Lessons from Magic Tricks to Beat Tricky Negotiation Tactics

By Alex Moskov October 31, 2019 | 6 min read

Humans have been fascinated with magic for a long time, and the psychology of it is pretty interesting. On one hand, we love magic tricks because they’re a drastic departure from what we thought was going to happen, but on the other hand, we don’t like being fooled. Or better yet, we don’t want to feel foolish. By going to a magic show, we agree to be fooled. As willing participants, we know the rules and agree to play. 

Now, apply this same logic to negotiations. For example, we go into a car dealership automatically suspicious that we’re going to get played a fool, or somehow falling for a trick or being out-smarted. No one wants to be a loser, even if it’s only a few hundred bucks. 

In everyday business negotiations, the tactics other people may use on us are subtle, aimed to throw us off balance, lose our focus, deviate from our plans, and react rather than be proactive. 

In order to get the same joy out of negotiations (and also avoid being played to look like a fool) as you would in a magic show, it’s important to master a few important skills.

Misdirection in magic and business

Why do we love magic tricks? According to Dr. Dave Verhaagen, there are three reasons:

  1. Delight: “Our caveman’s brains delight when something challenges the laws of nature and nobody gets hurt.” This is the same reason people love horror movies, roller coasters, and bungee jumping. People like being scared without the actual brutal reality of dying.
  2. Wonder: “We watch to believe that impossible things are true.” In many studies, children played with toys longer when the toys behaved in unexpected ways. Blocks that rested asymmetrically captured the interest of children much longer than blocks that rested in the middle, as expected. When things don’t behave the way we think they should, we get curious and want to figure out why. However, as we grow up, we get so busy that instead of getting curious, we get annoyed. Reclaiming that sense of childish wonder, trying to figure out what’s really going on is a major key to unraveling and countering tactics in negotiations.
  3. Superiority: “A majority of Americans believe they are smarter than average, and in the magic show they think they have figured out the trick.” A certain percentage of magic viewers love to try to unravel the tricks. These are the people sitting in the audience smirking and saying “oh I know how you did that…false bottom on the hat!” You might get annoyed with this person in the magic show, but you’ll want her on your team the next time you’re preparing for an important negotiation at work.

The success of magic lies in misdirection; magicians draw your attention away from one thing to focus on another. This keeps the mind from seeing what’s right in front of you. Check out this example of misdirection in the magician/psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman

Color Changing Card Trick

In business, there are some negotiation tactics are just like this misdirection, They are meant to direct you someplace other than the main point of focus.

How to take control of the misdirection

Simply put, knowing how tricks work will help you keep perspective and regain control of a situation. The keys to countering tactics are to:

  • maintain your superiority by staying calm. Know you have the confidence to figure out the trick.
  • Call on your sense of wonder by asking a question to gain clarity
  • Delight as you change the course of the conversation.

Here are some top negotiation tactics (the magician’s misdirection) and how we should actually respond:


Non-performance: not meeting a deadline or part of the agreement: 

“We’re not going to be able to meet the schedule we originally agreed on. I’m sure you can be flexible.” 

Ask: “What’s causing this change?”

Be clear: “I need you to stick with the agreement.”


Delay: to make you give the other party an incentive to move forward:

“I can’t make a final decision this week; how about next month?”

“I can’t make the final decision without my boss’ approval, and she’s busy.”

“I can’t agree to this schedule without the project manager getting involved and she’s out of town this week.”

Ask: “Are there benefits to delaying a decision that I may not know about?”

Be clear: “Let’s schedule a meeting for that time.”


Escalation: some part of your agreement is raised and renegotiated: 

“Yes, we agreed to that schedule, but we need an extra 10 days.”

“Yes, we agreed to this price, but now I need 15% more.”

Ask: “What’s happened to change the schedule/price?”

Be clear: “I need you to stick to the schedule/original price.”


Nibbling: getting agreement on one small thing at a time. 

“Now that you bought this product, we need to agree on the installation fees… now that we agreed on installation, we need to discuss delivery… now that we have a delivery date, we need to agree on the training…” 

Ask: “What are all the things we need to discuss? Let’s make a complete list.”

Be clear: “I’d like to include these in the package price and not negotiate them separately.”

The bottom line

Once you’ve figured out a magician’s tricks, you’ll no longer be surprised by the show. The same principle applies to negotiations. Knowing what the other party could possibly say and how the best way to uncover what they actually mean will help you to respond appropriately. 

No more falling for obvious negotiation tactics or reacting with emotion when you can easily detect the tactics.

Despite research backing long-term relationships are more fruitful than one-off negotiation tactics based on tricks, there will always be someone trying to pull a fast one on you. This is why you need the skills to respond and retake control. Rooted in your newfound wisdom, you can stay calm and then look at the situation with wonder and delight. 

RED BEAR Negotiation Company is a global performance improvement firm dedicated to maximizing the profitability of the agreements negotiated with suppliers, customers, partners, and colleagues. If you’re interested in enhancing the performance of the negotiators in your organization, click here for more information on RED BEAR’s solutions.


Successful negotiations are rarely the result of chance or innate talent. They are, more often than not, the product of meticulous preparation and strategic planning.
As the summer heats up, don’t let your sales and procurement negotiation training melt away. Now is the perfect time to sharpen your skills with some insightful summer reads.

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