If You Need to Put Negotiating Pressure on the Other Side, Try Good Guy/Bad Guy

by Roger Dawson

Good Guy/Bad Guy is one of the best known negotiating gambits. Charles Dickens first wrote about it in his book Great Expectations. In the opening scene of the story, the young hero Pip is in the graveyard when out of the sinister mist comes a large, very frightening man. This man is a convict, and he has chains around his legs. He asks Pip to go into the village and bring back food and a file, so he can remove the chains. The convict has a dilemma, however. He wants to scare the child into doing as he's asked, yet he mustn't put so much pressure on Pip that he'll be frozen in place or bolt into town to tell the policeman.

The solution to the convict's problem is to use the Good Guy/Bad Guy Gambit. Taking some liberty with the original work, what the convict says in effect, is "You know, Pip, I like you, and I would never do anything to hurt you But I have to tell you that waiting out here in the mist is a friend of mine and he can be violent and I'm the only one who can control him. If I don't get these chains off-if you don't help me get them off-then my friend might come after you. So, you have to help me. Do you understand?" Good Guy/Bad Guy is a very effective way of putting pressure on people, without confrontation.

I'm sure you've seen Good Guy/Bad Guy used in the old police movies. Officers bring a suspect into the police station for questioning, and the first detective to interrogate him is a rough, tough, mean-looking guy. He threatens the suspect with all kinds of things that they're going to do to him. Then he's mysteriously called away to take a phone call, and the second detective, who's brought in to look after the prisoner while the first detective is away, is the warmest, nicest guy in the entire world. He sits down and makes friends with the prisoner. He gives him a cigarette and says, "Listen kid, it's really not as bad as all that. I've taken a liking to you. I know the ropes around here. Why don't you let me see what I can do for you?" It's a real temptation to think that the Good Guy's on your side when, of course, he really isn't.

Then the Good Guy would go ahead and close on what salespeople would recognize as a minor point close. "All I think the detectives really need to know," he tells the prisoner, "is where did you buy the gun?" What he really wants to know is, "Where did you hide the body?"

Starting out with a minor point like that and then working up from there, works very well, doesn't it? The car salesperson says to you, "If you did invest in this car would you get the blue or the gray?" "Would you want the vinyl upholstery or the leather?" Little decisions lead to big ones. The real estate salesperson who says, "If you did invest in this home, how would you arrange the furniture in the living room?" Or, "Which of these bedrooms would be the nursery for your new baby?" Little decisions grow to big decisions.

People use Good Guy/Bad Guy on you much more than you might believe. Look out for it anytime you find yourself dealing with two people. Chances are you'll see it being used on you, in one form or another.

For example, you may sell corporate health insurance plans for an HMO and have made an appointment to meet with the Vice-President of Human Resources at a company that manufactures lawn mowers. When the secretary leads you in to meet with the vice president, you find to your surprise that the president of the company wants to sit in and listen in on your presentation.

That's negotiating two on one, which is not good, but you go ahead and everything appears to be going along fine. You feel that you have a good chance of closing the sale, until the president suddenly starts getting irritated. Eventually he says to his vice president, "Look, I don't think these people are interested in making a serious proposal to us. I'm sorry, but I've got things to do." Then he storms out of the room.

This really shakes you up if you're not used to negotiating. Then the vice-president says, "Wow. Sometimes he gets that way, but I really like the plan that you presented, and I think we can still work this out. If you could be a little more flexible on your price, then I think we can still put it together. Tell you what-why don't you let me see what I can do for you with him?"

If you don't realize what they're doing to you, you'll hear yourself say something like, "What do you think the president would agree to?" Then it won't be long before you'll have the vice-president negotiating for you-and he or she is not even on your side.

If you think I'm exaggerating on this one, consider this: Haven't you, at one time or another, said to a car salesperson, "What do you think you could get your sales manager to agree to?" As if the salesperson is on your side, not on theirs? Haven't we all at one time been buying real estate and have found the property we want to buy, so we say to the agent that has been helping us find the property, "What do you think the sellers would take?" Let me ask you something. Who is your agent working for? Who is paying her? It's not you, is it? She is working for the seller and yet she has effectively played Good Guy/Bad Guy with us. So, look out for it, because you run into it a lot.

Power Negotiators use several Counter-Gambits to Good Guy/Bad Guy:

  • The first Counter-Gambit is simply to identify the Gambit. Although there are many other ways to handle the problem, this one is so effective that it's probably the only one you need to know. Good Guy/Bad Guy is so well known that it embarrasses people when they get caught using it. When you notice the other person using it you should smile and say, ""h, come on-you aren't going to play Good Guy/Bad Guy with me are you? Come on, sit down, let's work this thing out." Usually their embarrassment will cause them to retreat from the position.
  • You could respond by creating a bad guy of your own. Tell them that you'd love to do what they want, but you have people back in the head office who are obsessed with sticking to the program. You can always make a fictitious bad guy appear more unyielding than a bad guy who is present at the negotiation.
  • You could go over their heads to their supervisor. For example, if you're dealing with a buyer and head buyer at a distributorship, you might call the owner of the distributorship and say, "Your people were playing Good Guy/Bad Guy with me. You don't approve of that kind of thing, do you?" (Always be cautious about going over someone's head. The strategy can easily backfire because of the bad feelings it can cause.)
  • Sometimes just letting the bad guy talk resolves the problem, especially if he's being obnoxious. Eventually his own people will get tired of hearing it and tell him to knock it off.
  • You can counter Good Guy/Bad Guy by saying to the Good Guy, "Look, I understand what you two are doing to me. From now on anything that he says, I'm going to attribute to you also." Now you have two bad guys to deal with, so it diffuses the Gambit. Sometimes just identifying them both in your own mind as bad guys will handle it, without you having to come out and accuse them.
  • If the other side shows up with an attorney or controller who is clearly there to play bad guy, jump right in and forestall their role. Say to them, "I'm sure you're here to play bad guy, but let's not take that approach. I'm as eager to find a solution to this situation as you are, so why don't we all take a win-win approach. Fair enough?" This really takes the wind out of their sails.

This Gambit is very, very effective even when everybody knows what's going on. It was how Presidents Carter and Reagan got the hostages out of Iran, wasn't it? You remember that? Carter had lost the election. He was very eager to do something about the Iranian hostage situation before he left the White House and Reagan could take credit for their release. So, he started playing Good Guy/Bad Guy with the Ayatollah. He said to him, "If I were you, I'd settle this thing with me. Don't take a chance on this new team coming into office in January. My goodness, have you taken a look at these guys? The President's a former cowboy actor. The Vice President is the former head of the C.I.A. The Secretary of State is Alexander Haig. These guys are crazier than Englishmen. There's no telling what they might do."

Reagan, playing along with it, said, "Hey, if I were you, I'd settle with Carter. He's a nice guy. You're definitely not going to like what I'll have to say about it, when I get into the White House." And sure enough, we saw the hostages being released on the morning of Reagan's inauguration. Of course, the Iranians were aware of Good Guy/Bad Guy, but they didn't want to take a chance that Reagan would follow through with his threats. It demonstrated that these Gambits work even when the other side knows what you're doing.

In 1994, Jimmy Carter was again called upon to play the Good Guy when he and Colen Powell went to Haiti to see if they could get General Cedras to give up power without a fight. Powell was there to impress the might of the armed forces upon Cedras. Carter was there to cozy up the dictator, even suggesting he come to Plains, Georgia, and teach a class in Sunday School when the crisis was over.


  • People use Good Guy/Bad Guy on you much more than you might believe. Look out for it whenever you're negotiating with two or more people.
  • It is a very effective way of putting pressure on the other person without creating confrontation.
  • Counter it by identifying it. It's such a well-known tactic that when you catch them using it, they get embarrassed and back off.
  • Don't be concerned that the other side knows what you're doing. Even if they do it can still be a powerful tactic. In fact, when you're Power Negotiating with someone who understands all of these Gambits, it becomes more fun. It's like playing chess with a person of equal skill rather than someone whom you can easily outsmart.


Roger Dawson is the author of two of Nightingale-Conant's best selling audiocassette programs, Secrets of Power Negotiating and Secrets of Power Negotiating for Salespeople. This article is excerpted in part from Roger Dawson's new book - Secrets of Power Negotiating, published by Career Press and on sale in bookstores everywhere for $24.99.


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