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Word Games

Don't let yourself get tangled in the other side's tricky talk.

When you negotiate a deal, you support your position in a variety of ways, basing your arguments on fairness, recognized authorities, precedents and industry standards-all legitimate options. But your opponents might use "fuzzy logic" to fly below your mental radar. Here are examples of what to watch out for and how to deal with them:

  • Analogies: These may be lovely and poetic, but they don't prove a thing. If your opponent uses an analogy, challenge it-or counter it with one of your own.
  • Unidentified sources: Ask the other side for corroboration-you're entitled. If your opponent can't identify the source, ignore it.
  • Citing authority: Investigate the maven's background. As ace negotiator Chester Karass says, "For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert."
  • Overgeneralizations: Watch out for words like "all," "every" and "never." Do they really apply to your situation, or is your opponent using one isolated fact to support a sweeping conclusion? Test the statements. When has the other side made an exception, and under what circumstances would they consider one now? Find out whether they're willing to back up what it says in the contract.
  • Undefined terms and fuzzy language: You know what words like "material," "promptly" and "reasonable" mean, right? True, sometimes we all prefer a little imprecision. But other times, you'd better pin your terms down. Otherwise, "material," "promptly" and "reasonable" will mean whatever the other side wants them to mean.
  • Ad hominem arguments: These are personal attacks, not solid, rational counterarguments, so don't get intimidated or tweaked. Stay focused on the problem. After all, if the best your opponents can do is to call you names, you know they're on shaky ground.
  • Funny money: Your opponent may say "What's the big deal? It's only an extra 2 cents per pound!" Sure, that may be true-but if you're dealing with 25 tons, 2 cents can make a big difference. Watch out for repetitive charges and small increments that can multiply over the entire deal.
  • Profit definitions: Avoid unpleasant surprises. If your deal contains detailed royalty provisions or profit splits, pull out a calculator and run a few examples yourself. The written word can take on surprising new meanings once the real numbers are crunched.

Diversion, repetition and evading questions are also part of the game. So make sure you're prepared-not only to defend but also to counter-attack. Have all the facts at your fingertips. Find out how the other side has done it before. Research the applicable industry's customs and practices regarding the deal at hand. Be ready to suggest objective standards, such as market value or what a court or expert would think is fair.

The parry and thrust of a negotiation requires significant mental stamina. You've got to keep your guard up if you don't want to get skewered.


A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of DealPower: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size.

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This article was originally published in the July 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Word Games.

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