The Simplest Negotiation Tactic (and also, one of the most powerful)

Negotiation Quotient

The most straightforward, most basic negotiation tactic is one we’ve all used, whether consciously or not, all our lives. We first learned it from our parents, then siblings, then our gaggle of friends. It’s powerful, it’s simple, and it works like a charm.

The “Flinch.”

The Flinch as a Tactic

Have you ever been flinched by someone? Sometimes it’s nothing more than a raised eyebrow (the “Spock”), but it could go up to the full-body Flinch (the “Kramer”).

If all you do is Flinch, you’ll end up saving money.

In negotiation, the Flinch is defined as “presenting a negative reaction to the other party’s stated position.” It’s a physical, visible reaction to communicate a message to what you just heard. It can be an involuntary response – you gasp, or your mouth falls open. But when used tactically, it communicates disbelief, dismay, or exasperation, and it’s designed to make the other party feel uncomfortable and unsure about what they just offered.

Several years ago, I had a boss who used the Flinch very effectively. He would purchase a box of cheap plastic glasses from a large wholesale store in town. Fifty pairs of glasses for $50. The lenses were just glass, with no correction at all. Whenever he had a vendor come in to make a presentation, he’d politely listen to the sales presentation – until the subject of price came up. As soon as it did, he’d say, “What?!?”, rip the glasses off his face and throw them onto the floor where they’d shatter. He told me later that he’d probably saved tens of thousands of dollars using that tactic.

I was once tasked to buy a piece of office equipment for my company. My boss made it abundantly clear he expected me to do “better” than the list price. I went to the store and started speaking with the salesperson. He showed me the unit I was looking for and began to extol its features and benefits. When he finally gave me the price, I didn’t hesitate. “Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty steep. Can you give me a discount?” And the salesperson said, “Sure. Tell you what. I’ll give you a 10% discount. How’s that sound?”

I was elated. I got a discount! Look at me – I’m a negotiator!  I got back to the office and recounted the story to my boss. “I went in there, met with the salesperson, and listened to his pitch. When he finished, he gave me the price, and I said, ‘Can you give me a discount?’ And he said ‘YES! I’ll give you 10% off”!  How about that, boss?” He looked at me for a long moment and finally said, “…Why didn’t you Flinch?” And the only response I could come up with at the time was, “Uh… I don’t know. I forgot.” How do I know he wouldn’t have given me 15% off? Or 20? I’ll never know because I didn’t try.

The Flinch can be used in all sorts of situations, including defensive. There’s an old story about an optician who was training a new assistant how to fit and charge for eyeglasses. He told the assistant, “Now when the customer asks how much the glasses are, you reply with, ‘they’re $450,’ but observe them. If they don’t Flinch at that, add, ‘And, of course, you understand, that’s just for the frames. The lenses will be an additional $225.’ And then, if they STILL don’t Flinch, you say, ‘A piece.'”

During a negotiation, your counterpart will often make a suggestion, a proposal, or a demand. Your counterpart will be watching you closely for your reactions. In point of fact, they might not even really expect to get what they’re asking for but merely tossing it out there to see your response. In cases like this, no flinch essentially equals acquiescence.

The Flinch is primarily a visible tactic, but it can also be used on the phone or via email. A good phone flinch might be (lightly) tapping your phone against your desk and saying something like, “Oh, wow – I’m sorry! That surprised me so much I dropped the phone!” Or, if someone tries it via email, a one-word response could work: “Really?!?”

The Flinch as a Countermeasure

The Flinch can also be used as a countermeasure to other tactics being used on you. One, in particular, is the “Squeeze,” where someone simply says, “You need to do better than that.” One effective tactic is often the Flinch. Responding with something along the lines of, “You’re kidding, right? We need to do ‘better’ than that? We’re already offering you 20% more than our nearest competitor! We should be charging you 20% more!”

One thing that often occurs when you Flinch is that the other side starts talking. They will begin to feel unconsciously uncomfortable and want to begin to justify their position. In other words, they start talking. Which is great – let them talk. When they start talking, you can learn all sorts of interesting information, including why they want this deal, and what some of their pressures might be. You get more information, and that increases your power in the negotiation.

If all you do is Flinch, you’ll end up saving money.