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Tell Me a Story

Stephen White

Confidence is one of the important attributes of a good negotiator. Many HR recruiters believe that this is an attribute they need to look for in those who will be conducting negotiations for the organisation (sales, marketing, procurement, Board level), so that testing for confidence as a personality trait is therefore very important

I might be splitting hairs but I would like to suggest that although self-confidence is important to good negotiated outcomes it is much more important to successful persuasion. Why is this important? – because when a persuasive argument succeeds then the need to trade or compromise is reduced or eliminated.

Two stories recently in the papers confirm this view. In one, Dr Judith Lathlean, a professor at Southampton University, gave £140,000 to an internet conman who called himself John Porter over a period of a just a few months. She is obviously an intelligent woman, and she admits all the tell-tale signs of a confidence trick were there, but he was so plausible that she ignored them and kept on wiring money to him. She said “Whenever I was worried about it I spoke to (him) and he was just so good at reassuring me. ……I was persuaded that what I gave was worth it. And we would have a nice life together”.

The second incident refers back to 2009, when the Knoedler Gallery, a prestigious New York art dealership, closed in ignominy after the revelation that about $60 million of the art it had sold over the previous 20 years were forgeries. The paintings had been provided to the gallery by Long Island art dealer Glafira Rosales, whose story about their provenance was so convincing that the senior members of the gallery staff were duped into believing that they were genuine, again notwithstanding that the warning signs were there – in one case a Jackson Pollock was hung in the  home of Knoedler Gallery President Ann Freedman, even though the artist’s signature in the corner of the painting was misspelled (Pollok instead of Pollock)!   

Are alarm bells ringing in your head? Are you wondering how stupid Judith Lathlean and Ann Freedman must be to be suckered into these deceptions, even though in both cases they are obviously intellectual high fliers? Maybe I am working a confidence trick on you, and all this is untrue? (No I’m not).

The sad fact is that we are hard-wired to be believers. We buy into good stories, told confidently, without much resistance. When Judith Lathlean was first told she had been scammed, her reaction was that John Porter must also be a victim; she could not accept that he was the originator of the deception. When Ann Freedman was asked about the bogus signature on the painting she said she had not noticed it, but if she had she would have been more likely to take it as a sign of authenticity. So in both cases we can see that the scammers were great story tellers, with the confidence to retail bare-faced lies so successfully that they were believed even in the face of contradictory evidence.

This propensity to believe enhances the effectiveness of a confident persuader, as well as of a confident negotiator. Confident storytellers, whether they are telling the truth or spinning a lie, make effective persuaders.

So next time you are recruiting for a negotiator, ask them to tell you a story, and then ask yourself if you bought into it. It might be a better indicator than the psychometric tests!

Stephen White

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