Calling Them Out: The Trickster Box of Dirty Negotiation Tactics

by Svitlana Kalitsun

This article was originally published in the Hong Kong Lawyer, the official journal of the law society of Hong Kong in July 2020.

If you google “negotiation tricks” you will get more than five million results. False facts, good cop/bad cop, take it or leave it, the twitch, the jet-lag, it’s different over here… and the list of fancy names keeps getting longer and longer.

In general, negotiation tricks can be divided into three categories: (I) deliberate deception, (II) psychological wiring and the largest group, (III) pressure tricks. While deliberate deception tricks are easier to handle, the other two groups are harder nuts to crack.

I. Deception tricks are there to hide the truth or to promote an idea that is simply not right, and thus to mislead the opponent. This is often done by using false facts such as “this car was driven once a week at a maximum of 50 km/h” to sell at a higher price. Another trick is to negotiate without authority. This game is played in two rounds. In the first round, a person without authority would push you to your limits. They will then admit that he or she does NOT have the authority to close a deal. Once you finally negotiate with the person in power, you have most likely reached your limits, but you still have to make concessions in the second round. As a result, the outcome will most likely be disadvantageous for you. Deception is not always intentional. False authority usually is.

How to deal with it: In general, do not trust suspicious facts until they have some verifiable proof to offer. Address the issue immediately without calling them out on the lie explicitly (If you do, they will most probably be too embarrassed to admit it and dig their heels in). The best way is to ask questions to verify their statement. And always ask for authority upfront.

II. The second group of common tricks plays on our basic psychological wiring. “Good guy – bad guy” is one of the most common ones. You might recall the scene in the Quentin Tarantino movie called “Jacky Brown”, when Jacky was stopped by two detectives. One detective threatened to take her to the police station to issue an arrest warrant unless she cooperated immediately and opened her bag. The second detective explained nicely that his colleague only wanted to take a look into her bag for a minute, if she allows it. He would keep an eye on this rude detective to make sure he didn’t take anything. Jacky immediately started to cooperate and kept close to the nice detective. The “good guy – bad guy” dynamic is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It works because it addresses the most central and ancient part of our brain, the limbic system. It reacts automatically when it is triggered. After we have experienced an unpleasant situation like Jacky, we are much more likely to succumb to the – in contrast – better-looking next situation, rather than enforcing our rights.

How to deal with it: Tactics using threats, personal attacks or stress work as long as they remain undetected. Your first line of defense, therefore, is to detect them and call them out. You may feel more courageous to do this if you separate the person from the tactic. Pointing out the trick does not mean calling a person a trickster. For example, you might say: “I feel like I’ve gotten in the middle of a good guy – bad guy dynamic. It’s a bit uncomfortable. Can we take a step back and see if we can find a more collaborative way to work together?” If you’re still feeling stressed, try to change the environment. Opening a window, taking a break or even changing seats can break a pattern of discomfort. You can also call out the trick with a joke: “I understand that your colleague is a tough guy and I appreciate you working with me. We’re lucky my wife’s not here, she likes to play tough too.”

III. The third and most common group of tricks seeks to put pressure on us. Pressure tricks are usually very simple ones, but nonetheless effective. They are sometimes even used unconsciously as part of everyday communication. Announcing your demands but refusing to negotiate at the same time will most probably pressurize your opponent to follow. Placing a tremendously low offer for a house will confuse the seller and make her doubt her expectations. “Take it or leave it” – announcements might work for a one-time performance but can destroy any long-term collaboration. Closing and reopening negotiations, again and again, to get a better deal is one of the most frustrating tactics for the opponent.

How to deal with it: If you feel pressured, point it out respectfully and stick to your principles. “You know, I really want to work with you on this deal but I don’t feel comfortable making decisions under such pressure. So, either we find another way to negotiate with each other or we might have to let it be”

Hardball tactics and unfair tricks are hard to escape in any negotiator’s reality. The good news is: They can merely attempt to mend the rules of the game. They cannot unilaterally alter them. Watch out for tricks to make sure you call them out and re-negotiate your rules of engagement with your negotiation partner.