Liar liar

Hotel staff: “There’s nothing I can do. The amount has been entered into the system and it is impossible to change now. You will have to pay the amount on the invoice.”

But after 10 minutes of awkward silence (a sometimes excellent negotiation tool!) the lady behind the hotel counter promptly hits a few keys on the computer, and furnishes me with a new invoice that has the (according to me) correct amount. Today’s blog entry is not about the negotiation that led us there. Rather I’d like us to reflect on her initial position, which was clearly a lie.

As a professional negotiator and lecturer I have observed thousands of participants negotiate in simulations where I had access to all the background information. I have also observed countless commercial negotiations where I had access to at least one side’s information. Thus I could verify the authenticity of at least one party said. And a quite disturbing observation (i.e. not a recommendation) is that competitive tactics are frequently implemented using lies.

We don’t have to look further than the opening offer. “I can only pay ABC…” or “I won’t sell for less than XYZ”. How does the negotiation typically unfold after these opening positions? That’s right, both parties change their opening offers. Which means there was indeed flexibility and thus both parties have already lied to each other.

I ask a class of MBA students what they think, and to my surprise I hear: “So what, it’s business!”

Oh dear…

Here’s the thing… How much easier can negotiations get if we have trust? Enormously! And how many times do you have to lie in order for me to not trust you anymore..? Just the one time; after you lie once, everything you say is questionable! And that was your first move. Good job!

An interesting nuance on lying is that people are more comfortable to lie by omission than by commission. So many of the lies we need to look out for in negotiations are not in the information that people offer, but rather in the information they fail to provide.

Eyes OFF the prize

“What? Now you’re just confusing us. First you say eyes on the prize, now eyes OFF the prize. Which one is it?!” 

First of all, I wish to apologize for the confusion. It was completely intentional 🙂

Here is what is going on. In negotiation there are very few insights that are always right. Rather, as we discuss in the book, we need a situational approach that acknowledges that the situation and context determines which negotiation insights will be most relevant at any particular point in your current negotiation.

So the previous blog entry highlighted how keeping a relentless focus on the prize can help parties move negotiations along despite feelings of regret, resentment, hurt, blame or desire for revenge.

But sometimes the other party’s relentless focus on their prize is the problem. Specifically when their prize (or “desired outcome”) is for you to lose the negotiation.

Consider the playful tug of war over a tennis ball with your dog. The more force you put into getting your prize, the more force your dog will put in. Does your dog want the tennis ball? Yes. But perhaps your dog specifically wants the tennis ball because you want it, or because it enjoys the game. It is simple, primitive and innate competitive behaviour. So what happens when you act uninterested and walk away? That’s right, sometimes your dog will walk up to you and leave the ball at your feet! The ball is now yours… until you want it… and now the competition resumes!

And what happens if you in the middle of the tug of war let go of the ball and instead pet your dog and rub it behind the ears and on the tummy. Your dog’s internal dialogue instantly changes from “Must have ball!” to “What ball?” Its eyes are off the prize, and again the ball is yours – this time without the dog knowing (or caring about) what happened.

So how is this relevant for negotiation? Well, in circumstances when the other party is ultra-competitive and specifically uses the success criteria that you have to lose, we may actually wish to avoid negotiating head-on. We specifically do not want their eyes on the prize.

Imagine going to a gym and trying to negotiate to get 2-3 weeks free trial training instead of the regular 1-3 day pass. Any attempt to increase the number of free days is very likely to be met with resistance.

But what if you change the interaction? What if you e.g. share that you are prepared to join, but later share your apprehension because you fear that you might discover that you not like the gym. Chances are that the sales person, now focusing on closing a sale (not the free trial), will try to get you to sign by offering a sweetener such as: “Ok, would you sign now if we offer a guarantee that if you don’t like the gym after 2-3 weeks you get your money back”.

Isn’t that funny? Did you get what you want? Yes. Can you train for free for 2-3 weeks? Yes. Do you have to commit to more? No. Does the sales person think he or she lost the negotiation about the free trial? No. So were you met with resistance? No. Instead the salesperson gave you exactly what you wanted. And you didn’t even ask for it!

Note that the lesson in this blog post is not really about negotiating gym memberships. It is about dealing with ultra-competitive negotiators by having them not realize that they are in a competition. So… where else can you use this insight…?

Negotiator interrupted

“Hey… I just noticed something. Every time we interrupt you, you stop talking. That seems like a pretty smart thing to do. Is there an intentional strategy behind it?”

The business owner who had asked me for advice on negotiating the sale of his company was on the right track with his question. Throughout the meeting the owner and his two executives kept fighting for airtime. Not in a rude or aggressive manner. Rather they were simply keen to share their ideas and opinions, and in the process kept cutting each other off.

But whenever this happened while I was ta….. …… …… ……. ……… …… ….. …….. ……… ………. ……. ….. …….. …… …….. ……. …… ……… ………. ……….. ……….. ………. …….. ………. ……… ……. ……….. ………….. ….…. ……………. …………. ………… ……..… . ………….. ……….. …………….lking, I would stop mid-sentence. Why?

Well, when someone interrupts you they have already made it abundantly clear that their present need is to talk, not listen. So there is little point in engaging in a competition over airtime. What do you get if you win such a competition? Their undivided attention? Unlikely!

So when negotiators get interrupted, they stop talking and instead start listening. Whether your boss is spending 90 minutes chewing you out, or your partner is telling you why everything is your fault, or a customer is telling you all the reasons your company is crap, you can also choose to adopt our approach and simply listen.

This has several additional benefits for the negotiation process, and you can read further in our book.

The bad news is that this approach will strike most readers as quite odd… which tells me that this is not what people normally do. Some of the main reasons we don’t are:

  • We don’t understand how influence works. Specifically we assume that we influence by talking. However, negotiators know we influence much more by asking questions and listening.
  • We think we know where the other party is going, or we think they are wrong. Either way we believe they’re wasting our time by continuing talking!  However, negotiators know that talking is a need, and depriving the other party of this need is likely to cause resentment, resistance and other forms of pollution.
  • We have things to say of our own, and we want to share them now before we forget. However, negotiators don’t think either/or, but rather both/and. How can both the other party and we get a chance to talk? How about they start, we capture our thoughts on paper, and then we talk after the other party has finished?

In negotiation circles listening is commonly referred to as the cheapest concession you can give. So give generously!

Beware of the status negotiation

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

In my upcoming book I discuss the idea that every negotiation (and interaction!) we have is actually made up of multiple parallel negotiations.

When I ask you ”What was that last negotiation about?”, the answer you give me will probably be what we call the formal topic of the negotiation. Now, if this were the only negotiation we needed to pay attention to then life would be very easy.

But human interaction is much more complex than that. Our formal topic will be polluted by a range of covert negotiations (or competitions!) about status, perceptions, intentions, understanding, trust, rapport, fairness, values, beliefs, and so on.

So let’s today look at one of these; the status negotiation. We all want status and recognition. But we make two flawed assumptions that often make the status negotiation impossible to resolve. One assumption is that we should have most status. The other is that we assume there is only one source of status.

The pattern can look something like this:

  • Person A: “I have 20 years experience in this area, so I know what I’m talking about.” (i.e.”I’m right because of my status!” )
  • Person B: “Well I have education, so I understand this in much more detail than a simple practitioner.”
  • Person C: “I have the most senior title, so the organisation has decided that my view is most important.”
  • Person D: “Yes, but I’m much older than all of you, and have life experience that you can’t begin understand.”
  • Person E: “You are all wrong. I’m clearly the most intelligent person in the room, so my view is obviously the most important.”
  • Persons A, B, C, D in unison: “No, I’m the most intelligent person in the room!”

Do our negotiations really look like this? YES… they do! But not on the surface. All of this goes on behind the scenes. Still, the results are readily visible, and with focused attention we can pick up on the signals in time.

Each party that does not feel that their status is acknowledged will resent the others. Left unresolved, this unmet need will predictably pollute the rest of the negotiation or interaction. It is not uncommon for a failed status negotiation to cause an otherwise successful negotiation to derail.

So what can we do instead? How about we deal with those flawed assumptions! Let’s first appreciate that there are countless sources of status. The more sources we have, the more flexibility we have to let the other party also get their status needs met. We need to take responsibility for this. Because if we put all our eggs in one basket and only rely on a single source of status (e.g. our title or rank) then our ego will do everything it can to protect that source of status. And we already know that having a sensitive ego is incompatible with being a skilled influencer or negotiator.

Let’s also acknowledge that the goal is not to feel appreciated at the expense of the other party. Rather the goal is to feel sufficiently appreciated. There is no competition here, so stop competing!

Let’s try this out:

“So you (Person B) have a PhD? Fantastic! I’m sure that your education together with my (Person A) experience in this area will enable us to arrive at even better outcomes than those we could each have achieved individually!”

Now wasn’t that the easiest thing in the world…?