Begging For Scraps?

Just because you're the underdog doesn't mean you can't win.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the April 2001 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

No matter how long you've been making deals, sometimes you find yourself up against opponents who have an edge over you. Maybe they've just been around longer, or perhaps this time you're playing on their turf. It can either intimidate you or exhilarate you. In either case, your skills only get stronger when you play with people who are better than you.

There are a few ways to come out ahead in this kind of situation. First, reassess the balance of power. The outcome of a negotiation never turns solely on deal-making skill. It has far more to do with need, greed, influence and persistence. So before you allow yourself to be intimidated, get a bird's-eye view of the battlefield. Your leverage may be much better than you thought-and knowing that will boost your self-confidence.

Next, get yourself up to speed. Prepare. Read something. Call a friend. Resourcefulness and willingness to learn are important qualities for any negotiator-and be grateful you have opportunities to cultivate them. Today, especially with the Internet, there are incredible resources just seconds away. Experience is just another name for knowledge, and in deal-making, knowledge really is power.

Getting help is probably the best and simplest way to level the playing field, especially if you find yourself overwhelmed or strapped for learning time. Whether you seek assistance from an attorney, an agent, a broker, your accountant or a consultant, there's no reason to go it alone. In fact, most deals worth doing require expert legal, business or financial advice. So don't be stingy or arrogant-the consequences of such bad business judgment can be brutal.

Once you start talking directly to your opponents, masking the fact that they're better than you may be tough. For example, you can listen without saying much. You can puff or be evasive. You can even ask them to send the first written proposal. This will buy you time, force them to make the first offer (which usually gives you an edge) and teach you a lot about them quickly. However, unless you've got a real flair for double talk, I wouldn't keep up this charade too long. In fact, I wouldn't even suggest you try it in the first place. If the other side is any good, they'll see through you right away. And when your game of pretending to be something you're not is up, you won't be the favorite.

You don't have to go into a deal as a know-it-all in order to come out a winner. Although admitting (or not denying) inexperience or unfamiliarity may be seen by some as a weakness, many times you can use it as a tactic to force opponents to explain themselves. Ask open-ended questions, the kind that can't be answered by a simple yes or no. Get the other side talking, but discourage them from bending the truth by letting them know you can double-check them. Listen critically. Follow up with more questions whenever you hear inconsistencies or explanations that leave you skeptical or just plain curious. At the very least, you'll learn something. In fact, many opponents will be more than happy to teach it to you. And if you're sharp, your clever and persistent questioning will reduce or even eliminate the other side's advantage.

However, I suggest this tactic with one gigantic warning: Make sure you have a reliable way to confirm everything you hear. Don't rely too heavily on your opponents' sense of decency or your genius at interrogation. If you have an attorney or other representative in your back pocket, so much the better-they can act as your built-in out. Whatever tentative agreements you reach can be easily revisited or undone once your trusted advisor tells you what time it really is.

A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size(Owl Books/Henry Holt). You can reach him at

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