Extrasensory Deception: Part I
by Rick Brenner
Negotiation skills are increasingly essential in problem-solving workplaces. When incentives are strong, or pressure is high, deception is tempting. Here are some of the deceptions popular among negotiators.
Washington Irving, American author, 1783-1859. In 1824, Irving published a collection called Tales of a Traveller, which included the short story, The Devil and Tom Walker. In the story, Tom Walker, a miserable and miserly fellow, makes a deal with the devil in which he agrees to receive Captain Kidd's buried treasure in exchange for taking up a career as a usurer, doing the devil's work. The negotiations aren't described in detail in the story, but the pattern of the story is similar to many other stories, films, plays and folk tales about deals with the devil, in one important respect: the devil deceives his negotiation partner with respect to significant details of the deal. (This concept is perhaps best summarized in the maxim, "The devil is in the details.") An amusing twist on this pattern can be found in an episode of The Twilight Zone, "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville," by Rod Serling. Image of Washington Irving in 1820, from a painting by Gilbert Stewart Newton, courtesy City of Birmingham, United Kingdom.
Unlike flat-footed lies, which mislead by misinforming, deceptions mislead by causing the target to mis-think. Artful deceptions insert data into — or trigger reactions within — the minds of their targets, to cause them to make incorrect inferences or conclusions favorable to the deceivers.
To evaluate the ethics of deception, we must understand the situational context. For example, the nurse about to draw blood from a four-year-old boy might say, "This will pinch a little, but you're a big boy, right?" It's a deception, but few would call it unethical.
Ethical or not, most would agree that negotiations are fairest to all, and best for the represented organizations, when the process is free of deception. Recognizing deceptive techniques is often all that's needed to defeat them. Once we're aware of a particular deception, it loses much of its power.
Here's Part I of a little catalog of deceptive negotiation techniques, emphasizing persuasion. Part II focuses on deceptive techniques for drafting agreements. In what follows, Donald is the Deceptive partner, and the Other partner is Olivia.
- Painting over rust
- Olivia voices concern about part of the proposed agreement, noting that it's unfair in certain specific circumstances. In response, Donald explains the (supposed) intent of the language, and notes that it is benign in other circumstances. He suggests that Olivia is being unreasonable or insulting for even considering the issue she identified.
- This is an attempt to make Olivia doubt her own reasonableness and generosity of spirit, or to make her believe that she is excessively fearful or suspicious. Donald is using shame to cause Olivia to abandon caution.
- Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain
- Most would agree that
negotiations are fairest
to all when the process
is free of deception
- In response to Olivia's expressed concern, Donald offhandedly says, "Oh, that's just our standard language."
- Here Donald seeks to mollify Olivia not by addressing her concern, but by asserting, "we always do this." He wants to create a sense that "authorities" have approved the language, that it's legitimate and benign, and that it cannot be changed.
- You're the first to object
- Olivia expresses a concern, to which Donald replies, "Everyone else we've worked with has always agreed to this language."
- Instead of addressing the objection, Donald seeks to coerce Olivia by exploiting her desire to affiliate with a respected group, and her desire not to be viewed as difficult.
- As the pair invests more time in the negotiation, Donald can use threats to limit Olivia's objections. When she objects to conditions Donald recently added to the agreement, he might fault her for raising the issue "at this late date," asking whether she wants to be known as someone who "negotiates in this manner."
- Intimidation is especially effective, because Donald need not deal with issues he can prevent Olivia from raising. In this example, Donald threatens Olivia's reputation, but threats of any kind can work.
Next time, unless you object, we'll explore deceptive techniques related to the document drafting process. Top Next Issue
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See also Ethics at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
- Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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