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Bluffing in negotiation – signals to look out for!

One of the most common questions I get asked in our Black Belt Negotiator classes is:

How do you tell if the other side is bluffing?

When people lie, activity in the conscious brain network increases. This contains our executive decision-making system, regulating our thoughts, actions and social behaviours— all fundamental components of deception.
Corticolimbic system

Dishonesty requires the brain to work harder than honesty

To test if someone is bluffing during a negotiation, ask them some very specific questions. If for example they say, “I’ve had a better offer from your competitor”, ask them open questions about the specifics of the “better offer”, for instance what was included/excluded in the offer, etc. If they hesitate and are unable to answer fluently and coherently it is likely they are bluffing.

A lying person is more likely to cover their mouth with their hand, scratch their nose, or cough, almost as if to cover up (literally) the lies. Also watch out for fidgeting or shuffling. This is caused by nervous energy and heightened brain activity produced by a fear of being found out. Repetition of words or phrases is a sign of buying time while they gather their thoughts or try to validate the lie to themselves.

Picking up the signals

Having observed hundreds of negotiations, what interests me is how bad people are at picking up on signs of bluffing at the negotiating table. Negotiation is a high-pressure activity, where we may feel a level of nervousness or anxiety. For this reason, our focus is usually on ourself rather than the other party – and so the most blatant signals from the other side are often missed.

Our brain evolved before language existed

To enhance your chances of picking up signals from the other side, make sure you are thoroughly prepared so you can relax into the negotiation.  When in a relaxed, yet alert state of mind, our performance is at its optimum and we have the capacity to pick up subtle signs that the other side may be unconsciously giving out.  Our brain evolved before humans had the capacity for language, so we all have an innate ability to pick up on body language and non-verbal cues.

Maintaining a bluff will have an impact on your ability to relate to the other party in a natural way.

The down-side of bluffing

The problem with bluffing is that it detracts from this ability.  If you are having to maintain a pretence, the increased work that is required from the conscious brain will mean that you’re even more likely to miss those vital signals. The conscious brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

Try this experiment

When you are next walking with a friend, ask them to count backwards from 100 in jumps of 7. You will notice, their walking slows down or even stops. This is because the processing power required for simple arithmetic means that even automatic functions like walking are impaired. So you can imagine that maintaining a bluff will have an impact on your ability to relate to the other party in a natural way.

As business negotiation is all about building long-term mutually beneficial relationships, ‘bluffing in negotiations’ can only be a detrimental policy.

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