How to Build Trust and Use It In Negotiations & Conflicts

Don’t have time? Here’s the 3 point summary:

  1. Information gathering is a critical process in any negotiation and trust can be your strongest tool to do so in an efficient and nutritive manner.
  2. Active listening and listening without judgement are cornerstones of building mutually trusting relationships.
  3. Maintaining earned trust requires collaboration, consistency, managing expectations and continued communication.


What is trust?

Trust (n.): the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.

Trust lies at the foundation of every relationship, both business and personal. In this article you will learn more about what trust is, how to earn it, and how to fulfill it once you have it.

If you look back at your life, what do you find common among the people you trust the most? More likely than not, they will be people you don’t believe will judge you for disclosure. If you think a person will hurt you in any way, regardless of your relationship with that person, trust levels are likely to be low. This is because disclosing any information puts you in a state of vulnerability. Of course, the greater the sensitivity of the matter, the higher the stakes. That being said, even in business settings and negotiations, your inclination to divulge information will depend on your perception of the other party. Will t

hey leverage this information against you? Will they share this information with other parties? Do they have any interest in manipulating the information in a way that favors them? These are all questions you are likely to consider as you evaluate how you want to engage in the negotiation.

Information is the lifeblood of negotiations and conflict management. The more you know about the other party and the situation as a whole, the better position you are in to come up with creative solutions and break through impasse.

Before beginning any difficult conversation, you must engage in information gathering by doing as much research as possible. This includes information around the person, the company/business, the negotiation in question, and so on. It may sometimes be imperative to consult outside sources but remember to do so in a respectable way. This means refraining from employing unethical or morally deceitful methods.

The goal is to extract confidence from information. This will not only make negotiations more manageable, but will also equip you with more relevant tools and strategies as you approach the other party. However, this process is not always easy and often requires tactful effort from your end.

To learn as much as you can about the other party, you will need to ask questions. Remember that asking questions is an art. How do we elicit as much information without being too invasive? How do we make the other party feel at ease so that they offer information that would otherwise be unknown to us? We want to know their goals, demands, and desired outcomes, but also their opinions, perceptions, and apprehensions.

In my TEDx Talk, Finding Confidence in Conflict, and my book, Nobody Will Play with Me, I outline a technique called the Compassionate Curiosity Framework. Compassionate Curiosity focuses on asking open ended questions in a compassionate and empathetic manner. This mentality helps to regulate your tone so you don’t sound too aggressive and they don’t perceive your line of questions as an interrogation. Simply put, the framework is a three step process that includes the following:

  1. Acknowledging and Validating Emotions
  2. Getting Curious with Compassion
  3. Engaging in Joint Problem Solving

Trust is an utterly essential instrument that needs to be a part of the foundation of the negotiation as well as the relationship. There are multiple reasons the latter is essential.

First, securing and solidifying the relationship will improve the odds in your favor. If there are misunderstandings and miscommunications, the resulting uncomfortable environment may incite the desire in the other party to strengthen their opposition and make their position more firm. This will invariably make the negotiation more tense and regardless of the monetary or business outcome, both parties walk away with diminished value.

Second, a strengthened relationship ensures an open channel of communication in the future. Building this network can be nutritive to you as a professional as well as to your business.

Third, mutually trusting and respecting relationship levels the playing ground and can balance power dynamics. The role of power, especially if it is against your interests, diminishes. To learn more about the effects of power imbalances in negotiations, read ‘Power: How To Use It When You Have It, How To Survive When You Don’t’ here:

Hence, trust is the cornerstone of building a relationship is any capacity.


How do you earn trust?

Trust does not develop in the abstract. Nor does it develop as a result of a singular grand gesture. In fact, it is a process that requires persistence and consistency. The more you try to rush it, the less genuine it is. There are several small ways to express trust in conversation.

One of the key components of any conversation is active listening. What does this mean? Active listening involves your undivided attention to the conversation at hand. It means you are fully invested, have eliminated any preconceived notions or premature assumptions, and are listening with the purpose of fully understanding what the other party is saying. It may be beneficial to paraphrase your interpretation of what the other party said to show them that you listened, and also to avoid any potential gaps in communication or understanding. An important thing to note here is that understanding does not necessarily have to mean agreement. You may have differing views on a matter but allowing someone else the space and dignity to express their view is crucial.

This brings us to our next point: listening without judgement. This means you listen without criticism or dismissal. Understand that the other party may have a view that doesn’t align with yours and instead of invalidating or belittling it, learn to accept it and take it into consideration. This does not have to close the avenue for you to challenge it later. The entire reason you are in a negotiation with someone is because your needs differ and you are trying to reach a consensus. However, this can be done in a non-offensive or attacking manner. Judgement has the ability to damage trust and restrict the amount of information that is freely and readily imparted by the other party. At the end of the day, know you are interacting with another human. Humans have the innate need to be understood, no matter what their disposition otherwise. Hence, it is a good idea to steer clear of judgement if you want to foster trust, which will ultimately benefit you greatly. This can be difficult, especially because our initial reactions to things we hear, see and read is always a judgement, positive or negative. Your brain is wired to evaluate what it processes. Once you recognize this, you are able to identify it when it happens and can then consciously attempt to broaden the scope of your mind to be more open to differing viewpoints. When tensions are high, judgement is almost expected. When you refrain from it, it will be noticed and appreciated by the other party.

Negotiations, as previously mentioned, can put you in a position of vulnerability, especially when there is an exchange of sensitive information. This is not always a bad thing. Being vulnerable and being weak do not have to be synonymous. Often we view negotiations as a transaction instead of a collaboration, the latter of which is a more professionally and personally fulfilling process. In a transaction, however, there is no scope for vulnerability and hence there is the urge to fight it. However, forming relationships requires a certain degree of vulnerability. This is not to say that you should completely let down your guard and blindly exchange information. It simply means creating an environment of ease and confidence.

There are multiple ways to do this.

First, engage in positive reinforcement. When the other party shares something with you, thank them.

Thank you so much for sharing that! I know this may not have been easy but it helps us move forward.”

Then, ask more questions. Simply recognizing their effort and appreciating them for it goes a long way in creating a safe space of trust and encouraging them to share more information as the negotiation progresses.

Second, focus on their needs and perspectives and suspend your own ego. The default mindset going into a negotiation is driven by self-interest. You want a certain outcome and that is your top priority, sometimes at the cost of other softer elements of a negotiation. This can be damaging to your own cause and thus, counterproductive. Approach the conversation with childlike curiosity and a learning attitude. Different people tend to interpret the same things differently. Try to inculcate genuine curiosity for the narrative in their mind. Think of facts not as the absolute truth but as a story and engage meaningfully with it.

Third, don’t interrupt. When you are listening, resist the urge to counter too soon. In fact, even if you agree with them, refrain from supplementing what they’re saying with your own thoughts. Let them finish and allow them their own expression. Studies show that people get a rush of dopamine when they are talking about themselves. Give them that opportunity.

Fourth, body language matters! The non-verbal signals you pass onto someone are one of the most important determinants of how comfortable they feel around you, which ultimately will translate into trust. You want to convey to them your presence in the conversation. Do this by trying to maintain eye-contact, leaning into their direction appropriately and refraining from appearing distracted.

Lastly, a large part of trust is derived from mutual respect. If you adopt these practices, there is a high likelihood that it will be reciprocated and they will extend you the same courtesy. This exchange will deepen the bond and establish a grounding in the equation.

All of these practices can be implemented in and out of the business world. Going into negotiations or business deals, we often try to work through things fairly mechanically. Don’t forget to retain the human element in your conversation.


How do you use trust once you have earned it?

Before you enter any negotiation, you usually have a clear strategy in mind and you use certain tactics to fulfill that strategy and give life to your plan. Trust needs to be a central part of this strategy and you must constantly endeavor to maximize the sense of trust and security the other party feels in the relationship.

Once you are able to accomplish this, you need to be mindful that you are not leveraging it for short term gains. It can seem like an easy solution to manipulate trust to extract benefits at the cost of the other party. People often tend to do this to further their own needs and goals in that moment. This myopic view of your negotiation and relationship as a whole can be detrimental in the future and can damage the relationship indefinitely.

However, that does not mean that earned trust should not extract you any benefits. Trust can be instrumental in the process of information gathering. The more trust the other party feels, the more secure they will be in sharing information with you. Sometimes, when there is a free flow of communication, you may chance upon information that provides you with a completely different vantage point with which to approach the negotiation. This will allow you to expand your idea of value in the negotiation and potentially walk away with more than you had initially bargained for, not only in monetary or capital terms, but also with regard to business opportunities and personal growth.

This must be done without taking advantage of the information in a way that is manipulative. The goal is not to use the information against them but to let it nurture the negotiation in a way that broadens value for both parties and creates a win-win situation. If the other party is put in a position that makes them feel exploited, trust will erode, close the gates of onward communication, make the negotiation more aggressive and hostile, and may even incite the desire for revenge against you in the future. The consequences of damaged trust are thus both short-term and long-term.

Trust is also a guarantor of a continued partnership. If you are able to develop a mutually trusting relationship, chances are that it will exist even beyond the scope of the negotiation currently at hand. This presents you with the opportunity to collaborate if there is ever a need in the future.

Remember, while having someone’s trust is a strong factor in any conversation, it is counterproductive if you misuse it and use it as arsenal to increase power. This is especially important if you are of a higher status than the other party coming into the negotiation. Don’t use earned trust as a way to manipulate the other party to extract concessions.

Earning someone’s trust is a major milestone in your relationship with them. However, it is important that you don’t take this for granted. Actually maintaining trust is an equally important part of the story. In addition to the strategies that you can use to earn trust, try incorporating the following into your negotiation and relationship:

First, continue to engage in active listening and listening without judgement. Consistency conveys your investment in their needs and the relationship as a whole. People will see through any attempt to fake it.

Second, align expectations and remove ambiguity. Make sure there is a mutual understanding between both parties around what you can expect from each other. Make clear outlines as to what some of the agreements and disagreements are and don’t leave anything up in the air for free interpretation. Minimizing misunderstandings and miscommunications is essential. When there is a high level of trust, people tend to have some unspoken expectations from each other. Make sure you recognize that and then try to gauge what some of those expectations may be. Taking regular ‘pulse-checks’ to ensure both parties are on the same page can be beneficial.

Third, walk the talk. Earned trust is not grounds for making false promises and it is important that you make sure you are holding up your end of the bargain.

Fourthly, don’t over commit. Make sure you are managing your own abilities and are not overestimating what you are capable of. When there is a sense of comfort, there may be a tendency to give in to demands to protect the relationship. This can give the other party undue power over you. Over-committing will also increase the chances of falling short, decreasing your reliability and credibility.

Lastly, don’t take trust for granted. Although powerful, trust can be very fragile. Obtaining someone’s trust does not ensure that you will continue to have it forever. It requires your active involvement, effort and interest.

The next time you enter a difficult conversation, take some time to truly understand the other party and build trust. At the end of the day, remember you are talking to another human being and building that relationship will reap you benefits in both the short and the long run.

For greater insight and a highly implementable toolkit, be sure to check out our negotiation and conflict management workshops. These workshops are especially designed to make your difficult conversations easier and equip you with real world skills!

Here are some more resources from the American Negotiation Institute:

Happy negotiating!

Contribution by Nandini Malhotra, Intern-in-Chief

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