Dear Negotiation Coach: Encouraging Honesty

By — on / Business Negotiations


I work in an industry where false promises from suppliers are fairly common and often difficult to detect. Because we have few suppliers to choose from, there is often little we can do to recoup the losses we incur when one of them fails to live up to its promises—for example, when a supplier misses deadlines or cuts corners. Do you have any advice that could help me and my colleagues better detect and defend against these lies?


A: Obtaining accurate information is crucial to meeting our goals in negotiations, and getting your counterparts to answer questions truthfully is an important component of this process. Unfortunately, despite stories in the popular press that suggest otherwise, lie detection is extremely difficult and highly error-prone. The good news is that there are strategies you can deploy to prevent your counterpart from lying to you in the first place.

  1. Ask good questions. To prevent your counterpart from lying to you, you need to ask good questions—those that make it very uncomfortable for your counterpart to lie. Consider the following two questions you could pose to your counterpart:
  2. You’ll be able to follow through on your commitments in six months, right?
  3. How long will it take you to follow through on your commitments?

Clearly, Question 2 is the superior one. If a supplier’s representative knows that her company might not be able to fulfill its commitments in a reasonable amount of time, she would have to lie by commission to please you in response to Question 2—that is, she would have to give an estimate that she knows is not feasible. By contrast, it would be psychologically easier for her to lie in response to Question 1. To do so, she need only lie by omission—that is, fail to correct your leading statement.

Research suggests that people view lying by commission to be more unethical than lying by omission. Consequently, people find lying by commission to be more difficult than lying by omission. So, ask questions that make it difficult for your counterpart to lie by commission. Specifically, ask questions that require elaboration rather than a simple yes or no. This technique is particularly effective with ill-prepared counterparts who have not thought ahead about how they might try to deceive you.

  1. Be a careful listener. Good questioning technique also requires you to be a careful listener. Specifically, you want to be attuned to evasive answers. For example, suppose that you ask the other party how long she will need to follow through on her commitments, and she responds: “What would be the ideal timeline for you?” With her answer, she is attempting to evade your question for the moment so that she can find out how you would like her to respond.

By listening carefully to whether a counterpart has truly and fully answered the question you posed, you will be able to redirect the discussion back to the specific area of inquiry if you need to. Evasive answering isn’t necessarily indicative of lying, but it cues you to continue to probe on the issue by asking more good questions.

  1. Consider contingencies. If your counterpart has a motivation to tell you what you want to hear, it might be because you have different views about how the future will unfold. For example, a supplier may know very well that it can’t fulfill a contract within six months, but foresees few repercussions for lying.

In such cases, it can be helpful to make a proposal that is contingent on future events. For example, if you are not sure whether a supplier will be able to deliver within your preferred time period, you could propose including financial penalties for late delivery in your contract, financial incentives for early or on-time delivery, or both. The threat of penalties or the promise of a “bonus” may motivate the supplier’s representative to give you a more realistic delivery date.


Leslie John

Assistant Professor

Harvard Business School

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