Trust is essential for creating a wise agreement. As Gary Furlong notes in The Conflict Resolution Toolbox, “One of the core issues in conflict resolution between parties is the issue of trust.” He goes on to state that trust is a “key resource in the conflict management process.”1 Without the appropriate degree of trust, parties’ hostile view of their relationship often leads to impasse. However, with enough trust, parties can often find accord on even the most difficult issues. As trust plays a crucial role in the negotiation process, I wanted to outline a theory concerning levels or sources of trust and ideas for building trust while negotiating.
Before outlining the theory, it will be helpful to define trust. Furlong defines trust as “having positive expectations about another’s motives and intentions towards us where potential risks are involved.” Another similar but more academic definition notes that trust is “the willingness of one party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectations that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.”2 Both definitions highlight that trust involves the willingness to engage in an uncertain situation that involves exposure to risk.
Levels of Trust
In Alternative Dispute Resolution: A Conflict Diagnosis Approach, Laurie Coltri describes the three commonly cited levels of trust. The levels of trust described by this theory can be conceived of both as distinct sources of trust as well as progressive levels of trust that are attained over time through repeated interaction.3
Calculus-Based Trust: Trust that is based on consequences of compliance or noncompliance imposed within a given interaction. For example, calculus-based trust can lead parties involved in a violent political struggle to the negotiation table if they know that undesired violence will continue in the absence of a negotiated settlement.
Knowledge-Based Trust: Trust based on knowledge of the other person. Coltri states that knowledge-based trust requires “understanding, the other person’s habits, traits, attitudes, principles, and values” and is established “on knowing the other person well enough to acquire the relevant knowledge.” Following the previous example, the parties engaged in violent struggle will establish this level of trust from previous knowledge and experience with one another or through the process of negotiating an end to the struggle.
Identification-Based Trust: Trust based on one person’s identification with another. Identification-based trust is the highest level of trust and stems from individuals seeing “themselves as being ‘as one’ in their goals, values, and needs.” Because this level of trust is difficult to establish, it is unlikely that the parties in our example would establish this level of trust without years of work towards reconciliation.
Successfully negotiating agreement often requires the establishment of a degree of trust. One approach to this task is the use of Furlong’s Triangle of Satisfaction model as a framework for addressing the interests of the other party as a means to build trust. The Triangle of Satisfaction model represents the three types of interests parties have in a negotiation: substantive, procedural, and psychological.
When negotiating with a party where trust is low or absent, open the negotiation with a discussion of the process itself. Discuss an agenda for the negotiation, methods for devising proposals, and ways to determine the fairness of an agreement. You can also talk about ways of communicating throughout the negotiation, who needs to be involved to reach a commitment, and potential risks and contingencies related to the negotiation. This approach allows for a “warm up” negotiation before substantive matters are discussed and creates the opportunity for you to demonstrate a genuine interest in the other side’s perspective. This activity will deepen the other side’s knowledge-based trust in you as a negotiator.
Continuing to build trust through addressing the psychological and substantive interests of the other side follows naturally from collaboratively discussing the process. These two types of interests will be addressed using the same skills. The first step to building trust is through actively listening to the other side’s substantive concerns. Asking open ended questions, exploring the needs, ambitions, and concerns behind the stated issues, and ensuring they have an uninterrupted opportunity to share their perspective.
The second step is to communicate to the other side that you not only have listened but that you understand what they want and why it is important to them. This can be accomplished through periodically summarizing what they have told you throughout the conversation or through summarizing what you learned once they feel they have communicated their perspective in full.
Finally, once you have both shared your perspectives, encourage them to help you find a solution that will meet both of your interests. This can be accomplished through brainstorming, soliciting their advice on how you could best resolve the matter, or developing a plan of action to find and further discuss possibilities for resolving the conflict. All three steps build trust by addressing the other side’s psychological interests of being heard and being involved in devising the final agreement. These steps also address their substantive issues by creating an opportunity to discuss those interests and finding a mutually acceptable solution.
Trust is a key element of a negotiated agreement. Without it, finding agreement will be difficult, if not impossible. In some cases, it will be necessary to build trust with the other side as you negotiate, and in those cases, focusing on their substantive, procedural, and psychological interests will aid in building the trust needed for agreement.
- Gary T. Furlong, The Conflict Resolution Toolbox (Wiley 2005)
- Arnaud Stimec and Jean Poitras in “Building Trust with Parties: Are Mediators Overdoing It?” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 26 (Spring 2009).
- Laurie S. Coltri, Alternative Dispute Resolution: A Conflict Diagnosis Approach (Prentice Hall: 2009)