The Interested Bystander- A New Negotiation Technique

The Interested Bystander- A New Negotiation Technique

A technique is a teachable way to carry out particular task in a skillful manner. In medicine you are taught techniques to perform an ABG or place a central line. In negotiation, there are several techniques that are used to gain concessions. This week I discovered a new one.

Author: Robert A Felberg MD

Topic: Physician Negotiation

Keywords: Negotiation, Physician Contracts, Physician Salary

Negotiation techniques are the stuff of legends! Who doesn’t get excited when the cops pull out the old good cop/bad cop routine? How about on Star Trek when Captain Kirk negotiates with the aliens by threatening mutual destruction while offering a branch of peace. It’s all great fun and makes for thrilling fiction.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, negotiation techniques are a lot less dramatic. People love to focus on negotiation techniques- “split the difference”, “all or nothing”, “throw garbage on the yard”, etc. I can’t blame them. It’s the exciting and fun part of negotiation. They never show solid blocking on the ESPN highlight reels- it’s always a double-reverse flea-flicker statue-of-liberty hook-and-ladder Hail-Mary pass in overtime. But, we all know solid execution of the basics is what really wins games.

Editor: Educating physicians how to effectively negotiate is my passion. The post is one of a series discussing negotiation for physicians and could be especially useful in negotiating your physician contract or any number of purchases of items or services. Please be certain to check out, our Blog, and sign up for our newsletter

Whenever I discuss negotiation techniques, I will emphasize that no set of tactics or cleverness will ever be as valuable as planning a negotiation strategy. An accurate market value report, a solid anchor or counter-offer, and a BATNA will always ensure success better than the fanciest attempt at a “nibble”. Take care of the basics first and use techniques to improve your offer.

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With that caveat, I present a new technique that I call the “Interested Bystander

I was having lunch with a friend who offhandedly mentioned to me that she had sold her father-in-law’s car. I know that was happy to be relieved of the vehicle. He could no longer drive and it was basically sitting in the driveway unused for 9 months. She described to me a most interesting set of circumstances around the sale.  Editor: We put on a recent webinar on car negotiation. Watch it here. You will need to register for free to access.

A man called and left a message saying he was interested in the car for his son. When she called back, he apologized and stated he had already bought a car for his son and wasn’t currently in the market. OK, fair enough. But then the strangest thing happened! Being a charming fellow and excellent conversationalist, he struck up a chat about the car for sale. They talked for about 20 minutes on the virtues of old cars, and how much fun they are, and a lot about the details of the car for sale. Then, innocently he asked how the sale of the car was going. She mentioned the car wasn’t really getting offers, she was becoming a bit desperate, and she was really hoping that this man was going to be the one who bought it.

He then asked, “Well maybe it’s your price. What’s the lowest you are willing to sell it for?” She revealed her lowest price, her BATNA, well below fair market value. He quickly replied, “For that price I will buy it today for cash!”

Holy cow! Did you see what happened? By pretending to not be in the market for the car and just being an interested and empathetic friend, he obtained all the information he needed about the seller’s situation and got her to reveal her BATNA! She’s stuck! She just Anchored at her BATNA! Either she sells at this price or loses the best offer that has come along. I’m guessing he probably already checked out the car and knew the fair market value. He then used this brilliant technique to get a great opening bid and bought a car for an amazing price.



How it works: You express interest in the item, service, or job via a message. When you are contacted, you tell them you are no longer interested, having agreed to another product. You then strike up a friendly conversation and use this new relationship to get the other party to open up about their negotiation strategy. This can include current offers, negotiation strategy, pricing, and BATNA.

Goal: To obtain information and a highly favorable anchor

When to use it: When first approaching a negotiation. Especially when there are several competing products. Can be used with items, service, and employment positions- “I’ve already agreed to take a job with General Hospital, but I have many colleagues who may be interested in Guiding Light Hospital. Tell me about your position.”

Expert Move: Go back to your other offer, if it exists, and use this newly gained information to obtain a concession- “I just got off the phone with chairperson at Guiding Light Hospital. There are offering a signing bonus $15,000 more than your current offer. In light of this information, I’d like to discuss matching the current signing bonus offer.”

How to counter:  Do not reveal your positions or BATNA.   Assume the other party will use the information themselves or will pass it on to another party.   Consider this an opportunity to practice your sales pitch.   Discuss all the great selling points and avoid revealing any negatives. If they ask for a specific value use negotiation jujitsu and respond with a question back- “You could be right. Maybe the price is the problem.   What do you feel is a fair value for the car?” Then you say, “Wow. For another 250 dollars, I’d sell it to you today!” that is- trap them into making an offer. Since they are playing the benign interested party they may feel obligated to make it a fair offer.

Negotiation techniques can be effective tools to obtain concessions. At the very least, it’s useful to be aware of the commonly used techniques and counters to avoid being treated unfairly. As a physician, you likely have had minimal if any training in negotiation and are at a distinct disadvantage. Fortunately, physicians are excellent natural negotiators if given the proper training. I spend at least an hour reviewing various techniques in my seminars and then emphasize the proper use of the techniques in the practice negotiations. We even develop a “technique map” based on what works best for you.  Negotiation is the single most important professional skill and well worth mastering.



So what do you think? Is this an awesome negotiation technique? Are you surprised, as I am, that this is never mentioned anywhere in the literature? It seems so obvious, once it’s explained. Do you think it’s ethical? Have you ever seen the “interested bystander” in action? Share your thoughts in the comment section.






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