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
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,
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
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
- 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.
KEY POINTS TO REMEMBER:
- 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.