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Liar Liar Pants On Fire

Richard Savage
© vchalup | Adobe Stock

“The trouble, Richard”, a prospective client once said to me, “is that I can get a better service elsewhere for less money” …the salesman’s worst nightmare!

But I was desperate; I’d been trying to get this research proposal over the line for weeks and we really needed the revenue. I was ready to compromise and do (what I thought) was necessary. But that compromise (or unconditional concession as we professional negotiators like to call it) didn’t just cost me the arbitrary 15% discount to get the job. It set a precedent for subsequent jobs that overtime amounted to thousands of pounds.

However, that wasn’t the worst of it! I subsequently found out their mystery ‘superior competitor’ was totally fabricated. My client was lying to me! Telling me porkies, fibbing, cheating. And he’s not alone it turns out. A survey we completed amongst over 700 buyers and sellers (35% of whom had purchasing power worth more than a £1m per deal) showed that 46% of buyers have been lied to by sellers while 38% said they thought it was acceptable to lie!

This raises an interesting question. How do you know if someone is lying? Well, a recent article in the Guardian by Amit Katwala, explains how currently there is significant investment into powerful new tools to detect deception, brought about by the rise in cheap computing power, brain scanning technologies and AI.

Previous studies suggest we are not very good at spotting deception. We are told that on average we can separate truth from lies just 54% of the time – marginally better than simply guessing (or tossing a coin!). If we look back to 500 BC, priests of ancient India would test suspected liars by covering the tails of donkeys with soot, then putting them in dark tents. The suspect was told to enter the tent and pull the tail of the donkey. If the donkey brayed, the accused’s guilt would be confirmed. If the accused left the tent with clean hands-free of soot, the priests would know he had not pulled the donkey tail out of fear of being revealed, thereby also confirming his guilt.

We all know about the infamous ‘polygraph’ – the tool of the US government used to flush out communists in the 1950s. But did you know it didn’t work? The American Psychological Association states "Most psychologists agree that there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies. It was inconsistent in its findings (which were based on fluctuations in blood pressure, pulse, respiration and skin conductivity). The challenge remains that there is no way for an examiner to know whether positive results are due to fear of getting caught or from the anxiety of being wrongly accused. And one can train to cheat it! But it remains popular and drives a $2bn industry today. Not because it is effective, but because people think it is! And that perception can influence behaviour and often force confessions from the guilty.

What you can be sure of is in commercial conflict situations it is highly likely that whoever is on the other side of the table is likely to be ‘creative’ with the truth. And that is worth challenging.

So, what do you do to see if someone is lying to you? Well, don’t bother trying to get them to participate in a polygraph that’s for sure. Our advice is to test your assumptions and ask good questions.  The best one in my case might have been “If you can get a better service for less money elsewhere, why are we having this conversation?”  Either that or look for a sooty tailed donkey.


Need help spotting lies in negotiations? Download our Truth About Lying eBook


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Richard Savage
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