Dealing with the distrusted: To schmooze or not to schmooze?

At some point, most of us need to work with someone we don’t particularly trust. It’s not that we distrust them; it’s just that we have no basis for trust, along with the vague heebie-jeebies.

Dealing with a potentially distrustworthy person is difficult—but more negotiable if we at least try to schmooze, defined unscientifically but accurately as shooting the [stuff].

Now, schmoozing gets a bad name, in part because most of us associate it with the greasy-haired man who sold us our last car. Indeed, the word itself—schmoozing—sounds a little greasy. And, in the context of the car salesman, schmoozing should have a bad name: that kind of schmoozing is inauthentic, manipulative, and excessive.

But schmoozing doesn’t have to be that way—and it does serve the critical purpose of humanizing two people who wouldn’t necessarily treat each other as humans. And thus, when done in the right way, schmoozing serves the critical goal of building trust. But what is the right way? Here are five tips for schmoozing ethically and effectively with your next potentially distrustworthy counterpart:

  1. Make it authentic. In order to work and “feel right,” your schmoozing has to be consistent with your personality. So I’m not urging you to adopt the manner of the greasy-haired man; I’m advising you to find a personally-comfortable way of making a little more small-talk. So if you’re a shy person, maybe that just means asking people how they’re doing today.
  2. Make it well-intentioned. In addition, I’m not advising you to adopt the goal of the greasy-haired main: to sell you. I’m advising you to personalize people for the purpose of building at least the vestiges of a relationship where there was none.
  3. Focus on true commonalities. Also don’t adopt the greasy-haired habit of whipping out the same schmooze with everyone. “Cold day, eh?” “How about dem Sox?” “Nice tie!” Even if it is a cold day, dem Sox are winning, and his tie is stunning, these are not effective schmoozes. Effective schmoozes focus on a true point of commonality. So if your kids play soccer and you see a picture of her kids playing soccer, a good schmooze has something to do with kids and soccer.
  4. Tailor it to the medium. Our workplace interactions differ from our greasy-haired interactions in numerous ways—one is that they’re not necessarily face-to-face. This matters for schmoozing because the more “barren” the communication medium—the fewer visual, vocal, and nonverbal signals it provides—the harder it is to build trust. So pay even more attention, and devote even more time, to schmoozing when emailing or talking on the phone. It helps.
  5. Tailor it to the culture. Notwithstanding the greasy-haired man, Westerners often like to “get down to business.” Coldness, Sox, ties, soccer—we generally see these topics as distractions from the matter at-hand. They’re not, as I hope this post suggests. But they’re especially crucial in many Latin American and East Asian cultures, where the construction of a strong relationship is all but essential before anyone talks “business.”

Bottom line: We should try to separate the act of schmoozing—which can help build trust—with the image of a schmoozer. Otherwise, we may well lose by choosing not to schmooze.

The hidden benefits of trust

Managers among us, wouldn’t it be great if the people we manage were happier and more motivated in 2016? Wouldn’t that immediately make life more negotiable?

Well, here’s a deceptively simple path to a better 2016: trust your employees a little more than you were planning to. “Yeah yeah,” you say. “I’ve heard that before, I’ve read Good to Great, sounds like more business school gobbledygook. Look what happened the last time I trusted too much—disaster!”

And you’re absolutely right…about the risks of trusting too much. But what you won’t find in Good to Great, and what most of us completely miss is the hidden benefit of extending a bit more trust: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Picture the following: You’ve managed Jane for the last three years. She’s proven herself reasonably competent at her straightforward clerical tasks, but she hasn’t shown any particular penchant for assuming more responsibility. Then again, you’ve haven’t stretched her too much, ever concerned about the quality of the product. And yet, with the new year upon us and Jane looking distinctly unmotivated for another year of admin, it’s time for a change. What kind?

Well, imagine you decided to trust a bit more. Specifically, you thought to yourself: “Self, although I wasn’t planning to entrust Jane with anything new, she’s been trustworthy enough with the work I’ve already given her.” And so you told Jane: “Jane, you’ve been doing a great job, and I’d like to help you grow. So you know that important project I was planning to lead? I’ll be here to support you, but I want you to take the wheel instead.”

Now, how will Jane respond? With panic, perhaps, never having seen the wheel before. But after the shock subsides, and as she sees you continuing to support her, what will Jane do? Well, no guarantees, but many Janes will eventually react by thinking, “Gee, it seems like my boss is trusting me with something big here. I guess I better step up my game.” And step up she would, arriving earlier, working harder, asking tougher questions, giving better answers, and showing a notable reduction in the hourly need to visit In short, many Janes would react to your trust by trying harder.

Now you probably have heard that before, and you probably could find that somewhere in the golden pages of Good to Great, but here’s the part that most of us miss: How would you react to Jane? Seeing her immediate improvement, what would you think about her? Chances are, you’d look at her performance and think: “Gee, I guess I was right—she’s trustworthy.”

Now, stop and process what happened here: you assumed she was trustworthy enough to entrust her with something big. Perceiving your trust, she stepped up her game. Perceiving her game, you realized she was trustworthy. In sum, you made her look trustworthy by assuming that she was. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, I’m not naïve about trust, and I wouldn’t advise you to be either. There’s a risk that Jane will mess up royally, miss your trust completely, or simply see your gesture as a sign of increasing workload. There are projects you should handle yourself; there are Janes you shouldn’t trust. And of course, these situations are better handled by your managerial intuitions than this post.

But here’s the critical point: if you have a reasonably competent employee, and if you trust them enough that they notice but not so much that they panic, you will often or even usually discover the completely hidden benefit of trust: it not only makes them try harder, it makes you trust them more. So yes, beware the risks of trusting too much, but also attend to the opportunity costs of not trusting enough: the lost engagement and motivation of your employees, and the missed opportunity to create an ever-more trusting relationship. I think you’ll be amazed by the result—I have.

If you want it, just ask!

One of the simplest and yet most complicated principles of negotiation success is this: If you want something, you have to ask for it! It’s one of the simplest principles because it sounds pretty obvious. It’s one of the most complicated because few people actually do it. Put differently, most of us—myself included—want important things that we don’t request. And while that can sometimes represent a mark of maturity, we frequently fail to ask because we’re either embarrassed or erroneous in our belief that everyone else already knows our greatest hopes and desires.

So let me take this opportunity to be explicit: When you want something subjectively important, making life negotiable requires you to ask. And let me give you a simple and somewhat silly example from the last week that nevertheless makes the point.

I like to jog, and my jogging shoes recently developed the nasty habit of slicing and dicing my ankles. Badly needing a new pair as of 1/6/16, I turned the coupon drawer upside down in search of a DSW coupon. Despite the fact that DSW sends me coupons weekly, if not daily, I could only find two that had expired: $20 off (expiring 12/13/15) and $5 off (expiring 12/31/15). Though DSW’s full prices were not going to break me, I could already feel the onset of cognitive dissonance from an ill-timed, full-price purchase. My psychological health required a discount, but I had no current coupon to support one.

Now, most people in this situation would feel embarrassed to ask for a discount because they don’t really deserve one—and I have to admit that I felt a few pangs as well. But thinking that this was an apt topic for a future post, I decided to request one anyway. And I did so in a specific way: It was 10 am; I decided to go right away before they could receive any other annoying requests. Upon entry, I sought out someone with apparent managerial authorities, immediately and before offering any indication of my acute need to buy. Putting the 12/31 coupon on top—to emphasize both its relative recency and its relative affordability—I greeted the manager politely yet sheepishly, admitting (honestly) that the holidays had somehow distracted me from my DSW coupons. Could she somehow find it in her heart to honor one of them?

“Just this once, I can honor the $5 coupon,” she said. “Great!” I thought. Yes, I could’ve greedily pushed for the $20 coupon. But I wasn’t in it for the money; I was making this request because it felt important to avoid the feeling of foolishness attending a coupon-less trip to DSW.

Now, this was admittedly not the world’s most consequential negotiation. No climate accords were reached nor denuclearization plans formalized. But it nicely illustrates the point that, if you have a specific hope, wish, or desire, you’d better make sure your counterpart finds out. Think about it: what DSW manager in her right mind would’ve greeted me at the front door and spontaneously offered a discount? It just doesn’t happen. When you want something, you have to ask.

So why don’t we do that? Sometimes, we think other people can read our mind. More often, though, it’s because we’re embarrassed to make a request, particularly if we don’t think it will be granted. And here I like to highlight the bottom line from this post: If you ask for it, you may not get it. But if you don’t ask for it, you almost certainly won’t get it.

So in the spirit of a more negotiable 2016, I would encourage you to be a little more open about your hopes, wishes, and desires. Worst case: you’re no worse than you were beforehand. Best case: you’re better.

Have you ever asked for what you want and been surprised by what you get?


Resolving to separate the person from the problem

Many of us have resolved to be nicer to others in 2016, probably for ethical reasons. Yet, since this is a negotiations blog, I might also note that being nice to others—in the form of “separating the people from the problem”—also carries some important practical benefits.

In many situations—but especially when dealing with incompetent service providers—being nice is an important step in making life negotiable. Allow me to illustrate with a recent example, which of course is utterly fictional.

Two adults and two children under four years old, driving from Christmas in Wisconsin to their home in Maryland, find themselves hungry in the middle of the Ohio Turnpike. With five hours of blizzard-laced crying behind them and eight to go, they lurch into a rest stop featuring Hardees and an even less impressive Italian joint. Finding nothing of interest to his three-year old daughter at Hardees, the father defaults to Italian. And there, standing behind the register, is a lanky lad just a few years older than his daughter—let’s call him Joey—sporting rivers of sweat meandering around a shockingly Ohio-shaped hickey, undoubtedly made within the hour. In the absence of a “How can I help you?” the father orders a piece of pizza.

“That’ll take 20 minutes,” mutters Joey. Knowing that every minute has to count on a cross-country trek with the kids, the father rescinds his pizza order and asks about the breadsticks. “5 minutes,” says Joey, to which the father begrudgingly agrees. Twenty minutes later, guess who doesn’t have his breadsticks, guess whose daughter is getting antsy, and guess what service provider is being dressed down by several other irate patrons? The father asks again about the breadsticks. “Uh, that’ll take 5 minutes,” repeats Joey robotically, apparently unaware that he made the exact same statement 20 minutes ago. The father, blood pressure on the rise, explains as much. Joey’s response: “There’s nothing I can do. There’s only two of us working here.”

Now, however faulty the staffing models at this restaurant, this was not the response the father wanted to hear. Not at all. The question was how to respond. The most tempting option: a caustic monologue about Joey’s time management skills, combined or even integrated with the world’s best hickey joke. Substantially less tempting: separating the person from the problem by focusing on the problem that Joey and he were collectively facing. And here lies the rub with the advice to separate the people and problem: it’s most useful when it’s most difficult.

Having resolved to nicer to the incompetent Joey’s in his life, however, the father gave it a try. Now, it must be admitted that he wasn’t entirely successful. While he resisted the obvious hickey jokes, his comments weren’t entirely free of recriminations either. Nevertheless, he at least attempted to be problem-focused by explaining the difficulty the situation created for his family, asking for his money back, and requesting a free cookie to pacify his restive daughter. “There’s nothing I can do,” responded Joey, incoherently, to this specific request. “I just mentioned a few things,” said the father, which seemed to trip some circuit breaker deep in Joey’s brain, as he marched into the kitchen and received approval for the request.

Now, the father’s approach was not perfect (he continues to work on it in 2016), and $3.99 plus a cookie cannot compensate for 20 minutes more driving, after 13 hours on the road. But it does reveal the importance of at least trying to focus on the problem when faced with an incompetent counterpart. Though never easy, the easiest way, the father finds, is to forcibly prevent himself from saying “you.” So “You’re wrong” becomes “That’s wrong.” “You’re an idiot” becomes “The issue with that statement is,” etc. This small change in language tends to focus both parties on the problem rather than each other, especially when contrasted with other irate patrons dropping plenty of “you’s.” Note, however, that none of the revised statements amounts to conceding in the face of incompetent behavior; they just focus attention on the problem rather than the idi…eh hem, person behind them.

I hope this post offers additional inspiration for your resolutions in 2016; it did for the father!