In the Hot Seat: Handling Tough Questions Honestly
Information exchange is integral to creating win-win deals, but it must be carefully managed. Disclose too much and your counterpart might take advantage of you; disclose too little and you miss opportunities to discover mutually beneficial trades. So what should you do when you’re asked a question that, if answered truthfully, would put you at a bargaining disadvantage?
WHAT NOT TO DO
Lie. You will be tempted to lie. Don’t. Setting aside ethical, moral, and legal arguments, if you get caught, it can damage your reputation and your relationship with your counterpart and potentially put the entire deal in peril. Research shows that many positive interactions are required to restore trust after a single breach, and breaches entailing deception are among the most difficult to recover from.
Palter. Another common but misguided approach is what Todd Rogers and colleagues call “paltering,” or using truthful statements to convey an inaccurate impression. The researchers give the example of former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s answer to a question about whether he’d had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky: “There is not a sexual relationship—that is accurate.” Technically that statement was not a lie, because his involvement with Lewinsky was in the past. But research shows that people view such legalistic skirting of the truth as unfavorably as they view outright lying.
Abstain. A third common workaround is to abstain from answering the question. However, Kate Barasz, Michael Norton, and I have shown that this tactic leaves a worse impression than disclosing even extremely unsavory information. For example, in one study, participants viewed people who had confessed to frequently stealing items worth more than $100 as more trustworthy than those who had simply refused to answer the question.
WHAT TO DO
Redirect. In the short term, the strategies deployed by politicians, who routinely face tough, direct questions, can be instructive—particularly for one-shot negotiations (when you are unlikely to meet your counterpart again). A familiar tactic is to dodge the question by changing the subject to something seemingly related. As noted earlier, people are generally not very good at detecting dodges, so you have an opportunity to selectively disclose information of your choosing. A second strategy is to turn the tables and question the questioner. Responding in this way can deflect attention and enable you to take control of the topic.
Share carefully. If you’re playing a longer game, disclosure can work in your favor; it can foster trust and facilitate better outcomes through collaboration and joint problem solving. To avoid being exploited, however, negotiators should start small: Share a substantive but not critical piece of information. Only if your counterpart reciprocates should you continue the tit for tat; disclosure without reciprocation leaves you vulnerable to your counterpart’s value-claiming tactics.
Leslie K. John is an associate professor at Harvard Business School. Twitter: @lesliekjohn.