Change the Trust Default

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “How to Build Trust at the Bargaining Table,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

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.

Carol is dealing with an issue related to trust: she finds herself wishing she hadn’t put so much trust in one doctor. 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.

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 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.

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