How to Tell If Someone Is Bluffing


How do we know whether our counterpart is serious or just taking a position to try to outmaneuver us? And how do we protect the relationship while we find out?

Mirrors. Watch this video and read the rest of this short article to raise the level of your game by mastering this easy and incredibly effective negotiation skill.

The Black Swan Group’s definition of mirrors is simple: Repeat the last 1-3 words your counterpart just said. Or, if you really want to be surgical, select 1-3 critical words from some portion of what they’ve said and ask a question based on those words.

Phrasing it as a question means your voice needs to inflect up at the end of the mirror—like you’re genuinely curious. How they respond to the mirror will tell us how solid their position is or whether they are simply bluffing. Either way, they will also likely blurt out some pretty important stuff during their response.

Understand that this is different from what you’ve probably seen already. This is not mirroring the counterpart’s demeanor. It is not mirroring their tone of voice. It is also not restating their meaning in your own words. (Restating their meaning in your own words is called paraphrasing. It’s another skill that has its own use and purpose.)

Instead, mirroring is simply repeating the exact 1-3 selected words with a genuinely questioning or inquisitive tone of voice.  

The Jedi mind trick here is that people nearly always reword what they’ve just said. With mirroring, you’ve just encouraged your counterpart to go on, and you’ve done it in a way that begins to subtly shift their approach to you in a favorable manner.

You’ll be able to tell whether your counterpart is bluffing by the way they reword what they’ve said and how they deliver their response.

When they are just bluffing, they will soften their stance when they reword their statements. When they are telling the truth, you’ll be able to figure that out as well, because they’ll generally say the same thing again.

It will feel a bit awkward the first few times you do this. You’re going to imagine that your counterpart is going to shout, “Aha! That’s a hostage negotiation skill! How dare you?”

We can promise you two things:

  1. That’s not going to happen.
  2. The mirror will work.

Your counterpart will continue to talk, and they’ll give you a lot more great information in a more cooperative manner. With more information on hand, it’s easier to achieve the outcomes you desire.

Next time you’re in a negotiation, try the mirror skill. Make it rain!

never split the difference study guide

Chris Voss

About The Author

Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a firm that solves business negotiation problems with hostage negotiation strategies. Chris founded the Black Swan Group, in 2008 upon his retirement from the FBI where he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Chris is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches business negotiation in both M.B.A. programs.