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 behaviour with suspicion and feeling distrusted by them. You might even find yourself making concessions simply to avoid conveying that you do not 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 behaviour? We present five guidelines negotiators can use to build and sustain mutual trust at the bargaining table.
1. Make maximum use of your network. The most obvious way to make a negotiation feel safe and trusting is to choose new 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 did not share a common bond.
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.
2. Build rapport before negotiating. People tend to respond to others' actions with similar actions, research in the social sciences has found. If others co-operate 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 is more, such exchanges can spiral into vicious cycles (those characterised by contention and suspicion) or virtuous cycles (those in which co-operation 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. Do not 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.
3. Set an appropriate trust default. It would be a mistake to assume that if you have 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 over-claim 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.
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 are negotiating with those from other industries or countries.
Another way to win trust in negotiation is to clearly label your most important concessions, says an expert. 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, he advises.
5. Build trust by listening and acknowledging. The more fairly negotiators feel they have been treated, the more likely they are to trust and co-operate 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 are 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 are not at the table. If you are 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 the negotiation in general.