Negotiation for Purchasing Professionals – our book review (part 2)

Negotiation for Purchasing Professionals is the new book from Jonathan O’Brien of Positive Purchasing. In part 1 of our review we were very positive overall, and it is thoroughly recommended to any procurement professional.

However, we intimated that there was one element that wasn’t contributing to that overall positive view. And it is the focus on body language, personality analysis and similar topics. The fundamental issue here is that much of what O’Brien references is not science, but he presents it as fact, rather than ideas, speculation and in some cases, downright nonsense.

Florence Littauer for instance is a self-help author, not a scientist. She has come up with various ideas about personality – now I’m sure some are quite interesting and maybe even useful at times to some people, but this is not factual science. It may be a good idea to try and consider the personality of your negotiation adversary in some cases. But I’d suggest that trying to put them into one of the “four humours” type categories is a waste of time.  Going round putting everyone you meet into one of four types seems to me a gross over-simplification of the wonderful variety of humankind.

OK, O’Brien does give some heath warnings but it still feels like too much focus on this topic. And I would have liked to see a recognition of the uncertainty around all of this – saying the Myers-Brigggs Indicator is "used across the world” is fine but it might have been worth adding – “however, it has been heavily criticised by serious psychologists”.  (Which it has).

What does the body language tell us?

What does the body language tell us?

Then we come onto body language. Here’s a question. You are negotiating with a young woman. She crosses her arms over her chest. What does this mean?

1. I am in a weak negotiating position and feel defensive.

2. Damn, I’ve just realised I spilt coffee on my blouse. Better cross my arms and hide the stain.

3. Brrr!  It’s cold in here.

4. Stop looking at my chest, you pervert!

I’d argue all are possible, so I’d question how much time it is worth spending in the negotiation trying to work out exactly what she “means” – let alone calculating just how dilated her pupils are or what angle her feet are at... (I think the “pervert” analysis is quite likely if you tried all of this at once)!

And it is dangerous to present this as scientific fact when much is pure speculation and pop psychology. Here’s the summary biography of one of the main sources of these ideas.

Originally a musician, he became a life insurance salesman, and then started a career as a speaker and trainer in sales, and subsequently in body language and communication skills”.

OK, that doesn’t mean his ideas can’t be right, but please don’t quote stuff about eye movements, sitting positions and so on as if they’ve been researched for years and proved with scientific rigour. And in some cases, ideas have moved on and we have to be careful to keep up to date with latest thinking – the meaning of eye movements being a good example of that.  (See “The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming”, Richard Wiseman, 2012.)

Much of the thinking here comes from Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Now I’m not wholly anti-NLP. Itundoubtedly contains some good points about communication and human behaviour, but the problem is much of it is about belief, rather than facts. To some extent, it is part religion. And if you want to throw references around, try this from Wikipedia.

“Reviews of empirical research find that NLP's core tenets are poorly supported.[16] The balance of scientific evidence reveals NLP to be a largely discredited pseudoscience. Scientific reviews show it contains numerous factual errors,[14][17] and fails to produce the results asserted by proponents.[16][18] According to Devilly (2005),[19] NLP has had a consequent decline in prevalence since the 1970s. Criticisms go beyond lack of empirical evidence for effectiveness, saying NLP exhibits pseudoscientific characteristics,[19] title,[20] concepts and terminology as well.[21][22] NLP serves as an example of pseudoscience for facilitating the teaching of scientific literacy at the professional and university level.[23][24][25].”

So it is the certainty with which O’Brien presents a lot of this that worries me. He refers to books that are pure entertainment, which gives them credence, and of course his book will be referred to in the future, strengthening the credibility of ideas that don’t deserve it.  Now I’m being a bit hard on this, but as a scientist myself, with a daughter who is a psychologist by training, I believe the scientific method is important, even in business.

Anyway, it doesn’t invalidate a very good and useful publication for the profession – but I would suggest reading certain chapters with a high degree of care and scepticism. And in part 3 I’ll come back to some of the excellent aspects of the book!

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Voices (6)

  1. Andy Lee:

    You would have served your readers better by continuing to read the Wikipedia entry – this paragraph is infamous – it is challenged daily but its never been updated. Its just opinion. Nothing more nothing less.

    Look at the results you and other people would get using the information.

    Forget any unhelpful beliefs you have about labels.

    Read the work of Steve Peters and Richard Wisemann, hardly Happy Clappy types and their work is fully aligned with the work of Bateson et al.

    Focus on utility and outcomes!

  2. Paul Wright:

    There must be something in NLP. It certainly seems to have helped one of the founders – Richard Bandler. After all, if I’d Been found holding a gun that had just killed a hooker, I don’t think I would have got off. He did. Something of a result I would have thought. I’m surprised they don’t use it on their adverts

  3. Guy Allen:

    I’m on the fence here. I’ve not read the book and anything that interprets body language as a science is clearly wrong. But I do accept it as one of the many clues you might have in a face to face environment.

    If your opposite number will not look you in the eye, is it because he is shy or because they dont believe what they are saying. Is his hand shaking because he is nervous or has he some medical condition.

    A skilled negotiator would test with questioning but stop pursuing that angle it if it reaches a dead end.

    So use it as an indicator, and be flexible in your aproach

  4. bitter and twisted:

    No, its bollocks.

  5. Rik Schnabel:

    I’d like to address your reference to NLP being a pseudo science – direct from Wikipedia. I find this very funny as Wikipedia is hardly a credible source in the first instance. Those who have never studied NLP are usually its critics. NLP has helped literally millions of people around the world in so many ways. My suggestion is study it and then make an informed opinion.

    1. PlanBee:

      Choosing Wikipedia was a joke on Peter’s part…… discrediting a pseudo science with a quote from a pseudo encyclopedia …………….. GEDDIT?

      Do keep up, or perhaps it is hard for you to do that as you cant right now see if I have my arms crossed or not

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