The most powerful word in negotiations is “fair.” It’s so powerful that I call it the “F-word.” Here’s why it’s so powerful, when to use it, and how.
As human beings, we’re powerfully swayed by how much we feel we’re being respected. People comply with agreements if they feel they’ve been treated fairly and lash out if they don’t.
A decade of brain-imaging studies has shown that human neural activity, particularly in the emotion-regulating insular cortex, reflects the degree of unfairness in social interactions. Even nonhuman primates are hardwired to reject unfairness.
In one famous study, two capuchin monkeys were set to perform the same task, but one was rewarded with sweet grapes while the other received cucumbers. In response to such blatant unfairness, the cucumber-fed monkey literally went bananas.
In a game I’ve played with students in my negotiation course for many years, those being asked to accept a deal will invariably reject any offer that is less than half of the proposer’s money. But once you get down to a quarter of the proposer’s money, you can forget it and the accepters are insulted. Most people make an irrational choice to let the deal itself slip through their fingers rather than to accept a derisory offer, because the negative emotional value of unfairness outweighs the positive rational value of the money.
This irrational reaction to unfairness extends all the way to serious economic deals.
Remember Robin Williams’s great work as the voice of the genie in Disney’s Aladdin? Because he wanted to leave something wonderful behind for his kids, he said, he did the voice for a cut-rate fee of $75,000, far below his usual $8 million payday. But then something happened: The movie became a huge hit, raking in $504 million.
And Williams went ballistic.
But he wasn’t angry because of the money; it was the perceived unfairness that pissed him off. He didn’t complain about his contract until Aladdin became a blockbuster, and then he and his agent went loud and long about how they got ripped off.
Luckily for Williams, Disney wanted to keep its star happy. After initially pointing out the obvious–that he’d happily signed the deal–Disney made the dramatic gesture of sending the star a Picasso painting worth a reported $1 million.
The nation of Iran was not so lucky.
In recent years, Iran has put up with sanctions that have cost it well over $100 billion in foreign investment and oil revenue in order to defend a uranium-enriching nuclear program that can only meet 2% of its energy needs. In other words, because the offer seems insulting, Iran has screwed itself out of its chief source of income–oil and gas revenue–in order to pursue an energy project with little expected payoff.
Why? Again, fairness.
For Iran, it’s not fair that the global powers–which together have several thousand nuclear weapons–should be able to decide if it can use nuclear energy. And why, Iran wonders, is it considered a pariah for enriching uranium when India and Pakistan, which clandestinely acquired nuclear weapons, are accepted members of the international community?
In a TV interview, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian hit the nail on the head. “The nuclear issue today for Iranians is not nuclear,” he said, “it’s defending their integrity [as an] independent identity against the pressure of the rest.”
You may not trust Iran, but its moves are pretty clear evidence that rejecting perceived unfairness, even at substantial cost, is a powerful motivation.
Once you understand what a messy, emotional, and destructive dynamic “fairness” can be, you can see why “fair” is a tremendously powerful word that you need to use with care.
In fact, of the three ways that people drop this F-bomb, only one is positive.
1. “I only want what’s fair.” The most common use is a judo-like defensive move that destabilizes the other side. This manipulation usually takes the form of something like, “We just want what’s fair.”
Think back to the last time someone made this implicit accusation of unfairness to you, and I bet you’ll have to admit that it immediately triggered feelings of defensiveness and discomfort. These feelings are often subconscious and often lead to an irrational concession.
2. “This is a fair offer.” The second use of the F-bomb is more nefarious. In this one, your counterpart will basically accuse you of being dense or dishonest by saying, “We’ve given you a fair offer.” It’s a terrible little jab meant to distract your attention and manipulate you into giving in.
If you find yourself in this situation, the best reaction is to simply mirror the “F” that has just been lobbed at you.
“Fair?” you’d respond, pausing to let the word’s power do to them as it was intended to do to you. Follow that with a label: “It seems like you’re ready to provide the evidence that supports that,” which alludes to opening their books or otherwise handing over information that will either contradict their claim to fairness or give you more data to work with than you had previously. Right away, you declaw the attack.
3. “Stop me if any of this sounds unfair.” The last use of the F-word is my favorite because it’s positive and constructive. It sets the stage for honest and empathetic negotiation.
Here’s how I use it: Early on in a negotiation, I say, “I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly at all times. So please stop me at any time if you feel I’m being unfair, and we’ll address it.”
It’s simple and clear and sets me up as an honest dealer. With that statement, I let people know it is okay to use that word with me if they use it honestly.
As a negotiator, you should strive for a reputation of being fair. Your reputation precedes you. Let it precede you in a way that paves success.
This article is adapted from Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It by Chris Voss (with Tahl Raz). Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Voss. It is reprinted with permission of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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