Negotiating Through Life Means Never Taking Things At Face Value

Negotiating Through Life Means Never Taking Things At Face Value
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Recently on LinkedIn I saw someone make a statement similar to this:

“Always assume people are out to do the right thing.”

That an adult person would make such a statement made me laugh out loud and shake my head in amazement. Sentimentally, it might be great to go return to the days of my childhood when I assume the world worked like that. But it doesn’t and I would never want to be so naïve again.

The only benefit from the lessons in life is to hone our skills, improve our abilities to discern reality from fantasy and to make better choices as a result. Anything else means we’ve become stagnant.

Let me give you a few examples as to how and why so many of us negotiate through life in the wrong way.

Mentality vs Mentality

A sharp difference between the way in which Americans and Europeans interact with strangers is that Americans will often sit down next to one (say at a bar) and wind up telling that person all of their troubles. If the conversation goes well enough they might even exchange cards or phone numbers. The problem is we simply don’t know anything about the person we’ve just met. We’ve given the benefit of the doubt without so much as the slightest inkling of who we’ve given to.

Europeans take an entirely different (and I might add more worldly) approach. By and large they maintain a polite distance for quite some time. They’ll wait to see you in action a few times and become incrementally friendlier if the perceive you to be a reasonable individual. But it can take a lot of time for them to consider becoming a friend. They would rarely talk about personal issues with a stranger. Even asking what someone does for a living the first time you meet them is often considered too intrusive.

Some would call this cynicism or being jaded. I would call it pragmatism.

Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that began in the United States in the late 1800s. Determined by the thought and works of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, pragmatism essentially means that an ideology or proposition is only true if it works satisfactorily. In other words, the meaning and value of a proposition can only be judged by the practical consequences of accepting it. It also means that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.

This lack of pragmatic approach to knowledge and information knows no socio-economic or partisan prejudice. I’ve seen it occur with liberals and conservatives, atheists and theists, right wing and left wing—you name it.

If anything it appears at times to be a shared wrapped up in our basic American mindset.

Putting People On Pedestals

A good example of how this leads to consistent disappointment is with our assumptions of celebrities. So many times people put celebrities on a pedestal. They look good, they sound good and they say good things—ergo, they must be good people.

Then suddenly—wham. They do something that isn’t good. And again—wham. They’re on our s**t list for life and we’re burning records (as we did with the Beatles way back when John Lennon made his “more popular than Jesus” comment) or booing them on stage (as we did with Sinead O’Connor when she tore up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live) or publicly eviscerating them (as we did with Paula Deen when she admitted to using the N-word as a youngster).

Young people burning Beatles records.

Young people burning Beatles records.

I have to wonder why anyone would put someone they don’t know on a pedestal. Or why so many would take the word of a stranger at face value then turn around and question the word of a close friend or relative. This makes no sense at all. It suggests a “better the devil you don’t know” mentality.

Michael J Formica explained the inherent problems of this mindset:

“When we idealize another, we diminish them. We reduce them from their state of perfectly human humanity to something less - an object. The same can be said of ourselves. When we lose sight of ourselves - particularly in reflection of another - we reduce ourselves from a whole to a collection of parts; we self-objectify.”

Expecting the impossible from people means we’re asking them to be more than human; sooner or later, they show their human flaws and foibles and “let us down.” The worst part is we’re inclined to blame them for this letdown, but we have no one to blame but ourselves—how absurd.

After all, how can we possibly assess people or situations we know nothing about?

Assumptions vs Information

Another example of why we should never accept people at face value is stigmatization. Some people (gay men, religious students at secular universities, Mormons in a non-Mormon environment, black people who speak using stereotypical vernacular) will cognitively separate their private selves from their public selves. They do so in hopes of concealing a potentially stigmatized part of who they are. Others hide their true selves with more sinister intentions.

In truth we only know what people tell us, especially if we aren’t particularly observant and lack credible skills of discernment. So many times people seem more willing to substitute assumptions for reality, perhaps in an effort to remain within their own comfort zones.

In fields like science and technology, making assumptions and then testing a hypothesis or making an inference from something we have learned is perfectly natural. But not in our day to day interactions or even when we are reading articles like this one.

For example, assuming that others know what we mean during communication can very destructive in our relationships at work and at home, as well as on social media. If people fail to understand us, either they weren’t listening in order to understand, or we failed to make yourself clear.

This happened to me on Facebook recently. I made a statement to the fact that the recent attacks on Coptic Christians overseas would be used as fodder by right wing extremists to decry Muslims.

This friend, who is forever jumping to the defense of Muslims when right wingers make these kinds of statements, chose to assume I was doing the same thing. She didn’t stop to ask what I meant—she simply blew up and slyly accused me of it.

I was a bit surprised and slightly taken aback. But then my knowledge kicked in. This friend hails from a part of the USA where my experiences have taught me that passive-aggressive tendencies tend to boil over into everything.

But it also exemplifies how cavalierly I made my statement, assuming it would be fully understood. Had I fleshed out my thoughts, I might easily have averted upsetting my friend. And she has a point—both sides have been equally guilty of using tragedy to promote ideas and causes. But my friend should also know me better than that by now. Which is what makes her assumption all the more surprising.

If this had been a tennis match, the score would be love-love.

The Value of Honing Perception Skills

Perception has been defined as our ability to recognize and interpret sensory information. Perception also includes how we respond to the information.

In the case of Sinead O’Connor it was a case of perception equals reality more than anything else. O’Connor was greatly upset about child abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, so she decided to use her platform on Saturday Night Live to make a point. Most people didn’t stop to ask why she did what she did. They assumed they already knew, which revealed a lack of perception and critically active thinking skills on their part.

Sinded O’Connor on SNL, October 1992

Sinded O’Connor on SNL, October 1992

Some of us are preceptors; people who crave knowledge and use it for the purpose of discernment and observation. We also sometimes use it to help others.

Preceptors often become teachers, scientists, journalists, physicians or institutional leaders. They use perception of facts and information to build knowledge and awareness. They work hard trying not to assume.

Those who lack these skills are unperceptive, meaning they lack discernment and the ability to perceive or understand. This is usually accompanied by a lack of desire to question their perceptions.

Information technology and literacy instructor Yolanda Williams has suggested we think of perception “as a process where we take in sensory information from our environment and use that information in order to interact with that environment. Perception allows us to take the sensory information in and turn it into something meaningful.”

Perception is necessary for us to understand and interact with the world as well as for our survival. What would you do if you couldn’t process whether or not a surface was hot enough to burn you?


Trust is something that has to be earned by virtue of mutual behavior. Gone are the days when I assumed people would keep their word; that shift in mentality has saved me a ton of frustration and disappointment.

Entering into negotiation requires a level of trust. But how much people should trust the other negotiator is a question that far too many people get wrong—often with disastrous results.

To be clear, not everyone is going to lie to you or withhold information. There are those of us who still believe in a cards-on-the-table way of doing things. But that only works if the other party believes the same thing.

An example is a recent negotiation I had with a certain CEO. During the meeting an administrative assistant had to keep popping in due to a PR situation which we were in the middle of discussing. The AA had prepared a quote for an online news reporter. The CEO read it then placed it on the table upside down. “Hmm,” I thought, “so we’re not playing cards on the table.” That tiny action was very useful to me insomuch as it had an effect on how I negotiated with the CEO.

What’s the wisest way for you to approach a negotiation? Assume that everything that that you think that you know to be true is not true. At least until you’re able to prove otherwise.

You should also be testing any facts you are given. If what you’ve been told isn’t in some way verifiable, then it isn’t a concrete fact upon which you can rely.

Sound cynical? It isn’t. The purpose of a negotiation is for you to build trust with the other person. That takes time and effort. As with respect, trust has to be earned.

Summing Up

Negotiating through life means you’re going to have to be able to trust others at some point in order to move forward, whether it’s a business deal or being hired for a position at their company. But at the start of any relationship, you don’t know people enough to take anything that they say at face value.

Keep the following in mind:

1. Remind yourself to always verify everything people say.

2. Don’t rely on anything others say until you’ve had a chance to test it for accuracy.

3. Assume that all of your beliefs about the other side are wrong.

4. Think about your own assumptions. Are there some types of people you generally like or dislike? Do certain phrases or types of language turn you off or inspire you?

5. Explore our own filters and the assumptions that accompany them.

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