Powering Through Distrust

We don’t always have the luxury of building negotiations on a platform of mutual trust and respect — and sometimes you’ll need to reach agreement in a climate of outright hostility. While your ability to build trust will improve with your development as a negotiator, this also can lead you even further into antagonistic situations, as others bring you in to defuse volatile situations. So how can we power through this distrust to reach constructive agreements?

What You’ll Learn: Three specific tactics for dealing with distrustful parties.

Expected Reading Time: 10-15 minutes (~2,100 words)



Before we begin, we need to make a rather obvious disclaimer — the theoretically ideal way to negotiate with a distrustful party is to find a useful mechanism for restoring trust and mutual understanding. Negotiations built on friendship are likely to have a vastly expanded Zone of Potential Agreement, higher transparency (which enables more satisfactory and diverse dealmaking), and freer creative thinking throughout the discussion and bargaining processes. If a hostile party is important to you, even solely for reputational reasons, then it is generally worth your time to brainstorm potential trustbuilding solutions and pursue even the most tenuous of your resulting options.

With that said, it isn’t always possible or desirable to spend your time rebuilding trust. If a relationship has been severed particularly badly, the other party may not yet be in a mindset willing to accept any olive branches, and may even regard them with active disdain if they are perceived as trying to artificially induce or ‘buy’ trust back. On a purely pragmatic note, you may simply have a strict deadline on the deal and make a judgement call that sufficient trustbuilding by that deadline will be next to impossible. In some circumstances, you may even deal with negotiators for whom the trustbuilding process is flipped — they require evidence of a successful partnership before they will put any faith in it.

There are any number of reasons why negotiators may need to operate in a climate of distrust, and being able to effectively power through the most trying conditions and emerge with a workable agreement is a hallmark of great diplomats and mediators around the world. You will almost certainly be placed in these situations eventually, so you ought to start stocking your negotiator’s toolbox with appropriate tactics as soon as possible; being caught in a negotiation with a hostile party without any idea of how to defuse the situation is liable to antagonise it even further.

Here are three specific tactics for dealing with distrustful parties, that you can use to power through tough negotiating climates and get the best deal possible under the circumstances.


1. Help Them Win

If somebody distrusts you, they most likely also do not value your priorities or motivations. Even explaining them reasonably and objectively will not guarantee their empathy, so consider abandoning this effort entirely, and instead frame the discussion around their possible victories in the negotiated agreement. There can be a huge subconscious difference between:

“$25,000 for that car is way too much. All the comparable cars I looked at were only around $18,000, and this one comes with a lower warranty!”


“$25,000 for that car isn’t going to be possible, but $18,000 would be, and that’s still a pretty decent commission for you at the end of the day.”

While the first strategy (using other reference points to anchor and frame the conversation) can work incredibly well, it is liable to backfire if the other party already actively dislikes or distrusts you. In this case, the car salesperson might resent you for thinking you know more about the car industry and pricing than they do, and feel even less inclined to give you a good price. In such a circumstance, reminding them of how your suggestion would be a win for them may be more likely to trigger a positive reaction or acceptance of the deal.


2. Calculated Transparency

If you’ve ever distrusted a huge corporation — and we bet you have! — then you’ve most likely wondered if there is a “catch” to one of their promotions. That $0/month phone sounds great, but surely they’ve hidden the cost in the service contract or other associated fees, right? In fact, it’s probably an even worse deal than normal, taking advantage of the suckers who get pulled in by the attractiveness-at-first-glance but don’t do sufficient further research.

When someone distrusts you or your organisation, they are likely to feel the same about you. Your proposed deal could look great on paper, and maybe it even actively favors them, but your sheer willingness to negotiate with them at all signals malevolent intent to their mind. Surely you’ve hidden something from them, you’re tricking and trapping them, you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes! If that level of suspicion is on the table, the other party is unlikely to commit to a deal until it is either resolved, or the deal becomes so exploitative that they are comfortable accepting it despite the possibility of a hidden catch. (Hint: Accepting exploitative deals is not a sustainable long-term strategy!)

Fortunately, this can often be resolved by some careful calculated transparency about your willingness to accept the deal, without having to alter the deal itself.

One form of this strategy is to explain why you think the deal outright benefits you.* Talk them through where you’re getting a good deal, in terms that acknowledge obvious gains but do not exaggerate them. If the other party only needs a very slight nudge or mild reassurance about the deal, simple verbal statement of the deal and your basic feelings about it can be sufficient:

“We get a $150 discount on each laptop, which we’d be happy with.”

Alternatively, you can offer new information to help them understand your motivations more clearly (or more cynically, help them think they understand your motivations). This often also presents an opportunity to subtly emphasise their wins at the same time, for a double punch:

“We get a $150 discount on each laptop, which is great for me… my supervisor always grills me on the cost of our procurements, it’s like it’s all he cares about. That’s actually why I’m okay with guaranteeing that we’ll use you for our tech support in exchange, because I know he’ll just be focusing on the discount instead!”

If the other party is extremely cynical about your motivations, you may also consider disclosing possible reasons why you dislike the deal but are being forced into it:

“Look, we really needed these laptops cheaper by $50  per unit to be honest, but the other quote we were considering would deliver 3 days later and we’re just sick of the loss of productivity in the meantime.”

This can be a risky strategy, and is best performed near the very end of a bargaining process where the other party is unlikely to be able to make further deal motifications to take advantage of this new information. With that said, if the other party is so distrustful of you that they simply cannot believe you would accept a deal with them unless your hand was being forced somehow, it may be in your interests to show how it is being forced (or frame an issue to imply that your hand is being forced) just to give them some solace.


3. Pursue Small Wins

Our final tactic — in this article! — for dealing with distrustful parties is rather simply to collect very small wins as a foundation for bigger wins in future.

These small wins very often take the form of a time-bound agreement. Tenants who are unsure about whether a specific house will suit them may ask for a shorter lease from their landlords. Businesses who want a great deal of flexibility over their workers may structure their business to take on contractors (as opposed to regular employees), tasked to work for a highly specific period of time and no more. Legislators who agree that a policy is still very much imperfect — or even actively undesirable to maintain for more than a short time — may write it as a “sunset clause”, intended to expire on a certain date if consensus or a better negotiated policy cannot be achieved by that time.

Small wins can also take the form of miniaturised deals. Instead of buying 100 desk chairs, you buy 10 first, just to test them out. Rather than committing to a massive construction contract for $100M worth of office spaces, you start with a single $50M development. And so on.

However, truly effective negotiators do not limit their thinking or their collection of small wins to the most obvious continuums available to them, or those which visibly sit on the table. Other fantastic small wins to collect include:

  • Faith in the Process — The start of the negotiations might have been tense or even hostile, but you might be able to agree that they’re better than nothing, and ought to continue!
  • Common Contexts — You disagree heavily on a certain issue, but you now agree on the basic facts of the matter, which is worth celebrating!
  • Basic Human Empathy — Maybe it’s cold outside, or you both got coffee, or you’ve both got fussy bosses… Can you connect on a level outside the negotiation itself?

Obviously, the process of finding small wins together could be discussed in infinite depth, so we’ll cut the list off there. Incidentally, this process also tends to help repair trust over the long term. Even if it fails to build trust, though (perhaps the small wins are overshadowed by a grievous harm done to one of the parties, which cannot be reconciled in the time available to you), it can nevertheless help build momentum and structure for the negotiation.

For instance, a clear recognition that the basic facts of the negotiation are now relatively settled will tend to intuitively prompt both parties to proceed to a bargaining stage. Even if the other party does not at all trust that you will act fairly in the following negotiation, at least something appears to be happening, and that will leave them more open to a potential deal than they otherwise would have been (through a combination of an increased ability to imagine positive outcomes, and subconscious application of the sunk-cost fallacy — they don’t want to throw away progress).

Accordingly, try not to panic if trust still hasn’t been built after you collect your small wins. That is part of their function, certainly, but they also help provide both obvious and subtle frameworks for bigger wins to be built upon, even in the face of distrust.


As uncomfortable as it is to operate in environments of distrust and hostility, they also provide a great opportunity — the rare negotiator who can actively guide people out of that environment, and into healthier long-term relationships for all involved, will generally be best placed to structure resulting deals in their own favor. If you want to learn how to transform the world around you through negotiation, book a workshop or private coaching with Envoy Negotiation. The world can always use more visionaries and peacemakers.



*Note: The first strategy proposed in this article suggests avoiding talk of how you benefit from the deal, while the second strategy shows how it can be beneficial. The key to understanding when to employ each strategy is to carefully read the other negotiator, and better still, try to figure out how they perceive you. (While our workshops cover this material, it is also a subtle art that generally comes with time and experience, as long as you consciously attempt to improve on the skill over time.)

If the other party is actively assigning you negative character traits (arrogance, idiocy, callousness…), they may resent your attempts to justify your position and reject them out of hand. Here, keeping quiet about your motives and focusing on their wins may be the best solution. However, if the other party is better characterised as projecting negotiation styles onto you (such as having a win-lose mentality, or a determinedness not to accept a deal worse than your best alternative), then they may actively need you to justify your position to them, so they can feel comfortable having ‘figured you out’ and therefore feel comfortable with their understanding of the deal on the table.

In general, information is much easier to reveal than it is to take back or have forgotten — once you have disclosed your true motives to another party, they are unlikely to cast that aside until they are fully convinced that your thinking has since shifted, or that information has become irrelevant. At Envoy, we generally advocate for active attempts to build a climate of trust and transparency, but it is certainly wise to be cautious of distrustful parties who may use your thoughts against you.

2018-06-08T16:43:52+00:00 By |
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