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On Deception

Published: Feb 11 , 2019
Author: Stephen White

At the time of writing, Mrs May is wandering around Europe attempting to find a remedy to the ‘Back-stop’ impasse in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. She is telling everyone that there are new ideas she will be putting on the table and that she is sure a solution will be found. Few believe her – the EU certainly doesn’t appear to. In making these statements is she deceiving herself, or knowingly trying to deceive others? In a negotiation, does deception matter?

Firstly a definition: Deception is an act or statement which misleads, hides the truth, or promotes a belief, concept, or idea that is not true. Commercial negotiators do it all the time, normally without qualms. Buyers imply that a rival supplier has offered a lower price than yours. Sellers indicate that their goods are in short supply. Sometimes the deception in negotiation works but often it is treated sceptically and as a result, trust is eroded between the parties, obviously not good in any relationship, long or short. So deception does matter.

Look at the following two examples. Firstly, in the news today is a Government report which chastises online holiday and hotel brokers like Expedia and Trivago for deliberately using ‘pressure tactics’ (=deception) such as indicating hotel rooms are scarce when they are not or suggesting that discounts are available on dates selected by the buyer when they are not. The costs of these tactics are not borne by the consumer; it is the perpetrators’ competitors who suffer, unless of course they also join in. We would all expect that activities like these would be stamped out either by self-policed voluntary action or by legislation.

But consider a second more subtle example. Recently a client in the US asked us to run a mega-event which involved running negotiation training for hundreds of people during a sales conference they were all attending. We needed to provide dozens of trainers simultaneously, and that meant that we had to approach a couple of other clients already booked for the same date to ask if we could reschedule, and if necessary, offer them compensation. Just before making the calls, one of these clients called us to advise that they wanted to postpone by a week, that they understood that this would incur a penalty and to ask if we would be lenient with them. Should we tell the client of our dilemma, or just keep quiet and almost certainly get away with it. If we don’t do or say anything about our own issue we are being deceptive. Look again at the definition above – it qualifies. So deception can be created by inactivity as well as activity.

Last week a majority of MPs were persuaded to back an amendment which stated that Mrs May’s Brexit deal would be acceptable if the Irish back-stop was ‘replaced by alternative arrangements.’ They did so on the basis that this amendment had Government backing, which suggested that although no new alternatives were explicitly tabled the Government must have some things in mind, or why support the amendment? If subsequently, it all goes wrong the Government might protest that they never said they had new alternatives, or that they hoped some new alternatives would suddenly become available, but if in reality they never had new alternatives to offer then their behaviour was deceptive and that is bound to backfire.

We shall see shortly.


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Stephen White
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