How to Negotiate with Liars and Cheats

deceptionAccording to social scientists we all tell one or two lies, on average, every day. Negotiators are no exception. They may even be more deceptive as they attempt to get the upper hand. So it clearly makes sense for negotiators to take steps to deal with deception.

Leslie K. John, an associate professor at Harvard Business School has some tips in HBR July/August 2016. She points out that we’re not good at spotting deception (only 54% success). Apparently we are particularly useless when we are being flattered.

Instead of trying to improve our skills at spotting deceptions, she suggests we should adopt prevention strategies, as follows:

1. Encourage Reciprocity

Humans have a strong inclination to reciprocate disclosure: When someone shares sensitive information with us, our instinct is to match their openness. Reciprocity is particularly pronounced in face-to-face interactions. Some research also shows that people lie less to those they know and trust than they do to strangers. The world really would be a terrible place if the opposite was true!

A good way to kick-start reciprocity is to be the first to disclose something important because your counterpart is likely to share something similar.

Leslie John gives this example: ‘Imagine you are selling a piece of land. The price it will command depends on how it’s developed. So you might tell a potential buyer that you want to sell the land for the best use. This could prompt her to divulge her plans; at a minimum, you are encouraging a conversation about interests, which is critical to creating mutually beneficial deals. This strategy has the added benefit of letting you frame the negotiation, which can enhance your chances of finding breakthroughs.’

2. Ask the Right Questions

Many of us lie in a different way, by not revealing pertinent facts. A typical example would be a seller not revealing that vital equipment needs replacing—a problem imperceptible to a buyer. It might seem unethical for him to withhold that information, but he may feel that by simply avoiding the topic, he can charge a higher price while still maintaining his integrity. “If the buyer had asked me, I would have told the truth!” he might insist.

So buyers need to ask direct questions. A study found that 61% of negotiators came clean when asked about information that weakened their bargaining power, compared to 0% of those not asked.

Ms John explains:’ Research  indicates that people are less likely to lie if questioners make pessimistic assumptions (eg “This business will need some new equipment soon, right?”) rather than optimistic ones (“The equipment is in good order, right?”). It seems to be easier for people to lie by affirming an untrue statement than by negating a true statement.’

3. Watch for Dodging

Savvy counterparts can play the politicians game and answering not what they were asked but what they wish they’d been asked. Unfortunately, we are not necessarily good at spotting this sort of evasiveness. Listeners usually don’t notice dodges, often because they’ve forgotten what they originally asked. In fact, the researchers discovered that people are more impressed by eloquent sidestepping than by answers that are relevant but inarticulate.

Dodge detection is improved, however, when listeners are prompted to remember the question. It’s also a good idea to come to the table with a list of questions, leaving space to jot down your counterpart’s answers. Take time after each response to consider whether it actually provided the information you sought. Only when the answer to that question is “yes” should you move on to the next issue.

4. Avoid Dwelling on Confidentiality Issues

Apparently the more we raise the issue of confidentiality the more we can raise the counterparties concerns, causing them to clam up and share less.

Ms John and colleagues have discovered that strong privacy protections can also increase lying. In addition, they’ve found that when questions are posed in a casual tone rather than a formal one, people are more likely to divulge sensitive information.

She gives this example: ‘Imagine you are negotiating a job offer with a prospective employee and would like to assess the strength of her other options: Does she have competitive offers? She’s likely to be more forthcoming if you avoid or at least minimize confidentiality assurances and instead nonchalantly broach the topic: “We all know there are tons of great firms out there. Any chance you might be considering other places?” Of course, you should still properly protect any confidential information you receive, but there’s no reason to announce that unless asked.’

  1. Encourage Leaks

People inadvertently leak information in all kinds of ways, including in their own questions. For example, if a supplier asks what happens if they deliver late, it might signal his worries about meeting the schedule? So you need to pay attention.

In a negotiation, you might use indirect tactics to glean information. For example, give your counterpart a choice of two different offer packages—two possible ways of dividing the spoils—both of which would be acceptable to you. If she expresses a preference for one over the other, she is leaking information about her priorities and giving you insight into what’s more important to her in the negotiation.

These insights look to be really useful. With so many mergers and acquisitions out there going wrong, these tips have got to be worth a try. Happy and successful negotiating!


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