Updated February 1, 2023

Abused: 11 Manipulative Business Negotiation Tactics (How You’re Being Played and How To Stop Being the Victim)

Whether you like it or not:

We're all getting manipulated in business negotiations.

The hard part:

Noticing those manipulation attempts.

And that's what I'm going to teach you in this post.

I'm going to show you the most common business negotiation manipulation tactics and how to counter them effectively.

Let's dive right in.

1. The Fake Fairness Claim

"This is a fair offer."

Have you ever heard someone say that in a situation where your first impulse was to say:

“No, it’s NOT!

But that’s the worst thing you can do.

Don’t ever reply to a fake fairness claim by arguing about what’s fair and what isn’t.

Do this instead

Calmly and slowly ask:

“Fair … (?)”

And don’t make your voice go up at the end – keep it flat.

Like you’re a bit surprised.

They used the word “fair,” and you’re trying to figure out what exactly they mean.

And then just shut up. Wait.

Let the silence do its work.

Most people feel the need to start explaining themselves at this point.

You know you’ve got ‘em when they do.

Because now they’re on the defensive – and they can feel it.

All you have to do is listen well and ask “I don’t really understand this part”-type questions.

And lead them further onto the wide, open field of trying to explain “fairness” to you.

Their thinking and arguments become sitting ducks for you to take potshots at within minutes.

Sure, some people might not fall for that.

They just stare straight back at you and repeat their claim:

“Yes. Fair.”

In that case, increase the pressure on them to explain themselves.

Just a bit.

Say something non-confrontational like:

“You sound really convincing, so I’m sure you have facts and figures to show me … how … fair.”

Same game.

My point is:

Instead of arguing about what’s fair, let them explain.

And you’ll find:

99% of the time, they can’t.

And once they admit that, it changes the whole power balance of the negotiation.

In your favor.

2. The ‘I’ll walk’-Threat

“If you don’t agree to my demand, I’ll walk. You’ll end up with nothing. It’s your call.”

Awww shhhhhite. What do you do now?

Ask her if she’s completely lost her effing mind?

Tell her:

“You go out that door now, you’re never coming back. I don’t care, but you sure should. Just sayin’.”

Or:

“Too bad you can’t see that this is gonna flush your career down the toilet. But hey, not my problem.”

Yeah, you can try that. Power moves. I’ve done it.

But these power moves never got me the kinds of results as the move I’m about to teach you.

Not even in the same league.

So let’s take a step back.

She’s just made a demand you can’t possibly accept.

And then gave you a now-or-never ultimatum.

Investors, buyers, sellers, climate negotiators, everyone does that when they think you depend on them.

But what can you do if you’re not gonna meet their aggression with aggression of your own? Give in?

No way. 

Do this instead

Ask one simple question: “How can I do that?”

Works like a charm.

Let’s take an example:

An investor trying to pressure a founder – let’s call him Bill – into a bad deal.

He’s got a cash flow problem (so many startups do), and she says, “Take it or leave it.”

Then Bill asks her: “How can I give you 20% when two of my co-founders only hold 15 each?”

“Do I care?”

Ok, that didn’t work, so Bill tries another tack:

“But how can I sell you something I know will break, and then you’ll have nothing?”

“How do you mean?”

Giving you 20% for so little money will make next-round investors suspicious and ruin my A-Series. If you invest, it’s your A-Series, too. And then we’ll go bankrupt, and your investment will be worth nothing.

Now there are 2 possibilities:

A) She’s too blind with greed, and she’ll walk because Bill is unwilling to give her 20%.

In that case: good riddance.

B) She’ll come around, and Bill gets her to reconsider.

My point:

This question, “how can I do that?” gets people to switch their perspective.

It gets them to think about the problems you face in meeting their demand.

Because in a negotiation, your problem is their problem.

It’s just a matter of getting people to understand that.

Not by shouting at them.

By asking for help.

3. The Impossibility Claim

“What you’re asking is impossible”

Have you ever heard someone say that in a situation where your first impulse was to say:

“Of course, it’s possible. If we’re honest, it’s about whether you’re willing to make the effort.”

Pushing back against an impossibility claim will get you into trouble in a negotiation.

Do this instead

Compassionately ask about their constraints:

“Ok, so you’re saying we’re facing an unsolvable problem here – just help me understand where the idea I’m proposing hits a brick wall.”

The important thing at this point is to not come across as snide or cocky.

If you do, they will feel it and clam up.

Be compassionate.

I don’t mean “pretend to be compassionate.”

Because only genuine compassion will get people to open up to you.

When you really want to understand someone, the whole tone of the conversation changes.

And you’ll learn something about the pain points they’re facing.

Ok, so you’ll need some patience and some digging skills.

Use Bungay Stanier’s AWE question, the simplest and best question for digging deeper:

“And What Else?”

Let’s take a CSO at a construction company pushing them to use more green steel.

“That’s impossible.”

“Ok, just … help me understand, you know … the point where using green steel hits a brick wall.”

“It’s too expensive.”

“Ok. And what else?”

“What do you mean ‘what else?’” – you try and find a supplier who can manage the volumes we need!”

You see, the funny thing is:

People complain about the AWE question and then go ahead and answer it.

So now you’ve got 2 pain points:

  1. pricing
  2. and volume constraints

These are real, and they’re ugly.

They’re hellishly difficult to resolve.

But the crucial difference is:

  • “impossible” is a roadblock, but
  • “hellishly difficult” takes your conversation in the right direction.

Because one thing’s true for 99% of all high-level decision-makers:

“Hellishly difficult” turns them on.

They didn’t build a great career by walking away from a challenge.

They love a challenge.

So, learn to compassionately turn the “impossible” into the challenge they love.

And yes, that takes finesse.

But whether you think you can do that is really up to you, isn’t it?

I mean: What kind of person are you?

The kind that says, “it’s impossible” or, “I like a challenge”?

4.  The Past Failures Excuse

“We’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work.”

Millions of change-makers have heard that one.

And replied:

“Well, maybe you didn’t try hard enough.”

The problem:

That doesn’t make people try harder, does it?

But why not?

Reactance.

Reactance is the natural resistance we all have against:

  • being criticized about something we did wrong or poorly, and
  • being told what to do or what not to do

Face it:

“You should have tried harder” makes people feel like a kid in elementary school getting a bad test result.

And when we make people feel like that, they just don’t like it.

And then they don’t want to cooperate at all.

And that just hardens their stance that whatever you’re asking “doesn’t work.”

So, avoid “you should have tried harder” at all costs!

Do this instead

Ask about the lessons they learned when they tried it before.

For example:

"If you think back, what were the nastiest pitfalls when you tried this before?"

Or, if you want to go for something more advanced, try this:

“Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, in a parallel universe, someone in your position got it in their head to try this again, and we know it’s foolish, but you can’t talk them out of it. What are the nastiest pitfalls you’d tell them to avoid?”

But wait:

What are we doing here?

Two things:

One, we’re working on compassionately understanding their frustration with having tried and failed.

Two, we’re trying to find “loose bricks” that we can start pulling out of the “it won’t work”-wall we just hit.

And there are always loose bricks.

So go ahead and try it.

Make a smarter move than telling people, “You didn’t try hard enough,” and getting stuck.

Get unstuck!

Get crackin’.

5.  The Utopian BS Spin

“This is how the world works, and pretending it’s any different is just a refusal to face up to reality. Grow up.”

Whether you’re in a sustainability management position or an impact entrepreneur, whether it’s your boss talking, a client, or an investor:

It ain’t nice being told you’re imagining a utopia that doesn’t exist.

That you’re just a childish dreamer.

And you know that‘s just so wrong on so many levels.

So, you say something like:

“You’re the one refusing to face up to reality! Admit it: The world is changing, and you can’t keep up.”

Oops.

That didn’t go over too well.

You lose your client, or at work, you’re suddenly kept at arm’s length, given the most tedious and meaningless projects.

Sometimes, that’s worse than getting fired.

So, when people do that utopian spin on you, do not start arguing about whose reality is realer.

Do not get into the morals of why what you’re asking must be done.

Do this instead

Pivot!

Say: “Ok, tell me about the real world.”

But be careful!

Don’t patronize them.

People hate being patronized.

No, ask honestly. Let’s say the guy’s name is Peter. Say his name. It makes a difference.

“Ok, Peter … ok, tell me about the real world. Seriously, because … there’s something I’m missing here, and I need to understand it.”

Ideally, Peter starts talking about:

  • what you got wrong
  • how he sees the situation
  • and what he thinks can be done.

And you know, don’t argue.

Just listen. You don’t have to agree, but do not argue.

Make sure you get a feel for “the world according to Peter.”

And once he starts feeling understood, he’ll also give you a chance to explain your world.

It’s the law of reciprocity. Giving and taking.

People are so thankful for listeners who don’t judge them.

And for being able to hold your attention longer than a TicToc video.

Try it. And just to be sure: This is not some wishy-washy ‘paint the world pink’ wishful thinking.

“Listen first” is the holy grail of negotiators from Nelson Mandela to the FBI talking down hostage takers.

Over half a century ago, research by Carl Rogers showed that listening without judging makes people more likely to change their thinking and behavior.

What if it takes more than one meeting?

So what if it requires patience?

Are you going for cheap-shot mini-goals?

Or for the strategic win?

A few meetings are nothing compared to opening your boss’s or a client’s mind to new possibilities!

To whatever utopian, unrealistic ideas you have in that childish, immature brain of yours.

See what I did there? And no, you didn’t get upset about that, did you?

You’re just gonna calmly look me dead in the eye and say:

“Ok, Ben … ok, tell me about the real world. Seriously, because … there’s something I’m missing here, and I need to understand it.”

6.  The Attack On Integrity

“These conditions make you look more than just greedy. How can you sleep at night?“

Attacked like that in a negotiation, some people get defensive:

“Hey, I’m just trying to get a fair deal – what are you talking about?”

Or they respond with a counterattack:

“Look who’s talking – you’re the one making the impossible demands here.”

Don’t do that.

Don’t defend yourself. (That shows you’re scared.)

Don’t try to retaliate. (That shows you’re angry.)

And that’s what they’re trying to do: make you scared or angry.

Rock your boat.

But for good negotiators, an attack on their integrity is water off a duck’s back.

It’s irrelevant.

It doesn’t even warrant a snide remark like, “I sleep like a baby, thanks.”

Why?

Because being snide is a show of disgust.

And research shows that disgust is even more toxic than anger or fear.

Do this instead

Make yourself immune to these kinds of attacks.

Immune enough to show no reaction.

Maybe a little surprise, but no fear, anger, or disgust.

And one more word of caution here:

Some people will tell you: “This is the best reply in this situation.”

They are all doing you a great disservice.

Because whatever you say is nothing but a gold-plated poopy.

Unless you’ve got your millisecond-speed emotional reflexes under control.

So, what can you do to get those impulses under control?

Sounds difficult, right?

It’s not.

Anyone can do it.

Just like anyone can learn to ride a bike.

Just takes some practice.

7. The Social Graces Dis

“Why are you getting so defensive? Relax, we want the same thing: a good deal.”

Have you ever heard someone say that in a situation where your first impulse was to say:

“I’m not ‘getting defensive.’ You’re out of line, and I’m letting you know!”

Or: “Defensive? [uncertain, embarrassed laugh] What do you mean?”

But neither an angry retort nor trying to ‘play it off’ will help you here.

Do this instead

Accept the label “defensive.”

Yeah, the implication is: “it’s not ok to be defensive.”

But what if it was?

What if defending yourself is what you should be doing?

Take the judgemental vibe out of it, which claims it’s socially inappropriate.

Turn it around and say clearly:

“You’re right, my friend. I seem to be defending my interests. That could be … why do you think that is?”

Ouch.

You’ve just turned a social graces dis into a test of honesty.

Is the person you’re talking to really 100% on your side, as they claim? 

Do all your interests align naturally?

Of course not.

Aligning interests is one of the trickiest parts of any negotiation.

So honesty requires us to speak openly about conflicts of interest.

An honest person will answer your question with: 

“Well, clearly, you’re worried that our interests don’t align.” 

Or: “Alright, maybe something I said doesn’t sit right with you.”

Or: “You’ve got a different idea about how this should go.”

Whatever they say, it must acknowledge that “we want the same thing” is a half-truth.

The whole truth is:

You both want a good deal, but a good deal for them isn’t necessarily a good deal for you.

If they insist it is, their mind is stuck in a dangerous Louis 14th mindset.

Louis famously said: “I am the state.” (L’etat, c’est moi.)

That’s a lie. Get the hell out. 

Only malignant narcissists believe that “I am the world, and the world is me.”

Everyone else understands that not all interests align.

Negotiating is about solving exactly that problem.

And that’s why “I seem to be defending my interests” is a powerful test.

For honesty.

And for who you’re dealing with.

Use it.

8. The Faster Than Lightning Manipulation

“We’re done, you agree, right? Great. Sign here.”

Evil Superman and Evil Batman are sitting atop a skyscraper, looking down.

Evil Superman: “I wish I had one more superpower.”

Evil Batman: “What’s that?”

Evil Superman: “Lightning speed.”

Evil Batman: “Why?”

Evil Superman: “Coz I got the hots for Evil Superwoman.”

Evil Batman: “What’s that got to do with anything?”

Evil Superman: “I could swoop down, screw her and be done before she even noticed.”

Now, you might say, “Where’s the fun in that?” 

But the crucial mistake in saying that is this:

Not everyone thinks like you; some people don’t care about fun.

Or compassion.

Or mutual benefit.

Only dominance. 

Winning. 

Fast.

The kinds of people that lay out a deal, make it look oh so wonderful, and then say:

“We’re done, you agree, right? Great. Sign here.”

And 99% of the time, they’re trying to screw you.

Lightning speed.

So don’t sign.

Do this instead

Say: “Wow, that’s really impressive.”

Don’t say “fast.”

Use words like ‘well-organized’ or ‘streamlined’ that don't sound like criticism.

Then refer to an interested party who’s not in the room with you:

“We have a silent board member who’ll be thrilled to hear we’re already at this stage.”

“You do?”

“Yes, and of course, we need to involve him in the final decision, and then we can wrap this up next week if you’d like.”

What if you don’t have another interested party who’s not in the room?

Invent them.

Invent them?!?

Well, not out of thin air. 

But think about this:

If you make a poor decision under pressure, it will affect other people.

Your spouse or partner, good friends, parents, a brother, a sister, etc.

Someone always suffers with you when you suffer.

Don’t do that to them.

Respect that they are your silent board members in the business of life.

(Or maybe not so silent …?)

So, don’t allow anyone to push you into fast decisions.

Don’t get screwed by people who think they have lightning-speed superpowers.

(They don’t.)

Buy yourself some time.

Do it well. Do it in a way they can’t argue with.

9. The Invented Defect

“Guys, we have to consider a problem that just presented itself.”

Some people try to force last-minute changes on you by inventing problems.

Take Greg and Ari, who just sat down to sign an investment contract.

The investor: “Guys, we have to consider a problem that just presented itself. I checked the 9 companies on your client list, just to be sure.”

Ari: “They’re all vetted personal contacts. No problem there.”

Investor: “Yeah, that’s not 100% correct. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you weren’t truthful with me … maybe you just didn’t notice? But my track record of success is built on knowing, not guessing.”

Ari: “Ok, what’s wrong?”

Investor: “ One of the companies on your list is financially unstable. And one more is stingy, just pumping you for know-how. Then they’ll buy elsewhere, cheaper. So you’re down to 7. That increases my risk exposure. How do we address that?”

Greg: “What do you mean, ‘address that’ - we’ve got a contract here, ready to sign.”

Investor: “Not for 5%, you don’t. For 7% … maybe.”

Where did Greg and Ari go wrong? 

Simple: When they asked, “what’s wrong?”

If they were confident that nothing was wrong, they should never have asked.

So, if you don’t want to make Greg and Ari’s mistake,

Do this instead

Respond by saying: “You see a problem.”

Or: “Ok, out with it: what’s bothering you?”

These statements allow the investor to state his case but leave it at that.

He’s “stating his case” - what he believes, subjectively, to be true.

Not what is true.

And that’s a fundamental difference. 

Always keep a lion-like negotiator in the subjectivity cage.

Never let him into the arena of “objectively true” statements.

And when he tries, get him with “interesting that that’s your impression.”

What’s more, show respect:

“I have to honestly say: I’m impressed that you found out these things about a company I’ve been personally in contact with for over a year … things I didn’t know. Can you teach us how to do that?”

The more details he needs to give you, the more likely he’ll either be correct (could be) or mess up.

But in the end, you don’t want to deal with this kind of investor.

So if you’re confident that the problem or defect is invented, just be direct:

“We understand that it’s in your interest to get more out of this deal. Send us whatever you found. We’ll check it, and we can reconvene next week. No hard feelings: If you find this investment too risky, you might not be who we’re looking for.”

Note the ending.

2 points:

“No hard feelings” means: “This is a rational decision, not an emotional one.”

“You might not be who we’re looking for” means: “We don’t depend on you, and it’s possible that you don’t meet our quality criteria.”

Or, in plain English: “Maybe you don’t have the balls for this?”

10. The Higher Power Excuse

“I’d love to help you, but it’s not up to me. Someone else makes the rules.”

If you’ve heard something along those lines, possibly along with a smirk that says, “you can’t touch me. My arguments are air-tight, man” … well, it’s not pleasant.

Basically, you’re being told there’s some kind of higher power that neither of you can question, and it’s on your opponent’s side, so too bad for you, but … that’s just life, isn’t it?

Laws of nature.

Laws of nature?!?

And that’s the comeback that many people use.

“Yeah, and you think those ‘laws of the economy’ you love quoting are more powerful than the laws of physics? You want me to teach your nose something about the laws of physics, you dimwit?”

But “mine’s bigger than yours”-arguments like that don’t work.

Your counterpart can just shrug and say: “Well, it’s still not in my power to do anything about it.”

You have to take a different approach if you want to help them feel they can do something about it.

How?

Do this instead

Simply label the emotion associated with being controlled by a higher power:

“It seems like you feel helpless in this situation.”

There are two possibilities here about how this ‘label’ will influence the negotiation.

One:

Let’s start with the cynical type.

The guy who smirked as he said, “someone else made the rules.”

This guy doesn’t really feel helpless at all.

He’s using the ‘higher power’ as an excuse, and his smirk even let you know he knows you know.

So, what does shining a light on “helplessness” make this guy feel like?

Simple:

Like, unwittingly, he’s maneuvered himself into a position of appearing weak.

When all along, he thought that having a higher-power recourse would make him look strong.

And seriously, he hates looking weak, so he’ll say:

“Nah … that’s not how I feel at all. Where did that come from, man?”

“Great,” you say. “If neither of us is helpless, we can approach this thing creatively.”

You see how easy that was?

Alright, on to number two:

What about people who really do feel helpless?

(And you’d be surprised to find out how many of them there are!)

How can you help them to think of creative solutions?

What’s the point of telling them, “It seems like you feel helpless”?

The point is:

Negative emotions react like vampires to sunlight.

You shine a light on them, and they burn.

So labeling helplessness strangely makes people react with relief.

“Oh, he gets me. Let’s talk about this.” And suddenly, they open up.

And you can start looking for creative solutions together.

The secret?

First, show them you care, then help them change their way of thinking and their behavior.

That’s what this technique is all about.

11. Role Forcing

“You’re too young and inexperienced to know that.”

Ever been told that?

Demeaned like that in a negotiation, some people get defensive: “What do you mean, inexperienced?”

Others counterattack:

“Experience has nothing to do with it. It’s just common sense. Either you got your head screwed on straight, or you haven’t.”

Don’t do that.

Both defensiveness and counterattacks will paint you into the “emotionally unstable” corner.

Not where you want to be. 

Do this instead

Say: “Knowing you, I’m certain you enjoy working with the best, right?”

“Of course.”

“And you’re working with me. My skills, my knowledge and my grit are what you want. So, is it really in your best interest to worry about my experience?” 

And smile. 

Like your lack of experience is totally irrelevant.

And wait.

You’ve asked a question. 

So shut up and wait for the answer.

If you ask with high confidence, they’ll realize that “no, experience isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.”

Is the oldest guy in the room the wisest? 

The smartest?

Of course not.

Experience is only a third- or fourth-rate quality.

And it has nothing to do with whether you can ‘know’ something.

So the statement “You’re too young and inexperienced to know that” is whack.

And you did the smart thing:

You didn’t tell them.

You let them figure it out themselves.

Recommended: Best Business Negotiation Books of All Time You Should Read

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