Tired of Liars? Promote More Ethical Behavior in Negotiation

12 strategies for reducing the likelihood that you’ll be deceived.

By on / Negotiation Skills

To hear many people tell it, deception is on an upswing in society. In 2005, responding to what he saw as a growing disregard for facts in the public sphere, talk-show host Stephen Colbert used the term “truthiness” to refer to popular beliefs that feel true but actually are not. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, “fake news”—made-up stories about both major candidates that spread like wildfire on social media—may have influenced voters’ decisions.

Of course, “alternative facts” (a term coined by President Donald Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway) are not limited to the political realm. Lying occurs in negotiation for at least three reasons. First, negotiators often have strong incentives to improve their outcomes through deception. “As negotiators, we’re faced again and again with the choice between advancing our self-interest and honoring social and moral obligations,” writes Ohio State University professor Roy J. Lewicki in a 2007 article in Negotiation Briefings. Second, negotiators often have access to privileged information that they can conceal or distort to their advantage. Third, common characteristics of business negotiations, including intense competition, high stakes, and a fast pace, promote deception.

We might assume that we can reduce our odds of being deceived by increasing our ability to detect lies at the bargaining table, but this isn’t a realistic goal. In his research, University of California at San Francisco professor Paul Ekman found that most of us are poor lie detectors. Even judges, police officers, border agents, and others who regularly deal with liars have proven to be largely ineffective at sniffing out lies. Possible visual and verbal cues of lying (such as speaking slowly and blinking frequently) are subtle and difficult to pinpoint, and many people (especially North Americans) are overconfident in their ability to detect lies, according to Wharton School professor Maurice Schweitzer.

For these reasons, taking steps to reduce the odds that someone will try to deceive you is likely to be a more fruitful strategy than trying to improve your ability to detect lies.

Accidental liars

Negotiators tend to view lies on a spectrum ranging from marginally acceptable to egregious. Certain types of deception, such as exaggerating one’s bottom line or feigning anger, are common, if unethical. And, of course, the misrepresentation of material facts may constitute fraud.

Although negotiators sometimes lie deliberately, it may be even more common for them to lie unintentionally. Based on their research, Notre Dame University professor Ann E. Tenbrunsel and her colleagues theorize that when preparing to negotiate, most of us expect that we will be honest and forthright. But during the negotiation, our pragmatic, self-interested concerns often overshadow our values, leading us to lie—saying, perhaps, that we’re not aware of cracks in our home’s foundation or that we were much more involved in a volunteer project than was actually the case. After the negotiation, when we reflect on our behavior, we forget about our lies or make excuses for them (“Those cracks aren’t serious,” or “Everybody exaggerates in job interviews”) to protect our view of ourselves as ethical negotiators.

If most of the lies we’re told (and that we ourselves tell) in negotiation are spontaneous and unintentional, then the key to reducing deception in negotiation is to promote more rational, deliberate thinking in place of on-the-fly intuitive thinking.

12 strategies for warding off lies

By following these 12 strategies, you should be able to significantly reduce the number of lies you face at the negotiating table.

1. Do your research. The more prepared you are to negotiate, the better able you will be to sniff out any lies that the other party tells. In addition, when it’s clear you’re well prepared, the other party will be less likely to try to deceive you. To prepare, speak to people who’ve done business with your counterpart or her organization, and try to get a sense of what her firm can offer and what it can’t. In addition, if you’re skeptical of a counterpart’s promises or claims, ask her to provide written verification.

2. Negotiate in person. If possible, try to meet in person rather than negotiating via email or on the telephone. Due to the fear that they will betray themselves with visual cues, people are less likely to lie during face-to-face meetings, according to Schweitzer. Negotiators also share more information when they meet in person than when they negotiate from afar, research shows.

3. Take your time. Negotiators tend to lie when they’re caught off guard by challenging, surprising questions, notes Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra. For this reason, make sure that you and your counterpart have plenty of time to negotiate. In addition, take time to discuss your agenda in advance. By doing so, you will be more prepared to face difficult challenges, minimize the number of surprises you face, and reduce both parties’ temptation to lie, says Malhotra.

You also need to give the other party time to think. When you surprise a negotiator with a difficult question, he may feel compelled to give you an answer on the spot—even if that means guessing or lying. Instead, let him know that it’s OK for him to get back to you after doing some research. Slowing down the clock can inspire more truthful answers.

4. Make an explicit commitment to honesty. You may be able to promote honesty in your negotiations by suggesting to your counterpart at the outset that you both explicitly commit to behaving honestly during your talks, whether orally or in writing. Such promises may not rid the negotiation of all spontaneous lies, but by highlighting the ethical component of the negotiation, it could encourage parties to pause before making false statements.

5. Promote collaboration. Because competitiveness is linked to deception in negotiation, take steps to foster a collaborative, cooperative atmosphere right from the start. Negotiators are less likely to use ethically ambiguous tactics, such as making misleading statements or withholding the truth, when they know the other party well, trust her, and are concerned that the relationship could be damaged by dishonest behavior, Schweitzer has found.

You can promote collaboration in small ways, such as sitting side by side rather than across the table from each other. Try to build in time to get to know each other and identify shared interests as well. During the negotiation, discuss multiple issues simultaneously, rather than one at a time, to encourage the discovery of mutually beneficial tradeoffs—and increase the odds that
you will view each other as partners rather than competitors.

6. Personalize your group. Individuals are more likely to lie when negotiating with a group of people than with an individual, Tenbrunsel and her colleagues found in their research. The more impersonal feel of group negotiation leads people to be more comfortable taking ethical shortcuts. You can promote honest behavior by making sure members of different negotiating teams know one another’s names and by giving them informal opportunities to socialize.

7. Verify agents’ claims. We’re more likely to behave unethically when negotiating on behalf of someone else, according to Lewicki. It’s not that attorneys, agents, and other negotiating representatives are naturally less ethical than other negotiators. Rather, agents may have financial incentives to lie and may choose to think their principal would want them to do so. Exacerbating this problem, we tend to be more forgiving of unethical behavior when it’s carried out by agents, Georgetown University professor Neeru Paharia and her colleagues have found. For this reason, try to verify an agent’s claims by consulting with his principal or researching them on your own.

8. Smoke out lies of omission. In negotiation, a distinction is often made between lies of omission and lies of commission. A lie of omission involves failing to reveal crucial information, such as the fact that it will be difficult for your firm to meet a particular deadline. Then there are lies of commission, or blatant untruths, such as, “That deadline is totally doable.” People tend to view lies of omission as more acceptable than lies of commission, but the two can inflict similar levels of harm.

How can you avoid being the victim of lies of omission? Ask open-ended (rather than yes-or-no) questions that promote detailed responses, recommends Harvard Business School professor Leslie John. For example, rather than saying, “You can make our deadline, right?” you might instead ask, “What are the steps involved in meeting our desired deadline?”

In addition, be on the lookout for evasive answers, such as “We’ll meet your deadline by following our well-established processes.” Your counterpart may be concealing information that could alarm you, she could simply not know the answer to the question, or she could think your concern is unwarranted. Probe to improve your understanding, and encourage her to get back to you with more information if needed.

9. Ask indirect questions. If you anticipate that your counterpart has an incentive to lie about a certain issue, try getting at the truth indirectly, advise Malhotra and Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman in their book Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond (Bantam, 2007). For example, if you ask a supplier outright how much it costs her firm to make a product, she may evade the question or answer with a lie. Instead, ask her related questions, such as where her firm procures materials or what its production process is like. You might not get a precise answer, but your rough estimate will decrease the chances of an outright lie.

10. Use a test question. If you’re quite suspicious of a counterpart, conduct a test: Ask him a question whose answer you already know on a subject in which the other party may have a motivation to lie. “Has your firm been subject to any legal action regarding this product?” you might ask, for example. Then see whether he answers truthfully, recommend Malhotra and Bazerman. If the answer is a lie, you must then decide whether it is so extreme that you need to walk away.

11. Bet on the future. One surefire way to determine whether a negotiating partner will stand by her claims is to propose a contingent contract that will allow you to bet on your differing beliefs. For example, if you think it will take the other party two years to deliver on her claims, but she says she can follow through in a year, make a proposal that is contingent on future events. Specifically, you could ask to include financial penalties for late delivery or a bonus for early delivery, or both. If the other side’s estimate was honest, she should be happy to take the bet. If she was lying (or simply realizes she was too ambitious), she likely will adjust her promise.

12. Frame proposals as gains rather than losses. When making decisions, we tend to prefer choices framed as gains over those framed as losses, even when our objective outcomes would be the same. Similarly, professors Mary C. Kern of Baruch College and Dolly Chugh of New York University found that MBA students engaging in a negotiation simulation were less honest when told they were facing a 75% chance of a loss than when told they were facing a 25% chance of a gain—two outcomes that were equivalent in the study. The results suggest that we may be able to encourage honesty in negotiation by framing our proposals as potential gains rather than losses. Similarly, to promote honesty when negotiating debt and other burdens, emphasize any silver lining that might exist, such as the opportunity to become more fiscally stable.

Dealing with liars

These 12 strategies should reduce the number of lies you face in negotiation but won’t eliminate them completely. What should you do if you believe you’ve caught someone in a lie?

Keep in mind that it can be very difficult to prove someone is lying. If you accuse your counterpart of lying, he will probably deny the charge, and you will end up in a heated disagreement.

Rather than calling your counterpart a liar, you might explain that you feel deceived, then talk about whether the deception was intentional or not, recommend Malhotra and Bazerman.

Or you might simply present the other party with data that disconfirms his statements to see how he responds. If he convinces you that his untruth was unintentional or seems genuinely remorseful, then you may feel comfortable moving forward with extra caution. But if the lie was egregious and inexcusable, you might decide to walk away from the negotiation and explore other means of achieving your goals.

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