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Bluffing: It’s Not Just for the Poker Table

August 7, 2010

BluffingSome people call bluffing the tactic of the weak, and say that it replaces facts and logical reasoning. I am mostly in agreement with this statement, but the theories and tactics of bluffing are something that every negotiator should know. If you choose to bluff, you should keep in mind that it could affect your credibility. If your bluff is called, you will be perceived as unreliable and dishonest during the rest of the negotiation.

Bluffing is used to test and pressure the other party. If you haven’t got the courage to test the other party, and if you aren’t quite sure how to handle ploys like those mentioned below, then I would strongly advise against using bluffing as a negotiation strategy.

Types of Bluffing

Time pressure:  Next week the boss will be away… we find it difficult to keep to the time of delivery… a price increase is on the way… we won’t have the next meeting in the purchasing committee for three weeks.

Competition:  The competitor’s price is 8.5% lower… we have offers that are just as good, but cheaper, and the competitor provides service free of charge for one year.

Deny facts:  We haven’t received your invoice… we haven’t made any agreement that entitles you to an additional debit… Your colleague promised me that you would….

Bluffing combined with a threat

To intensify the pressure on the other party, bluffing is combined with a threat: Your competitors have promised that the price will stay firm for 18 months. If you don’t make us the same offer, we can’t go on doing business with you.

If the threat is to work, the threatened party must perceive the threat as creditable, and assume that it can be carried out. To use threats successfully, you must be ready to press the button if the other party doesn’t give in. Otherwise the threat will be an empty one, and you will lose credibility. In the future, there’s a risk that the things you present and the issues you raise might not be taken seriously by the other party. If you’re forced to carry out the threat, you must have alternatives available to you that are nearly as good. If your gambit fails, you always need a retreat position or the next step ready and prepared.

Threats constitute an uncertain tactic. When faced with a threat, many people become obstinate; the negotiations become infested with issues of prestige. The negotiation climate deteriorates, which in turn means that communication suffers. Threats are perceived as combative, and combat only provides short-term solutions. Threats disturb relations. These negative effects can be avoided, if you refrain from phrases like “either… or…”

Either you’ll let us have… or we shall have to…
Instead you should use phrases like “what if…”

Don’t burn all your bridges. Many conflicts lead to open combat. If by your threats, you push the other party into a corner, with no opportunity to act, no new openings, and with a serious risk of losing face; they will have no choice but to turn to combat.

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