Using the Truth to Mislead

Using the Truth to Mislead

work-negotiationA widely used negotiating tactic, but one which we at Mobus Creative Negotiating do not recommend, is to use the truth to mislead.  Philosophers call that “paltering.”  A recent Washington Post article by Jena McGregor gives as an example: if the buyer to whom you are selling a used car says, “I presume it runs well” and you respond “I drove it yesterday in 10-below temperatures and it ran well” even though it has been to the shop twice in the past month.  Your answer is true, but it misleads.

Lots of people palter.  For a recent study (“The Art of Paltering”) published in the Harvard Business Review, Francesca Gino and Todd Rogers of Harvard’s Kennedy School surveyed experienced negotiators in a Harvard Business School executive education course; 52 percent said they had paltered during a negotiation.  And they thought that actively making truthful statements, even if designed to mislead, was more ethical than outright lies or omitting relevant information. 

lie in negotiationThat is not how those on the other side of the table see things. As Rogers put it, “If people find out that you paltered,…they react as if you lied to them.” That is why our advice at Mobus Creative Negotiating is to go beyond telling the truth: be honest. That means: do not mislead .

However, that does not mean you have to volunteer harmful information. The court oath requires you to tell “the whole truth” but that does not apply to business negotiations. The passive failure to disclose something a negotiating counterpart does not know is sometimes called a “lie of omission.”  But Rogers emphasized that keeping quiet is regarded as acceptable by many who think it wrong to use the truth to mislead.

To be sure, sometimes you will want to bring up unfavorable things even when not asked. We at Mobus Creative Negotiating say that the most important first principle is to realize what kind of negotiation you are in. There are types of negotiations in which you may well want to bring up the bad news, namely, when you are going to be in a long-term working relationship with the other party.  A relationship based on trust may turn out to be much more successful for your company than one in which each side conceals unpleasant facts.