How to negotiate with a shark

Swim with the "sharks" and learn how they negotiate.

3-minute read

While research shows that negotiating like a shark often backfires, some negotiators are chronically competitive. Should you ever swim up against a ruthless “shark-like” negotiator, protect yourself by spotting their tactics, and bite back with these counter-measures.   

The Anchoring Shark

  • What is it: Opens with an aggressive low/high offer. 
  • Why it works: You are strongly influenced by the first offer you focus on.     
  • Counter: Do your homework, and know market value. Before counter-offering, let the person know that you are oceans apart, then provide a response of your own.  

The Nibbling Shark

  • What is it: Makes a final request right before or after an agreement has been reached.
  • Why it works: You have invested a lot of time and resources and do not want the agreement to fail.  
  • Counter: In the beginning of the negotiation, agree to put all the issues for negotiation on the table. If they ask for “one last thing,” call it out: “Not the old ‘nibble’ gambit!”  Alternatively, you could offer a nibble of your own - “I agree to adding X if you agree to adding Y.”  

The Bogey Shark

  • What is it: Pretends a topic is really important (when it’s not) before conceding.  
  • Why it works: You feel you need to reciprocate a big concession. 
  • Counter: Ask open-ended questions designed to understand why some topics or issues are important or why they suddenly reversed positions.

The Double-Talking Shark

  • What is it: Talks fast and with technical terms intended to confuse.  
  • Why it works: You do not want to look stupid, so you don’t ask questions.
  • Counter: Do your homework. When in doubt, ask deblurring questions: “What does X mean to you?” If needed, bring in an expert of your own.  

The Ultimatum Shark

  • What is it: Loves ‘take it or leave it’ offers.   
  • Why it works: You hate losing.   
  • Counter: Ignore the claim - doing so allows them to save face. If they persist, remind your partner that you too have alternatives and that it’s in both of your interests to come to a mutually satisfying agreement.   

Good Shark/Bad Shark

  • What is it: Creates contrast between a negotiator who seems reasonable, and one who does not.  
  • Why it works: You feel indebted to the good shark for saving you from the bad one.  
  • Counter: Call out the tactic: “Not the old good shark/bad shark routine!” Alternatively, bring your own bad shark into the waters.   

The Powerless Shark

  • What is it: Claims to have limited authority and can’t give you what you are asking for.  
  • Why it works: You are already in the middle of a negotiation and want to be done.  
  • Counter: Ask early in the negotiation if your partner has the authority to negotiate. If they do not, politely ask to speak with someone who does.       

The Emotional Shark

  • What is it: Uses exaggerated emotions to influence negotiation.
  • Why it works: You feel sympathetic, guilty, or intimidated, and  make concessions to get rid of the negative feelings.   
  • Counter: Ignore the emotional display and just keep going. Alternatively, label the emotions - “It sounds like you are frustrated with X” and offer to take a break. Ask empathic questions like “I understand this is difficult, but how would you deal with it if you were in my shoes?”     

The Exploding Offer Shark

  • What is it: Offers made with an expiration date - usually short-term.
  • Why it works: You hate losing.  
  • Counter: If you like the deal but need more time, then ask for it: “This is a very important decision for me and my family. I need a little bit more time to research and think it over.”  If you have other potential offers let them know about the exploding offer to make yourself more attractive and expedite alternative negotiations.    

Of course none of these tactics alone will transform a shark into a guppy, but they will allow you to recognize and protect yourself from the power gambits of a hardball negotiator. When you see through the veneer of shark style negotiations, it's safe to go back in the water.  

P.S. Here is a quick, visual summary:

Shark Week!