Not-So-Small Talk

A successful deal may hinge on the ability to create trust — or uncover deception.

He rubs his chin, you rub your chin. She crosses her legs, you cross your legs. Does he have a Southern accent? Talk more slowly and drop the occasional “y’all.” While this might sound like one of those games children play to annoy one another, this adult version of “mirror mirror” is actually part of a sophisticated negotiation strategy that has helped close otherwise impossible deals — at least in the laboratory.

Skeptical? Consider the following experiment, in which a gas-station owner wants to sell his shop immediately, but won’t go below $553,000. One buyer is interested, but can’t pay above $500,000. If the owner trusts the buyer enough, though, he might take the lower price in exchange for a guarantee that the buyer will keep him on as store manager. How to build that rapport quickly? When buyers in this business-school experiment were instructed ahead of time to subtly mimic the sellers, 10 out of 15 buyers reached a deal. By comparison, only 2 of 16 buyers who played it straight were able to find a joint solution.

Mimicking your counterparty “creates the perception that we’re on the same page,” which makes trust — and a deal — more likely, explains William Maddux, a professor of organizational behavior at Insead. Maddux worked with Elizabeth Mullen of Stanford University and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University to run the gas-station experiment and write a colorfully titled paper about it, “Chameleons Bake Bigger Pies and Take Bigger Pieces.”

There is a question of ethics — is it right to knowingly manipulate someone? — not to mention the fact that the strategy will surely backfire if the aping becomes too obvious. Maddux says neither concern has created problems yet in his research, however. Mimicking “is something we do all the time, even with people we don’t like,” he says, and is likely to lead to better outcomes for both parties involved, not just the mimicker. “In general, the more you can do to facilitate trust and rapport in a negotiation, the better both parties do,” he says.

The art — and increasingly, science — of negotiation frequently centers on how to build trust, and how to proceed in its absence. “Who are you more likely to reach an agreement with: someone you like and empathize with, or someone you don’t?” asks Stephen Goldberg, a professional mediator and professor of law at Northwestern University. Trust is the intangible ingredient that can make or break a deal — or make it better.

Tiny Gestures

As far back as 1936, when Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People, business gurus have recognized the power of tiny gestures in creating trust. For example, repeating a person’s name and getting him to talk about his interests are two of Carnegie’s nuggets for making people like you. Looking people in the eye, at least in Western cultures, and shaking hands firmly are other axiomatic indications of trustworthiness.

The value of small talk hasn’t changed, though the content varies with the times. Bantering about sports teams, college affiliations, or even the weather also creates common ground that “helps establish the idea that we’re similar,” says Goldberg. And research confirms that gestures and small talk count. In one 2000 study, Harvard Business School professor Kathleen McGinn found that half of all negotiations done by E-mail end in impasse, while only 19 percent of face-to-face negotiations do. People tend to share less information over E-mail, explains McGinn, and cannot use body language to help convey intentions.

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