How to Play Dumb

For years I’ve wanted to bleach my hair blonde. I never did, however, because I feared that blonde hair would unfairly labelled me as a dumb helpless woman. I feared this until I realized: being dumb and helpless is great. Because it works during negotiations. Even for guys.

Weird Tactics to a Successful Negotiation

Chris Voss, author of  Never Split The Difference, was the FBI’s lead international hostage negotiator. He’s known for unconventional tactics such as acting dumb (see below for more), agreeing with character accusations (just take it and apologise, even if you come off as weak!), never splitting the difference and never being direct (you’ll come off as rude, even if you’re trying to be honest).

Although his negotiation heuristics are not the norm, they work. Very, very well. This is because his rules play upon many of Cialdini’s psychological triggers. These triggers are deeply imbedded in the way we behave. For example, most people lower their guard when they don’t feel threatened or if they “like” and feel understood by their counterpart. This is exactly, as Voss alludes to, why acting dumb is smart.

Act Dumb to Create a Non-Threatening Environment

People don’t feel threatened by those who appear less intelligent than themselves. In fact, if you’re perceived as helpless and weaker, your counterpart is more likely to impart information on you or start negotiating against themselves (i.e. making concessions before you ask). They do this to fill the air, out of pity or because they feel like they’ve already “won” and should throw you some scraps.

Leverage this psychological “tick” to not only get information but to avoid pressure tactics, evade angering your counterpart with blunt responses and restarting stalled negotiations.

The best way to get the most out of playing dumb is asking “how am I supposed to do that?” Voss explains:

Calibrated “How” questions are a surefire way to keep negotiations going. They put pressure on your counterpart to come up with answers, and to contemplate your problems when making their demands… The trick to “How” questions is that, correctly used, they are gentle and graceful ways to say “No” and guide your counterpart to develop a better solution — your solution.

Asking “how” gets the other side to feel in control, think about your situation, develop empathy for your position and fall into the “negotiating against yourself” phenomena (i.e. making concessions without you asking for them to do so). The kicker: since the concessions are their idea, they’re more likely to stick with the concessions, even if the concessions don’t suit their purpose or, in hindsight, hurts their position. Voss outlines how this works:

You want to make the other side take an honest look at your situation. It’s the first way of saying “no” where you’re doing a lot of things simultaneously. You’re making the other side take a look at you. You make them feel in control, because it’s a good “how” question. You don’t want to say it as an accusation. You want to say it deferentially, because there’s great power in deference. You want to find out if they’re going to collaborate with you. 9 times out of 10, you get a response that’s really very good.

Don’t be afraid to repeat the question. In hostage negotiations, Voss asked the following ad nauseam: “How do we know the hostage is safe?” “We don’t have that kind of money. How are we supposed to get it?“But how do we deliver the ransom to you?”

I know what you’re thinking. And, you’re right. Just like Voss, you’ll eventually get the response: “You’re just going to have to figure it out.” This is not a big issue. In fact it’s a signal that you’ve negotiated and have gotten as much out of the negotiations as possible:

Of course the one time out of 10 they’ll say to you, “Well, you’re just going to have to figure it out.” But even in that case “How am I supposed to do that?” helps you confirm that you have in fact pulled as much value or gotten as many options as you possibly can out of the other side. You found a solid barrier. Your decision now is, “Okay, do I like this? Do I move in another direction?”

The rule is simple: acting dumb is actually acting smart. That’s is exactly why I’m now a bleach blonde.