhaps lighter in the wallet. Keep in mind that negotiators can feel trust has been broken even when neither side has behaved with deliberate deception.

Conflicts of interest, the common tendency to overclaim credit for one’s contributions, and other widespread cognitive biases can lead us to view the same events differently and jump to the false conclusion that trust has been irreparably broken.

One way to reduce the odds of trust betrayal is to change the “trust default” that negotiators hold when talks begin, recommend Harvard Kennedy School professor Iris Bohnet and Stephan Meier, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

As substantive talks begin, take time to discuss ground rules, including your basic beliefs about trust. Explain that you are a conservative risk taker who would like to build trust slowly, over time.

For example, Carol, the patient in our opening vignette, might have told her doctor during her first checkup that she values second opinions and intends to seek them out when appropriate.

By establishing a cautious approach to trust from the start—and keeping your files of correspondence and key documents up to date—you may be able to avoid contention when difficulties arise.

Negotiation Skills: Trust Building Strategy #4

Win their trust.

When it comes to establishing a trusting relationship with another negotiator, gaining her trust is just as important as calibrating how much to trust her.

Begin by preparing thoroughly for the negotiation by researching the other party’s history, culture, and interests.

This can be especially important when you’re negotiating with those from other industries or countries. Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra has told the story of a technology consulting firm that embarrassed itself during bidding negotiations with an airline by being unfamiliar with the term lifts. The airline’s executives immediately lost trust in the consultants, who with a little advance research would have learned that paper tickets are called lifts in the airline industry.

The lesson: Take time to learn the other side’s vocabulary. By doing so, you’ll inspire your counterpart’s trust and appreciation. Another way to win trust in negotiation is to clearly label your most important concessions, says Malhotra. Consider that most of us have a natural tendency to discount the value of the other side’s concessions. To make matters worse, negotiators often lay concessions on the table without explaining how much these “gifts” cost them.

The result: Concessions go unappreciated and unreciprocated, leading to resentment, distrust, and rivalry. Whenever you make a noteworthy concession, tell the other party how much you are sacrificing and what this sacrifice means to you, advises Malhotra. When the produce supplier first received a delayed payment from the restaurateur, for example, he should have communicated that because of his own financial obligations, he could accept delayed payment only under extraordinary circumstances and only for a limited time.

Negotiation Skills: Trust Building Strategy #5

Build trust by listening and acknowledging.

The more fairly negotiators feel they’ve been treated, the more likely they are to trust and cooperate with each other, Allred has found.

In fact, our perceptions of the fairness of a negotiation process can have a stronger impact on our overall satisfaction than our objective outcomes. To make sure your counterpart feels fairly treated throughout the negotiation process and reciprocates with trust, be modest about your own gains at the table and express admiration for his quick thinking and achievements.

This can be especially important when you have more power than your counterpart—if you’re his boss, for example, or if you have many other negotiating partners to choose from. In addition, keep in mind that the other party is likely to judge your fairness (and trust or distrust you accordingly) by comparing her progress to that of her peers, her competitors, and others who aren’t at the table.

If you’re giving an employee a smaller raise than usual this year, be sure to tell her that everyone on her team is facing the same disappointing outcome due to belt-tightening throughout the company.

Finally, give your counterpart ample time to express his point of view, including any frustration or hard feelings he may have. When you listen closely to someone and make an effort to understand his perspective, not only will you educate yourself, but you will likely encourage him to feel more trusting of you and more positive about negotiating in general.

What’s your go-to method for gaining trust when negotiating? Share it with us in the comments.

Related Dealmaking Article: Coping with Culture at the Bargaining Table

Claim your FREE copy: Dealmaking

Discover how to boost your power at the bargaining table in this FREE special report, Dealmaking: Secrets of Successful Dealmaking in Business Negotiations, from Harvard Law School.

Adapted from “How to Build Trust at the Bargaining Table,” first published in the January 2009 issue of Negotiation.

Originally published in 2014.

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