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Do I Tell the Whole Truth?

Simon Letchford

Telling lies in a commercial negotiation is not only dangerous, it’s simply not necessary.

But you don’t need me to tell you that – if you’ve ever discovered a lie from the other
side, you’ll know how it tends to undermine your faith in everything else they have ever
have told you.

More challenging, and less obvious, is the question of what information, from a moral and
commercial perspective, we should disclose?

People often say, “be open and transparent”, which is good (if glib) negotiating advice.
But full disclosure (like disclosing your bottom line or walk-away position, or how
desperately you need an agreement) will rarely result in a good outcome for you or your
employer. As a negotiator, I believe you are ethically obliged to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. But neither you, nor the other side, have a moral obligation to tell
the whole truth. 

Language is key. Consider these alternatives:

YOUR ACTUAL POSITION - The current proposal has the minimum margin you can accept in the deal

COMMON PHRASING - “That’s our final offer”

BETTER PHRASING - “That’s the minimum margin we can accept. Unless we see additional value from you in other areas, that’s our final offer”

You’ll notice the wording in the common phrasing is not strictly true, and if the other side
holds their ground, you’re either going to deadlock, or have to move off a firmly stated
position (thus undermining the veracity of your word). The 'better phrasing' will move
the deal forward just as assertively, but avoids entrenching you in a stalemate – with the
added benefit of actually being truthful!

In practice, most people disclose less than they should, because they fail to realize that disclosure of the right information can both help build trust, and give you more leverage.

It’s both ethical and effective. Specifically, you should disclose:

- Your optimistic realistic objectives – what does a good deal look like to you - if
they don’t know what you want, how can they give it to you?
- Any information that will come out anyway – better for you to disclose it, in a
controlled way and on your timing, than have them drag it out of you under
- Any specific, truthful information that will be bad news to them, or will lower
their expectations of what they can achieve – expectation management is a key
negotiating skill, and the earlier you pop their balloon (politely), the better.

If you do it right, they’ll thank you for delivering the bad news early.

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