There are some interesting ways to find common ground for negotiating across difference that have emerged from studies of social psychology and marketing. We know from researchers like Robert Cialdini that socio-psychological influences across cultures are similar. Dr. Cialdini has identified six principles of influence that work across cultures and, although Cialdini’s principles of influence are more often used in marketing and sales contexts, they have a lot to teach us about how to successfully negotiate across difference.

This article highlights Cialdini’s work on influence and is the second part of a cross-cultural negotiation series (you can read the first article “Using Power StrategiesHERE). What follows offers a description of each of Cialdini’s six principles of influence, outlines benefits and drawbacks, then we conclude with examples of how Cheng, our Chinese professional from “Using Power Strategies” who is caught in an awkward situation with his boss, could use these principles to restore that relationship. As you read, consider how these principles can assist you to improve your relationships with others.

The six principles of influence

“Power is a tool, influence is a skill; one is a fist, the other a fingertip.”

– Nancy Gibbs

To provide you with some context for Cheng’s predicament, you’ll remember that Cheng has been asked by his Canadian boss to challenge authority more…if the boss shared an idea, he wanted Cheng to feel comfortable to speak out against it and identify flaws. After all, in the boss’s mind, everyone is on the same team and everyone wants to find the best solution; sometimes that certainly means identifying flaws in others ideas.

Cheng was shocked to hear this from his boss, as deference to authority felt much more natural to him, but because he wanted to do well in his role, Cheng took the opportunity in the next team meeting to tell his boss how “stupid” his ideas were. As you may have guessed, Cheng’s boss was not pleased and Cheng felt terrible…after all, he thought he was only doing what he had been asked…

Principle #1. Reciprocation

Description: Reciprocation is best explained this way: If you do something for me, I am likely to want to do something for you. People often feel they owe a social debt if someone has done a lot for them, and therefore believe that they need to pay another back somehow, or pay it forward to someone else as a gesture of gratitude.

Negotiation strategy: Do something helpful for the other party with no strings attached. The other party will likely want to reciprocate.

  • Advantage: The more nice things you do for the other party, the more they will trust you and want to do something for you in return.
  • Drawback: Reciprocity takes time and has to be sincere to be effective. Trying to approach reciprocity as a “let’s make a deal” compromise is much less effective. Reciprocity requires transparency, sincere interest and willingness to provide value.

Principle #2. Social proof

Description: “If it is popular then it must be good,” is the logic behind social proof. People are more likely to choose a restaurant that is full than a restaurant that is empty because the crowd provides social proof that the restaurant is high quality. In politics, newcomers will often vote for the party they think will be most popular with the status quo so as to themselves appear more acceptable to the host population and side with the “winning team.”

“Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.”

– Robert Cialdini

Negotiation strategy: “Look how much you will feel like ‘one of us’ when you adopt this highly popular and successful strategy! Join me, and all the others like me, who have already adopted this idea. So many people can’t be wrong!” If you use this strategy you need to use it with integrity. Simply negotiating to get people to feel like they belong when the strategy or outcome is fundamentally wrong, dangerous or exploitative is ethically questionable and is likely to backfire.

  • Advantage: There is an intense amount of human desire to belong and to be seen as engaging with a popular activity provides a sense of social belonging. If you can show the other person that what you want them to do will make them more popular because “everyone else is doing it,” they are likely to believe you.
  • Drawback: As Thomas Jefferson famously once said, “What is popular is not always right.” Convincing someone to follow a doubtful trend destroys trust.

Principle #3. Commitment and consistency

Description: Put simply, when someone shows commitment to you over time, you will believe in their trustworthiness. Also, if you publicly commit to an idea or action, you are more likely to follow through on that commitment because you subconsciously want others to believe in your trustworthiness.

Negotiation strategy: This can best be described as the “three cups of tea” principle (read more on that HERE). It takes three or more touch points between two parties before trust emerges. If over time there is a continuation of quality, well-intentioned action and consistency, you will be able to negotiate in good faith.

  • Advantage: This is a solid way to build a sustainable relationship. Commitment and consistency shows that you are likely to take the high road if there is a dispute and that you have an attitude of service that many people find irresistible. The other party will see you as a valued partner and believe what you say. After the first investment of time, assuming you continue to be consistent, you will have very little negotiation to do: things will fall into place and any issues can be resolved quickly. Because people make a large number of decisions for ongoing interaction based on familiarity and habit, it is likely that as long as your quality and consistency remain constant, positive negotiations will continue.
  • Drawback: Again, this is time consuming. You have to want to make the relationship last and wish for continued and ongoing exchanges with the other party. There needs to be an underlying attitude of good will and a willingness to give without any immediate promise of return. And, if the other party is not trustworthy, you may be setting yourself up to be exploited.

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Principle #4. Likability

Description: Everyone has an inclination toward people they know, like, and trust. Here’s the logic: if I like you, I am going to want to negotiate with you, believe you and follow your advice.

Negotiation strategy: Smile, show interest in the other person, be courteous and be willing to show that you make mistakes or are in some other way a frail human being. People like those who show that they are not perfect. If they feel they are negotiating with someone who is beautiful, brilliant and talented, they are going to be less willing to collaborate than if they feel you have some flaws. On the other hand, they will accept you as being more authoritative if you are beautiful, brilliant and talented so you can always gain points there.

  • Advantage: Most of us are already frail human beings, so it shouldn’t be too hard to show this once in a while during a negotiation process. Showing interest in others is always the way to their hearts. Basking in the glory of adulation on the other hand, carries with it the risk of backlash and even vindictive behaviour when the other party discovers you are not a god after all.
  • Drawback: How many of us like to appear vulnerable during negotiations? Not to many… and what if you are not actually interested in the other person? Faking your interest will not draw likeability. If you present yourself as perfect and infallible, you may well have a group of fans who you think are loyal to you but at the first sign of a mistake, you may be surprised how quickly they turn against you. This can be a difficult strategy to use for the proud or the beautiful and talented among us.

Principle #5. Authority

Description: People respond to experts. They will need to be convinced that you know what you are talking about before they take any action that involves risk, such as signing a document, believing your message, or paying for something you sell.

Negotiation strategy: Back up all your arguments with proofs and make sure you have your numbers, facts and figures ready. Demonstrate your authority when the opportunity arises in the conversation, enough to show what you know without making the other party look or feel less important than you. The secret is to show authority, but with humility.

  • Advantage: Expertise is always a sought after skill in the workplace. Knowing what you can do and having the facts to back it up builds confidence and impresses others.
  • Drawback: It is difficult to show authority and to be likeable at the same time.

Principle #6. Scarcity

Description: When something is rare, exotic or in short supply, people want it more. When there is a deadline or a small portion of something, people worry they might miss out if they don’t act soon. This is commonly referred to as FOMO (fear of missing out).

Negotiation strategy: Make sure you have a deadline, a “best before date” or a great deal that the other party will lose if they don’t make a quick decision.

  • Advantage: The sense of urgency gets people to make decisions faster
  • Drawback: Not everything has a sense of urgency and creating a false one can create a sense of mistrust. If your urgency strategy results in the other party getting a bad product, service or outcome, you will have lost any opportunity to build trust in the future.

The applied principles

Considering again our two workplace gentlemen, Cheng and his boss, which of these influence strategies might have helped them find common ground to get past their difficulties? I think they could probably use all of them, but there may be some added complexity with the scarcity approach. Here is how it might work:

Reciprocity and likeability:

Cheng and his boss can use reciprocity by each having the intention to help the other person out. The boss can explain in more detail what it looks like to disagree respectfully with your boss. Cheng can say he would like to make it up to his boss and could request more explanation about how to properly disagree in public with a superior. They will both like each other more because you always like people you help more than people you don’t help.

Authority, and a little likeability with a dash of reciprocity:

Cheng actually tried to use authority when he criticized his boss, but he needs to add likeability to his approach by modifying his choice of words and showing how his own analysis can help the boss reach his goals more effectively (also shows reciprocity). His boss can give an example of one successful employee disagreeing with a boss in the past, proving his authority on the topic to Cheng.

Commitment and consistency:

Both men can show commitment and consistency in their approach to each other and invest in the long term rather than calling it quits after one misunderstanding. The longer they work together, the more their loyalty towards each will grow, assuming they are both consistent in their approach and both benefit from the relationship.

Social proof:

Cheng can find ways to show how his analysis is affirmed by other experts, and his boss can show what subtle ways to disagree look like with several other employees. In this way both will be using social proof by bringing numbers, the power of groups and the mantle of collective expertise, to their side of the negotiation


Each of these social influences is built over time and all involve a position of personal interest and good will towards the other. None of these strategies will create instant results, which is generally the difficulty with intercultural negotiations. When one or both parties expect a quick decision but no trust has been built, it actually takes more time to negotiate and the results are unstable and unsatisfying, and international political exchanges make this imminently clear.

Undoubtedly negotiators can take years to try to arrive at solutions that have no hope of succeeding because there is no real desire to know, like or trust the other party. The result is that both sides spend all their time judging each other’s motives, or trying to manipulate or dominate them to get to one-sided benefits. To be truly successful, they would have to suspend judgment, overcome stereotypes of each other and be open to learning. Sobering, isn’t it?


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