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How You Can Handle The #1 Most Common Lie in Negotiations

By |January 16, 2017


I remember hearing a few years ago a businessman saying he started moving his business forward much more successfully when he started treating every “maybe” as if it were a “no”.


Yes, maybe is a “white-lie”. Does that make it any less problematic for you?

What "maybe"  really means

In all the negotiation training we conduct, our cornerstone exercise is our infamous “60 Seconds or She Dies” role-play. I portray a bank-robber/hostage-taker and I tell a volunteer that he/she has 60 seconds to give me a car or the female hostage dies. One of the 1st conditions laid out in the exercise is they can’t give me any transportation.  Then the 1st thing I ask for is a car and I use an aggressive tone of voice – it’s a bit like a punch in the nose.

The purpose of the simulation is to begin to teach people how to negotiate without bargaining. We lead up to it by asking, “What’s the difference between negotiation and bargaining?”  We get a lot of made-up on-the-spot answers as most people see the words as being direct synonyms.  I then ask the group if they think they could negotiate without bargaining.  There tends to be a bit of reluctance to jump into that trap.

But from where I started my negotiation training as a hostage negotiator, that was the essence of what I had to learn right away. We were never going to make a deal that under any circumstances could anyone define as a “fair exchange of value”.  Trade a human life for a cup of coffee?  Or a couple of cigarettes?  

We bring this exercise to our business negotiation training because the analogies to the business world are endless and universal.  A client wants you to cut your price – or they walk.  An up-and-coming employee wants a promotion they aren’t ready for – or they quit.  A business partner wants you to commit to something you just can’t do in order to keep the partnership going.

Someone you really want to maintain a relationship with wants something you just can’t give them.

So in our training exercise, I hit them right away with something they can’t give me. They are afraid to say “no” flat out because nearly everyone is horrified of the word.  I recently had a former FBI agent I was advising in a negotiation.  I was teaching him how to use “no” as a way to move negotiations forward and he said “Wow.  I was always taught to avoid “no” at all costs.”  Not anymore.

What’s the most common response in the exercise to getting hit with a demand for something they know they can’t do but still have to keep the conversation going?

Maybe.  Or something that sounds a lot like it – “I can’t get you a car now...” Or even once “I can’t get you a car, how about a helicopter?” Crazy, right?

The Black Swan Group is here to tell you if you hear “maybe” or a phrase that is tantamount to “maybe” – what you are looking for isn’t going to happen.  There is a little bit of “yes” in a maybe, but there are enough deal-killing issues wrapped into it that “maybe” is going to sink like the Titanic if you don’t immediately recognize the issues and treat it like a “no”.

How to deal with "maybe"

How do you deal with it? Use some form of a label.  Here are a few you can use:

“It sound like there are some issues here?”

“It seems like you’d like to do this, but there are things here that look impossible?”

“It feels like there’s some challenges here that are non-starters?”

Now go silent.  This is called an “effective pause”.  Let the process work for you.  Mirror whatever they say.

Then use a good calibrated question.

“How do we navigate this?”

“What about this could you make work and what would that take?”

“What’s the higher issue here you’re trying to preserve?”

“What’s the biggest challenge we face?”

Unravel your “no’s” before you try to get on-board a “yes” and you will find yourself moving forward much more quickly and not finding deals disappearing in the quicksand of “maybe”.

never split the difference study guide