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.

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.