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.’