How to Avoid Being Taken Advantage Of

When you create relationships and strike up deals, there is rarely an exact point of fairness, a precise set of conditions that make all responsibilities and benefits balanced. Most business deals involve an input of capital, expertise, and other resources, the value of which can be difficult to measure.

I never try to make a deal exactly fair, because I don’t believe in exactness. I think of fairness as a range. Imagine a measurement device (such as an applause meter or thermometer) with a colored bar that covers a portion of it. That colored bar is how I think of fairness. It is a range, not a point.

When I do deals, I imagine that bar before I negotiate. At the one end is what I think is fairest to me. At the other end is what I think is fairest to my negotiating partner. I mentally prepare myself to settle on anything in between. By doing so, I benefit in four ways:

1. I save time.

2. I save money.

3. I show myself as fair-minded.

4. I avoid second thoughts.

This process has been enormously helpful to me in my career. It has allowed me to have productive partnerships — enjoyable and profitable joint ventures — with people who had reputations of being “difficult.”

And there has been an unexpected, ironic compensation as well. Several times, after settling on “the other end” of the range of fairness, I found that, after a few years, my partner’s contributions turned out to be much more substantial than I had thought they would be. Consequently, the deal that I initially thought may have been a bit more in his favor turned out to be much more advantageous to me. This strategy will make it easier for you to negotiate deals and easier to keep them. But, there will be times when you will not be able to make a deal. No matter how far you extend the range of fairness, the guy on the other side of the table will want more. I call this type of person a “more-for-me” negotiator.

It would be easy for me to say “Just avoid such people.” But the truth is that they are usually very seductive — especially to people with big hearts. (Could that be you?) They are also very skilled at making their “more-for-me” deals seem pretty good to you.

One clue to watch out for: You feel that the deal isn’t very good for you but you want to do it anyway because you really want to make the other person happy.

As someone who falls into this hole constantly, I can tell you from experience that doing something against your gut instincts purely because it will please someone else is not a good idea.

Don’t get me wrong. You want your colleagues and associates and partners to be happy with the deals you make. In fact, wanting the deal to be good for them is necessary for its long-term success. But when the deal is off balance — and you are fundamentally unhappy because you know that the other person has pushed you into an “it’s-better-for-him” arrangement that you don’t think is fair — you must sit back and wonder whether the entire relationship is worthwhile.

“More-for-me” behavior is easy enough to detect. But how do you protect yourself against it? This is what I try to do:

The moment you realize what’s going on, try to take a break from the discussion to “think a few things over.”

Figure out, in the peace of your own head, what you would be willing to accept as “fair” and what would be an unquestionable “deal breaker.”

Determine how you could live without the deal. (There is always a way.)

Admit to yourself: “This person is trying to take advantage of me by trying to make me want to please him. If I attempt to please him, he will continue this negative approach of his. I will be enabling bad behavior. That will not only make things worse in the future but also cause himto disrespect me.”

Gird yourself emotionally to be as ruthless with him as he is planning to be with you.

Call him to reconvene the meeting — but make some sort of arbitrary demand.

Something like starting the meeting 15 minutes later than the time he  uggested or meeting in another room. It should be something so small that he can’t reasonably refuse you. If he does, cancel the deal.

Having established your new “tough-guy” persona, lead the conversation with a prepared statement. It should be something like this: “John, I’ve thought about this deal and I believe that the fair way to do it is for me to have . . .” (Give him some version of what you think is fair, but not your last-ditch one.)

Negotiate to your last-ditch position and settle there . . . or walk out.