Negotiating with liars

Many professionals fear negotiating with liars more than any other type of negotiation. Ultimately this is because they don’t want to have to admit to themselves (and others) that they were so credulous or naïve as to believe the liar. A secondary consideration is that they also fear agreeing worse terms than would otherwise have been the case. They’d rather have no deal than a bad or unfair deal.

There is also the fear that a liar will not abide by the terms of an agreement, i.e. that they will collect on the concessions granted to them but not deliver on the terms they have offered.

Professionals are right to be worried about negotiators who think that they can gain better deals by lying. Most people are not very good at detecting lies and often we want to be lied to.

A number of observations should help here.

Whether a deal is good or bad should be determined by a negotiator’s veto, i.e. they should decide if a deal on the table is better than the next best, adjusted alternative. If it is – it should be taken, if not – time to look at the alternatives. This decision should be a function of self set criteria and should not be influenced by the other side. The only exception to this is if the other side can significantly influence available alternatives or if we allow the liar to influence our perception of available alternatives. This is one of the reasons for our fear of believing the liar “that there is no alternative”.

The other observation is that a negotiator has to be clear about the difference between a good deal (i.e. better than the alternatives) and a fair or equitable deal. A previous blog already discussed the issues of fairness in negotiation. Perception of the fairness of a deal may well be affected by the actions of a liar, or more accurately – when the lies are found out.

Worries about the delivery of commitments made by the other side should be addressed in the details of the agreement. Ideally, concessions given should be matched in time and value by concession to be received. This is way many contracts include penalties and other clauses to act as appropriate safeguards against non-delivery, deliberate or involuntary. If a counterpart will not agree to such contingency clauses it is time to ask why.

There is an interesting article in the July-August edition of the Harvard Business Review on negotiating with liars that provides useful guidelines to dealing with this type of negotiation. The most useful ones include:

Encourage reciprocity:

Offer some information and expect to be given information in return. Often this builds trust and relationships and reduces the propensity for lying.

Ask the right questions

We often don’t bother to ask the right question because we are either too lazy, fear giving offence or just don’t really want the answer. When given an answer – check that the information tally with other information.

Watch for dodging

Liars often won’t tell outright lies – they simply won’t answer the question. Sometimes they do it so well that it is not obvious that they dodged. This is one reason why good negotiators write important questions down and writer the answers received down next to the question. This will show if a question was answered or dodged.

Cultivate information sources

The author of the article points out that much useful information is “leaked” by people themselves, sometimes even in the questions they ask. Often off-the-cuff comments are made at the end of meetings or in between meetings that may reveal deep insights. Good negotiators know how to cultivate such information sources and they are keen observers and listeners.

It is inevitable that some negotiators will be tempted to lie in the mistaken belief that this will create permanent advantage. Good questioning skills, carefully constructed agreements and a healthy dose of scepticism will help avoid falling into their trap. Finally it is always worth remembering – if something is too good to be true it is probably neither good nor true.

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