The information we have to process – in life and in negotiations – can prove frequently challenging. This is particularly the case where ambiguity intrudes. Occasionally, poor outcomes may arise from acting in good faith on information that later turns out to have been inaccurate. Sometimes this may be due to a simple, unintentional mistake – and after ascertaining whether we can do anything to avoid similar errors in future, we move on. Sometimes, however, it can be more nuanced. What if we have been misled, and worse, deliberately so?
Most of us would accept that a lie is characterised by being both false and deliberate. Negotiators may be wearily familiar with some of the navigational perils that distortion can present. Frequently there can be more to it than that, and truth can be equally misleading. Consider the recent defenestration of former PM Boris Johnson at the hands of his former parliamentary colleagues. Whatever you think of him, Johnson is a master of manipulating the language. It became apparent – as a result of the police investigation and subsequent fines – that the assurance Johnson offered in Parliament in December 2021 that “the rules were followed at all times” was inaccurate. Interestingly, it was precise language. Compare and contrast to the imprecision of the second part of the same statement: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”. This may well be accurate, but as we have no idea who the assurances came from – Larry the Downing St cat, perhaps – there is scope for interpretation here absent from the absolutism of the first statement. So we can be precise and inaccurate, and accurate but imprecise – both might be seen as misleading, but in different ways.
The ability to use imprecision combined with accuracy to dissemble in a way which evades accusations of deliberate deception is a minefield for negotiators. If when asked for an increase by a supplier citing inflationary pressures and other external factors as the driving forces, you naturally respond by querying the amount, the response “8% would cover it” can be interpreted as, well, 8%. However, the phrasing should send a signal to the seasoned negotiator. It may well be accurate – but then so might 7%, or 6%, or less. We should be alert to imprecision and probe accordingly, all the while being aware that sometimes imprecision is simply a product of reluctance to be direct – and that there may be no attempt to conceal an alternative at all. Equally, we should be careful about any propensity we may have to exploit imprecision in our own interests – in the majority of commercial situations, the probability of any gap being exposed over time is high. On that basis weighing up the risk of how that might land vs the likely incremental gain would suggest that it’s most often in our own interests to avoid taking advantage through imprecise use of language or data. And if we find ourselves tempted, consider the vote that carried the cross-party committee’s findings in the Parliamentary division – of Conservative MPs, a mere seven voted in Johnson’s support. 118 found that he deliberately and recklessly misled the House, and the remaining 200+? They had better things to be doing, apparently… Johnson’s reputation for having a cavalier attitude towards being truthful isn’t new, and it might have taken him 30 years or more to finally burn through whatever was left of the mitigating goodwill he generated with his charisma, but it certainly is a warning to the curious when it comes to telling lies for advantage.