Are Magic Tricks Like Negotiation Tactics?

Learn from Magic Tricks to Beat Negotiation Tactics

Magic tricks can help us manage negotiations and ultimately beat negotiation tactics

We love magic tricks but we don’t like to be fooled. Or rather we don’t like to feel foolish. When we go to a magic show, we’ve agreed to be fooled, so we’re willing participants in the game.

It can be the same game in your negotiations, when you know the rules and agree to play. Despite this agreement, many people feel dread when they think about their own negotiations. We worry about being played a fool in some way, about somehow falling for a trick or being out-smarted.

When we visit a car dealership, we are suspicious that they know all the tactics and tricks to play on us, and that we will come out the loser. In our everyday business negotiations, the tactics people use are more subtle, employed to throw you off balance, make you lose your focus, deviate from your plans, react rather than be proactive.

The best way to play the game and avoid this dread of feeling foolish is to master a few important skills.

Misdirection in magic and business

Why do we love magic tricks? According to Dr. Dave Verhaagen, there are three reasons:

  • Delight: “our caveman’s brains delight when something challenges the laws of nature and nobody gets hurt.” This is why people love horror movies, roller coasters, and bungee jumping. People like being scared without the reality of dying.
  • Wonder: “We watch to believe that impossible things are true.” In many studies, children played with toys longer when the toys behaved in unexpected ways. Blocks that rested asymmetrically were interesting for far longer than blocks that rested in the middle, as expected. When things don’t behave the way we think they should, kids get curious and try to figure out what’s going on. But as we grow up, we get so busy that instead of getting curious, we get annoyed. Reclaiming that sense of wonder, trying to figure out what’s really going on is a key to unraveling and countering tactics in negotiations.
  • Superiority: “A majority of Americans believe they are smarter than average, and in the magic show they think they have figured out the trick.” A certain percentage of magic viewers love to figure out the tricks. They’re the ones who sit in the audience smirking and muttering, “oh I know how you did that…false bottom on the hat…” You may get annoyed with this gal in the magic show, but you’ll want her on your team the next time you’re preparing for an important negotiation at work.

The success of magic lies in misdirection; the magician learns to draw your attention away from one thing to focus on another, so the mind doesn’t see what’s right in front of you. Check out this example of misdirection in the magician/psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman

Colour Changing Card Trick

In business, negotiation tactics are the equivalent of this misdirection, distractions to direct you someplace other than the main point of focus.

How to take control of the misdirection

While magic shows our mixed desires to know and not know how the tricks are done, when you’re dealing with tactics, knowing how the tricks are done will help you regain control of the situation and put a stop to their use.

The keys to countering tactics are to:

  • maintain your superiority by staying calm, knowing you have the confidence to figure out the trick, then
  • call on your sense of wonder by asking a question to gain clarity, and
  • delight as you change the course of the conversation.
Common tactics The magician’s misdirection What we should actually DO
Non-performance: not meeting a deadline or part of the agreement. “We’re not going to be able to meet the schedule we originally agreed on. I’m sure you can be flexible.” Ask: “What’s causing this change?”

Be clear: “I need you to stick with the agreement.”




Delay: to make you give the other party an incentive to move forward. “I can’t make a final decision this week; how about next month?”

“I can’t make the final decision without my boss’ approval, and she’s busy.”

“I can’t agree to this schedule without the project manager getting involved and she’s out of town this week.”

Ask: “Are there benefits to delaying a decision that I may not know about?”

Be clear: “Let’s schedule a meeting for that time.”

Escalation: some part of your agreement is raised and renegotiated. “Yes, we agreed to that schedule, but we need an extra 10 days.”

“Yes, we agreed to this price, but now I need 15% more.”

Ask: “What’s happened to change the schedule/price?”

Be clear: “I need you to stick to the schedule/original price.”

Nibbling: getting agreement one small thing at a time. “Now that you bought this product, we need to agree on the installation fees… now that we agreed on installation, we need to discuss delivery… now that we have a delivery date, we need to agree on the training…” Ask: “What are all the things we need to discuss? Let’s make a complete list.”

Be clear: “I’d like to include these in the package price and not negotiate them separately.”

The bottom line: Don’t fall for obvious negotiation tactics or react with emotion when you detect the tactics.

Despite research that shows success in business negotiations comes from building strong relationships, some people still use old-fashioned tactics. When this happens, we get angry or annoyed, which makes the problem worse. This dynamic creates an adversarial atmosphere, impacting your relationship for the long term. When someone uses a tactic on you, you need skills to respond in a way that helps you retake control. Stay calm, then look at the situation with the eyes of a child…with wonder and delight. What fun, we’re going to play a game together!

Close the skill gap for your negotiators with RED BEAR Negotiation Company solutions.