As J.P. Morgan once said, "A man always has two reasons for the things he does--a good one and the real one." Nowhere is this truer than at the bargaining table. Of course, any attempt to figure out what's really on your opponent's mind is, at best, a speculative endeavor. But the following strategies are the next best thing to having a mind-reader on your negotiating team.
Make conversation. Open-ended queries get the other side talking-questions that begin with who, what, where, when, how or why. Avoid closed-ended questions that your opponent can answer with a terse yes or no. The best time to ask your questions, of course, is before the other side starts negotiating in earnest. For example, early in the interviewing process, one of my prospective employers (foolishly) revealed (at my prompting) how desperate they were to hire someone with my experience. When we got down to talking numbers, I easily bargained for a much higher salary.
Don't look the other way just because the other side swears it's so.
If you do get the other side talking, shut up and listen. Concentrate. Don't interrupt. Use the power of silence. Most people feel so uncomfortable with long pauses in the conversation that they'll strain to fill them. Talk less, and your opponent may end up telling you more (about what you really want to know).
If you want to use a more aggressive tactic, ask your opponent the same question twice. Listen for any changes the second time around. A classic private eye ploy is to ask questions to which you know the answer. You can learn more from the other side's wrong answers than from the right ones. If credibility is at issue, deliberately make a mistake when repeating back some info. If the other side doesn't catch it, you know something's up. If you really need to be confrontational, you can always surprise them with a blunt, direct question. Listen to the answers they give, but remember that it's their nonverbal reactions that will give them away. As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
Experienced professionals can be a tremendous asset in reading between the lines. Savvy brokers, agents, bankers, CPAs and attorneys are already well-versed in the 101 ways you can be bamboozled. When they tell you something doesn't smell right, you should pay attention. As always, good help is invaluable.
Finally, transactional attorneys have a particularly effective technique for smoking out the other side: representation and warranties. Basically, you make the other side promise (in writing) that the specific facts you are counting on in making the deal are true. If their representations later turn out to have been false, they could get nailed for fraud, with numerous unpleasant consequences. However, don't look the other way just because the other side swears it's so. In the real world, their dishonesty or negligence will become your problem, and your lead-pipe cinch of a lawsuit may be cold comfort. Even the tightest representation and warranties can't act as a stand-in for due diligence and plain old common sense.
A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power.