When negotiating, many use inauthentic tactics and techniques to disarm, mislead, get leverage over, or scare opponents. It’s important to know what they are and how to deal with them.

Two commonly used inauthentic negotiating techniques are the Empty Promise and the Big Fish. Let’s talk about what they are, how they work, and how to respond when you see one in action.

The Empty Promise

In a negotiation, it’s not uncommon for someone to make an empty promise.  An empty promise is when a negotiator makes an agreement and/or gives a promise they do not intend to keep, just to win a bid or try to induce you into doing a deal.

The negotiator may offer up a higher number than other bidders, or offer their project or service for less. For example, “We will pay you x dollars, if you agree to this.”

All the while, the negotiator knows what they’re offering is an empty promise. They never were willing to pay what they promised up front or keep their end of the agreement.

Ultimately, the inauthentic negotiator does something to reduce the price or increase the fee, and blames it on some other factor. They don’t keep the promise because it was empty all along.

So, what do you do in that circumstance? The first thing you don’t do is get upset, make accusations, or let this tactic throw you off.

If you calmly say that the change doesn’t work for you and ask them to reconsider the change, you will be surprised how many times they will back down. They may test you and try to trigger you first by insisting the circumstances have changed, but, if you don’t take the bait, it will be on them to either cave or lose the deal.

The Big Fish

The Big Fish negotiation tactic shows up when one party is much larger and/or more powerful than the other and the more powerful party presumes it can intimidate the smaller one.

For example, an innovative entrepreneurial company comes up with a new, disruptive product that has potential to change a marketplace. They become an attractive acquisition target for the bigger companies who don’t innovate as quickly.

A Big Fish will often make an offer and, if the smaller company is not receptive, the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) message is, “Hey listen, either you do the deal with us or we’ll put you out of business. You should be happy that we’re willing to buy you because we’re a multibillion-dollar company and you’re not.”

This scenario can play out on a smaller scale too, as long as there is a significant relative size difference between the two parties.  No matter the circumstance, the gist of the message is always the same: “If you don’t sell to us, we’ll develop this on our own or we’ll buy someone else, and we’ll make it our business to crush you.”

This technique can backfire. For this example, the founders could have turned down the Big Fish and, over time, done a lot better. That’s not always the way it shakes out, of course.


There is a much more effective approach than getting triggered or afraid. Even the small fish has leverage in that they can walk away from the deal if it doesn’t meet criteria. You would not be at the table at all if you didn’t have some leverage. Additionally, this bullying should not affect you emotionally, and you can calmly explain why the Big Fish is better off in an agreement with you than with someone else. If you have done the work to get clarity first on what will work for you and what won’t on every deal term, you will be in a much better position to make your case but be detached to the outcome – which will make you more attractive to the Big Fish.

Take my assessment to find out if your authentic negotiation skills have prepared you for how to handle these techniques.