In previous blogs, I have discussed the importance of "small talk" as a way to not only get to know people but to build rapport and trust. A key to helping parties settle their dispute is having a relationship with them and that relationship depends on trust. A party is NOT going to pay attention to someone she does not trust. And this includes the mediator!

A recent blog post by Katie Shonk on Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation website puts an interesting twist on this theory. In "Women and Negotiation: Permission to Skip the Chit-Chat? ", Ms. Shonk discusses a study indicating that men, but not women, will receive positive results from engaging in small talk with the other parties.

The study was conducted by Alexandra A. Mislin of American University, Brook A. Shaughnessy of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, and Tanja Hentschel and Claudia Peus of Technische Universität Müchen. (I wonder if being all women researchers had anything to do with the results?)

To conduct the study, the researchers asked participants to read a transcript and then evaluate a negotiator named either JoAnna or Andrew who either did or did not engage in small talk before starting to negotiate. The small talk involved local restaurants and a hometown sports team. The negotiation involved the control of a scarce resource.

The researchers found that:

Participants judged Andrew to be more communal and likeable when he engaged in small talk before negotiating than when he did not, and the chit-chatting Andrew also was rewarded with better final offers from participants than was the all-business Andrew. JoAnna, on the other hand, was judged the same whether or not she chatted informally with her counterpart, and on a par with the Andrew who didn't make small talk. Chatty Andrew was the clear winner.

Gender stereotypes and expectations likely explain the results, according to the authors. Because men are generally viewed as less communal, sociable, and concerned about others than women, men who buck the stereotype with small and unexpected communal behaviors, like making small talk, may be rewarded in negotiation. (However, men may be penalized for more significant non-stereotypical behavior, such as staying home with their children.) (Id.)

The authors of the study emphasize that despite the results of the study, women still need to engage in small talk because, in reality, it DOES help to build commonality which leads to building a relationship and trust. And, as our own experiences tell us, trusting someone is critical to reaching any compromise.

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By Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / phyllis@pgpmediation.com / Website: www.pgpmediation.com