The Negotiator Magazine

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Act Dumb, Not Smart
To Power Negotiators, smart is dumb and dumb is smart. When you are negotiating, you're better off acting as if you know less than everybody else does, not more. The dumber you act, the better off you are unless your apparent I.Q. sinks to a point where you lack any credibility.

There is a good reason for this. With a few rare exceptions, human beings tend to help people that they see as less intelligent or informed, rather than taking advantage of them. Of course there are a few ruthless people out there who will try to take advantage of weak people, but most people want to compete with people they see as brighter and help people they see as less bright. So, the reason for acting dumb is that it diffuses the competitive spirit of the other side. How can you fight with someone who is asking you to help them negotiate with you? How can you carry on any type of competitive banter with a person who says, "I don't know, what do you think?" Most people, when faced with this situation, feel sorry for the other person and go out of their way to help him or her.

Do you remember the TV show Columbo? Peter Falk played a detective who walked around in an old raincoat and a mental fog, chewing on an old cigar butt. He constantly wore an expression that suggested he had just misplaced something and couldn't remember what it was, let alone where he had left it. In fact, his success was directly attributable to how smart he was-by acting dumb. His demeanor was so disarming that the murderers came close to wanting him to solve his cases because he appeared to be so helpless.

The negotiators who let their egos take control of them and come across as a sharp, sophisticated negotiator commit to several things that work against them in a negotiation. These include being the following:
1. A fast decision-maker who doesn't need time to think things over.
2. Someone who would not have to check with anyone else before going ahead.
3. Someone who doesn't have to consult with experts before committing.
4. Someone who would never stoop to pleading for a concession.
5. Someone who would never be overridden by a supervisor.
6. Someone who doesn't have to keep extensive notes about the progress of the negotiation and refer to them frequently.

The Power Negotiator who understands the importance of acting dumb retains these options:

1. Requesting time to think it over so that he or she can thoroughly think through the dangers of accepting or the opportunities that making additional demands might bring.
2. Deferring a decision while he or she checks with a committee or board of directors.
3. Asking for time to let legal or technical experts review the proposal.
4. Pleading for additional concessions.
5. Using Good Guy/Bad Guy to put pressure on the other side without confrontation.
6. Taking time to think under the guise of reviewing notes about the negotiation.

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