Negotiation Lesson #9: Explicitly Raise and Address the Issue of Trust

May 31, 2017 By Irma Tyler Wood

Trust is critical but not essential in negotiations. During the cold war we negotiated with the Russians all the time, but we didn’t trust them.  However, when there is trust between and among the parties to a negotiation, the sky’s the limit in terms of achieving creative, flexible, efficient effective, optimal agreements. This level of trust is built over time. When trust is absent, and both sides enter negotiations with their defenses up, agreement is possible, but it will take longer to reach an agreement and it is likely to be a sub-optimal agreement.  One would think that with trust being so critical to the quality of a negotiated outcome, it would be put squarely on the table.  In my experience, it’s absence, presence, need to rebuild or repair it, is rarely explicitly discussed by the parties to a negotiation.  Normally a team will discuss internally whether they can trust the other side, but rarely will they raise that issue with the other negotiator at the negotiating table.  Trust usually only gets discussed if someone feels their trust has been betrayed during the negotiations. This is usually a time of intense emotions and makes learning challenging.  Not raising and discussing the issue of trust at the beginning of negotiations is a serious mistake.

What You Can Do: If trust is absent because of past history or simply because one has no history with the other party, raise the issue and discuss how you will jointly build trust, and what safeguards (ground rules, protocols, etc.) can be put into place until the trust desired is established.

Raise the issue by:

  1. Conducting a learning conversation which reviews the issue or event that weakened or destroyed trust, not with the purpose of blaming or attacking other parties to the negotiation, but with the goal of learning so as not to repeat the same mistakes (The Ladder of Inference© is useful here).
  2. State your goal of rebuilding and repairing trust and then jointly develop processes, incentives and penalties during negotiations in the agreement that encourage others to honor their agreements until trust can be re-established. 

If there has been a complete breakdown of trust and the working relationship and communication is severely impaired, consider bringing in a third party to mediate your discussion of how to repair and rebuild trust.  Avoidance or giving up are not constructive options especially if the parties involved are likely to have to work on something else in the future.  Use the experience as an opportunity to learn and to equip your organization with the ability to negotiate effectively in future situations.