Dear Negotiation Coach: The Hidden Benefits of Mistrust

By on / Negotiation Skills

Q: I’ve heard a lot about the benefits of developing trust in negotiation and experienced some of them myself. But in my negotiations, I find myself struggling with the question of how trusting to be. Should I always aim to be as trusting as possible?

A: In negotiation, our outcomes depend in large part on our ability to persuade and bond with our counterparts. It may come as no surprise, then, that interpersonal factors such as trust, liking, and rapport are associated with more favorable outcomes, particularly when parties have the potential to create new sources of value. Building trust and a positive relationship with the other side often improves information sharing, which is arguably the most effective means of securing mutually beneficial settlements.

However, there is a downside to experiencing trust in negotiation: A sense of trust leads us to accept information at face value. Feelings of distrust, by contrast, alert us to consider how reality might differ from what meets the eye.

In the context of decision making, research by Ruth Mayo and Dana Alfasi (of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and Norbert Schwarz (of the University of Southern California at Los Angeles) found that distrust shifts individuals’ reasoning strategies. In one study, they found that participants who were naturally less trusting than others were more likely to select evidence that they expected to be contrary to their assumptions—a strategy known as negative hypothesis testing—as compared with participants who were naturally more trusting. In another study, some participants were made to feel distrust toward others by looking at a distrust-eliciting face (such as a picture of someone with narrowed eyes). These participants were three times as likely as participants exposed to a trust-eliciting face (a picture of someone with wide-open eyes, etc.) to engage in negative hypothesis testing.

In one study, my colleagues and I examined the consequences of these findings in negotiations that allow for integrative (value-creating) potential. We collected data on pairs of college students who negotiated a hypothetical dispute between a carpentry contractor and a condominium developer. In half of the pairs, we made one side experience distrust before the negotiation. In the other half of the pairs, we made one party experience trust.

We found that pairs in the distrust condition were more likely to test their assumptions about the other side—such as their constraints, willingness to pay, and likely moves—by asking many more questions of the other party. As a result, the distrusting negotiators walked away with a much more accurate picture of the other side’s interests and demands. Somewhat paradoxically, a level of distrust helped negotiators discuss issues more thoroughly and reach more integrative agreements as compared with pairs where one party was instilled with feelings of trust before negotiating.

Returning to your question, trust is a critical ingredient in negotiation. But too much trust may lead us to take our assumptions about the other side for granted, which in turn can limit the success of our deals.

Francesca Gino
Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School
Author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan
(Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) 

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