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.

To tell the truth? Three Republicans, three approaches

Against my better judgment, I’ve now written several posts about the current presidential election. For example, here’s the latest. The references to negotiation are just too good and too frequent to ignore! So why not keep going?

The three remaining candidates for the Republication nomination—Kasich, Cruz, and Trump—embody three distinct ways of dealing with the truth. Since most of us encounter ethical quandaries daily—and since the way we approach them can easily make life more negotiable—we might as well take this opportunity to talk honesty. So, we’ll use the three Republican candidates to explore three distinct ways of dealing with the truth.

Before tackling this treacherous topic, let me just say that I’m not personally labeling anyone a sinner or a saint (nor trying to impose my own moral view). I’m just using the public image of all three candidates—as constructed by popular news outlets and the politicians themselves—to highlight three particular approaches to the truth. So, if you don’t agree with my characterizations, I would have to refer you back to the popular news outlets and political maneuvers from whence they came. And with that, gulp, here goes…

  1. Kasich: John Kasich portrays himself—and is often portrayed as—the morally-upstanding guy in the room. As an example of his ethical image, he recently told Wisconsin voters that the GOP’s promise to repeal Obamacare was “stupid.” Anyone who understands the probability of repealing Obamacare under Obama can diagnose this statement for what it is: the truth. And yet, anyone who understands how primary elections work can diagnose it for what it’s likely to do: irritate Republican voters. Thus, with this statement at least, Kasich embodies the morally “pure” way of dealing with a tradeoff between truth and expediency: simply telling the truth.
  2. Cruz: Ted Cruz doesn’t portray himself this way, but Donald Trump has often called him “Lyin’ Ted.” Though one can never be sure, there are various suggestions that the moniker may have a kernel of truth—a questionable Facebook post about Rubio, the questionable circumstances surrounding scantily-clad photos of Ms. Trump, or the questionable phone call to Iowa voters about Ben Carson. To elaborate on the last, Cruz staffers apparently called Carson supporters to tell them—falsely—that Carson was planning to quit the race. If Cruz was behind for any of these choices—and again, we can never be sure—then he would embody the opposite, anti-Kasich way of dealing with the tradeoff: stretching the truth in service of political expediency.
  3. Trump: Trump embodies the most interesting approach to the truth: taking one side of an issue and then the other side so rapidly and seamlessly that no one knows which one he believes. Thus, no one can definitively say whether he was telling the truth. Supporters can claim that he was and opponents that he wasn’t—everyone’s right! In this way, Trump has found an innovative way of transcending the tradeoff faced by Kasich and Cruz, insisting on neither a disadvantageous truth like Kasich nor a potentially advantageous lie like Cruz. I think it’s fair to say that his dexterity with the truth is one of the many factors contributing to his ongoing appeal.

Do these approaches matter to our own lives, despite our lack of presidential intentions? Well, I’m assuming we don’t often face the specific tradeoff between truth and votes. But we often face the general tradeoff between truth and self-interest, or at least expediency. Each of us must come to our own conclusions about how to handle these situations, but the three Republicans offer three distinct models for dealing with the truth—honesty, deception, or some ways of transcending the tradeoff. Here’s hoping their approaches can help us forge a path through our own moral minefields.

The power of false dilemmas

Whether we use the term or not, most of us know the concept of false dilemmas. Should we carpet bomb ISIS or take zero action? These are obviously not the only options. Most of us know that—and thus know better than to choose between them, lest the questioner control our thinking.

And yet, there are reasons that people pose false dilemmas, some more ethical than others. So I submit that we should at least consider some situations where it might help to pose them ourselves. Used ethically and appropriately, false dilemmas can help make some of our most difficult personal and professional situations more negotiable.

Which ones? Consider the following three:

  1. When a decision-maker won’t focus. How many decisions don’t get made simply because the decision-maker gets distracted? I’m certainly talking about kids, who can’t be bothered to choose a shirt before building a spaceship out of all the couch cushions. But I’m also talking about executives, who have so many important decisions to make that many don’t get made at all. Sometimes posing a false dilemma—the blue shirt or the red shirt, the quark strategy or the lepton strategy—can simplify the decision just enough to attract their attention.
  2. When a decision-maker will focus but won’t decide. Sometimes the problem is not attention but indecision. The decision-maker is focused but still can’t decide: how to choose among the 342 shirts in the closet? Or the 50 states where we might pilot our leptons? Sometimes a false dilemma can cut through the indecision, convincing them to act instead of worrying about the risks of a failed decision. Having done research indicating that New York or California are the best places to pilot the leptons, for example, you might tell the decision-maker as much and ask for a preference.
  3. When any other options are unacceptable. Sometimes you feel so strongly about a decision that any other options just won’t work. Little Charlie, do you want to go to a private university or a public university after high school? Though the dilemma may seem false to them, set as they are on working at McDonalds, it’s not false at all to you. In that case, posing the choice as a dilemma can help to persuade them.

So false dilemmas can in fact be useful. But the word “false” should immediately call our attention to their ethical implications (even today, the Monday after the spring time change, when many people are so sleepy as to worry less about moral issues). By suggesting that two choices represent the entire decision set, we are inevitably attempting to control their decision. And this is probably the most popular reason for posing false dilemmas: to attain self-interested objectives by curtailing another person’s autonomy. Just my opinion, but that motivation seems ethically suspect.

Indeed, false dilemmas are probably only justifiable when the costs to the decider are trivial (it doesn’t really matter which shirt they wear) or the benefits to the decider are substantial (you know that New York and California are the best pilot sites; you just need to get approval).

An ethically-fraught strategy, then, but one to consider in the face of the difficult dilemmas that surround us—even or especially on “sleepy Monday.”