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Trust Equation

How to Increase our trustworthiness.

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FIRST OF ALL, ASKING FOR TRUST IS NOT ENOUGH. Trust must be earned and deserved.  Contrary to attraction  – the halo effect – trust is something that grows rather than just appears. It simply takes some time and is based on direct experience of the negotiation parties.

So, if I want to follow Roger Fisher’s advice of being fully trustworthy, what should I do?




There are four key elements David Maister recommends and he even devised an equation for trustworthiness, which I find useful:


Let’s explore what each element means and what can be done:

Credibility: Do we tell the truth, as much truth as possible, and nothing but the truth?
Since negotiation is largely a verbal exercise, credibility is mostly about the words and arguments we use.  Most people prepare for the arguments to be bullet-proof.  Typically, negotiation is the battle of arguments, but don’t forget, that the way you deliver also matters. Both the logos and the pathos – the emotional part – matter. The emotional part is sometimes called charisma, or “presence” and we mostly judge the accuracy of the other person’s argument, as well as its completeness. To convey a sense of honesty, we need to sound complete. Here are some do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t tell lies, or even exaggerate, ever. Tell as much truth as possible.
  • Speak with expression.
  • When you don’t know, say so quickly and directly.
  • Make sure you are loyal to people who are not at the table. Bad-mouthing competition or other stakeholders quickly ruins your trustworthiness. 

This does not necessarily mean that you will say everything. That would be too much risk. But you can be explicit about having reservations on giving information due to the role you have or the confidentiality you are bound by.


Reliability:  Can they trust us to deliver on our promises? Do we meet our commitments?
Very early on, we create a reputation for either being reliable, delivering on our commitments or being a big mouth. Once the latter happens, everything we say we’ll do is “taxed”.
Imagine the following situation: when negotiating a job offer, you agree on certain conditions. However, the day you start working, your new boss announces that there is a change and we all need to be flexible (translation: you will not get what was agreed). What message would you get about the reliability of your new boss? And what reputation would the company have in your eyes? So, here are a few tips:

  • Make sure you create a repeated experience of links between promises and actions.
  • Find, or create a number of opportunities to demonstrate both rational and emotional stability, by making promises, explicit or implicit, and then delivering on them.
  • Stay current on the other party’s events and names.
  • Send a regular status update which is simple, clear and consistent.


Intimacy: Do they feel comfortable discussing issues, emotions and vulnerabilities with us?
The ability to connect on an emotional level is a big leverage to most negotiations, because people forget about it. It also suffers when we use e-mail, because this channel of communication reduces intimacy. Here are some tips:

  • Raise sensitive issues early on, don’t beat around the bush. 
  • Connect with the feelings of the other party and acknowledge them. Express yours.
  • Do pay attention to staying in the “I’m ok – you’re ok“ mode which enables adult communication and enables the other party to preserve face.
  • Send small details to signal that you care about the key personal concerns: do respect their autonomy, avoid them feeling coerced if you can. Show respect to their status and offer them an attractive role to play. Express appreciation.
  • avoid e-mail as the only negotiation channel, it promotes competitiveness (more about this topic in the next Negotiation News).


Self-orientation: Can they trust that we do not only care about ourselves? 
Sometimes, the result of preparation translates into merely telling the other party what we figured out. Once we seem preoccupied with our own agenda, however, bad things start to happen. Trust is reduced directly and the level of intimacy suffers too. Interestingly, surprisingly small things can create that impression: 

  • Let the other side finish their sentences and fill in the empty spaces.
  • Ask to talk about what is behind an issue, and listen to the whole story – think about it as a story to evolve.
  • Summarise what you have heard and paraphrase to check your understanding.
  • Look and listen – observe both what is said, how it’s said, what is felt, and what is not said.


Do these four elements seem nice but hard to translate into tangible value? Try a little experiment with me: pick one situation where you succeeded as a negotiator and are happy with the outcome. Put yourself in their shoes and try to assess your own trustworthiness level. What’s the score?

Now, imagine one negotiation party that you find difficult to trust. Try to identify which of the four (or all) cost them most.


The ratio between undeveloped trust and developed trust is similar to the cost of attracting a new customer vs. retaining an old customer. The reason why companies invest in maintaining high levels of customer loyalty is an economic one: it is simply a more sustainable strategy. The alternative? Exploring the resources until the point there is nowhere new or nowhere else to go. The choice is yours. But think about it the next time you negotiate.


Recommended reading:
Maister, H. David et al.: The trusted advisor, Free Press, 2000
Ertel, Danny: The Point of a deal: how to negotiate when yes is not enough, HBR Press, 2007
Fisher, Roger & Brown, Scott: Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate, Penguin Books, 1989


About Pavel Novák
Pavel Novak’s truly unique negotiation coaching helps you consistently achieve profitable agreements while also strengthening your professional relationships.  Working at the cutting-edge of behavioural psychology, Pavel has studied closely with the leading authorities, including world-renowned American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, with Bruce Patton, Distinguished Fellow at the Harvard Negotiating Project, and with Tim Cullen, MBE, Director of the Oxford University Programme on Negotiation.  Pavel helps you implement current negotiation trends so that you can confidently use your skills in any context.