Darin Matthews and I have had an ongoing discussion about negotiation tactics for several years. He raised an interesting question recently about “How do you know if someone is lying?” I think the real answer is that someone always is, but it's your job as a professional to determine to what extent the lying takes place. We all stretch the facts a bit in negotiation. I have always maintained that I “paint with a broad brush,” but I never outright lie or deceive. I don't think that's what a representative of a public body should ever do.

The more I thought about the question, the more I realized there is no one answer; it's a combination of feelings, facts and intangibles. Unless there is an outright statement such as “the sky is a lovely shade of mauve today” (whatever mauve is) and it's bright blue, then you have to depend on your professional training.

First, do your research! Find out everything you can about your opposite number and their company. Do they use aggressive tactics as a routine or is it just the person on the other side of the table? What is their position in the marketplace? Are they leaders or just entering into a particular area of specialization? Do any of your colleagues have experience with them? Have you had their financials reviewed by someone who can give you an opinion about their financial health?

Now comes the tough part, the intangibles. Look at their body language: Are their arms crossed, do they look you in the eye when they speak to you, do they talk down to you or are condescending in their tone? Professional language is important; I've never liked bullying tactics or yelling. It shows a lack of respect. If someone says “trust me,” I generally don't.

Do they use exaggerated responses like gasping for air or a phony sense of shock? Do they flinch when you say something? Professional attire and demeanor are also important. Do you feel comfortable in their presence?

Do they agree with everything you say? All negotiations are like two tectonic plates rubbing against each other looking for a common ground. When things go too easily, I suspect something is wrong. Old adage: “If it looks too good to be true, it usually is.”

Do they use techniques such as “good cop, bad cop?” The best way to defuse that is to say something like “I think I saw this in a James Cagney black-and-white movie from the 1930's. You're not really trying this, are you?” That should send a strong signal to them.

Do they try to impose artificial deadlines on you? “This will come to a complete halt if we don't reach an agreement by ____.” Frankly, the world will not come to an end if you don't reach an agreement by a certain time. Do they use terms like “take it or leave it”? That's just a bluff, and I love to call them on that. The way to counter that is to keep questioning why they ask that and what you want to do is flush out why they did that.

Never let your emotions show unless it's with a purpose. Keep a calm demeanor unless you want to send a very strong signal to the other party. And don't walk out. The reality is that you have to go back in at some point and you don't want to look foolish doing it. Find a reason to take a break (“I think we could all do with a break, lets come back in 15 minutes”). That will give you and your team a chance to talk things over.

I'm just scratching the surface about the topic. Put this on your list of things to talk about at staff meetings, take a course, do practice negotiations, talk to people who are successful at it. Most of them are honest, frank and forthright people who want to accomplish something.

And practice until you are mauve in the face; it's the only way to get better.

Frederick Marks, CPPO, VCO, is a retired purchasing officer who has held positions as a supervising buyer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as director of material management for Northern Virginia Community College. Contact Marks at fmarks@mindspring.com.

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