When I Found the Salesperson’s Script

Today’s post is available at INSEAD Knowledge.

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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.

Stubbornness, pride and general pettiness in our negotiations

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

Let me begin today’s entry by clarifying two points:

  • Yes, I am, in fact, a professional negotiator. Really.
  • While I introduce four separate approaches to negotiation in my book, we all revert to the least productive approach from time to time; the one where parties seek to develop power in order to make the other give in.

Girlfriend: “Can you please hold my bag for a second?”
Negotiator: “Sure.”
Girlfriend: “Ha! Now you carry it!”
Negotiator: “No honey. You insist on bringing all this unnecessary stuff with you on our walks, so you carry the bag.”
Girlfriend: “Well I’m not going to carry it.”
Negotiator: “Ok, I’ll just leave it here on the ground then.”
Girlfriend: “Fine. Go ahead. I know you will break before I do.”

This is 10pm at night. In the bag my girlfriend has her phone, money, keys, ID, (and probably two bricks, a tent, scuba diving gear, a coffee machine…). We start walking away. About 50m away I look over my shoulder to make sure the bag is still there. My girlfriend smiles. She smells victory. She knows that I’m too uncomfortable with the risk of someone stealing the bag. 100m away. 150m away. The bag is now a small dot in the distance. As we pass a man walking in the opposite direction, I seize my chance to influence my girlfriend.

Negotiator: “Honey, doesn’t he look a bit shady? I reckon he might steal your bag.”
Girlfriend: “I guess you better go get it then.”

Damn. She countered my tactic. Very uncomfortable with the risk and stakes in this negotiation, and not being able to take my eyes off the bag, I stop walking.

Negotiator: “Ok, well I’m too uncomfortable with this. I’m not going to get your bag, but I will stay right here and watch out for anyone stealing it. You better hurry up and go get it before anyone else does.”
Girlfriend: “I’m not going to get it.”
Negotiator: “Hey, that car just made a U-turn and is pulling up next to your bag. They most definitely saw it.”

No reaction from my girlfriend as she stands her ground. I start running towards the bag. Halfway there, red and blue lights start flashing from the dashboard, indicating that this is in fact an undercover police car. While running, I wave with both hands, signalling that it is my (girlfriend’s) bag.

Police (with a stern voice): “Is this your bag?”
Negotiator: “It’s my girlfriend’s bag.”
Police: “Why did she leave it here?”
Negotiator: “ Because she is a stubborn, stubborn girl and she has to win.”
Police: “So why don’t you carry it?”
Negotiator: “I can’t give in. If I do this for her then she’ll start making all the rules in the relationship.”

At this point the two under cover police officers smile and give each other a knowing look. I tell myself that this is because they understand what I’m going through here.

And then she arrives, walking slowly towards us. I recognise that smug grin. It now extends from ear to ear.

Girlfriend: “I won!”
Negotiator: “No you didn’t. I’m still not going to carry your bag. I was just not prepared to lose your bag to make a point. We both know that you will do anything win. So I’m just going to sit here, next to the bag, until you pick it up.”
Girlfriend: “Well then we’ll be here for a while.”

The cops drive away. I feel good about giving them something to talk about on their otherwise uneventful night shift.

Negotiator: “Just… pick… the… bag… up! I’ve had a long day and I’m tired.”

At this point the negotiation changed from negotiation game 1 to game 2, the one where we seek to understand and satisfy the needs of both parties.

Girlfriend: “Awww, yes you look very tired. Here, give me the bag and let’s go.”

On the walk home, it took all my willpower to not tell her: “I won”… ☺