Negotiation and the “Niceness” Trap – part 1

A few initial thoughts about the word “nice”
Let me start by saying I’ve met less than 10 nice people in my entire life. To help you see what I mean, let me share with you the synonyms Google provided me with, for the word “nice”: pleasant, likable, agreeable, personable, charming, delightful, amiable, affable, friendly, kindly, genial, congenial, good-natured, engaging, gracious, sympathetic, understanding, compassionate, and good. Of course I’ve met uncountable people who have behaved nicely in specific situations. But meeting people who are genuinely and habitually nice is a rare thing. Do I wish we lived in a world where each person we met could be described in those terms? Absolutely. Do we live in such a world? Absolutely not.

Niceness is a great and precious thing. People who are truly nice are not nice because they expect reciprocation. They gratefully recognize, acknowledge and accept it – when they are at the receiving end of niceness. But they are not nice so that you and I will be nice in return. The nice people I have met are not soft and woolly personalities lacking in firmness. Looking back at their example, I have come to see that true niceness often goes hand in hand with toughness. The genuinely nice have a very realistic view of life, of human nature, and of human dealings. They are not naive. They are capable of making tough decisions, and are comfortable asking others to freely make and embrace tough decisions. They know fully well that life is tough. They do not instrumentalize niceness, and do use it to smooth life’s rough edges and sharp corners. That’s why they can be nice to those who are not nice to them, or who do not reciprocate their niceness.

A world apparently driven by niceness
We live in an age that celebrates “niceness” under various names. We are exhorted to be nice and to respect people’s feelings at all times and in every situation. The thought police that enforces political correctness even warns and threatens us not to offend other people’s feelings – no matter what. In polite conversation, this means we avoid the divisive topics of politics, race, religion, ethics, and every other socially charged issue because these invariably arouse intense emotions and feelings and may drag the discussion towards “good” and “bad.” We are enjoined to respect the unquestioned and unquestionable fact that what is “good” for one can be “bad” for the other. The bumper sticker “COEXIST” invites us to create a safer and better world by going along to get along and forget any real differences in the ways in which the various religions see and teach the ultimate basis of reality. Expressing any opinion or judgment that does not conform with the opinions and judgments of prevailing orthodoxies means that we are unfit for civilized community. The punishment can be swift, brutal, and public. Though we are enjoined to be “nice”, the punishment for the crime of not being “nice” is neither nice, nor is it meted out “nicely.”

In the business world and in the world of interpersonal relationships, empathy, emotional intelligence, building rapport, the primacy of relationships and trust, give and take, and win-win are all the rage. Human interactions and exchange is framed within the context of feelings of good will to all with the expectation that extending good will invites reciprocation – thereby setting up a virtuous cycle. This is seen as the norm of reciprocity at play – doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Those who don’t want to live, work, and interact like this are the cut throats, the bullies, the schemers, the blight of human existence, those bullies whose raison d’etre of life is to look out for numero uno and who, in the process, make life hellish for everyone else.

The cynics respond to this by saying “nice guys finish last.” Win-win is supposed to eliminate the tension of one person gaining at the expense of another and lead to outcomes in which no one loses or loses out. And yet, I am yet to meet a single human being who, when asked and more often, even when not asked, does not say that she or he has not received the short end of the stick in their dealings with others. Many people live with the feeling and conviction of having been betrayed and abused. Many have actually been betrayed and abused. Sadly, some horror stories play out over a lifetime.

What is going on here? Do nice guys finish last or don’t they? Does not being “nice” mean we are bullies – or at least in danger of becoming the cut throats who always and only look out for themselves – that most of us feel an instinctive revulsion and aversion towards? How can you build trust with a stranger – if you are not nice? Can you indeed build trust with a stranger over one or twenty conversations? What do we do in the face of the perennial danger of having our trust and good will abused? How do we protect ourselves from being taken advantage of? And what do we do when things have already gone wrong? Will being “nice” make things right again? Will it rebuild shattered relationships and remove the presence and sources of mistrust and suspicion?

Niceness and negotiation
The prevailing dogma in negotiation and sales circles is that hard-nosed negotiators/business people are focused on the “substance” of the deal, while empathic ones are focused on relationships. Some prefer to say that the former gives primacy to substance and the latter, to relationships. Questioning this should not be undertaken lightly. In this series, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

People are driven by self-interest. Few human environments bring this out so clearly as a negotiation. You and I negotiate because we want something. It doesn’t matter whether you are negotiating with your 3 year old, your superior, your client for the past 15 years, or a complex bureaucracy. If you don’t want something from the negotiation, you wouldn’t be negotiating. But the “it” you want from a negotiation is not the “it” driving you to negotiate. So, what drives people to negotiate? I’ve written about it here. People negotiate because they have a pain for/from which they are seeking relief. They seek to gain something from a negotiation. Most negotiations involve an exchange in which they will also give something in return. People feel used, abused, manipulated, or deceived if what they get in return for what they give, or if what they are asked/required to give in return for getting something else does not appear to them as some sort of a proportionate exchange.

If you see the issue of self-interest in the light of the fact that we live in a world where people are suspicious and mistrustful of the motives and intentions of others, we encounter a problem where negotiation comes with an inherent tension. How can I be sure that this person is not trying to take advantage of me? How can I be sure that this exchange will not end up costing me a lot more than what I give? How can I be sure that I am not being used, manipulated, or deceived?

Many erroneously assume the best means of resolving this tension is by being nice so that that niceness will be reciprocated. In practice, instrumentalizing niceness in this way makes the situation worse.

This negotiation will bring other negotiations to mind
This sale will bring other sales to mind. This interview will bring other interviews to mind. This conflict will bring other conflicts to mind. This deal will bring other deals to mind. This conversation will bring other conversations to mind. If other sales, interviews, conflicts etc. have resulted in creating a mess and costing you – emotionally, financially, or in any way whatsoever – how will you view niceness through anything other than the baggage-tinted glasses? If you remember that you have been softened up by niceness prior to being laid on the chopping block, how can you be sure that niceness is not being used, again, to soften you up, again? How will niceness not end up creating problems and setting up a vicious cycle? How can you and I be and remain genuinely nice without expecting anything in return when we negotiate – given the fact that everyone in a negotiation wants something or the other? In a world driven by self-interest (self-interest does not necessarily conflate to selfishness), niceness can cause you endless grief. As I alluded to above, nice people do not live in a bubble. They do not see niceness as the fuel that makes human exchange possible. The solution to the dilemma is not found in neither being nice nor in being suspicious or outright nasty. I will provide the solution in the remaining series of this piece.

Before I conclude, permit me to insist on something important. In the world of negotiation, relying on niceness to get you the agreement, or to move the negotiation forward at any moment, leaves you wide open to all kinds of manipulation. It leaves you defenseless when dealing with predators on the prowl. Human beings are predators. That’s a law of negotiation that we coach. We don’t coach it because we take a dim view of human nature. You can negotiate without coming across as overly nice or nasty. You can come across as pleasant and agreeable and simultaneously, tough and firm. You can reach a stable, profitable, and ethical agreement with a nasty person or group. Encountering nice people in your negotiations is a “nice to have.” It is not a “must have.”

Santhosh Ebroo
Santhosh is a negotiation coach with Negotiator-Pro Inc. He can be reached via email at

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