This article is part of the Negotiation Series.
Early in my career I got involved with a person who was supposed to be a partner but who in every interaction with me left me feeling used. Let’s call him Damien. It was easy for me to recognise when Damien was trying to manipulate me and I would refuse his requests. What took me time to understand was how to explain to my peers and stakeholders that Damien was not being reasonable and was in fact highly manipulative. It was only when I read the book Influence by Robert Cialdini that I finally understood the answer.
Damien is a master manipulator, a skill that made him quite successful in his job as an investment banker. The difference between a manipulator and a negotiator is that the latter seeks a mutually beneficial solution whilst the former’s sole interest is their personal benefit at any cost.
Damien used a technique that I later saw repeatedly used by others. It is a combination of what Cialdini calls perceptual contrast and reciprocation. Perceptual contrast has to do with the human characteristic that they will naturally contrast a proposal to any similar proposal and evaluating the new proposal relative to the previous proposal. Any visitor to a Middle East souk, or bazaar, will have experienced this: a product, say a carpet, is offered at one price and after haggling it is dropped to a much lower price. The customer is happy with the new price not because they understand the value of the product but because they have received a better price in contrast to the original price.
To leverage this powerful manipulation, Damien used a technique known as reciprocation. Human beings are genetically programmed to reciprocate any perceived favours. The idea behind this is that humans need to work as a group if they are to survive. The trick that Damien used was to give a fake favour so as to elicit a real reciprocal favour.
So how did Damien elicit the reciprocal reaction? He used the perceptual contrast reaction by exaggerating his initial request. An example is Damien wanting to reward a benefactor of one of his other companies. He would request that my team provide such benefactor with, for example, USD 1,000,000 of services. I would of course refuse such a deployment of resources to non-revenue generating business. Damien would, after much shouting, announce his willingness to accept USD 200,000 worth of service from my team.
This is the perceptual contrast, an 80% change in request appears to be a massive concession by Damien. I would be unreasonable not to accept such a gesture. Never mind that the request went from absurd to unacceptable. Damien was being reasonable by conceding!
Now reciprocation kicked in. Damien went from manipulatively asking me for USD 1,000,000 in services unrelated to our business to asking for only USD 200,000 in unrelated services. Human nature ignores the relevance of the concession and focusses only on the fact that a concession was given and that it should be reciprocated.
Thankfully my natural reaction was simply to refuse such deals because they did not feel right. But understanding the human psychology behind the manipulation helped me manage the situation better. I hope that my experience helps you in better dealing with the master manipulators you run into.
You might also like: Negotiating Basics: The Missing Lesson.