Negotiation Styles - Trump v Clinton


As our screens fade to black at the end of the seemingly interminable US election campaign, what is interesting for negotiators?

While the ‘reasons’ for Donald Trump’s victory are manifold, an analysis of his and Hillary Clinton’s negotiating styles is intriguing.

Curiously, the candidates’ default or reflex styles seemed to conform to party colours, red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. ENS International alumni will appreciate that Clinton’s attempt to reason and rationalize with voters fell at the more collaborative ‘blue’ end of the spectrum, while Trump’s confrontational harangues were firmly in the more competitive ‘red’ zone.

Nevertheless, things were somewhat more nuanced than this.

Where was the negotiation happening?

Despite strong media focus on the gladiatorial confrontations of the presidential debates, they were not really negotiations between the candidates. The candidates were not seeking to influence each other. They were conducting simultaneous individual negotiations with two hundred million potential voters.

Hillary Clinton’s style

With her extensive experience of politics and formal negotiation, Hillary Clinton demonstrated greater style flexibility than her opponent.

Clinton essentially chose a *Content-based strategy to try to influence voters. Focusing on her strong policy credentials, using reason rather than emotion, she broadcast an underlying message of her being a ‘safe pair of hands’.

Nevertheless, Clinton showed that she could take on Trump on his own, competitive ground, counterpunching vigorously and aggressively to his insults and threats. As the first female presidential candidate in the nation’s history, it was important to show she could hold her own in that often macho environment.

Donald Trump’s style

Trump’s competitive default style matched his overall confrontational approach. It came as a surprise when he showed he could be conciliatory. He managed to do so on a few occasions, notably when asked to praise something about his opponent at the end of the second debate, and in his placatory victory speech and other post-election announcements.

While Trump’s campaign team tried to send him out with a less aggressive style, under pressure his natural combative instincts (default) usually overrode the carefully-laid plan.

His lack of policy knowledge, compared to his vastly experienced opponent, meant that he lacked Content Power. He relied on **Process Power, focusing on a specific demographic: the white working class in disempowered post-industrial regions. Perhaps the best quote demonstrating this is his ‘Nobody builds walls better than me’. A phrase devoid of meaningful Content but full of emotional resonance (Process) for a certain sector of the population.

The atmosphere deliberately cultivated at Trump’s rallies, aggressive to opponents but emotionally engaging for supporters. It was part of a conscious and planned style choice. The key to his success was his recognition of the emotional needs of his targeted voters. He engaged with their personal need for self-esteem, leading them to feel that with Trump they still had a stake in their country’s future. His policies (Content) were less important than the fact that he made these voters feel better about themselves.

The Result and Tips for Negotiators  

Both candidates evidenced style flexibility, Clinton much more so than Trump. She was less captured by her default style while his default style shone through continually. However, political Content seems to sway voters less and less. Trump’s focus on Process was highly successful and ultimately delivered him the presidency. His aggressive style was subtly combined with conciliatory attunement to the needs of a key demographic in a number of critical swing states.

In the end it was a case of Process defeating Content. Emotion won over reason and logic.

Maybe this is a short-term result. Trump’s hard-line approach was perhaps appropriate to the win/lose nature of modern politics. However, his inability to change style according to the needs of different occasions has raised concerns regarding his ability to be an effective president. We shall see…

What is the ongoing tip for skilled negotiators? It is to develop the high-level skill of maintaining conscious, managed style flexibility. It is particularly important to do so in stressful negotiations, when the tendency is for our default style to reassert itself, often to our detriment. This skill can be learned.
*Content: The facts; the substance; the ‘what’ of the matter.
**Process: The method; the behavior; the ‘how’ you manage the approach.