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Fair Enough

To be a better negotiator, learn to tell the difference between a lie and a lie.

No one really likes to think about how much lying goes on at the bargaining table. Of course not-it's troubling. On the one hand, we aspire to principled negotiation, win-win solutions and civility with our opponents. On the other, our whole notion of negotiation is built on ethical quicksand: To succeed, you must deceive.

I'm not talking about the obvious cases, such as the bald lie. Those we all condemn, and in fact, our courts provide remedies for them-albeit slow, aggravating, inconsistent and expensive ones. To me, it's the little lies, the omissions and evasions, that are more curious.

In negotiation, exaggerating benefits, ignoring flaws or saying "I don't know" when in reality you do is not considered lying. Rather, it's sales ability. Declaring your bottom line to be non-negotiable (even when you're posturing) is not lying. It's a show of strength. Pretending to bend over backward to make meaningless concessions is not lying. It's applied psychology. Savvy businesspeople accept these rituals without undue introspection. Of course, the pathologically honest among us find them disturbing. But we have a place for those people . . . in the back room, far away from any bargaining table.


Pretending to bend over backward to make meaningless concessions is not lying. It's applied psychology.

Still, some evasiveness and deception we consider out of bounds. Following are some tips for staying in bounds without getting clobbered.

On defense, vigilant skepticism is a tremendous asset. Reflect on everything you hear. Reflect on everything you don't. If you're suspicious, ask questions, especially ones that require more than just a simple yes or no answer. Keep probing until you're satisfied. J.P. Morgan used to say, "A man always has two reasons for the things he does-a good one and the real one." So after you get the good ones, ask for the real ones by saying "And why else?" Also, get important promises in writing, and scrutinize their wording with and without your lawyer. To discourage dishonesty, tell your opponent you will independently verify the important stuff. If you can, do it. By the way, experts say it's easier to detect lying on the phone than in person. The voice all by itself (without distracting visual cues) is more of a giveaway.

To the terminally honest, I say: Negotiation is not group therapy. Generally, if you bare your soul, you will be fleeced. Respect the rules-or have someone else do your bargaining for you. If you're a liar (and you know who you are), I hope you get nailed big time. And if you're morally sturdy and find yourself unsure of what to say or omit, just keep Richard Nixon's comments about Watergate in mind: "I was not lying. I said things that later on seemed to be untrue."


A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power.

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This article was originally published in the January 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Fair Enough.

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