By Leslie K. John, Associate Professor, Harvard Business School
Whether you’re negotiating the terms of a contract or the price of a used car, the ability to encourage the other side to be open and forthcoming is key. Yet making privacy or confidentiality assurances or speaking in an overly formal manner can complicate the interaction. In fact, prior research, including research conducted by my colleagues and I, has found that these efforts can backfire and make people more likely to lie and less likely to disclose information, both of which inhibit successful negotiation.
Ensuring Privacy and Confidentiality Does Not Guarantee Disclosure
Disclosure and honesty are crucial components of any negotiation. Common logic would dictate that a negotiator can encourage her counterpart to be more forthcoming and honest, even about sensitive information, by pledging to respect privacy and maintain confidentiality. Research shows, however, that this can have the opposite effect, as pledges of confidentiality can make people less likely to share information.
As early as the 1970s, the National Research Council documented this paradox in a survey: The greater the promises of protection, the less willing people were to respond. In subsequent research conducted by Eleanor Singer, Hans-Jürgen Hippler, and Norbert Schwarz, less than half of the people who received a strong confidentiality assurance agreed to complete an innocuous survey, while about 75 percent of those who were given no such assurance agreed to do so. Studies by Singer et al confirmed the hypothesis that confidentiality assurances are not always perceived as reassuring and don’t necessarily increase willingness to share information.
What’s more, my colleagues and I discovered that guaranteeing privacy protections does not always yield a truthful response. Our research focused on randomized response techniques (RRTs), a research method commonly used in surveys to uncover the prevalence of sensitive or embarrassing issues, such as past criminal behavior. Although RRTs are intended to protect respondents by allowing them to answer sensitive questions confidentially, our research indicates these techniques can yield fewer truthful responses than more direct questioning.
Acting or Appearing Too Formally Can Be Counterproductive
Privacy and confidentiality assurances are not the only factors behind decisions to reveal or withhold information. Research my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that, when disclosing certain information on the Internet, people seem to be more comfortable doing so via websites that appear less professional. In one experiment, an “unprofessional” site featured a casual title written in red font alongside a cartoonish logo, while the “professional” site featured a more stodgy title and an official university crest. Our results indicate that participants were naturally more comfortable divulging information on the unprofessional site, despite the fact that participants in a pilot study perceived it to be significantly less secure than the more professional-looking alternative.
Going beyond the Internet, our research also suggests that people will be more forthcoming in personal interactions when they are asked sensitive questions in a casual or informal manner. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of two complete strangers opening up to one another on an airplane. Since the situation lacks a number of cues that trigger privacy concerns—namely, the strangers are unlikely to meet again and the setting is separated from typical daily life—strangers may feel comfortable enough to divulge information they might not normally share with a new acquaintance in a more formal setting.
Preparing for Your Next Negotiation
Looking for some tips for your next negotiation? First, minimize formal preamble. Second, remember that asking direct questions and speaking in a tone that is not overly formal sounding can work to your advantage. Most importantly, however, keep in mind that asking the right questions, listening intently, and learning from your counterpart are critical success factors in negotiation. Following these steps in your next negotiation can help you understand your counterpart’s concerns and arrive at a mutually beneficial solution.