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Updated: 14 Dec 2020

Detecting Lies in Negotiations



Negotiators often don't say everything they're thinking. Sometimes they hold back or distort information to avoid being exploited by the other party.

by Steve Jones

Negotiators often don’t say everything they’re thinking. Sometimes they hold back or distort information to avoid being exploited by the other party. Disclosing your “walk away” or “must have” conditions can frequently be a risky strategy – particularly with aggressive competing negotiators on the other side.

How many times have you been fooled by the other party claiming to have decision making authority when in reality that wasn’t the case? Or maybe they make commitments they have no intention of keeping?

So how do you spot this?

The truth is that people are not as good as they think they are in picking up on deception or outright lies. Studies have shown that many people’s gut feelings about when people are lying are not much more reliable than tossing a coin. When you are under pressure this is even worse. In phone negotiations this is even more problematical because you have no opportunity to pick up the non-verbal clues or incongruities in others’ behaviours.

Fortunately, those negotiators skilled in human observation-including psychologists, poker players, and actors-can teach us a number of strategies for distinguishing a lie from the truth.

1. Be completely aware of all behaviours

Professor Paul Ekman has pioneered the study of what he calls “micro-expressions”. These are small facial movements that are extremely difficult to detect. People assume that failure to make eye contact is a sign of lying in negotiations. Sometimes it is – but some people are just lacking in confidence or are shy – particularly in a high stress situation.Other studies have revealed that staring or eye-balling is used by many to conceal a lie, perhaps due to the popularly held belief that looking away shields a lie.

2. Listen, all the time

The Verbal content of the conversation is frequently the best indicator of attempted deception. A few of the key behaviours are listed below:

  1. Uses your words – allows them to get the answer out fast without processing the information
  2. They won’t stop talking – the nervousness means they continue to provide more and more information, or repeat themselves like a dog chasing its tail
  3. They aggressively stonewall in an attempt to limit challenges
  4. They don’t answer the question directly
  5. The reactions are disproportionate to the questions
  6. The 3rd party view may be missing from the story
  7. Answer your questions but don’t ask any
  8. Immediate relaxation when subject is changed
  9. Not indignant or excessively indignant when accused
  10. Humour or sarcasm
  11. Answers a negotiation question with a question
  12. Suddenly starts stammering, develops a nervous tick or twitch, or starts blinking excessively
  13. Expresses extreme displeasure at another – on your team or their own

3. Look for anomalies

Some people are highly attuned to picking up the non-verbal cues that give away lies. One of the best ways for a layman to pick up half truths is to watch for inconsistencies or anomalies. Ask yourself: was their behavior consistent? So when considering the above list of behaviours in your negotiations, ensure that you compare their suspicious behavior to how they behave normally to spot a lie. To do this you need to be tuned into their normal behavior – which can be a challenge if you’re negotiating with a team or haven’t known the other party for very long. All the more reason to invest in the relationship first and not talk business too soon.

So if they normally listen attentively, answer your question promptly, use the language you’ve used in your question, and blink briefly before answering – be on alert if they pause for longer before answering, their eyes focus on a member of their team instead of just blinking, they neglect to use the language you’ve used in your question, and they lean back unconcerned instead of listening to your response. They may not be lying, the onus however is on you to probe further to uncover the reason for their behavior change.

4. Ask the right questions

In negotiation, the question “Is that really your best offer?” almost always elicits a “Yes.” No one is going to say, “Well, actually, it isn’t. I was just hoping you’d think so.” A better strategy is to give the other party an out. If someone says, “Take it or leave it.” One option is to simply treat the statement as untrue for the moment, discuss further and make a counter-proposal. The truth of an ultimatum is tested by whether the person making it is willing to consider alternatives. It’s up to you to float them.

Michael Wheeler Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School co-author, of What’s Fair? Ethics for Negotiators,
Professor Paul Ekman author of Never be lied to again, Telling lies

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5 out of 5 from 3 responses
  • 0
    Rolland on

    Sooner or later, all successful negotiators have devious intentions.

  • 6
    Rosvid Sunico on

    Wow. This is a good article as guide in dealing with negotiators with devious intentions.

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