Sucker Punches

How to tell if the other side is trying to play you for a patsy
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the November 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In case you haven't noticed, deal-making can be intensely competitive. Do not be distracted by talk of principled negotiations, civility and win-win outcomes. Keep your gloves up and your eyes peeled. Even the most skilled deal-makers have fallen for a well-executed feint. Here are a few examples:

  • "So what's your bottom line?" Many opponents will test you with this quick jab to see how rapidly you'll undercut yourself. is a ritual, and you have to respect the ritual. Your bottom line is for you to know and for to find out. Give it up too easily or too early, and the other side will perceive you as an easy mark.

After all, once you tell your opponent what you'll settle for, you'll never really know if you could have done better. Cutting to the chase is best left to experienced deal-makers who have a lot of history behind them and in front of them.

  • "That's the best I can do." Don't you believe it-at least, not right away. Bargaining is a test of wills. If you don't elicit at least a handful of "final" offers from your opponent, you are not doing your job. Tough negotiators are good at making you feel like you just hit the wall. It's up to you to find the loose bricks and mortar.
  • "Forget the paperwork. Let's just shake on it." Is there a businessperson anywhere who has not ended up twisting in the wind because he or she had relied on someone's word alone?

Writing has been around for about 10,000 years. In fact, the earliest written records are business-related. Unless you're the one who is hedging your commitment, put it in writing. It works.

  • "Your [/accountant/agent/representative] doesn't know what he or she's talking about." Divide and conquer works just as well at the bargaining table as it does on the battlefield. Of course, you may actually have a bozo on your side, but it's a sad day when you trust your opponent more than your own teammates.

Get second opinions if you're concerned. But try to stay loyal to your reps unless you have a really good reason to question their judgment.

  • "We can work out the details later. Let's just get going." Don't let the other side rush you. Always stop and make sure everybody's on the same page. Of course, I'm not suggesting that you negotiate every petty particular. But at the very least, nail down the material points of your understanding.
  • "Trust me." Some in consider this nothing more than a clichéd insult. Trust is built over time, not by fiat.

Do your diligence. Inspect. Get references. Do whatever it takes to double-check the other side. There is an old Czech proverb: "When you buy, use your eyes and your mind, not your ears."

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


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