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Why Negotiators Should ‘Show Their Hand’

Simon Kelland
Why Negotiators Should Show Their Hand

The smoke-filled room pulses with tension and a small globe throws thin rays of light onto the card table below. An old gramophone scratches out a tune from somewhere in the corner. The players’ gimlet eyes betray nothing as they hold their cards close. The Mississippi-river boat gamblers are in session.  


This scene from our collective Hollywood imagination is replicated in many current day negotiations. The boardroom may not be smoke-filled, but the gimlet eyes and information asymmetry are the same. 


Many of us, as negotiators, find ourselves behaving like Mississippi river-boat gamblers: closed and protective. We hold onto secrets and see the information we know as power.  


What forces drive this self-defeating behaviour?!!! 


There is an obvious lack of trust between the parties. Any information shared may be weaponised and used against them; and fear is a significant force. In the boardroom, buyer (A) needs a better price from their supplier (B) to remain competitive in a tough market. They are reluctant to be specific for fear of rejection and instead of asking for an actual reduction, they use code words like, “We need a better deal” or “Are you able to cut us some slack?” 


The supplier (B) is seeking more certainty from their client, as they plan to invest in a new capacity. They are reluctant to ask for a longer contract because they don’t wish to appear desperate. They use weasel words like, “We need to think longer term…” or “Conditions are a bit volatile at the moment…” 


As a result, there’s a dance of deception as both parties bluff and bluster rather than just ask for what they really want. How much easier would it be if A just said to B, “We need a 15% reduction in price”?  

B responds, “If you guarantee volumes and agree to a three-year contract along with a 15-day payment plan, we can agree to reduce the price by 15%.” 


What may be appropriate on the riverboat is certainly not always best practice in negotiations. More negotiations fail through lack of information rather than too much. 


This is a fundamental dilemma we all face when we negotiate. 


The story of the Mississippi river boat gamblers conveys to the listener exactly what not to do when negotiating! The story demonstrates the power of positive behaviours. 


Happy negotiating!  

Simon Kelland
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