Why we need trust and how we can build or destroy it, part I


by Antoinette Raheem


I, and I know many other mediators, believe trust is essential in any negotiation or mediation. (In this article I will use the term negotiation to encompass both negotiation and mediation, since mediation is negotiation with a third party neutral).  There are many reasons negotiating parties need trust. Below are a few of the key reasons I have encountered.

You need trust simply to get parties to the negotiating table.  If the one side thinks the other is only using the negotiation to stall or to find out their weaknesses, the negotiation may never get off the ground.

Once you do get to the table, you need trust for the other side to really talk to and listen to you.  The first thing that occurs at the table in a good negotiation is sharing information.  If one side does not trust the other side, however, they will not open up to share information with the other. Even if one side does open up, the other side will not listen to or believe the information and will not reciprocate with information sharing if there is no trust.

You need trust in order to get concessions from each side. In a principled negotiation, the goal is not to simply squeeze or force as many concessions out of the other side as possible. The goal is to meet as many interests of both sides as possible. This is done by either finding alternative ways to meet both sides’ essential needs by creating new options or by conceding when you have good reason to do so and by giving the other side reasons to make concessions as well. However, in order to make these concessions or to look for alternative solutions most parties need to (A) see a reason to do so and (B) feel comfortable  (i.e. TRUST) that the other side will reciprocate with similar movement.

You also need trust to address the intangible interests at the table.  If, for example, an apology is offered but not believed, it can do more harm than good.   On the other hand, if a party trusts that an apology is sincere, the apology can address a plethora of interests that money could not.

Finally, you need trust in order to close the deal.  Many negotiations conclude with basic terms agreed to, leaving the details to be hammered out later, possibly because the people needed to craft the final terms are not at the table or simply because it is a more efficient use of everyone’s time. In some cases it may be that all contingencies simply cannot be pre-determined and all parties understand that some issues will arise in the future that the parties have to trust will be resolved in accordance with the spirit of the agreement. When this is

the situation, those entering into the agreement at the negotiation table have to trust that those issues will be worked out satisfactorily down the road.

Building Trust

The Prisoner’s Dilemma — There is an exercise used by many mediators to teach the impact of trust in negotiations called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Individuals are paired up or two teams of 2 or 3 people are paired up. Each person or team of players is given one Y card and one X card.  Then each team or person is asked to play (i.e. put face down in the middle of the table) either an X or a Y card. When directed to do so, the players turn their cards over to show what they played. There are usually 7 or 8 rounds of play. There are three options that can result:

Option 1: Both parties play Y (YY)

Option 2: Both parties play X (XX) or

Option 3: One party plays X and one plays Y (XY)

If teams play Option 1, each gets +1 point, a win-win.

If the teams play Option 2, each side gets -1 point and there is a lose-lose.

However if the teams play Option 3, the player playing an X gets +3 points and the player playing a Y loses -3 points. Therefore, although looking at Option 2 in a vacuum it would appear you would not want to play an X, option 3 reveals that if you can somehow get the other side to play a Y, you can win big by playing an X. However, your opponent who plays a Y not only loses big, they also lose trust in you.

So a few different patterns usually emerge. Players sometime try to “cooperate” and both play Y’s right from the start.  When both players appreciate the value of a win-win, the pattern of YY play may last throughout all rounds, resulting in a net win-win.   However, sometimes, one player seeks to be cooperative by playing a Y, but the other side plays an X. Trust can be lost immediately with the person who played a Y immediately resorting to an X in the next round or trust can be lost over a few rounds.  Either way, if the Y player loses trust and the X player does not change to Y’s (i.e. become more collaborative), both usually end up playing X’s and both lose. However, if 2 teams start with an XY play, the player playing an X should see that his X plays have led the Y player to change to playing X’s and realize that both sides are in a lose-lose situation. Hopefully, this will encourage the player playing an X to change to playing a Y and, if the original Y-playing team begins to trust the other, they could end up playing YY’s and both have a win.  Unfortunately however, their scores will probably not be as high as the teams playing YY (i.e. trusting) from the start.
So what are the lessons from this game? It pays to try trusting from the start, i.e. play the Y cards.  If you see the other side is not reciprocating with trusting moves after a round or 2, you can always move to X (and have a small lose-lose: -1 and -1), thereby protecting yourself from large losses (i.e. -3 points).  However, you might want to play a few rounds of Y’s (i.e. show yourself to be a collaborator) before converting to playing X’s because if you can build up trust with the other side (i.e. get them to play Y’s) you can have a win-win instead of a lose-lose.

In negotiation this means it is usually best to start out collaboratively.  Send signals by your actions that you are seeking a win-win.  If the other side does not reciprocate immediately with cooperation, try again (although not with an essential issue) to signal cooperation versus antagonism. Hopefully, your opponent will eventually see that you can be trusted and act collaboratively in return. However, if not, let the other side know by your actions: “If you don't start cooperating, I will not continue to be cooperative and we will both suffer a lose-lose.”  Then do what you need to do to protect yourself unless and until your opponent sees the futility of both of you losing and signals by their actions that you can trust them to behave cooperatively going forward.

The Apology

There are often times when, until a sincere and appropriate apology is made and accepted, no trust is possible between parties that feel disrespected or hurt or taken advantage of by the other party.  This situation may arise when, for example, a company manager harassed an employee and the company was slow to respond. Or it could arise in a divorce where one spouse was unfaithful to the other.  It might arise between contracting parties where Company A failed to fulfill the obligation as Company B expected and trusted Company A to fulfill it. In these and many other situations, it may be that a good apology can go a long way in building trust.

So how do you give a “good apology”?  First, the person giving it has to really be willing to give it because they truly feel some remorse about the situation.  This feeling of remorse does not have to include any admission of liability.  In fact, in medical malpractice cases, for example, there is a statute in Michigan that protects statements of empathy or regret for a loss or injury in a medical situation from being introduced at the trial of any related medical malpractice case as an admission of guilt. 

Second, you need to be as sure as you can be that the person to whom the apology would be made will be receptive to the apology.   This is important because if the potential recipient of the apology is not receptive to it, their rejection could undermine trust and push the parties even farther apart.

If you have a mediator in your negotiation the mediator might “take the temperature in the other room” and try to get a sense of how receptive the other side would be to an apology. Otherwise, the attorney for the would-be apologizer can look for verbal or non-verbal cues that the opponent would be open to an appropriate apology.

Third, you need to be sure the right person is making the apology.  In many situations it may be good for the party to make the apology since that is the person who the recipient of the apology likely sees as the “culprit”.  However, if the party is not comfortable, not empathetic, not articulate or not available, perhaps a truly empathetic and articulate attorney should give the apology.  It varies from situation to situation, but the point is to consider the overall efficacy of the speaker before deciding who should apologize.

Further, you need to be sure the wording of the apology is appropriate.  In a divorce case with an unfaithful spouse, admission of the act of infidelity might be needed and not too harmful to the apologizer. In a med mal case the apology might focus more on regret for what the patient and/or his/her family had to go through, without admitting fault. While it is important what you say, it is just as important what not to say.  For example, you rarely make an effective apology if you say “I am sorry if you (the other side) are upset.”  Of course, a family who lost a loved one in what was to have a simple appendectomy is upset.  A statement like this will only anger the other side more.  Similarly, you want to avoid statements like “I am sorry but if you hadn’t been such a nag I wouldn’t have had to seek a mistress.”  This kind of statement that turns the blame around on the recipient of the apology will only hurt any chance of building trust between the parties. Lawyers or mediators should ask to hear from the party offering to apologize what the apology will sound like before unleashing that party on the opposing side with what could be a disastrous apology.

Finally, the timing of the apology is critical.  For example, if a defendant apologizes right after or before a lowball offer, trust building is unlikely to happen because the plaintiff will likely presume the apology was merely intended to induce the recipient of the apology to accept a less than reasonable offer of settlement.

In short, apologies can be a powerful tool in building trust if sincere, well received, and given by the appropriate person, with the appropriate language at the appropriate time.  So don’t be afraid of apologies. Simply take the time to make sure your apology is the right thing done the right way.

(To be continued in next Wednesday’s Grand Rapids Legal News.)

Antoinette (Toni) Raheem is the principal attorney in Law & Mediation Offices of Antoinette R. Raheem, working exclusively in mediation and arbitration after 25 years as a litigator. Raheem is an ADR law professor at Michigan State and Cooley law schools. She is the recipient of Trailblazer of the Year, Pioneer, George Bashara, and Businesswoman of the Year awards, and is a founding member of PREMi (a collaborative of experienced ADR Professionals).