When a Negotiating Weakness Is Really a Strength
When people bargain, they often go to extremes to get the upper hand. Negotiators are famous for making ridiculous demands and then offering a series of small compromises to appear reasonable. By retreating from an extreme starting point, negotiators eventually land on the outcome they preferred all along, all while looking like they were giving up important concessions.
Other hard-nosed tactics are equally commonplace. Strong-arm negotiators will sometimes claim they don’t have the power to offer a more flexible deal, make a take-it-or-leave-it proposition when they still want to bargain, or threaten to walk away when they have no intention of doing so.
Strength in negotiations is commonly associated with playing these and other hardball tactics that catch people off-guard and make them bargain from a defensive position. Unfortunately, these tactics too often work successfully and so proliferate in use. When applied in important dealmaking, they attempt to confuse, bewilder, and bully the other side into a lopsided result. Tough negotiators see weakness in uncertainty. Like sharks that smell blood, when the opponent hesitates, they circle in for the kill.
Study the best negotiators, however, and you will learn that what appears as weakness is actually the most powerful tactic of all. Crafty negotiators seek extreme clarity as a maneuver to disarm the other side and put them to work.
The most powerful sentence in any negotiation is the expression: “I don’t understand, please explain this to me.” When the other side is asked to explain, clarify, and describe what is at issue, they begin to work hard for you. The information they provide sets a collaborative tone and creates a more cooperative mindset.
When we ask for deeper understanding, the information offered in response often exposes the underlying assumptions the other party holds. This allows clever negotiators to address the points of agreement and disagreement, and not the tactics designed to obscure them.
When the other party threatens to walk away, the sly negotiator doesn’t panic, but instead asks for help to understand why they are willing to exit. When offered an ultimatum of “take it or leave it,” the best negotiators don’t react. Instead, they ask the other party to explain why this is the ultimatum they have offered.
Any strong-arm tactic can be circumvented simply by asking for the help to understand. By asking questions to provide a thorough understanding of every facet of the topic, the other party naturally abandons the hardball tactic as they seek to explain and clarify what is at issue. At the moment of complete clarity, both parties see what’s truly possible. Now that’s a win-win.