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Lessons From a Diplomat on How to Build Business Relationships Try these five diplomacy skills to manage complex relationships with many diverse groups.

By Nadia Goodman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Carey Cavanaugh

Successful businesses are built on strong relationships. Business leaders often need to step into the shoes of a diplomat, developing and managing complex relationships with many diverse groups.

"There is a lot of common ground between diplomacy and business," says Carey Cavanaugh, a professor of diplomacy at the University of Kentucky and a former U.S. ambassador stationed all over the world for over two decades under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. "Entrepreneurs can draw from the diplomatic tool box to be more effective," he says.

Try these tips from a seasoned diplomat's toolbox to help you build solid business relationships that last.

1. Be honest about what you can reveal.
Diplomats are known as "people who lie for their countries," and corporations are often seen as equally deceitful. But in both cases, telling the truth is essential for success. "Truth builds a solid reputation," Cavanaugh says. "It's the key to establishing long-term relationships that you can rely on in a crunch."

When secrecy is essential, with an upcoming product launch or a private personnel issue, don't compromise honesty. "You can keep secrets and still tell the truth," Cavanaugh says. Just be honest about what you can and cannot say.

2. Do your research.
Just as a diplomat would learn about a culture's customs before a visit, learn as much as you can before you try to connect with a customer, peer, or potential partner. Learn what they value, how they behave, what their long-term interests are, and what they need or want.

Use that knowledge to help you craft your message or product, address specific needs, and show that you understand their values. "You'll avoid missteps," Cavanaugh says.

Related: The Networking Mistake Most Entrepreneurs Make

3. Listen more than you talk.
Diplomats and business people have a reputation for being pushy, but the best take time to listen. "Half the job is about saying what you want or need, but the other half is listening," Cavanaugh says. "It's as important to listen as it is to speak."

Listening makes the other party feel valued, helps you identify their needs, and allows you to respond more creatively. "When you listen, you can often find solutions that evade others," Cavanaugh says, making you more likely to reach your goals.

4. Don't discount the little guys.
The relationships you're building today, even those that seem inconsequential, are worth attention and care. "Relationships that don't seem important now will come back to you later, though you won't know when or how," Cavanaugh says.

A casual acquaintance may be the key to your next innovation, just as a tiny country may be the next major oil source for a diplomat. Build lasting relationships by treating others with integrity and giving your full attention when you're with them.

5. Stay true to your values.
In any negotiation or business decision, choose solutions that fit your values, even if they're not the easiest or cheapest options. "When you deviate from [your values], there's a hard price to pay," Cavanaugh says. "It takes a long time to get a reputation back."

It's easiest to lose your values when you're getting impatient or growing rapidly, so in those moments, remember what you stand for. The more you act on consistent values, the stronger your business will be in the long run and the more your consumers will trust you.

Related: Startup Survival 101: It's All About Relationships That Work

Nadia Goodman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY. She is a former editor at, where she wrote about the psychology of health and beauty. She earned a B.A. in English from Northwestern University and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. Visit her website,

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