How to tell if someone is bluffing in negotiation

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

How do you tell if the other side is bluffing?

When people lie, activity in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain increases. The prefrontal cortex is our executive decision-making system, regulating our thoughts, actions and social behaviours— all fundamental components of deception — so it’s no surprise the prefrontal cortex is active when we lie.

The corticolimbic system

Dishonesty requires the brain to work harder than honesty

The effort required, when bluffing in negotiation, is reflected by increased brain activity. Studies show people take longer to respond when lying.

To test if someone is “bluffing in negotiation” (they may for example say, “I’ve had a better offer from your competitor”), I will ask them open questions about the specifics of the “better offer”, for instance what was included/excluded in the offer. If they are able to answer coherently it is likely they are telling the truth.

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 feet. Fidgeting results from nervous energy 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.

Relaxed alertness is key

To make sure you can pick up signals from the other side, make sure you are thoroughly prepared so you can relax into the negotiation as far as possible. When we are in a relaxed, yet alert state of mind, our performance is at its optimum and we will have the mental capacity to pick up subtle signals that the other side may be giving out.
The problem with bluffing is that it detracts from this ability, as it diverts energy from our prefrontal cortex into maintaining the pretence.

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.

Check our events schedule for a seminar near you and find out more…

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