Adapted from “Build the Right Connection,” by Jeswald Salacuse (professor, Tufts University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
To hold the attention of your counterparts, you need to connect with them as early as possible in the negotiation. A human connection with the other side not only distinguishes you from your competitors and other parties they may deal with, but it also offers a crucial first step toward building trust, a key element for a successful negotiation.
A sense of connection between negotiators arises out of the mutual belief that they have something in common. Effective negotiators constantly look for ways to create that sense of commonality, often by emphasizing a shared relationship or experience with the other side, such as having attended the same school, come from the same region, or known the same people. Connecting with your counterpart therefore often begins with some judicious self-revelation, though you should do so with caution.
A historical anecdote illustrates this point. Consider the high-stakes Reykjavík Summit of 1986—the wary first encounter between the Reagan administration and the team of recently installed USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At an early meeting with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the Soviet deputy minister of defense, remarked that he was “one of the last of the Mohicans,” meaning one of the few Soviet World War II generals still in service. When Shultz asked him where he had learned the expression, Akhromeyev replied that as a boy he had loved the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.
The exchange had a strong impact on Shultz. As he writes in his memoir, Turmoil and Triumph (Scribner, 1993), it led him to conclude that Akhromeyev was more open than previous Soviet negotiators, and also better attuned to history and American culture. From that encounter, Shultz decided that Akhromeyev was a person with whom the Americans could deal. Indeed, the two men went on to develop a strong professional relationship and friendship.
In your own talks, be on the lookout for elements of commonality that will not only hold the other side’s attention but also allow you to connect, build trust, and move forward.