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The Key to Dealing with A Negotiator Who Lies


The most common lie in a negotiation? “Yes”.  

As in “Yes, we’ll do it” or “Yes, that’s true” or “Yes, I’m interested”. We all love “Yes”. It’s been called one of the most beautiful words in the English language, if not any language.  Because of our love for “Yes” and our vulnerability to it, maybe even our lust for it, “Yes” is the word we are most often deceived by.  It’s the word is most often used to lure us into wasting our precious time and into bad deals. [CLICK TO TWEET]

There are actually 3 kinds of “Yes” – confirmation, commitment, and counterfeit.

“Yes is nothing without How” is one of the core principles of The Black Swan Group’s philosophies.


The key to detecting if your counterpart's "yes" is counterfeit. 

Ask “How” and “What” questions

I was once dealing with an American colleague in the Middle East whom I had very little trust in.  We were working out the arrangements to get to an important meeting with our local hosts that evening in Abu Dhabi.  Abu Dhabi can be a confusing place to someone not from there.  At the time there really weren’t any clearly marked street signs or addresses.  I needed this guy to take my team and me to the meeting.  He had taken us to all our meetings or made the arrangements for us the entire time we were there.

For whatever reason he was resisting picking us up or making arrangements for us.  He told me to “just take a cab from the hotel.”  I asked him how was I supposed to find the place and he said, “I’ll get you a map”.  I almost fell for that when I thought it through one more step, realizing we had no mechanism to get a map into my hands I asked, “How are you going to do that?”  Crickets. He went completely silent. He then agreed to pick us up.


Implementation problems run completely parallel with the problems of lying. “Yes is nothing without How.”  They may not actually be lying, they may be hoping for the best, they may be trying really hard to preserve the relationship (white lies  - in their view) or they may just not have thought things through.  Whatever their motivation is, or what is going on inside their head, the outcome is still the same for you – a train wreck – implementation failure.  


“How” and “What” questions works because these questions are also sometimes referred to as “visioning questions”.  If they are only hoping, haven’t thought it through, or are actually lying, they have no vision for implementation.


This also relieves you of two burdens:

  •  trying to figure out the nearly uncountable ways people lie
  • figuring out how to confront them about the lie when they are lying.


If you’re like me, being lied to has a tendency to make your blood boil.  The biggest problem is an anger response shuts down thinking.  Anger is an intoxicant that deludes people into feeling righteous while simultaneously shutting down their thinking.  Not a great combination.  Remember the rule regarding flexibility? “Never be so sure of what you want that you wouldn’t take something better.”  Anger makes us very sure of what we want and that means we’re most likely to miss a better opportunity.


Our anger will likely trigger the mirror neurons in our counterpart’s brain creating an anger response in them.  Now you’re got two brains shutting down.


The secondary benefit to asking the “What” and “How” questions is it gives your counterpart the illusion of control.  The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control.  People loved to be asked open-ended questions.  It makes them feel powerful. Yet what it does is trigger what Daniel Kahneman called “slow” thinking in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.


You effectively burden the problem creator with coming up with the solution.  They don’t feel burdened, they feel in control.  You’ll solve the problem of the lie (be it a “white” lie or purely “hope”) or you’ll know to just move on.


With a focus on “How” and “What” questions you’ll also remain in an implementation and visioning frame of mind, as opposed to a reactionary one.  You’ll stay sharp and find answers without cornering your counterpart in a way that makes them feel cornered.