Negotiation: Did the Straw Man make you do it?

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The minute we begin to think we have all the answers, we forget the questions.
— Madeline L'Engle

Have you ever found yourself in a negotiation frustrated when the other side is unwilling to move on an issue which appears to you to have limited importance to them? Perhaps you are facing a Straw Man?

In America, the name for this tactic of Straw Man is bogey. Bogey means phantom: something apparent to the senses but with no substantial existence. (Merriam Webster Dictionary) The Academic Bible about negotiation explains:

Negotiation using the bogey tactic pretends that an issue of little or no importance to them is quite important. Later in the negotiation, this issue can be traded for major concessions on issues that are actually important to them.
— Negotiation by Roy Lewicki, 7ed.

So, the other party keeps the bogey issue on the table as long as possible, hoping you get so frustrated that you will give large concessions to get the issue off the table.

I first experienced the Straw Man when I worked as a manager of a large factory where the annual wage claim was always with a long list of ten other demands. Some of these demands were unreasonable either because of their costs or because they would set a precedent which the company did not want to accept. The wily, grey-haired union negotiator with the nickname of The Silver Fox, was a master at keeping a couple of Straw Man issues on the table until close to the end of the negotiations, which usually lasted eight weeks.

For example, issues like consulting the union when changing tool suppliers, or consulting the union when choosing colours for repainting bathrooms; or painting bathrooms every three months or allowing up to five sick days without a doctors certificate. 

Inevitably, we would have agreed all but these one or two issues and The Silver Fox would be still pushing for these two issues and a higher wage increase. Up to this point, we would be firm on not increasing the percentage wage increase already offered. But often to settle we needed to get the issues off the table. So, we would agree to backdate the wage increase to the beginning of the negotiation (workers always liked the lump sum of eight weeks of back pay) and increase the wage increase by 0.2%. Valuable concessions for issues that the management team were certain were phantom.

How do you recognise Straw Man issues?

Always question the other party about their reasons for wanting each issue and their position on each issue. The reasons for Straw Man issues will be flimsy. Be willing to keep probing their reasons using phrases like, "I don't understand your reasons, can you tell me more about this issue." Late in a negotiation, Lewicki, warns to watch for sudden reversals in position as this may be a signal that the issue is a Straw Man.

How can you eliminate the Straw Man issues from the negotiation?

Let's assume you have listened carefully to the other party's reasons for their ten other demands. And you think that issue numbers 2, 5 and 7 are all Straw Man issues, what can you do? Well, if you leave the issues on the table, you will have to concede something to get them off. (That's why they are there!)

When I asked an experienced former union negotiator how to deal with Straw Man issues, she smiled and said, "That's easy, you make an offer like this: If you are willing to drop your claims for items 2, 5 and 7, then we are willing to make a constructive proposal on issues, 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10".

If the issues 2, 5 and 7 are not Straw Man issues, the other party will fight for them and say they are unwilling to drop them in exchange for your offer. In contrast, if you are correct then the other party will say something like, "we are willing to drop our claims for 2, 5 and 7 subject to your offer". This is code for: these are Straw Man issues because if they were important, they would not let you make the offer.

Note carefully; you must not make the offer until they have agreed to drop the claims for items, 2, 5 and 7. That way those issues are instantly off the table very early in the negotiation without you giving anything on any other variables.

Look Back and Look Forward

Look back at some of your previous negotiations. Can you see when a Straw Man might have made you concede more value? For example, did you ever get convinced to pay a premium for faster delivery when the items were probably on the shelf ready to deliver anyway?

Now look forward, what issues do you expect to negotiate on in your next negotiation? If you are surprised by some issues raised by the other party, then consider if they might be Straw Man issues. Ask more questions about these issues and then propose to make an offer conditional to them dropping these claims. 

Don't let the Straw Man make you do it.