Detecting deception in a negotiation

Excuses, excuses.


Americans are way too credulous.

In a recent study of internet behavior, psychologists found that Americans were 20% more trusting than Europeans, 23% more credulous than the Chinese and 33% less suspicious than the Russians.

There's an entire industry that devotes itself to signs of deception. We're told to watch body language, read "micro expressions," analyze speech patterns, attend to eye movement, and a host of other confounding tactics to detect lies. You and I know, however, that if someone had the technology to know whether your spouse's bowling league trophy was picked up in a second hand store or s/he's been spending those evenings with a former lover, they'd be wealthy by now and the world a much, much different (and perhaps scarier) place.

What to do?

If you don't feature yourself an adept at reading faces or jerky body movements to detect deception, do what men and women have been doing since we first began to narrate stories sitting in caves around campfires.

Ask for a narrative.

There's a policy in the company to pay women 30% less than market when they return from parental leave? Really? When was that policy put into place? What was the thinking behind it? Who was involved in the decision making process? Why was 30% decided upon rather than, say, 20% or 15% or 40%? Who in the company approved the policy? Was it run by the legal department?

After wading through a lot of micro-expression and body language tells, the Harvard Program on Negotiation recommends what any first year trial attorney would tell you about deception detection.

Ask lots of questions.

By asking many questions during a negotiation, you can increase the cognitive load of a possibly deceptive counterpart and increase your odds of exposing the truth. In particular, ask him to repeat information, ask for details about points that he should (or should not) know, inquire about several different topics in the same discussion, and ask questions out of chronological order. You also might ask easy questions for which he may not have prepared. And by asking follow-up questions that require elaboration, you create a dilemma for liars, who want to make a good impression by answering quickly but may be forced to stall to fabricate a response.

When taking testimony, you ask for detail. When did you speak with Mr. Jones about your [alleged] 2-year employment contract? Who else was present? Where was the meeting held? Was anyone taking notes? Did anyone bring anything to the meeting? What time of day was it? Who scheduled the meeting? What was its purpose? Was there an agenda? How long did the meeting last? Who, if anyone, agreed to follow-up after the meeting. As best as you can recall, what did Mr. X say? Ms. Y? You? 

Eventually, someone who's making shit up will run out of story-telling details. After all, how many of us are novelists? You wouldn't get far with Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but most people are unable to relate a coherent, detailed narrative of an event that never took place.

Don't accept excuses for anyone not giving you what you want. Explore instead. You'll have the upper hand when you reveal them for the lame story-tellers they are. But, please, don't gloat. They're your negotiation partners and you can't get a good deal unless you allow them to save face. Wars have been fought for face-saving purposes. Don't underestimate people's need to walk away from a deal without feeling disrespected.