On Contradicting Yourself

by F.

The WSJ had a piece yesterday on how financial advisers screw you. It’s a 7 point summary of typical sales tactics like the presumptive close. One of them was new to me, though:

Similarly, salespeople may take advantage of your desire to appear consistent. Early on, you might mention a concern about market declines. Later, when you get squeamish about buying, the salesperson might counter by saying, “I thought you said you were concerned about market declines.”

I remember as a baby lawyer getting hit with this one. In a negotiation, I would sometimes say X (not knowing what I was doing) and then, when I changed my position to Y (after realizing my earlier mistake), the other side would make a big deal about it. “But you said X? How is at that you said X before and now you’re saying Y?” I felt like an idiot changing my mind, which was the other side’s goal. Usually I stuck to Y, but it wasn’t comfortable.

The solution to this little problem, of course, is that it doesn’t mean anything if you change your mind. Change it at will. After more experience, I would just say, “Yeah. I changed my mind.” If the other side made a stink, I just ignored it—sort of like letting a baby cry itself out. “Are you done yet?” This can actually have a positive effect on the negotiation because it makes you appear irrational. Sometimes that benefits you. Or, if I didn’t want to appear irrational, or I didn’t feel like being an asshole that day, I would just make up some lie. “Yeah, I said X, but my boss said we should do Y. I’m sorry. My hands are tied.”

Incidentally, this tactic—“my boss won’t let me do it”—is probably the most typical negotiating tactic I’ve seen, even at the exec level. And friends who are experience negotiators agree. I knew a very experienced manager who used to work at MITI in Japan, then worked at a big US company. He was a very clever guy. He said that, no matter how high you go, everyone uses that tactic. At Microsoft, it was “Bill will kick my ass if I give this concession” or “Allchin will kick my ass if I do such-and-such.” The “boss” figure can be anyone, though—wife, husband, boss, child, business partner, political constituent. Doesn’t matter. You just say you are constrained by some outside force (nowadays, you can say some bullshit like “Sarbanes-Oxley won’t let me do it” or whatever regulation ties up your business). Often, probably usually, it’s a lie. But that’s the game.

Another benefit of using this tactic, even if it is a lie, is that it relaxes you. You feel constrained and this lowers your stress level, because you are not able to really make a decision. You’re “just following orders.” The countermove, of course, is “Well, you need to bring someone to the table who can make decisions.” But the counter to that is, “My boss’ time is valuable. I’m his or her delegate, so you talk to me.” I actually never had to play that card. Most business people are used to being drones in a large hive, so they understand that you are one, too.

In any event, while in the intellectual world it’s bad to be inconsistent, in the Alice in Wonderland world of sales and negotiation it doesn’t mean dick. Generally, you don’t need to worry about contradicting yourself when negotiating. Just get the best deal and run like hell. If you are a pain in the ass to negotiate with, that’s good. It means people won’t want to screw with you next time around. And even better, the second time around you can make minor concessions and the other side thinks you are super nice, because they’re “anchored” by the previous negotiation, relative to which you’re now a really cooperative person. Perverse, but true.