An undervalued technique

Flinching is probably one of the oldest and most effective tactics used to influence a negotiation counterparty. Yet it is also one of the least written about and researched tactics. Look up the index of any standard textbook on negotiation and chances are that you will not find an entry for flinching or similar. Even Robert Cialdini in his seminal book “Influence” does not write about this technique. This might be because it is so prevalent or because many consider it to be a “cheap shot” or embarrassing.

I consider flinching to be an essential element of any negotiation programme. Negotiators must understand how and when to use flinches. They should also recognise when they are being flinched at. Flinching can come in many shapes and sizes, from the highly confrontational “NO WAY!” or “You must be kidding” to the more subtle “Really?” or “Oh dear” (said in a way that denotes painful sorrow). There is a real art to flinching. Outstanding negotiators know how to apply just the right flinch at the right time.


The more scientific phrase for flinching is “Strategic Demurral”. A research paper by Neil Fassina and Glen Whyte defines a demurral as “a verbal or physical display of shock, disgust, or disbelief made immediately in response to an opening offer”. The paper reported that negotiators who demurred, i.e. flinched claimed significantly more value than negotiators who did not. Just as importantly the paper also showed that flinching did not affect the impasse rate or the value created. This is why flinching is so effective and much beloved by many experienced negotiators. If used well it can help improve outcome without risking the overall negotiation.

Flinching however has to be done carefully and appropriately. The study quoted above, for example, found that recipients of a flinch perceived the outcome of their negotiation as less favourable than in the case of negotiations in which there was no flinch. A flinch could also reduce the perceived quality of the relationship between two negotiators. A review of the methodology used for this study explains why this happened. “Flinchers” were instructed to use phrases such as “quite frankly this is an insult…..“. This, not surprisingly, would affect the negotiators’ relationship and perceived quality of outcome.

How to flinch well

Flinching is not difficult. But there are a number of basic ground rules that should be observed when flinching. These include:

  • Flinch quickly – we alway teach that ” a flinch delayed is a flinch devalued”. The faster the flinch the more authentic it appears. Note that the definition quoted above also specifies making it immediately after the offer
  • Flinch visibly and audibly – flinches come across best when there is body language to support the message and when the body language is accompanied by an audible sound such as sucking of teeth, in- or exhalation, or phrases such as: No – that is not going to work. The audible part is needed to ensure that a counterparty that is not looking at you hears the flinch
  • Avoid insulting or aggressive responses – this is very much designed to avoid stressing the relationship. The flinch should simply demonstrate that the offer is not good enough and that the other side need to move
  • Keep to our authentic personality – if a flinch does not look or feel authentic it will be wasted as the other side will recognise it for what it is – an influencing tactic.

There are further guidelines to good flinching (such as avoiding anti-flinches) and when to use these in Chapter 9 of High Impact Fee Negotiation and Management for Professionals, (which also lists flinching in the index!).


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