Bluffs versus lies: The line between persuasion and deception in negotiation

Where’s the line between bluffing and lying, persuasion and deception, salesmanship and unethical behavior? Negotiation scholars (myself included) have not often answered that question, largely because we focus on what negotiators do instead of what they should do. So far be it from me to answer conclusively here.

Nevertheless, a recent experience got me thinking about the topic and gave me some ideas about the factors that might at least enter into a discussion of where the line falls. So let me recount the experience and associated factors in hopes of making the broader discussion negotiable.

Some college friends and I recently took an annual guys trip, this year to Banff. Somewhere up in the Rockies, far from civilization and farther from cell phone service, we noticed the service engine light illuminated. Then, somewhere farther into the Rockies, we noticed that the fuel gauge hadn’t budged from full despite several hundred miles of driving. “Uh oh.” we thought. “What if the car’s broken or about to run out of gas up in the mountains?” And those thoughts caused some distress, interfering with our full enjoyment of Mother Nature’s majesty.

Long story short, the car didn’t break, and we didn’t run out of gas. We filled it up eventually, then monitored the engine sounds and gas gauge judiciously for the remainder of the trip. Finally, on our way to the airport, we decided to ask the rental car company (and let’s call them Nifty) for a discount. The question was how, and the discussion surfaced various tactics that may bring the line between persuasion and deception into sharper relief:

  1. Objective facts versus subjective reactions: There was a discussion about claiming that we broke down in the Rockies and had to somehow summon a tow truck. There was also a discussion about saying nothing of the sort but focusing on the distress caused by the fact we might have had to do so. The latter is probably more defensible.
  2. Breaks with reality versus extensions of reality: There was a discussion about claiming that we hadn’t had cell service ever since the event (which we did a couple hours later). There was also a discussion about claiming that we hadn’t had cell service until getting closer to the airport (which we were, a couple hours later). The latter is probably more defensible.
  3. Concrete versus ambiguous claims: There was a discussion about claiming that we often travel to Alberta and consider renting from that particular Nifty (a concrete and untrue claim). There was also a discussion about claiming that each of is a “road warrior” who travels to various locations with Nifty branches often (an ambiguous and broadly accurate statement). The latter is probably more defensible.
  4. Verbs versus adjectives: There was a discussion about saying that we ran out of gas in the mountains, the operative verb being “ran out.” There was also a discussion about describing the event with colorful adjectives (my friend ultimately chose “horrific”). The latter is probably more defensible.
  5. Commission versus omission: There was a discussion about arguing strenuously that the service engine light and fuel gauge were related, when we suspected the former reflected an overdue oil change. There was also a discussion about describing both symptoms and letting Nifty draw their own conclusions, none of us being auto mechanics. The latter is probably more defensible.

Again, I’m not here to offer concrete answers to tough ethical quandaries, and maybe you disagree with my assessments. But I hope this story and my thoughts at least help to bring some structure to your own thinking, as you grapple with the ethical quandaries in your own lives and negotiations.

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