“Puffing” In Negotiations — The Hazard Of Trust: A Study

When hazards happen (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

“Puffing” is famously—or notoriously—known as acceptable negotiating behavior in these United States.

“Puffing” means something akin to “fibbing”: taking exaggerated positions, pursuing hidden agendas, hiding the ball on willingness to bend, etc. 

Although “puffing” in negotiations may be acceptable behavior, it is, often, not a good idea.  Faking anything in negotiations can backfire—and often does.

A Study

A study on anger in negotiations illustrates the point.  The study is titled “The Consequences of Faking Anger in Negotiations” [fn. 1].  Here are excerpts from the article that summarize its thesis:

  • “Individuals often fake anger – by showing anger that they do not genuinely feel – to achieve their personal goals and promote their own interests”;
  • A common way to fake emotions is by “surface acting,” in which “individuals ‘put on a show’ by generating expressive displays of anger that they do not actually feel”; but
  • Individuals are “dissatisfied” and have “little interest in negotiating again” with surface actors “because they have little trust in them” (emphasis added).

Can’t say that I have a lot of experience with faking anger—either on the giving or receiving end.  But,

  • the basic point seems true: faking anything to another person in negotiations can reduce trust and can sabotage negotiation efforts; and
  • minimizing the use of “puffing” in negotiations is a goal that should pursued—for practical, not ethics, reasons.

A Story

A negotiating experience in my early career helped establish my view on the subject.  The details of the dispute are long-gone from memory, but the essence of what happens remains to this day.

Here’s the story.

I’m representing a client in a business dispute.  Settlement negotiations are about to begin, and the client is providing a list of demand items.  One item is a non-monetary detail [let’s call it “Element X”] that the client describes as an “essential element” of any settlement that is “non-negotiable.”

The client then provides the rationale for Element X—but adds that this rationale cannot be disclosed to the other side because the rationale, if known, would harm the client in a variety of contexts.  [Note:  There is nothing morally or ethically wrong with Element X or its rationale.]

Our attorney/client discussions that ensue go something like this:

  • Me:  “What rationale should we give for Element X?”
  • Client:  “Make something up.”
  • Me:  “It has to be tethered to reality, somehow.”
  • Client: “Then, tell them this: ________.”
  • Me:  “But that won’t make sense to the other side.”
  • Client:  “Do the best you can.”

So, a letter goes out with our settlement proposal, and discussions with the opposing attorney go something like this:

  • Me:  “So, what do you think about our proposal?”
  • Attorney:  “Here’s our counter offer: ___________” [which omits Element X].
  • Me:  “Just to be clear, Element X in our proposal is an essential element for settlement—it’s non-negotiable.”
  • Attorney.  “I’ll check with my client and get back to you.”

The next conversation with the opposing attorney goes something like this:

  • Attorney:  “We don’t understand why Element X would be non-negotiable.  What’s the rationale?”
  • Me:  “The client must have Element X because [the authorized rationale].”
  • Attorney:  “Don, that doesn’t make any sense!”
  • Me:  I’m thinking (“Yep, you’re right”) but muddle through a repetition of the authorized rationale.

In subsequent discussions, its clear that the opposing attorney is irritated—at me—and is distrustful—of me!  That’s because the explanation I provided makes no sense.

In the end, negotiations crater.


At the conclusion of the entire process in that story, as further reflection clarifies what happened and what went wrong, I conclude with this sentiment:  “Here’s a new hard-knocks rule—don’t do that again!”


Footnote 1.  The study is by Stéphane Côté, Ivona Hideg, and Gerben A. van Kleef, and is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2013.

** If you find this article of value, please feel free to share. If you’d like to discuss, let me know.

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