Negotiating tactics, ploys and manoeuvres

 What is the purpose of a negotiation tactic?

A negotiation tactic is used to change the perception of power, in the minds of the other side.

In simple terms, it is played to get you down to your walk away position as quickly as possible.

Recognising a tactic for what it is, neutralising it and continuing towards your goal is paramount.

People like to play games. Sometimes games are fun sometimes games are dangerous and sometimes people get hurt. Tactics can be like that.

Properly used tactics can help to ensure that people make up their minds to take action. Badly used they can trick people into doing things that they should never do.

As a master negotiator you need to understand tactics, how they can be used for everyone’s advantage, how you can spot them and how to flush them out.

Tactics are used to change the other person’s perception of where the power lies and unless you are aware it is a ploy, it may work.

Tactics or ploys or gambits, as they are called in different parts of the world, come in three distinct categories:-

1 – Ethical tactics

2 – Marginal tactics

3 – Unethical or dirty tactics


Whilst it is difficult to categorise anything without making generalisations, I have tried to make distinctions.

Ethical tactics, some of which are mentioned in the next chapter on influencing skills, are psychological manoeuvres to help people make up their minds. Many people need help making their minds up on occasions which is fine as long as it is a good decision and it makes sense.

On the other hand dirty tactics will only have one outcome, “win / lose”, and “win / lose” has it’s own consequences.


The success of a negotiation depends very much on the power of the respective parties. It is the perception of where the power lies that is important. Skilled negotiators can change the perception of the power by the expert use of tactics.

We have to accept and deal with tactics being used on us.  At the same time, when necessary, we may employ ethical tactics ourselves to gain competitive advantage. For example the use of a time deadline can help people make up their minds instead of procrastinating. 

Train yourself to spot a tactic for what it is, tag it and isolate it.  This will dramatically help your success in negotiating.

 Top tactics you must be aware of –

1 – Good guy – Bad guy (good cop / bad cop)

With two people in a meeting, one person is nice, the other person is aggressive. After a while the aggressive person leaves temporarily and the nice person says “If you can agree to this, this and this then I may be able to get the other person to agree”.

The police use this as good cop / bad cop. If you give me the information I will make sure my colleague backs off with charging you with the other offences that he wants to go for.

In a small business it might be as simple as one partner saying their other partner would never agree, and then asking what else can be given to get agreement.

In a relationship partnership it can be used by saying “My wife / my partner will go crazy if I pay that much, is there something you can do to help me?”

In a large business this might be the relationship / account manager saying to the other side, “I would really like to do this for you. How can you help me get it through the committee / or the board? What else can you give me to sweeten the deal?”

Often people say to me, isn’t this a bit manipulative? They forget that usually they are already not making sufficient profit for their efforts and should try to earn more. This is a good tactic to flush out what the other side might be able to pay, and learn the truth.

2 – Higher authority – (I need to talk to my people)

Many people think it shows weakness to say they cannot make the decision on the spot and sometimes agree to deals they later regret.

Master negotiators know that they must always have ‘higher authority’ in their armoury.

It is powerful to place the blame on someone else for not being able to agree to a request, because it means you can stay in rapport with the other side. It means that they may alert you to other issues that you have not been aware of.

You can use phrases like, “I would love to say yes, but the committee won’t sign it off unless you give me something else.”

Try combining good guy / bad guy and higher authority to get better deals

 3 – Time

People, who are short of time, tend to make more concessions. 80% of the concessions tend to come in the last 20% of the available negotiating time.

Make sure you are in control of the time, so you do not get pressured to concede on a false time deadline.

4 – Time outs and breaks

When you want to consider an offer from the other side or things seem to have stalled, don’t be afraid to ask for a break.

This break is often called a time out, an adjournment or going to the balcony.

(going to the balcony is an expression that comes out of the Harvard Research project, when they realised that most negotiators were not stopping to review the situation often enough).

The benefits of taking a time out are threefold –

1 – It gives you thinking time. When we are under pressure, often we cannot think rationally and creatively.

2 – It tends to take the emotions out of the situation. Gives a chance for either side to calm down and think back to the goal. Separate the people, from the problem.

3 – It gives you chance to talk to your colleagues, who will usually have a different take on the situation. The more minds you have working on the situation, generally the better ideas you will get.

Even if you are on your own, take a few minutes to consider the situation. Write it down on a piece of paper, go through your notes or phone a colleague and talk it through with them. If necessary adjourn for 24 hours, so that you can sleep on it.

 5 – Flinching on the price

Flinching is jargon in negotiating, for acting surprised when the other side makes an offer. In comes in all formats. From gentle “your joking” to the more aggressive outrage that some people seem to enjoy.

When someone says, “it costs X”, you might simply squint and draw breath before asking, “How much?” in an enquiring, surprised tone of voice.

At the United Nations, during the Cuban missile crisis, President Kruschev of the Soviet Union deliberately banged his shoe on the table to show his surprise and anger to the United States and the other member nations. When they reviewed the recordings of this incident, they noticed that he hadn’t taken his shoe off. One of his aides had passed a spare shoe to him, just at the point before he expressed his anger. It had been pre planned. Act in anger, don’t react in anger.

 In the early days of my negotiating career I was in Liverpool negotiating with a retailer. They had an assistant treasurer who was known for flinching in an outrageous way whenever price was mentioned. We were ready for his flinch when we named our price. This time he went into his usual rant, threw his chair back and smashed his head into the wall. We are pretty sure he didn’t mean to do this and hurt his head. It was really difficult not to smile as we had been expecting this ploy. We didn’t concede. We stuck to our plan and got a good deal.


Tactics you need to be aware of –


An observer to read the body language, the situation and the big picture.

Have someone watch the body language and tell you how they think the other side are going to react when you call a time out.

It is very difficult to discuss, trade or argue and watch the body language at the same time. Make sure you take someone with you.

When you are under stress or thinking on your feet the left hemisphere of the brain tends to take over. This is the part of the brain that is focused on logic, numbers and detail.

The right side of the brain which sees the body language, the nuances and the big picture does not function so well when you are under pressure. So your observer who is watching and listening can pick up key clues by being in a calm alert state.



Just when you think you have got agreement, the other side comes back and ask for another concession. You may have agreed the price and they then ask for another discount. You may have agreed the delivery date and then they ask for it earlier. You may have agreed the payment terms and then they ask for the money earlier.

Children are fantastic at using this tactic, asking for one thing and when it is agreed asking for something else.

Make sure you have everything on the table and you are clear on what has been agreed.

If time is short, write the details on a piece of paper, photocopy the paper and ensure both sides sign it.

If they still want something else, ask for something back in return. For example “If we give you this….we need that from you?”


Low balling

Low balling is where an outrageously low offer is made, to lower the other side’s expectations and perhaps also to flush out the other side’s walk away position (WAP).

Recognise the tactic and show your surprise that clearly they are not serious.

If they put a low price on the table to you. Be careful as they may have to re-negotiate the price up higher at a later date. This is often done on building contracts or other highly competitive contracts  where the other side assume they are going to upsell you more profitable products once they have the contract and the work has started.


Funny Money

Funny money is where something is priced or a price is reduced to a number which looks like it has been carefully calculated. For example “we can produce this for £9643.00.” It may have been carefully calculated or it may have been a judgement. However it looks more realistic than £9500.00 to the other side.

When figures are precise they have verisimilitude (the appearance of truth) and psychologically are regarded as more considered and more calculated. This is often not the case.


Dumb is smart – The Colombo tactic

You pretend you don’t understand to make the other side explain what they are asking again. This can be used when you think the other side is not telling you all the truth and you want to get to the bottom of all the facts.

Colombo was the 1980’s detective on Television who played the “dumb is smart” role. He never seemed to quite understand what the other side was saying and kept asking questions, that implied he hadn’t been listening or he had been distracted. This meant the other person had to explain themselves again, and by doing this often gave extra information away, either in what they said or with their body language.

Car dealers often use what they refer to as the ‘Colombo close’ if a customer is walking out of the showroom having decided not to buy after a haggle. They might say “I don’t know what came over me; I had forgotten but we had an instruction from Head Office this morning that we can discount this car further. I am so stupid I totally forgot about it” or something similar. “Come back, sit down and I will see what else I can do for you”



The use of silence after asking a good question is very powerful.

Ask a great question and wait for a response. If you need to help the other side, then do but leave the silence. However never forget your goal is to learn where they are really coming from. So don’t let them off the hook, keep probing and remain silent for their response.


Parking issues

Momentum gets things done. Getting stuck on an issue can stall a negotiation. It is much better to get the things we agree on out of the way. Park issues to one side where you have disagreement, and come back to them later. It can be very effective to have agreed eight points and only have two things that we disagree on. “If we can sort one, can you sort the other?”


Softening up

If there is bad news to come out, such as a price rise or a tax rise, it is a very effective tactic to soften the other side up to the bad news early. Governments often do this by leaking information to see the reaction they get from the public and the best way to play it going forward.


Leaking issues

Leaking is used in similar way to softening up, however it is a much less subtle. In the case of political negotiations the information might be leaked to the press. The same can happen with business negotiations. With smaller style negotiations information might be told to someone in confidence who is known for not keeping secrets on the basis they will tell others.




Unethical tactics or Dirty tactics



Harvey Mackay has sold over 40million books. His very bestselling book is called ‘Swim with the sharks without getting eaten’. This makes a great title for this sub section.

Make sure you are thoroughly prepared, know your objectives, and understand the elements of your proposal / terms.


Don’t be naive – some adversarial type negotiators will resort to using dirty tactics all the time. They won’t even see them as unethical; they will just see them as part of the game.

Be alert for dirty tactic signals such as extreme demands, no authority, no concessions and threats.

Learn to spot particular ploys that indicate deception, those designed to make you feel uncomfortable and those that lock the other side into their position.

Respond only when you are prepared. If necessary call a “time out”. Often just recognising a “dirty tactic” will neutralise it or simply asking a question about a tactic may be enough to get the other party to stop using it.

Stay calm. Avoid taking things personally. Do not get defensive.

Show confidence – do not be intimidated, and be firm.

Test the other party’s resolve by asking questions or remaining silent. Do not give any important information away.

Be persistent and maintain the inner desire to achieve your objectives. You may have to work harder and longer at it!

Don’t attack the other negotiators personally for using a tactic you consider to be dirty. If they get defensive it may be more difficult for them to give up the tactic, and they may be left with a residue of anger that will fester and interfere with other issues.

Question the tactic, not their personal integrity. Rather than saying, “You deliberately put me here facing the sun,” attack the problem: “I am finding the sun in my eyes quite distracting”.

If all else fails, be prepared to walk away from the negotiation if it is a ‘win / lose’ with you on the ‘lose’ side. You might consider saying, “It’s my impression that you may not be interested in negotiating in a manner that we both think will produce results. You have my telephone number call me if you change your mind, but I do have alternative options.”


An intimidating scene – using tactics, ploys and gambits

Several years ago I asked two actors to made a short DVD clip. In the clip I got the actors to demonstrate a number of dirty negotiation tactics in a short period of time. The scenario was a supplier coming into see a major buyer, in the buyer offices.


Here are some of the ploys that were played to intimidate the supplier –

  • There was no welcome, no handshake and no greeting.
  • The supplier was given a lower chair to sit in.
  • The buyer carried on with a phone call and didn’t acknowledge the supplier.
  • When the call was finished the buyer ignored the supplier and wrote his notes up.
  • No drink was offered; the buyer already had one which he drunk in front of the supplier.
  • There was no apology for the wait and the buyer got the suppliers name wrong.
  • The buyer then explained he has so many companies trying to sell products to him, he couldn’t remember everybody’s name.
  • He then asked if the supplier had the authority to make decisions, without referring back to his boss
  • If the supplier didn’t have the authority, he said he wanted to deal with someone who did.
  • The buyer then said that on the bid that had been submitted the company had been –
    • Late with the bid.
    • Hadn’t covered all the issues.
    • And the pricing wasn’t sharp enough.
    • (Here he was utilising the power of three)
    • Then the buyer got up and came round to the buyer’s side of desk invading his space.
      • Sat on the desk looking down.
      • Tapped the supplier on the shoulder.
      • Said there was no way he could show the bid to his people.
      • He then said he had drawn up another contract with his terms and conditions, which he said was approved by his directors.
      • So if the supplier would sign it – they could get on with the rest of the business. Implying there was more to come.


This cameo can be split into a number of sections and whilst it is deliberately humorous and fun, there is a very serious side to it. As a negotiator I have had all the ploys played on me. Luckily not all at the same time!


Breaking the cameo down into sections, we have


Section 1 – First impression, set up

Greeting and set up were non-existent, buyer was rude, extended no courtesies, got name wrong, put supplier in a low chair, offered no refreshments.


Section 2 – The bid

Authority to make decisions was questioned

Said bid didn’t cover all the issues.

Emphasised it was too expensive, not detailed enough and late.


Section 3 – Personal intimidation

Pen pointing, standing up, invading space, re-drawn contract, handing pen to sign and an indication that they couldn’t move on until document signed.

A couple of important points

1 – Authority – He asked if the supplier had the authority to make decisions, yet when it came to his authority, he had to get the approval of his directors.

An interesting ploy that some people might use and you must be on your guard against, is to get the other side to admit they have authority and then have to refer to higher authority yourself. This gives the ability to change your offer later but lock the other side in

2 – Power of three – Making points in three’s is very powerful. Three has a rhythm and many people have what is known in psychological terms as a three times convincer.’ If they hear, see or do something three times they are more likely to be persuaded or influenced.


The question is would you really want to do business with someone who behaves like this. If they behave like this normally, what will happen when a problem arises as they invariably do with a product, a delivery issue or payment?



Don’t wrestle with a pig”


Be careful who you deal with, leopards don’t change their spots. People tend to negotiate in the same way each time.


Tip Top Tips

  • Recognise tactics are games people play to reduce your expectations and reduce you to your walk away position quickly
  • Take a time out to think through your options and position. This is particularly important where you are being pushed into making a decision or time is short.
  • Avoid reacting to the tactic wherever possible.