Five non-deceptive reasons that negotiators don’t tell the full truth

One of the biggest challenges any negotiator faces is getting the full truth from their counterpart—in particular, learning the real interests lurking behind their positions. Why’s my coworker really pushing that proposal? Why’s the homeowner really delaying that inspection?

Facing a less-than-fully forthcoming counterpart, most of us draw a simple conclusion: They must be concealing something. Or, taking it a step further—they must be a liar.

I’m here to tell you, however, that negotiators fail to disclose their full interests for many reasons that have nothing to do with deception. Since understanding those reasons can make life negotiable, let me outline five of the most common:

  1. They don’t understand their interests: It’s much less intriguing that than the hypothesis you’re facing an ethically-craven knave, but it’s probably more likely: Your counterpart simply doesn’t understand themself. Be it time pressure, an overabundance of issues, or a shortage of self-awareness, a plethora of factors conspire to place many negotiators at the table without a full understanding of their own interests. If so, then the best recourse is not to suspect them but to stimulate some introspection.
  2. They’re too close to the problem: Conversely, some negotiators understand their situation quite well—so well they’ve got a set of blinders glued to their faces. They’ve been in the organization so long, know the business so well, etc. that they’re just sure their position is right. Only problem is they can’t tell you why—and don’t see the need to. If so, the best recourse may be to ask a series of open-ended questions that progressively unglue their blinders.
  3. It’s too sensitive: Sometimes, negotiators hesitate to disclose their interests—or at least write them in an initial email or state them in an initial phone call—because those interests are simply too sensitive. Maybe they’re pushing that proposal because the boss has threatened them if they don’t. Maybe they’re delaying that inspection because they’re too busy grieving for the person who lived there. In these situations, the best recourse may be to win their trust over an extended period of time, then ask.
  4. Telephone game: Sometimes, the person across the table is not the person with the problem under consideration. They’re just representing the person with the problem, in which case they could’ve easily fallen victim to the telephone game. Maybe the problem owner didn’t reveal their own interests, or maybe they did and something got lost in translation. Either way, your counterpart’s reticence may amount to garden variety communication breakdown. If so, the best recourse may be to send some questions back to the problem owner or request their presence at the next meeting.
  5. High-context communication: Sometimes, the person across the table thinks they’re sharing their interests, plain as day, but you’re not hearing them. This may or may not happen in married couples, but excellent research suggests it’s quite common in cross-cultural negotiations. Whatever the setting, here’s the issue: One negotiator is using high-context communication—embedding the message in facial expressions, tone of voice, and other subtle hints—whereas the other is receiving low-context signals—looking largely to the words. If so, the best recourse may be for the low-context negotiator to play back what they’re hearing and ask the high-context negotiator to elaborate.

What’s the point? It’s really simple actually: When you encounter a negotiator who seems less-than-fully forthcoming, resist the temptation to diagnosis their behavior as deception or their demeanor as deceptive. Instead, consider that something about the situation may be prompting their seeming evasiveness, and focus your attention on discovering what it is.

Seven surprising reasons why negotiators lie

The students in my negotiation classes are very rarely surprised to learn that negotiators sometimes lie. Deception, they assume, is central to negotiation. “And why do negotiators lie?” I probe—a question that usually elicits eye-rolls and answers related to one of two obvious motives: greed (e.g., “to get a better deal”) or fear (e.g., “to avoid a bad deal”). And the students are partially right, in that greed and fear can explain a fair portion of negotiators’ deceptions.

But the students are wrong in one critical respect: some of the most common reasons why negotiators lie have little to do with either motive. Indeed, although research has not and may never ascertain the proportion of lies attributable to each specific cause, lies born of greed or fear are probably—and surprisingly—in the minority. So let’s consider some of the most common reasons why negotiators lie, in hopes of making ethically challenging situations negotiable:

  1. A lack of preparation: The most common source of deception in negotiation, most likely, is a distinct lack of forethought. How will I answer that tough question about my alternatives? What will I say if they ask me, point-blank, about my bottom line? We often fail to consider such questions in advance, which can tempt us to deceive when our counterpart actually asks them.
  2. A lack of creativity: Negotiators often lie because they find themselves in a tough spot and perceive a false dilemma: to lie or not to lie? In reality, even a small dose of creativity often suggests a third way. What if the recruiter asks if I have a competing offer? Could I focus on the fact that I just hit the job market and am expecting great success, instead of fixating on a yes or no?
  3. A lack of time: Negotiators often lie because they don’t take the time to consider the situation carefully, opting for the simplest and often the most self-serving option, which is the most deceptive.
  4. Confusion between competition and deception: Negotiation scholars like to distinguish between competitive and deceptive negotiation behaviors. Put simply, real negotiators often don’t. They see deception as just one more competitive arrow in the quiver, appropriately attached to the bow whenever a value-claiming opportunity arises.
  5. Subtle environmental cues: Believe it or not, negotiators may be tempted to lie by the objects, substances, or physical spaces around them. As I’ve recently summarized, psychology offers many reasons to suppose that environmental cues as innocuous as money, fake sunglasses, or ominous colors can heighten the temptation to lie.
  6. Mythical images of the negotiator: Relatedly, and as I’ve also described before, negotiators and negotiation are steeped in mythology. Our most common image of the successful negotiator—the aggressive, competitive, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, wheeler-and-dealer (no names)—is incomplete at best and wrong at worst. Incorrect images lead to inappropriate behaviors.
  7. Agreement bias: Put simply, we don’t feel very good walking away from our negotiation counterparts, even when we know we should. So when we see that one little lie is all that’s required to seal the deal and walk away smiling—when we tell the counterpart the sweet words they want to hear or omit the treacherous words they don’t—well, then we often end up lying.

In sum, my negotiation students are quite right that greed and fear underlie some of the deception we see in negotiations. But they—and probably most other people—are wrong in thinking that greed and fear are the only or even the primary sources of lies in negotiation. They’re not! People lie for manifold and diverse reasons, not that any of those reasons excuse them for doing so. Here’s hoping that knowing the reasons can help you detect deception from others and wholeheartedly avoid it yourself.