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Negotiating with Donald Trump – 5 Critical “Do’s and Don’ts”

For the past 20 years, I have taught negotiating skills – to both novice and seasoned negotiators.

The focus of this instruction was on how to take a “principled” approach to negotiations where the interests of all parties are understood and factored into agreements so there is shared commitment to outcomes. The emphasis was how to maximize results while preserving relationships.

But watching Donald Trump over the past year, it is clear that principled negotiations would be ineffective and risky – Trump would totally take advantage.

Principled versus Power Negotiating – 5 “Don’ts”

Before I discuss best ways to negotiate with Trump, let’s take a look at some key tenets of principled (interest-based) negotiation that would be virtually useless in dealing with Donald Trump.

  1. Don’t Stress Facts or Common Understanding: In most negotiations, agreement on facts can be helpful to both parties and lead to sustainable agreements. However, Trump already suggests there are “alternate” facts – meaning any truth can be rebutted. Trump regularly complains of “fake news” and a dishonest press. So, there would be no benefit of trying to get shared agreement of facts – Trump would only do this if it worked to his advantage, or he could use it to manipulate.
  2. Don’t Strive to be Transparent: In most negotiations, transparency builds trust and enables openness, innovative thinking, and better deals. Trump prefers secrecy to transparency. He refuses to share information (e.gs., his tax returns and other business dealings) that other politicians have shared in the past. Trump holds few press conferences and spends much of his time huddled with an elite few. He tends to “stay on message” at all times rather than explore the legitimate questions of others. Consequently, there is a huge trust gap between Trump’s camp, and citizen’s groups, world leaders, and politicians. Being transparent with Trump would not be reciprocated and, in effect, would put you at disadvantage.
  3. Don’t Focus on Relationship: Getting to know someone on a personal level (in terms of values, interests, etc.) is typically beneficial to both sides. It reduces conflict and allows people to appreciate the needs of those with whom they are negotiating. On the other hand, Trump is highly confrontational and an occasional bully. He is more than blunt, he is aggressive and inflammatory. Not only has he alienated many American and world citizens, he has even alienated many colleagues within his own Republican party. Trump would view “niceness” as weakness and would tend to steamroll that type of behaviour, unless again it worked to his advantage.
  4. Don’t expect Problem-Solving: Trump typically approaches any meeting with his solution already worked out. He is highly positional and refuses to be open to any other point of view. His is unrelenting in pushing others to accept his perspective or solution. Already, leaders of Mexico and Australia, have experienced Trump’s belligerence in imposing his solutions. The antidote is to detailed below – essentially, you need to use every power tactic available to neutralize his positional approach
  5. Don’t expect a well thought out Process or adherence to procedures: Trump has a tendency to “wing-it” and break all the rules. In fact, he purposefully uses an “unorthodox” approach to create confusion and anxiety in those with whom he is dealing. Being unpredictable works to his advantage as it keeps his “opponents” on edge. My recommendation here is for you to build in some flexibility and resiliency in your plans so that you can “flex” as needed, depending on what Trump is doing.

So, how does one deal with Trump? Use Power Tactics – Throw away the “Principled” Playbook!

Power, as a continuous tactic, is counterproductive and ultimately ineffective. But as a situational strategy, power can be highly effective.

In my seminars, I always suggest that a more principled approach will work best over the long run with a majority of people – but not with a “Trump”. Any use of principled tactics could spell disaster.

But when negotiating with a “Trump”, I recommend using power tactics, strategically and appropriately, to further your negotiation results.

I might add that an effective outcome of using power with autocrats, is it forces that person to move into a more reasonable zone.

Trump will only respond to your needs if he senses a power disadvantage, lacks power alternatives on his behalf, and has lots to lose if the other side prevails. In these situations, the “nasty” Donald Trump may become conciliatory and collaborative –but only because he has to!

Trump has clearly shown that he admires people who use power to gain advantage and win. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is a good example of someone whom Trumps praises, even though Putin is widely regarded as a self-serving power-monger.

Here are five (5) tips for negotiating with Donald Trump

  1. Keep your cards close to your vest – do not share any information that would give Trump advantage
  2. Ensure you are negotiating with at least one other person representing your side and also an agreed to neutral, 3rd party scribe. The other person on your side ensures that you are both hearing what is said and what is not spoken. The neutral 3rd party scribe ensures that “facts” are verified, otherwise Trump will spin the truth later on in the negotiation.
  3. Establish options that allow you to succeed even without a deal with Trump. This is typically referred to as a BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). Developing multiple BATNA’s reducing Trump’s power since he can’t impose his solution – without a BATNA, you would be in a very precarious situation.
  4. Focus only on task outcomes; do not try to be nice or curry favour through relationship gestures. Being reasonable and pleasant will have no positive influence on Trump; to the contrary, he will see you as weak and harden his position even more. Note: I am not suggesting you need to become mean or nasty– you should still maintain your professionalism – however, do not use relationship to achieve outcomes. The more you keep relationship gestures out of the negotiation, the better outcome you will likely achieve.
  5. Find ways to neutralize his power. You could do this by discrediting his assertions, restricting his options, reducing his bases of support which could be other influential people or sources of supply, or creating time disadvantages to him where he needs your cooperation at some point because he cannot stick with status quo (i.e. no deal would be disastrous to him).

These five “tips” don’t guarantee success if negotiating with Donald Trump but certainly they raise your likelihood of success.

Best case scenario, you achieve needed outcomes which satisfy your interests and demonstrate to Trump that you can “play his game” (this will augur well for you in future negotiations with Trump).

Clearly relationship won’t be enhanced in using these power tactics, but there will likely be a begrudging respect and that is even more important.

I also realize most of us will never actually negotiate with Donald Trump, but many of us will likely negotiate with someone who thinks and acts like a “Donald Trump”.

To summarize, reverse the playbook. In typical negotiations, I recommend a principled approach focused on interests and preserving the relationship. In “trump” negotiations, I recommend a power-based approach where relationship is far less relevant than powerful influencers that cause the other person to “play ball”.

Either way, good luck – and may most of your negotiations be the more principled ones!

About the author: Robert Harris is a highly experienced negotiator who has worked with union – management and other groups throughout North America to teach skills and tools to achieve improved negotiated results and maintain healthy working relationships. Robert has written articles in the business press that relate to interest based and power based negotiating. He is President of Robert Harris Resources Inc. and can be contacted here or directly at (905) 466-3083.