The Ethical Negotiator

Is it wrong to take advantage of the unprepared?

By Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

The day and time for the negotiation has arrived. You are fully prepared to do battle – your goals are defined; you know what you want to achieve; your questions are prepared; and you even prepared answers to likely questions from your opponents. You have practiced, practiced, and practiced some more.

Within minutes, however, it is apparent that your opponent not as well prepared or doesn’t understand how the negotiation process works. This was not what you expected.

The late, great R&B singer Marvin Gaye put it this way: “Negotiation means getting the best of your opponent.” So, what do you do when your opponent is unprepared to do battle? Should you take advantage of the situation? And if so, how?

These are tough questions and answering them may involve balancing your negotiation power and interests along with your personal values, beliefs and ethics. Here are my recommendations.

The Question Tactic

First, in the game of poker, there is a saying that goes like this: “Play stupid and win smart.” Likewise, in a competitive negotiation, your opponent may attempt to get you to underestimate their negotiation skills. When your opponent is cleverly clueless during a negotiation, it could be a strategy called “The Question Tactic” and it works like this: your opponent will act dumb by asking what appears to be amateur or “stupid” questions. The goal is to tap into your tendency to let your guard down if you believe you are helping individuals you regard as less informed or less intelligent than you are. Answering “stupid” questions makes you feel important. Thus, negotiators will attempt to skillfully hide their smarts to make you feel superior and as a result, more strategically important information is flowing from your side instead of the other way around.

So, what should you do? Rule number one is simple – don’t assume anything. False assumptions and worse yet, acting on deeply ingrained ideas and stereotypes about the other side’s negotiation style, experience and aptitude can be costly and downright dangerous. One of the best ways to thwart this tactic is to remember that information is power. Thus, find out as much as you can about your opponent’s negotiation reputation and skill set before you sit down at the table. Watch for clues such as body movement, speech patterns and reactions to what you say. In addition, don’t get bogged down in the inertia of an opponent’s endless barrage of questions by providing answers that could potentially hurt your negotiation position. Instead, patiently listen to the questions and then continue to be laser-focused in implementing your planned negotiation strategies.

Second, even if the other side is not familiar with a negotiation process typically used within a certain business context or industry, determine if the negotiation will involve a future and beneficial relationship between you and the other side. For example, let’s say that you are a sales manager, and in your industry, the best deals are made when you create solutions that satisfy mutual long-term goals and interests – yours and purchasing directors. In this case, you have successfully negotiated renewed contracts with guaranteed sales with a purchasing director for the past several years. The purchasing director trusts your competence and good intentions, but she recently retired, and you are now negotiating a large renewal contract with a new purchasing director, who is also new to the industry. To your surprise, in this negotiation, unlike the industry standard, you discover that the new purchasing director’s primary goal is to obtain the best price for every item with few concessions and little information sharing with you. As a result, you can’t formulate a best offer.

In this or similar situations, consider educating the less-knowledgeable purchasing director about the objective industry-wide standard for successful negotiations. The more clarity, trust and commitment you can build regarding the process, the less likely your counterpart will distrust you. Moreover, attempt to normalize the process by providing examples of benefits his or her company reaped in past negotiations when the process included mutual communication of information about shared goals and interests.

Since all negotiations involve risk, understand that the chances are high that the new purchasing director may initially distrust you.  If that is the case, manage your reputation by calling on the former purchasing director to help you educate the newbie. Perhaps you should also consider giving out more information about your perspective, needs and interests. And don’t forget to be patient —a lot of learning may have to take place as the initial negotiation moves forward and you work to build a trusting partnership. Remember to keep your eye on the prize, which is to establish and maintain a long-term business relationship that will garner additional renewed contracts.

Competitive Advantage

There are times, however, when negotiations should not become a tell-all, buddy-buddy activity. If the negotiation will not most likely involve the need for a future working relationship between you and your opponent, you can and, in some cases should, attempt to gain a competitive advantage. In these contexts, it is important to be strategic in what information you share with the other party. Don’t be dishonest or insincere, but don’t put all your cards on the table.

For instance, what if you are selling your house because you are having financial problems and the buyer is not aware of the situation. Knowing your predicament may cause a reasonable buyer to offer a lower price. Here is a case where you should not share this information.

Finally, you may have more experience now, but it doesn’t mean that this will be the case the next time you see your former “clueless” opponent. He or she may not be as skilled or experienced as you are now, but keep in mind that you never know where that person may end up and there may be a chance you will negotiate with him or her again down the road. Great negotiators are self-made, which means with time and practice, the amateur negotiator sitting across the table from you today may become a skilled and formidable winner – just like you. First impressions, particularly if they are negative, can disproportionally impact your counterpart’s perception of you now and in the future.  Or as Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In sum, at the very start of the negotiation, you need to answer this question – is taking advantage of my less-knowledgeable opponent the right thing to do, the best thing to do, or the worst thing to do?