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Your identity is key: negotiation strategies to build trust

By November 21, 2022January 17th, 2023All Stories

As a humanitarian practitioner, the success of your negotiation relies heavily on your ability to establish a trustful relationship with your counterpart.

To be able to build this kind of relationship, there are several elements to take into consideration.

An essential one is your identity, as well as your capacity to adapt to your counterpart’s identity. To successfully build a trustful relationship, it’s important that you put forward your personal traits that could be an asset and downplay those that could be a liability.

In 2020, at the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation, we started interviewing frontline humanitarian negotiators about how their identity impacts the outcome of a negotiation.

This is a compilation of some of the strategies they shared to increase their legitimacy and start a relationship with their counterpart on the right foot.

1. Work with your cultural background

What do you answer when someone asks “Who are you?”

Many—if not most—people would probably answer with their name, followed by their nationality, ethnicity and regional or local belonging. Together with physical appearance, your country or culture of origin is one of the main elements that define your identity and it is likely to be among the first things other people notice about you.

This can be seen as something positive or negative by your interlocutor, depending on many factors such as the relationship their country has with yours (for instance, the existence of a colonial past), the individual relationships they have previously had with people from the same country, the existing stereotypes and clichés…

Having a double nationality, or identifying with two or more nationalities in any other way (having parents from different countries, or having lived for many years in a certain country and identifying with its culture…) is a useful aspect when your background isn’t well perceived by your counterpart.

Click on the section below to read how a humanitarian negotiator applied this technique.

Play up your nationality

I am from Morocco, which has been useful in most parts of the Middle East. It would help in breaking the ice, showing that I was a part of their community. When I say my dad is Moroccan, they say: “You’re part of us.” I speak very little Arabic, I’m not Muslim and I have been in Morocco once when I was three years old. However, they tell me: “Well, that’s your parent’s fault, not yours, and we’re glad that you’re here now.”

In Yemen, we were in territories that were Ansar Allah’s (the Houthi armed movement) stronghold. When the counterpart saw my surname, he insisted that I called him uncle—and that was basically our access to the territory.

I don’t think I’ve had bad experiences with this, because I’ve mostly worked in the Middle East. Where it wouldn’t have been an asset, I could rely on my French side, like in Kurdish places, because the French had supported the Kurdish struggle. My diversity has been key, it has allowed me to play up some things and downplay others depending on the context.

2. Anticipate stereotypes and manage expectations

Being aware of how you might be perceived by your counterpart, what stereotypes they might believe about your identity and what they might expect of you is essential, but only a first step.

The second step is equally crucial, and it involves planning around those beliefs and stereotypes and, if they are negative, trying to prove them wrong with positive actions.

Click on the section below to read how a humanitarian negotiator applied this technique.

“I’m not this Arab expat sitting in Europe”

My identity has almost always been a positive one. As an Arab Muslim woman, it has worked positively in every situation, even in a context like Latin America. In Colombia, for instance, there is no sizable community of Arab-speaking refugees, but there are many Colombians that have Arab descent, and this is a good icebreaker.

The fact that I dress in a modern way conveys that I’m a citizen of the world, not rooted in a single place. This has been helpful. Of course, when I’ve worked in the Arab region, I try to have conversations in Arabic. I also try to be very well prepared on the subject matter, so they know I’m not this Arab expat sitting in Europe that was sent in only because she speaks Arabic. They would have higher expectations of me, but it has nothing to do with gender. I have to show that there is legitimacy, a reason why I was chosen that goes beyond my language ability and my nationality. Then they want to cooperate. I think that if I hadn’t been an Arabic speaker and from the region, I wouldn’t have had that many open doors.

3. Show interest in the local religion, history and sites

Showing interest in your counterpart’s country, its history, its leading figures and monuments, is an easy way to show respect and care towards your counterpart and build “rapport”, that is, a positive relationship based on mutual understanding. By doing so, you may also learn more about your counterpart’s cultural background and the rationale behind their thinking during the negotiation process.

Click on the sections below to read how humanitarian negotiators applied this technique.

Tourism with your counterpart

I was traveling in Iraq, and I had a Ministry of Trade officer accompanying me. I told him I wanted to visit the mosques, get closer to his culture, and he was positively surprised. He told me he couldn’t take me then, but that he would the following time. He asked me to bring with me an abaya (a full-length outer garment worn by some Muslim women), and he eventually took me to two Shia shrines. He told me: “I’ll go and pray, you sit here, don’t speak to anyone, look around.” He exposed himself, he went beyond what his work was supposed to be with me, just because I had expressed an interest in getting closer to him.

Then we went to Mosul, and I told him I wanted to go see a monastery. He said he did not have time as we needed to go back to the main offices. He was so sorry for not being able to please me and show the Christian cultural side of his country. He promised to do it next time. This rapport that I created with him helped me open up for my work. I was very junior then, I was scared, traveling with people who want to be the bosses… The fact that I managed to build that trust with him made my work easier with him—he gave me information he wasn’t supposed to give me. As junior as I was, I had more legitimacy than senior people because I had managed to cross the cultural bridge.

How the Quran and the Bible can help you

I have a Christian Arabic colleague who has a beard. When he recites the Quran, you have no idea how much of a positive impression he leaves. When he talks about the Quran and says he’s a Christian, it comes as a pleasant surprise.

Being aware of a person’s religion is essential. When I went to Ethiopia, where they are very religious, I talked to my Christian colleagues and took quotes from the Bible. It is a sign of respect to the culture and plays a big part in being accepted yourself.

This Christian colleague would always start with a story about the country or the city, about their history or about a site in the city that has a meaning. And it breaks the ice. You’re showing that you “know”, that you read about their country, and they think: “This person did their homework.”

All these countries that went into war, they all have great histories. Look at Iraq, the birth of civilization. In Ethiopia, when you tell people about the great emperor of Habesha who was the first one to give asylum to prophet Mohammad, they love it. Through this, it’s like you’re telling them: “You’re in conflict now, but let’s not forget your amazing history. Look where you come from.”

Football and Yemeni poetry

One of my big steps in building rapport is sharing personal information, but also looking into my counterpart’s life, which means you must ask questions, so they can see you’re interested in them. I’m a very curious person in nature, and that has allowed me to have some great conversations with my counterparts. I learned about football because I knew that the sheikhs would place me on the French map depending on football. Also, football would tone down my womanhood.

I also know a lot about Yemeni poetry. Not because I like it, but because I thought it was a way of breaking the ice in negotiations with tribal leaders. This was me showing I knew about their context, in ways that are not like: “You need water.”

Happy holidays

In December 2021, we were negotiating in Tigray where no non-government organisations had access and all the international staff had been evacuated. There had been no humanitarian assistance for two months.

Early January 2022, during the Ethiopian Christmas “Tamkat”, the situation was time-sensitive in Tigray, and all official authorities’ offices were closed for three days. However, with the help of a local tourist guide, I managed to find where the command-post commander was staying.

He was in the middle of the celebration. I approached him and told him in an attempt to break the ice: “You know how you can get more credit to get to heaven? [Because I had asked and been told he was very religious.] If you give me permission to give lifesaving assistance to thousands of people waiting for us.”

He laughed, we talked, I congratulated him for the holiday and we exchanged numbers. Then he told his staff to give us a permission letter; we got access without him even looking at our passports, we only used the organisation’s ID card. I was lucky though; on a normal working day this might not have happened.

4. Be human and authentic (without overstepping)

The way you behave and interact with a counterpart can have a great impact on the type of relationship you establish with them. Acting in an approachable, warm and welcoming way has the potential of making a positive impression on other people and paving the way to an easier negotiation. Vice versa, conveying frustration, hostility or stress may make your counterpart feel similarly tense and anxious.

Using humour to your advantage is, in the appropriate circumstances, always a good idea. And sometimes, you are just lucky and need to go with your gut and seize the chance!

Remember, however, to keep in mind the professional context in which the exchange takes place: make sure your behaviour is appropriate to each situation, whether formal or informal.

Click on the section below to read how humanitarian negotiators applied this technique.

Being honest and authentic can take you a long way

Two things have helped me quite a bit in establishing rapport: first, trying to keep a certain level of informality and second, being honest and transparent.

It’s true that I wasn’t dealing with diplomats, but I did deal with ministers. With them, you must maintain politeness and decorum, but cracking a joke from time to time or being a little bit more open when you hesitate about an answer helps. This closeness has allowed me to establish rapport and to end up addressing with an informal “you” (“tu” instead of “vous”) most of my counterparts in francophone Africa. This makes me look sympathetic and not particularly threatening; it makes it look like I don’t have an agenda even though I do.

Regarding honesty and transparency, I feel like a lot of people in negotiation, particularly men, have a fixed idea of how male negotiators ought to behave—stern, with strong handshakes. I try to go a little bit to the opposite of this. I would not show all my cards, but at some point, I would say: “I’m putting this on the table because my boss has asked me to.” I would not divulge any critical information, but I have used this as a tactic to also establish the trust.

5. Use your (body-) language to show respect and ease tensions

Posture, gestures, facial expressions give away more than someone might want to let on through words.

It might be even useful to bring along a colleague to your meeting; not to negotiate, but to be there, chit chat and pay close attention to what it is not being said, to the ambiance in the room, to the relationship between your interlocutors…

Being polite, respecting cultural norms and traditions, staying calm and being patient are essential elements to start the relationship on good terms. Train yourself to become more be observant and give meaning to each non-verbal message.

This may seem obvious, but it’s not that easy to maintain when your counterpart is being difficult! In these situations, putting into practice the CCHN’s six techniques to cool down a heated negotiation might prove useful to remain calm and bring your counterpart back to that level of calmness.

Click on the sections below to read how humanitarian negotiators applied this technique.

Language matters

The Health Office had decided to close our mental health clinic arguing that we didn’t have a license. Some guy from the municipality came to the clinic, there was some shouting, he threatened to close the clinic and asked for all our names.

So, I went to the municipality with the program coordinator—I was translating for him—and the municipality guy started shouting again. The coordinator noticed that the tone of the counterpart had started to come down when I was talking to him in Arabic, so he told me to deal with him. When you see that someone is so furious you need to read the signs. I knew that, in that area, when you “butter people up”, it goes well. My dialect and accent were different than his, but my attitude and my face calmed him down. He said: “You know how to speak. You are not like the staff in your clinic. They don’t respect anyone.”

I told him I understood, I apologised on their behalf: “They maybe didn’t know who you were, they are new.” The matter of language and how you speak to them meant a lot, so I focused on that every time I talked to him. He kept repeating the same issue about our staff, I kept apologising. I was not convinced, but you need to adapt your personality. I am not very patient usually, but I was trying to project that. I knew it was a long-term relationship because I would need to renew the license after some months. Each holiday I used to send a happy holidays message, I called often. Then, when I handed the task to someone else, I told them all this.

He ended up giving us a week to get the license instead of three days. Initially, they had wanted us to pay in a retrospective manner, which they also dropped.

Keeping a low profile and listening with an “open mind”

When I’m not in my country, I go through with a low profile, being very respectful of the local culture. I ask the translator what to do, what the local customs are: do we look people in the eye? Do we shake hands? All these things you want to know before and not after the meeting. It is important to be very open to listen and to take the negotiation step by step, paying attention to reassure the counterpart about the presence of the non-governmental organisation and the distribution. The first objective is to create a climate of trust, to develop bridges.

I always pay close attention to religion or spiritual beliefs and to the local culture. You lay low, and you listen. When my interpreter was translating, I was paying a lot of attention to the non-verbal language of my counterpart. It was fascinating. After 9 months in Afghanistan, I developed this capacity to better read non-verbal language, which I later applied in Pakistan. According to my experience with local tribes, if you get to have a clear and direct eye to eye contact with your counterpart, you know they will agree or are telling the truth. But if the counterpart is moving a lot and saying “Inshallah”…

Observation is key

Sometimes you’re able to really prepare, but sometimes you just don’t have that luxury because you don’t know who’s going to show up on your counterpart’s side. When I can prepare, I discuss with the local staff what we know, and I would complement that with observations and my own research. In a first meeting I’m more on a listening mode, I take notes on how they behave. I would be in a discussion with a counterpart and have a colleague doing some chit chat with the other members of the counterpart’s team or the population (if possible) to get more detailed information and observe the environment.

I always try to get information from different sources, because everyone has an agenda even if it’s not deliberate. If it’s somebody in power, I do think about how my engagement with him or her will be observed by others. We shouldn’t be seen as too close or friendly, but rather cordial and respectful, still with some distance. I’ve seen colleagues who go very far in an attempt to build relationships without due consideration to the perception issue.

6. Make use of your network

True in frontline negotiations as in life, it’s not only important what you know, but also who you know. You don’t need to know the Commander’s brother to get him to trust you; sometimes, it is as simple as him having heard your surname before, having a very distant relative or having his nephew attending the same school as you did. Leverage your network or any shared acquaintances to create a connection and better approach your counterpart.

Click on the section below to read how a humanitarian negotiator applied this technique. 

A proud doctor

Our counterpart was a doctor, and I noticed he was very proud in naming himself as such. So, I told him about the universities I had studied in, mentioning people he knew there… I told him I moved to another university because of the war. I told him about my relatives, who have some educational and social weight in our city. That helped us; it’s not like it’s “anybody” coming to talk to him.

I was also able to adapt quickly to any subject he brought up: orphans, internally displaced people, selection criteria, agriculture, water availability. That gave us an opportunity to talk more.

7. Consider how you are perceived and listen to your local colleagues

How you dress and how you portray yourself is an essential aspect in any negotiation and is something that can be used to “compensate” for other traits perceived negatively.

For instance, if you’re a young negotiator and you’re worried that your age may be a disadvantage, dressing in a formal way, growing a beard, or styling your hair in a certain manner can help you overcome this.

And if you are not from the country, your best bet is talking to your colleagues that have lived and worked there to find out what is important and what is not in that context.

Click on the section below to read how a humanitarian negotiator applied this technique. 

Who has the biggest desk?

It is essential to rely on your national colleagues. The first people I would get close to in a new mission would be the national staff. They are the ones who can tell you what you need to know, protect you, open the door for you to understand how the local culture works. When negotiating, you need to understand what the language means, what that word in that sentence means, what that specific face means.

The optics are also extremely important. I had a boss in Sudan who had a huge desk in a huge office. I never realized why until I understood that he was the one negotiating, so he needed to show that he was in power.

What matters are also the optics of how you dress; you need to assimilate your dressing to the local context. I cover my body to respect the culture of the place, because my legitimacy starts form the respect I get from this people, and they care a lot about clothes and manners.

8. Turn language weaknesses into an advantage

When you are a foreigner, speaking the local language is a big source of legitimacy in the eyes of your counterpart; it shows that you made an effort to learn it, to understand the culture, to be able to communicate with them. It also prevents the issue of many things being lost in translation, or of having your counterpart preferring to engage with your interpreter rather than yourself.

However, sometimes not speaking the language (or choosing not to speak it) can be useful to keep a distance from the conversation, make your position more nuanced or retrieve confidential information. It’s nevertheless a tactic to be used occasionally, as it also has its risks of making the counterpart believe they have been deceived.

Click on the section below to read how a humanitarian negotiator applied this technique. 

Not speaking the language can be an advantage

If I hear a rumor that my counterpart is a difficult person, then I have to be more thoughtful. Personality makes a big difference. Often, when we have gotten a very tough negotiator, we would choose to use me—as an international—because it gives us time during the translations to think more. It helps to have that lag, where they need to think, and we can justify ourselves by saying: “This was probably lost in translation.” It becomes a strategy in itself. If we go in speaking Arabic from the beginning, chances are the negotiation can flounder within 10 minutes.

For instance, we have this international male staff who speaks Arabic, and his temperament may be similar to that of the counterpart. When the counterpart gets upset and angry, the chances of our negotiator getting upset or angry are quite high. In this case, we force it so that the non-Arabic speaking person becomes the lead, and like that we can have time. If the interlocutor is upset, we would say: “So sorry, we misunderstood what you said, can you explain it again?” And things simmer down. It gives us a longer negotiation time, while with an Arabic speaking person there wouldn’t be that lag.

👉 Interested in more tools to support your humanitarian negotiations?

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Legitimacy, diversity, identity, and gender in frontline humanitarian negotiations

Over the course of 2021, the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) conducted a series of interviews with frontline humanitarian practitioners to better understand how their identity and the identity of their counterpart affects the negotiation process.

What follows is a recollection of the most interesting and relevant points derived from the interviews, as well as some common topics identified across contexts.