The #1 Sign Their Position is Weak And How to Handle It

losing chess piece.jpgOne of my students at USC Marshall recently made this observation during a negotiation: “When he said that, I smelled blood in the water. I knew I had him.”  

What did the counterpart say that was such a telegraph of a feeling of weakness?  An inadvertent “announcement”? A “tell” if you will, that he felt he had no leverage?

The “F” word.

“I think this is a fair offer.”

I’ve talked a lot about the “F” word in negotiation – “Fair”.  I’ve discussed how it’s a tool that manipulative negotiators use to punch our emotional buttons and knock us off balance.  This is when sharks are trying to line you up for the kill.

In my book Never Split The Difference I talk about how I believe the National Football League (NFL) owners successfully used it as a tool to get around the NFL Players Union’s demand to see the books.  “We’ve given the players a ‘fair’ offer”, is what they said.  This gambit was picked up in the media and the accusation that the players were being unfair was echoed.  It also caused dissention on the players ranks as they began to doubt among themselves whether or not they were being greedy.

The owners got a settlement.  They never opened their books.

AND I’ve also talked about how decent and honest people use this word inadvertently, unconsciously.   It has that same effect – to get us to move off of our position and make a concession.  We doubt ourselves.  Maybe we’re being “unfair”?

A good friend of mine who is eminently “fair”, honest, and decent used it to get a higher offer on her house when the housing market had dropped.  “We just want what’s fair,” she said.  The buyers raised their offer.

BUT what I didn’t realize is this truth:  

It’s only used when people feel weakness (even helplessness) in their own negotiation position.  It’s a clear and honest, inadvertent disclosure.   

It’s what people say when they think they don’t have leverage – when they don’t have the outside criteria, market data, or the positioning that will support them.

If they HAD outside criteria – they’d use it.

The Rule of Leverage is this: It doesn’t matter what leverage they have on you; what matters is what they think of the leverage you have on them.  If they use the “F” word – they’re telling you they feel you’ve got the upper hand. Even the sharks.

Remember the second Sherlock Holmes movie Game of Shadows with Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson?  A sniper has Dr. Watson trapped behind an obstacle of some sort and is trying to kill him.  Dr. Watson discovers the obstacle is actually a large cannon under a tarp.  When he points the cannon at the sniper, the sniper says, “That’s not fair”.  Really?  And it was fair before when you were victimizing him?

What To Do Next – Be Very Gentle

INSTEAD of what Dr. Watson did (blast the killer with the canon) you’re now in a position to establish yourself for long-term gains.  Yes, the temptation is to go in for the kill, which can be very satisfying for the moment, but it usually leaves money on the table.  

A long-term partner is more valuable than a short-term victim.

It’s the paraphrase of the line by the legendary Gus Levy of Goldman Sachs, “Greedy yes, but long-term greedy.”  If you can take your time, you can maximize your gains, with a gentle, patient approach.  

A label: “It sounds like you’ve got reasons for saying that?” (said with a gentle, genuinely inquiring, tone of voice).

Or a mirror: “A fair offer?”

Or: “It’s not fair?”

Move slowly, gently.  Take your time.  Paraphrase their answer.  Summarize.  Obtain a “That’s right”.  Use empathy tactically to build a bridge.

The deal is here, and if you handle it carefully, so is profit with a partner for the long-term.  

After all, the NFL owners and the players are partners in what continues to be a long-term profitable enterprise.

To sum up:

  1. When they say their offer is “fair” – they are signaling their lack of strength of position.  They’re vulnerable.
  2. Mirror: “A fair offer?”
  3. Proceed gently.  The short-term kill is here – but a better long-term great partnership may be as well.

Make it rain!


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