What are your tells in a negotiation really saying? In my experience, true tells indicate that you’re letting fear, scarcity, or ego dictate your emotions and behaviors. You’re afraid of losing the deal, you’re afraid that you won’t “win” enough for your client, or that your ego can’t accept the prospect of losing.
Take poker, for example. You’ve just been dealt pocket aces. This is going to be a big hand, but you have to play it right if you want to make the most of it.
Don’t let your tells betray you. If you grin like a fool, everyone else will likely fold before the flop. If you’re nervously upping the ante, it’s another sign that you’re hiding something. Any good poker player will tell you that these are ruinous behaviors that can sink even the strongest hands.
At the poker table, it’s the best practice to mask your tells and maintain your “poker face” while trying to recognize the tells of others. Poker is a game of deception. It’s unfortunate that negotiation training and practice has co-opted this game tactic. There’s value in being able to read other people, sure, but the translation from poker table to negotiating table isn’t so simple.
The reality is that neither fear, scarcity, nor ego have anything to do with your negotiations. Your fear isn’t a line item on the critical, material terms of the deal, “amount of winning” isn’t an authentic measurement for success; your ego is immaterial to any possible outcome of the negotiation.
Unless you play high-stakes professional poker, chances are there’s a lot more on the line during your negotiations—for example, a deal that could change the future of your or your client’s company, where succeeding could mean the next big step in your career, and where even millions (sometimes billions) of dollars could change hands depending upon the terms you’re able to agree upon. With so much to gain or lose, the stress levels at the negotiating table are far greater than those at a casino poker table with a $500 buy-in.
My thinking is that masking your tells is, like most conventional negotiating tactics, a superficial technique that ultimately sets you up for failure. As I say in my book, it’s like prescribing medicine that tries to hide the symptoms of a disease but doesn’t cure the underlying cause. Instead of trying ways to mask your counterproductive signals, do the inner-work to identify the real root cause of them.
It’s going to be hard for any poker face to mask the tells that the stress level of negotiating a big deal manifests. One’s tells can be so subtle. Minor body language ticks, tone of voice, micro facial expressions—they all reveal themselves, and any savvy negotiator will see right through the calm, stoic front you’re trying to maintain. It’s just never going to be that easy, and your emotions will never be fully concealed.
Trying to bottle up all of your tells commands a ton of psychological real estate. When all of your focus is on maintaining your poker face and avoiding being exploited, you’re more likely to miss the tells coming from your counterpart. At first blush, they might say something that sounds right, but you get a feeling that something is off. If you’re just burying your feelings, you’re going to miss that signal and others like it—at your own peril.
When we can turn down the volume on counterproductive, neurotic impulses, we allow ourselves to live in the moment and pursue our objectives with clarity. What you don’t feel, you don’t reveal, and your body language, tone, and facial expressions will project your calm and certainty.
Authentic negotiating requires a departure from half measures and reactionary emotions. While there are lessons to be learned in reading people and understanding your negotiating counterpart, real success comes from within. If you’re prepared to start your journey to becoming an authentic negotiator, take my Authentic Negotiating Success Quiz to find out how much inner-work you have left to do: https://coreykupfer.com/authentic-negotiating-success-quiz/