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The Cost of Cynicism in Negotiations

“I’ll believe it when I see it.” is a common cynical response.

Overcoming cynicism means rearranging the words to “I’ll see it when I believe it.” In other words, to overcome cynicism, you must be aware of its presence.

No one wants to feel naïve when negotiating. As a result, we often overcorrect and underestimate the other party’s trustworthiness. We become cynical. The problem: cynicism carries a cost.

A meta-analysis from Harvard Business School examined how cynicism leads customers to miss opportunities at the negotiation table. Their findings are relevant because trust in US institutions has fallen 37 percent. No other country in has experienced a decline in trust as dramatic as the US. This research tells us that sales professionals negotiate with more than the customer. They negotiate with the customer’s preconceived notions rooted in cynicism.

Many sales professionals see evidence of this trend in their everyday interactions. In fact, the customer’s cynicism can spread to the sales professional. This spread creates more problems because research shows that “cynicism is found to be the most powerful predictor of turnover intention.”

Many people accept cynicism as a natural result of experience. However, Harvard research tells us that cynicism is more harmful than many realize for three reasons:

1. Cynicism Is a Self-fulfilling Prophecy

The researchers found that zero-sum thinking can leave both parties at a loss. A mutually beneficial outcome seems impossible in these scenarios. However, sales professionals can win the sale without sacrificing valuable terms. They do so by transforming from an adversarial mindset to one of collaboration. They combat cynicism.

Making this transformation requires strengthening the relationship. Researchers at Gallup found that “B2Bs win by building relationships, not selling on price.” Their research concluded that high engagement grew accounts by 20 percent or more. With a relationship in place, negotiations no longer feel like an arm wrestle. Instead, they become an opportunity to collaborate.

2. Cynicism Reduces Information Exchange

The researchers explain that “when negotiators do not trust each other, they rely on disruptive and competitive strategies, and they focus on getting concessions.” This is a problem because adversarial negotiations destabilize the sale.

Avoiding cynicism must start with the sales professional. They must demonstrate open communication. As researchers explain, “Withholding information is likely to lead to reciprocal perceptions of the other party as untrusting.” Simply put: distrust begets distrust.

Shared distrust carries literal costs. In fact, researchers at Clemson University found that “buyers’ monetary cost increased as information increased.”

Reduced information exchange also hinders cooperation, according to Harvard researchers. Cooperation and coordination are exactly what’s needed to engage in “trading.” Trading is a critical component in negotiations because it avoids concessions. A concession occurs when one gives something up and gets nothing in return. In contrast, a trade is an exchange. The sales professional gives something to get something. Cooperation reveals what the other party is willing to trade. Cynicism upends this dynamic.

3. Cynicism Influences Expectations and Emotions

Cynicism and distrust are words that are often used interchangeably. However, the researchers make a distinction between the two. “Cynicism is broader in nature than distrust, as it encompasses not only expectations, but also negative feelings toward people, groups, or objects,” they explain. Distrust is bad, but cynicism is worse.

A cynical customer cannot see the benefits of a solution. This finding suggests that cynicism is difficult to uproot. As a result, cynicism impacts more than the solution at hand. It also influences how the customer views all future solutions from the sales professional.

Negotiating is about more than numbers — it’s also about emotions. This fact is easy to forget because many people treat the negotiation table as they would the poker table. People try to hide their emotional responses.

Three Takeaways

Being aware of cynicism and its influence on negotiations is only half of the solution. Sales professionals must be proactive in their efforts to prevent its encroachment. To do so, the researchers uncovered more findings and offer some strategic takeaways:

  • Practice Negotiator Role Reversal: Sales professionals need to be able to take the customer’s perspective. Doing so means rehearsing the negotiation process with other sales professionals. One person plays the customer, the other plays the sales professional. This approach only works if both sides commit. The role play should require the sales professional to engage a customer predisposed to cynicism.
  • Demonstrate Integrity: Integrity begets integrity. Customers will respond to integrity in kind. This dynamic leads to communication that is upfront and honest. Integrity improves information exchange and the quality of communication. As a result, sales professionals have more detail to work with when positioning solutions to nuanced problems.
  • Target a Specific Negotiator in the Group: More than ever, buying decisions are coming from groups, not individuals. Sales professionals are working in teams to address stakeholders. The researchers suggest simplifying the group dynamic by selecting one negotiator. This approach streamlines the negotiation through repeated exposure.

Giving in to cynicism is easy. Overcoming it is difficult.

Overcoming cynicism starts with an awareness of its prevalence and its danger at the negotiation table. Engage in role play that helps the sales professional understand the customer’s perspective. Demonstrate integrity to get integrity. Finally, assign the role of negotiator to one sales professional.

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