Negotiating tactics: How to react if you think someone is being “economical with the truth”

Most people can’t make it through a typical day without lying, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For instance, some 60% of people lie to new acquaintances within minutes of meeting them in the hope of creating a favourable impression. In one study, subjects who were asked to keep a record of their conversations admitted that they lied about up to 50% of topics including their feelings, their actions, plans and whereabouts.

Based on this evidence, and on the nature of bargaining, it is more than likely that many of the negotiators you deal with are being economical with the truth, for instance by holding back important information. What can you do?

Psychologists agree that lying is a central aspect of human behaviour. One expert believes that “It is normal, and more often spontaneous and unconscious than cynical andcoldly analytical. Our minds and bodies secrete deceit.” (D.L. Smith, “Why We Lie”, New York, 2004).

Many of us believe we can tell when someone is not telling the truth. But it’s far from easy to spot a liar. And it’s just as difficult to spot someone who is holding back the truth. Researchers have debunked many supposed giveaways. For instance, liars don’t always touch their ear or nose when they’re lying, they don’t necessarily shift position or avoid eye contact or smile too much or too little. In fact accomplished liars will look you straight in the eye and not move an inch. But not everyone is a good liar. One way to discover if someone is telling the truth is to observe their baseline demeanour. For instance, a normally lively person might suddenly become reticent when they are lying, or a calm person could begin to fidget.

Rephrase your questions

Of course, people who wish to deceive don’t always lie; they are often just “economical with the truth.” In other words, they withhold important information. If you feel that someone is not telling you something important, summarise the point at issue in your own words and ask a question that demands a “yes” or “no” answer.

  • So you’re saying you are still on schedule. Yes or no?
  • Is there something I should know about this deal that you haven’t yet told me?
  • I’ll need it in writing that you haven’t kept any significant information from me. Can you do that for me?
  • Can I have it in writing that there are no hidden costs?

I hope you don’t find yourself dealing with liars too often, but if you feel you are, these tips should help.