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Don’t Mess With Old Men

Stephen White

There is a sweet story about an elderly man who is woken at 3.00am by his wife, who can hear strange noises outside the house. He opens the bedroom curtains and sees robbers stealing some of his stuff from the shed at the bottom of the garden. He calls the emergency line, explains what he can see, and asks for police assistance immediately. 'Are they actually in your house?' asks the operator. 'No', he says, 'I've told you. They are in the shed at the bottom of the garden'. 'We don't have anyone available at the moment,' says the operator 'but we will send someone along within 2 hours'.

The man puts the phone down, waits thirty seconds, and calls back to the police. 'I called you a minute ago about the robbers at the bottom of my garden' he says. 'I'm calling you again to tell you that I just shot them'. He hangs up.

Within 2 minutes there is a squad car, 3 policemen, and a detective sergeant at the door. They arrest the robbers, and then interrogate the elderly man. 'You said you shot the robbers. You are in serious trouble. You lied'. says the detective.
'So did you. You said you had no-one available for 2 hours' says the man.
Case closed. Moral of the story - don't mess with old men.

The story has a deeper lesson too, in a simple phrase summarised as 'fighting fire with fire can be very effective'. Conflict often brings the worst out in people. If they think they can big-up their position with a little exaggerating, bullsh*tting or out-and-out lying, they will. Buyers claiming that an alternative supplier has offered a much better deal. Suppliers claiming they are almost out of stock. Statements made not to convey truth, but to try to change perceptions.

To counter this, good negotiators do their homework; a bit of research revealing the truth, either before the bogus statement is made, or investigating its veracity after. Another defensive activity is to ask questions, to try to get under the skin of the claim to see if the underlying detail stands up to scrutiny. On the popular UK television panel game show, 'Would I Lie to You'

( one celebrity makes a personal statement which might be true or false, the others then ask questions to try to determine whether the statement is true or a lie. They make the right call only about half the time, which demonstrates the ability of a seasoned actor (or liar) to hoodwink the questioner.

So to the point of story; there is another alternative which is to change the balance of power by introducing a twist on a situation which neutralises the power claimed by the other side. In 2009 Delhaize, a Belgian supermarket group accounting for about 25% of all food sales, and Unilever, a major consumer goods manufacturer, fell out big time over pricing and in-store promotional deals. Delhaize decided to clear its shelves of Unilever products. This power play, based on blocking a major distribution channel for Unilever, was countered by a major advertising campaign by Unilever advising Delhaize customers where they could buy Unilever products, and reminding Delhaize that when consumers went to the other supermarkets they were likely to end up doing their full weekly shop. Ando so it proved; after 2 weeks Delhaize's sales declined by 31% and a truce broke out very quickly.

Finding the spin which changes a power balance is not always easy, but looking for it is intellectually challenging, and always fun.

Stephen White

Stephen White
More by Stephen White:
The Best Laid Plans
Kicking Big Business
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