In the Middle Ages, people shook hands to demonstrate that they were empty-handed, meaning they were not carrying weapons and could be trusted to behave honorably. Even today, a handshake before a negotiating session means that you and the other person agree to behave honorably. You might negotiate hard, but you will not lie or violate your agreements once the session is over. You will be true to your word. You will be trustworthy.

In today's world, it is tempting to believe that trust is no longer that critical. After all, most verbal agreements are subject to attorney review. Even when verbal agreements are formalized and we sign contracts, there might still be ways to break those formal agreements later on. We live in an age of wiggle room.

Yet trust and honor are still possible today. Consider Tony Blair. When he said he would support the United States in Iraq, he unleashed a firestorm of opposition that he was probably not expecting, both in his own country and from France, Germany, and his other European allies. In the recent British election, his party lost many seats and his political future is likely to be shortened. It would have been expedient for Blair to turn tail and waffle on his agreement with our president, but he did not do that, despite serious consequences. Not everyone loves Blair, but no one can deny that he is true to his word. He is an honorable man.

In his book The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump tells a story from his early career that also illustrates the value of honor. At the time he was planning Trump Tower, he wanted to make it a truly significant building. In order to do that, he needed to secure the air rights over an adjacent building, Tiffany's flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Walter Hoving, a tough businessman, was the head of Tiffany at the time. In one-on-one negotiations, Mr. Trump offered $5 million for those rights, and Mr. Hoving accepted. But then something unexpected happened. Mr. Hoving said that he was about to take a one-month vacation with his wife. He would be literally incommunicado for weeks.

That made Mr. Trump concerned. What if Mr. Hoving had second thoughts during that month? What if lawyers got to him and made him change his mind? When Mr. Trump voiced these concerns, Mr. Hoving replied, "Young man, perhaps you don't understand. I made a deal with you. I shook your hand."

In the weeks that followed, several other deals took place in New York that made it clear that Mr. Hoving could reopen negotiations and try to wring more money from the Trump Organization, but he didn't. His was true to his word.

What if Trust is Lacking?

As you enter into negotiations, suppose you don't know the trustworthiness of the other party? Suppose you don't know whether she or he is honorable or someone likely to stab you in the back?

That is the time you need lawyers to formalize verbal agreements into written documents that spell out your agreement point by point. This is the honorable way to use attorneys - not to help you renege on your word, but to protect you from people who do.

You cannot make the person on the other side of the table be honest. His or her honesty is simply beyond your control. But you can do something more important. You can negotiate honorably and stay true to your word afterwards. Your commitment to take that higher road and stick to it might not always be the easiest or the most immediately profitable. But in the end, choosing that path will direct your steps far up above the crowd and lead you to ultimate success.

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