Is Donald Trump a Great Negotiator…Or Not?

Since I’ve spent the last 30 years teaching negotiating skills, I’ve been asked several times to rate Donald Trump’s abilities in this area. My immediate response has been since I’ve never actually seen Trump himself practicing the “art of the deal” it’s hard to say. I’ve heard back:

Well, c’mon, there must be something you can say about Trump as a negotiator.

Since the real-estate mogul turned reality-TV star turned politician has almost framed the election as a referendum on his negotiating skills (and has ridden that legend to a perch atop the polls), it is a question of more than passing interest.

does trump have-good-negotiator skillsAfter all, is he really up to the task of forcing the president of Mexico to knuckle under and pay for a 2,000 mile long wall to choke off its own citizens from completing the same northward exodus that’s been going on for decades? Can he go mano a mano with Vladimir Putin to tame the Russian president’s expansionist ambitions? Can he stare down the Chinese to level the playing field in our trade dealings?

So, on second consideration I thought, well sure, there are a few observations I can offer. First, when appraising anyone’s negotiating ability, there’s more than one skill that comes into play. A negotiator can be terrible in one area of negotiation and more than compensate for it by outstanding performance in another. We’re really talking about a report card of skills.

It’s not necessary to go through a full run-down of the complex traits that make up a negotiator’s profile, but let’s take two of the leading ones: taming your ego, and expressing empathy for your counter-party. Oops! Those two subjects would seem to score the Donald a D-, at best.

art of the deal negotiationsYet, there’s something important to bear in mind, especially about people in the public eye: there is often a world of difference between their public persona and how they handle themselves in their private dealings.

Over the past few years, I’ve consulted with two large real estate development companies, one of whom did a major development project with Trump, and the other negotiated an attempted deal with him. True, a small sample, but when you hear the same thing from even a couple different sources, you start to develop a picture of your subject.

Here is the big surprise: despite the public image he cuts of an out of control egomaniac, his actual behavior belies the image. According to my sources, he starts the negotiation in his magnificent offices as an extremely considerate host, excellent at small talk, and as one of his adversaries told me: “The conversation is never about him, it’s always about you. He’s genuinely interested in finding out where you’re coming from, especially in terms of what you want to get out of the deal.”

In the course of consulting with companies around the world, I’ve built up a file of best practices from other cultures, and one of the starkest cross-cultural comparisons involves how the negotiation gets underway.

Cultures in the Mideast, the Far East, southern Europe, to name a few, pay great attention to establishing rapport before discussing business issues. By contrast, Americans are far more likely to cut to the chase, missing the opportunity to generate the kind of goodwill that helps the rest of the talks go more smoothly.

How you start the negotiation is only a small sliver of what it takes to be a good negotiator, but a critical one. In evaluating Mr. Trump, this where I get off. But I do find one interesting irony: for the candidate who is running on the slogan to “make America great again,” what can we say about one of his greatest bargaining strengths? Son of a gun, he doesn’t negotiate like an American.