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Fibs can only get better

Ellis Croft
Election Uk [Converted]
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So, the starter’s pistol has been fired on the UK’s general election, which we now know will take place on July 4th this year. The sight of a sodden Prime Minister, gamely stating his optimism in the driving rain, to the unwanted accompaniment of D:Ream’s 1993 ditty “Things can only get better” – adopted by Blair’s New Labour project four years later and the anthem to their 1997 landslide victory – may prove to be one of the defining images of the election. There are likely to be some notable milestones, statistics and events between now and the big day, it’s reasonable to speculate.

 

But this blog is for negotiators, not policy wonks or fans of the Westminster bubble. So I was very interested in the statement attributed anonymously to Michael Gove – the source told lobby reporters that in the cabinet meeting at which the election date was announced, Michael Gove told Rishi Sunak “Who dares wins and you dare and you are going to win”. Without wanting to get into the politics of the election, I do think that it is safe to say that in the absence of something cataclysmic changing the national mood, and as long as Sir Keir Starmer avoids doing something stratospherically evil or stupid in the next six weeks, then all the evidence points to Gove’s alleged statement being unlikely to be borne out. Whilst I appreciate that Gove was unlikely to fall to his knees and cry “We’re doomed!” in the style of Private Frazer (younger readers may ask their parents to explain the reference), it still has the feel of… well, an exaggeration, to put it kindly. And this is what I’m interested in – because in negotiations, the use of words which are at a distance from the absolute truth one way or another, can be a frequent hazard.

 

What is a negotiator to do when they hear information from their counterparty which they know to be an over-egging of the pudding, an exaggeration, or even an out-and-out lie? I have observed many times in case plays on courses and in my own negotiations that the very British response can be to allow such tactical behaviour to pass. After all, who wants to embarrass the other party? Not only may this be seen as rude but it may inflame the situation, and that’s to risk the relationship, we may tell ourselves. On the other hand, the risk of allowing an incorrect statement to sit and fester, unchecked, can be that not only does it become accepted fact (at least for the party making the statement), it may have a gravitational pull on the positioning of the variables in the deal. And I don’t think that’s a useful thing if you are on the receiving end. So, what to do? I wouldn’t recommend a “Gotcha!” approach when you’re aware that the other party is stretching credibility for their own purposes; on the other hand, it is in your interests to quickly snuff out the risk that it will exercise the desired influence over the outcome. On the course I’ve been teaching this week, a participant faced this very dilemma, as the buyer she was facing told her – entirely untruthfully – that their current supplier was half the price she was quoting. With a good grace – even kindness – that gave her agency and control, she simply said in a gently surprised voice that her information was that customers in this market paid a range of between X and Y, and perhaps the buyer’s information could be checked. Given this opportunity, the buyer’s summariser made a convincing show of checking their notes before confirming that, indeed, they had inadvertently got it wrong. The negotiation proceeded with the relationship intact but without the influence of the bogus pricing being a factor making the seller’s job that much harder.

 

I’d always advise negotiators to deal with exaggeration, fibs, or absolute whoppers when they’re negotiating – it’s not in your interests to allow the other party to stretch the truth to suit them at your expense. Similarly, if you find yourself tempted to state a padded position to try and get the other party to move towards you? My view would be it’s almost certainly preferable to think about how you might instead trade your way towards the position you want. You might still get what you want, but the relationship won’t be at risk when your exaggeration is eventually discovered, as it almost certainly will be. In the meantime, we can all sit back, relax, and look forward to detecting some of the most polished and professional distortion life can offer us as the election campaign unfolds over the next six weeks – some good practice!

Ellis Croft
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