Is it OK to Lie in a Negotiation?

Should we lie when negotiating? Lying is frequently regarded as a necessary component of negotiation, as part of the way the game is played. For negotiation we tend to use slightly different language to make it more palatable and we call it ‘bluffing’ or ‘laying out a position’.

But surely if we attempt to make the other party believe we have alternatives when we don’t, or if we imply promises of potential additional business or value that might just be realized if the other party does the deal now, and have no real intention to deliver on this, then we are being less than honest. But is this wrong? When I teach negotiation I ask this question and typically around 50% of negotiators regard ‘bluffing’ as a necessary part of negotiation.

Lying carries risk. If we are found out in a lie, then we lose power and credibility—permanently. In one of my first negotiations as a buyer with a large chemical company I demanded price reductions on the basis that I had more attractive offers on the table from other providers; I even quantified these offers. The supplier politely suggested I should take these offers as they could not possibly compete and that ended our meeting there and then.

The problem was that I had failed to understand the market and specifically that margins were very tight for all providers, therefore it would have been utterly impossible for me to have better offers to the extent I had suggested.

My lie caused me to lose all credibility and power with that supplier from that point on. Does that matter? Perhaps not if we don’t want a future relationship with the supplier and, after all, the other party probably expects lying. However, it mattered to me at a personal level and caused me to reflect on the long-term effectiveness of my approach, as I had just handed the supplier the moral high ground over me.

Choosing whether to lie or not is a personal one and it is worth reflecting on what is happening in the situation and what drives the need to lie. In negotiation people typically lie to:

• Create power that otherwise wouldn’t be present
• Build a position that is more attractive to the other party
• Create a psychological illusion that we are less interested
• Reduce risk

Clearly, these are all tactics of negotiation, but a more insightful question is, ‘Could we still achieve this without lying?’

The short answer is yes. Some of the most brilliant negotiators I know don’t lie—they don’t need to. However what they do have is a well-polished repertoire of language, responses to certain situations and things they can say to illicit a response from the other. They use silences strategically and reveal less, choosing to avoid responding rather than lying. When the opponent picks up on an apparent avoidance and probes further, the experienced negotiator simply offers an honest position, perhaps reinforced with a personal feeling about why the position is what it is (personal feelings being something it is hard for another to challenge).

It is interesting to observe that good negotiators derive power from being consistently honest and creating a sense of being trustworthy. It is the consistency here that is key. Those who lie are inconsistent; one minute they are true and trustworthy, the next moment they are lying and deceitful.

As humans, our ability to detect this at a sub-conscious level is quite incredible, but often not realised. We may not pinpoint a specific lie but we might get a sense of not quite being able to trust the other for reasons we don’t fully understand. This sense drives us to hold back, be cautious or delve deeper. If we trust the other, we are more likely to be open to reaching an agreement because we feel less threatened by the situation. Furthermore, if we are negotiating with someone we need a long-term relationship with, then ongoing trust is key to the relationship.

When we choose to lie in a negotiation then we create risk in the forms of:

• Loss of power
• Inconsistency that leads to loss of trust
• Loss of credibility should the lie be found out
• Damage to future relationship should we want one

Many negotiators may feel that lying is an essential, indeed necessary, tactic. Even an ‘honest negotiator’ might like to shake things up a bit with the odd lie here and there. I cannot offer definitive advice, apart from ensuring that you understand and evaluate the implications of lying during the negotiation and, most importantly, always having an exit route should a lie be detected. Often, ‘being misinformed’ or ‘needing to go and check facts’ can save credibility.

Jonathan O’Brien