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.

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“Talk is cheap!”

As the 120kg mountain of muscle wobbles past me at the gym I read the large letter text on his t-shirt: “Talk is cheap!”

For a second I ponder what I – as a negotiator – think about that. Is talk cheap? Well… yes and no. Talking can be very expensive, because while we talk we aren’t listening to the other party, and we may thus miss out on important cues for how to influence that person. This is one reason why silence coupled with listening skills is often touted as the cheapest concession you can make in negotiation.

On the other hand, having a conversation can be much cheaper than an exchange of force – as well as much more effective in getting parties what they want. So the expression “Talk is cheap”, like all insights in negotiation, is true in some circumstances. Our job as situational negotiators is to know when a particular insight is the most important insight.

But I doubt this is the message the muscle man at the gym had in mind when designing his own t-shirt. And as I looked around the gym I noticed more t-shirts with similar messages, such as: “Only the strong will survive”. It seemed important for these individuals to communicate to the world that muscle is the primary tool for getting what you want.

And if we substitute the more general word “power” for “muscles” then we’ll find that many negotiators think in exactly the same way. So what does power (or muscles) allow you to do? It allows you to dictate outcomes, and it allows you to force the other party to concede. That is very tempting, and often the main motivation for building power (or muscles).

But… and there are some big but(t)s (especially if you work those glutes… ahem…). One is that use of power introduces a whole slew of prohibitive risks. We cover these extensively in the book. Another drawback is that negotiating using power – quite ironically – introduces the potential outcome of submission.

Let’s clarify this using our gym example. If the only source of power is “muscles” or “strength”, then the strongest party in every negotiation will win and the weakest party will lose.

Now ponder this – how many people are the strongest person in the world? Oh, just the one? Ooopps… Does that mean everyone else who bases his or her negotiation strategy on power (or muscles) alone has to get used to the idea of “submission”? Mm-hm…