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Sept. 09

Keld Jensen: “What builds trust is actions, not words”

Published in: IQ The Economist

BMI Adjunct Professor Keld Jensen also teaches at Thunderbird School of Global Management, Copenhagen Business School and Aalborg University. He is a member of the board at Norway’s Center for Master Negotiation, the author of 26 books on the art of negotiation published in 37 countries, and a contributor to Forbes magazine.

If you want to get better results in a negotiation, then promote transparency, honesty and trust among the participants, the well-known negotiation expert Keld Jensen stresses. In this interview, we asked him to elaborate on that basic principal.

Keld, how do you define a negotiation? Is it only when businesspeople formally sit down at the table to work out, say, the terms of a corporate acquisition?

As a matter of fact, a lot of people don’t realize what a big part of their lives they spend negotiating. I often meet people who claim that they only negotiate at work: from 8 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday. Others say their work doesn’t involve any negotiations. I tell them they’re totally wrong. Everybody takes part in eight to ten thousand negotiations a year. Put simply, a negotiation is an interaction with others. It doesn’t matter whether you, as a journalist, are talking with your boss about the topic of your next article, or you’re talking with your husband about family matters, or with your kids. A negotiation is any interaction where you try to convince someone of something. It could in any area of life – political, business, social…

Are there differences between the areas where negotiations occur? Is a political negotiation, for example, different than one in business?

Political negotiations differ from business negotiations in that they tend to always try to ensure there is a clear winner. Creating value isn’t so important to politicians. In general, politicians have the goal to look good during and after a negotiation, to send voters the right message. They tend to make compromises.

In business, a compromise is not seen as a good negotiation outcome, since it means that neither I nor my opponent get what we wanted. So neither of us is really satisfied. In the ideal business negotiation, we try to find ways to make all the participating sides happy.

While working on a new book, I spoke with politicians in the EU and the USA. Interestingly, in their view negotiations are successful when none of the participants gets what they wanted. Every time I hear that answer I smile: it means nobody gets a satisfactory result. The politicians just met each other in the middle, shook hands, and went their separate ways.

How are new technologies influencing negotiations? What changes have you observed?

Technologies are increasing the distance between us. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we calculated that more than 70 percent of negotiations were being done online: by email and video or audio chat. I’m convinced that virtual communication is not something negative. We just have to realize that for successful negotiations, trust is important. And the bigger the distance between us, the harder it is to establish trust.

Email is how people were mainly doing negotiations before the pandemic. In my opinion, that’s the worst way to go. Written communication is very complicated. Every sentence that you write can be interpreted in as many different ways as you have readers.

Direct interaction, even if it’s by video conference, is a much better way to negotiate. It lets us see the other person’s nonverbal language, feel their mood, understand their actions. In other words, it lets us build a better mutual connection and makes trust stronger. Don’t misunderstand me, I value technologies, but we have to be careful with them. The pandemic is no reason to give up direct communication.

What sort of things should you do before a negotiation starts?

There was a presentation of one of my books about negotiations in China. There I discovered that Chinese people buy my books not to learn something. Their goal, as they put it, is ‘to understand how the enemy thinks’. Westerners should learn from that. Often during negotiations we act very selfishly, we think about our own goals and needs, and we forget that the thinking of the opponent who’s sitting on the other side of the table is based on other values entirely, that they make concrete decisions in the context of convictions and a culture that are different from ours.

In other words, even before sitting down to talks with them, we have to make every effort to understand our opponent, their negotiating objects, tactics, goals, values and strategy. In addition, we have to agree on how we’re going to negotiate. That may sound strange, but imagine you come prepared to play chess while your opponent is set to play tennis. You bring a chess board, but he or she has a racket in one hand and a ball in the other. We have to agree on what game we’re going to play in advance. And lay the foundations for trust too. Trust isn’t something you can just decide. You don’t just walk into a negotiation room and agree to trust each other. What builds trust is actions, not words. So before a negotiations, it’s key to decide what rules to follow, what to do to establish mutual trust and, if trust starts to fade, how transparency and honesty will be ensured.

You mentioned approaches to negotiations in China. Would you say there are different schools or styles of negotiation around the world? 

A mountain of books could be written about how culture influences negotiations. The way people negotiate in the Nordics differs greatly from how they do it in post-Soviet countries or in North America or Asia.

In fact, today negotiations have a lot in common all over the world. No matter where you went to business school, you probably read the same books, attended similar lectures and watched the same videos. But local culture adds, as I like to say, a touch of spice to negotiations.

I’ve been teaching in Vilnius for more than 15 years now. I come here about three times a year. Being from Denmark, I find it extremely interesting to observe how cultural differences between the Nordic countries and your country influence negotiations. Where I’m from, negotiations proceed very openly, honestly and transparently. In the Baltic countries, people are more cautious about those things.

Every time I tell my BMI Vilnius students about the importance of trust, honesty and cooperation, I see people in the room seeming to freeze up. In their eyes I read: “Has he lost his mind?”,“What is he talking about?”, “Does that mean the opponent gets to know everything about us?”. But after a few lectures, those questions disappear.

Traditionally negotiations are viewed as a zero-sum game – I can only win if the other loses. Are there other alternatives?

The alternatives to a zero-sum game can include strategies of collaboration or smart partnership. Both are based on the idea that the outcome of a negotiation must satisfy all the parties. In other words, you have to look for more variables to negotiate about and ensure the kind of transparency and honesty I talked about before. A negotiator who takes a smart partnership approach would also approach the opponent with an attitude of wanting to help them: to help them reduce costs, increase their sales and so on. And they would expect their opponent to have the same attitude toward them.

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