The Most Powerful Word in Negotiations

Minute Read

shiny object marketing

Recently, I was texting with an electrician about doing some simple work in my home. It was a repair I estimated would take about an hour to do—straightforward stuff. Messing with electrical stuff makes me nervous. If you get it wrong, well, it will have terrible consequences – like burning down your home. 

I respect the training they have put into their profession, but I want a fair price like everyone else. I don’t want to pay too much or too little.

I gave them a complete description of the needed work. I gave it to several professionals. The prices I got back were all over the map. I was using one of those apps where you find professionals to do work for you.

I looked over their business description, image, reviews, and comments to pick my shortlist of electricians. Someone needs to tell them to use an image that looks professional, not like you’re on a matchmaking site. The photo does make a difference.

The electrician who fit my criteria the best overall sent over an estimate. The price was okay, but not what I was expecting. Without asking, they added, ‘what is your budget? We’ll work with you’.


I thought a little negotiating was in order. So, I suggested a lower price, saying I thought it was fair. They responded – they agreed. We have a deal.

The word I used that will change your negotiating is – fair. When you add that into the conversation, you are effectively saying this is what is reasonable. I have established what is fair. I've just changed the game.

Everyone wants what is fair.

Even kids learn this early on. They will balk if they think they have been treated unfairly. My son would complain that being grounded wasn’t fair. Obviously, he wasn’t in the position to change the game in our negotiations. But, interestingly, people have learned what fairness is to them.

Using the moral concept of what is fair adds intellectual power and logic to the discussion. Most people would consider themselves fair, at least by their standards. Even the bad guys think what they're doing is fair.

When to Use It to Negotiate

I learned how this works in hostage negotiations from the book by Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: As If Your Life Depended On It.  Naturally, I’ve dropped the fairness word here and there, but not with the same intention that Chris used in his role as a hostage negotiator.

He makes a great point in our everyday interactions. You can use it to work through problems as simple as what time you need to have your dog ready from the groomer. (a current hostage situation we have at our home)

He skillfully used it to get on the side of the bad guy, to say, “it all seems so tragically unfair, I can now see why you sound so angry.” Wow, using fairness to move the bad guy to his side by flipping the situation around. That’s wicked smart.

Beyond that, he uses, as he puts it, “our misunderstood relationship to fairness” to bend reality. I’ve always wanted to know how to bend reality, and now I do. While we use the word, fair, to stabilize the discussion, the basis isn’t set in stone. Fair is based on our definition, although Webster’s Dictionary would likely disagree.

You can use it when you feel like you need to stabilize the concessions. When the bad guy asks for a helicopter, a big bag of money, and a free pass - things are getting out of hand. And everybody knows they never get all their demands. Nice try.

What Are the Implications of Fairness?

As Chris describes, the use of the word fairness triggers subconscious feelings of defensiveness. When using it in a discussion, it often leads to the other party making an irrational concession. “We only want what’s fair.” Now we have a different conversation; it’s changed the game; like a bomb just landed. Should you catch yourself at the receiving end of a conversation like this, the response is to apologize and suggest you start over to fix the situation.

Should someone tell you they have given you a fair offer, stop the presses. Don’t be caught in the trap of being distracted and manipulated. Throw it back in their court and ask them to explain why it’s fair.

And lastly, he uses the word for good by starting the arbitration by telling them he wants them to feel like they are being treated fairly. He sets himself up as a good actor, being honest and upfront with others.

The Next Steps

The concept of fairness is powerful, both for good and evil. Since I like to play on the side of good, consider how it is being used in your everyday life. When you find a conversation is getting out of hand, using fairness could help you dial back the narrative.  

When you’re being accused of being unfair, stop to think a bit. Does that really apply to you, or is it being used against you? If it’s being used against you, remember the effect they are looking for as a distraction and then manipulate.

In summary:

We all want to be treated fairly. Until I read Chris’s book, I didn’t realize how powerful that four-letter word could be. This is a heads-up for you, or it’s a lesson in negotiations. A dialogue as simple as when can I pick up my dog needs to be fair for both parties? It needs to satisfy the needs of the shopkeeper and the dog owner. In this case, my husband is the dog picker-upper, and he’s not used to negotiating, but he does believe in fairness.

Read the book by Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: As If Your Life Depended On It

If you'd like to chat about your next project, reach out at I will lay out your strategy and hand it over to your team to implement, or I’ll do it for you.

Linda James Bennett; day 46 of 365 writing an article every day and making you a shiny object in the world.

Linda James Bennett is obsessed with creating clear brand messages to help business owners win online. She believes that marketing shouldn't be complicated to be great. Let's face it, as a business owner you need to focus on the bottom line that drives sales, not being a copywriter. She is also an author of the book, Becoming A Seriously Happy Special Needs Mom ~ 21 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place, on

Linda James Bennett

In One 45-Minute Phone Call You Will Grow Your Business Faster and Bigger Than You Ever Imagined