Settlement Perspectives

Thoughts on how to resolve disputes and get your deal done.


Add Your PerspectiveSeptember 9, 2008

Why It May Be a Bad Idea to “Send them a Message”

“Our next move needs to make it clear that we mean business.”  I have heard that line (and others like it) before, and you have, too.  But a concept in a popular business book recently helped me understand why this isn’t the great approach I once thought it was.  In Made to Stick:  Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain how the “The Curse of Knowledge” impacts how we communicate.  With the help of their book, I now see how some negotiations succeed while others fail.

Do We Outsmart Ourselves?

At some point in almost every negotiation we are tempted to use our actions to send a message – a customer hoping to “get tough” demands the supplier come to her office; a home purchaser makes a “low ball” offer to signal that the house is priced too high; and a policyholder reduces his claim in an effort to “split the difference” with his insurance adjuster.  Unfortunately the other side often perceives something very different:  the supplier walks in assuming he is about to be introduced to more of his customer’s employees to expand the relationship; the home seller believes the purchaser isn’t serious; and the adjuster perceives its policyholder is willing to continue negotiating from a compromised position.

Why Subtlety is Often Lost on Us

In Made to Stick, the authors explore a Stanford Ph.D. dissertation study that explains why subtlety is often lost in communications.  Study organizer Elizabeth Newton organized a simple musical game to see if others accurately perceive the messages we intend.  She divided a group of people into two roles:  “tappers” and “listeners.”  The book describes the study as follows:

Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table).  The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped.

Listeners in this game didn’t fare so well, guessing the song correctly only 3 times out of 120.  More important for our discussions, however, is the tappers’ perspective.  Tappers were asked to predict how often the listeners would guess correctly, and they predicted listeners would do so 50% of the time.  The authors then articulate the real question:  “The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2.  Why?”

The Curse of Knowledge

Made to Stick explains that, “[w]hen a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head.”  Listeners don’t have the benefit of that embedded knowledge, which makes it more difficult to understand what tune the tapper intends.  The natural result is mutual frustration.  Tappers are frustrated that listeners can’t perceive the obvious, and listeners can’t interpret seemingly random tapping.  “The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge.”

While the authors further discuss the impact of the Curse of Knowledge away from the negotiating table and other concepts in Guy Kawasaki’s blog as well as the Made to Stick Blog, its impact on the negotiation process now seems obvious to me, but let’s tap it out together to be sure:

In negotiation, a subtle message intended for a recipient may be misperceived – if it is perceived at all.  Just as important, no matter how the message is perceived, the sender can never be sure whether the message has gotten through correctly or not.

A few years ago I heard a newly confirmed federal judge tell a luncheon audience “subtlety is lost on me.”  I’m glad I now know why.

[UPDATE:  Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, have recently posted their take on the Curse of Knowledge in negotiations on the Made to Stick Blog.]

Categories: Communication,Negotiation,Selected Posts,Theory

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Settlement Perspectives
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of John DeGroote.

I created this site to help clients and their counsel navigate the challenges that inevitably result from disputes, settlement efforts, impasse, and negotiation in general. The perspectives I bring are based on my experience, summarized in this abbreviated bio. If you have any questions or thoughts about this site, or an issue you’d like to see addressed, please email me at:


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