The Most Dangerous Word In Business Negotiations

I began my career on the trading floor. At the time it was a vortex of financial activity. Various size groups of mostly men in varied colored trading jackets. The noise was constant, traders bidding on contracts, brokers yelling for attention. An archaic paging system in constant use as the 100’s of traders and support staff worked on time critical transactions. The floor littered in used trading tickets and ephemera. Almost like ants at a picnic undisturbed, the appearance of chaos but in actuality everyone had a well orchestrated role. No actions were random, everyone had a role to play even if it is not apparent to an untrained eye.

I would maneuver around the perimeter of the trading crowds. A few times my mentor Nate would grab my arm and say I want you to see this. He would say watch and listen closely. There was a process when there was a dispute over a transaction. I said buy 1000 not 10000. No you said… It was a dispute over facts. Pretty much black and white issues, easily resolved. There were witnesses, recordings, a floor official to be consulted if one side demanded a ruling. Nate would want me to dissect the dispute particularly when one side would use a certain tactic.

The moment one side would say it’s “not fair” Nate would squeeze my arm for emphasis. He would say “watch your wallet.” His basis for this observation was his belief that the moment someone injected a subjective argument in an otherwise objective discussion was a dangerous development. He was very much an old school businessman who felt emotions, feelings had nothing to do with trading, business. He felt there was a certain integrity in the decorum, and there was. He liked his business, trading decisions based on nothing but the facts. In fact he would ask his traders why they made a certain trade. The only acceptable answer as far as he was concerned was an objective decision based on sound reasoning.

It was a smokescreen, a distraction, a means to change the subject from a factually based discussion to one based on feelings. Feelings are subjective and the definition of fairness is different from one person to the next. It reaches across all industries and scenarios. There are certainly many situations where feelings, fairness need to be a central part of the calculation. The problem develops when shrewd negotiators play the fairness card. It’s almost as if you could substitute the word advantageous in lieu of fair. When someone says it’s “not fair” they mean this situation is not to my advantage, the facts are against me so let’s talk about my feelings. It’s a very calculated move to change the topic of discussion. Proceed with great caution.

This was one of those valuable life lessons from the trading floor that I have used on an almost daily basis. I have been accused of being “cold” or “unfeeling” during negotiations but that is actually not the case. I choose to leave my “feelings” at the door and make my business decisions based on only the facts. A detached view of any disputes I find myself in is the best route for me. I require a clear head and good information in order to make a good business decision. The moment someone wants to influence the outcome of a discussion by injecting their feelings it’s time to say stop, this is not about feelings it is about facts.

In a legal setting this is exactly the way the system was designed to work. Lets use a real estate transaction as an example. A buyer finds a home, he/she has it inspected, he/she has her/his agent do comparisons to see if the price is an accurate reflection of its value. The parties sign a contract. At that point what is fair? Enforcing the terms of the contract is the obvious answer. If after the signing its announced a golf course will be built next door, doubling the value, what’s fair? Enforcing the terms of the contract. If after the signing it’s announced a waste treatment plant will be built next door, halving the value, what’s fair? Enforcing the terms of the contract. In either scenario one party will be viewed as the lucky winner and one the unlucky loser. Either way it’s fair.

We don’t have to look very far to see all kinds of people playing the fairness card. We really need to push back. The drunk driver who kills someone and then claims the system is treating him unfair is right. It’s not fair. The victim’s can never be made whole again. The CEO who recently lost his position after increasing drug prices exponentially fo no better reason other than he could. He claimed he was being treated unfairly and he also was right. It’s unfair he was in a position to act in such a reckless and unethical manner and have the ability to harm others. Be very wary and look and see if someone is discussing the facts or discussing their feelings.

The great writer Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) once wrote “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.” In other words get emotional and talk about your feelings. But more to the point you need to protect yourself and your interests. I am not interested in helping the shrewd negotiators attempting to improve the outcome to their advantage. We all need to be more aware and cognizant when someone uses that particular negotiating tactic. The more powerful the person claiming they are being treated unfairly the more you need to be skeptical. The moment someone wants to change a factual discussion to a discussion about their feelings, take a step back and look at the situation and be very cautious. As my friend and mentor Nate would say “watch your wallet, you are about to be robbed!”


Robert J. Hardy
Robert J. Hardy
I was born in Camden, NJ, the oldest of eight and graduated from Villanova University with a BA in PSC/ENG (Political Science and English) with a pre-law concentration. Originally the plan was to go to law school but I had an opportunity to work on the trading floor at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange (NASDAQ-omx) for what is now Goldman Sachs. I worked for a boutique clearing firm and helped to build our office from the smallest to the largest clearing firm on the exchange. The more moving pieces the more I enjoy it. My background is primarily sell side and have hands-on experience in risk and compliance, KYC, AML, regulatory and client management. I’ve traveled extensively and am a passionate rugby player and fan. I enjoy contrasts and what they tell us about ourselves and others. I am a polished senior executive comfortable in any boardroom and yet I enjoy a good rugby match and getting banged around a little and meeting people I otherwise would have no contact with. I am actively seeking a new role and enjoy writing an article once a week or so to keep my skills sharp. My greatest hesitation is exposing my innermost thoughts to complete strangers, but quickly realized I had nothing to bring to the table without an honest dialogue. Once I opened that door and walked through it I realized I had far more to gain than lose.

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  1. Every person that told me that I “wasn’t fair” was attempting to guilt me into doing something that wasn’t in my best interests to do. In fact bringing up “let’s be fair” is a sales tactic often used in negotiation.

    I don’t recall running into someone who used the “be fair” phrase sincerely. Maybe I have ran into someone, but I just don’t remember. It’s just one of those phrases that I just ignore when people say it.

    • Yes, guilt is certainly one of the cards people play. And yes it is not in anyway a sincere argument, they are never interested in being fair to you, they are most often only interested in being treated more fairly than you. Look at Vladimir Putin claiming he is being treated unfairly. Its absurd and surreal that a war criminal would whine about his feelings being hurt. he is not interested in fairness he is interested in power, pure and simple and if playing the fairness card gets him anywhere he is ready to give it a try.

  2. Very good article, Robert.

    I, like you, manage by facts vs. emotions. Yes, we can be perceived as cold and calculating. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that those like us have some difficulty dealing with many of the younger set that work largely on feelings and emotions.

    • Thanks, yes, I’m not sure sure this is an age issue. I think it is more about whichever group you don’t share any common perspectives with. In your opinion, and a perfectly valid one, it is an age gap. For myself it is commonly a gender gap. Female members of my staff would accuse me of being cold, one particular employee would cry when she didn’t get her way. I would hand her a box of tissues and tell her to come back when she was in control. Perhaps I should have been more understanding but I felt it manipulative so I didn’t participate.

  3. I agree, to a point.
    The individual who claims, “It’s not fair” doesn’t understand the purpose or meaning of emotions. Most people don’t, the science that decided this question is only a decade old and has received surprisingly little attention.
    Negative emotions mean, “There is a better perspective from which this situation could be viewed that would feel better to you.” The person who plays the fairness card doesn’t need a new decision about the situation, they need a new perspective. They are the only one who can accomplish a change of perspective. Perhaps they learned a valuable lesson that will save them even more in the future. Perhaps it is pointing to a relationship they were committed to that they would be better off leaving. There is always a silver lining but it won’t be found if the person doesn’t look for it. Negative emotions are a signal that we should be looking for a better perspective.
    When the purpose of emotions is understood, positive emotions are very valuable. Most of the best CEO’s talk about the importance of their gut instincts, which is a way to talk about emotions without sounding emotional. Emotions have a place in business and they are valuable when we understand how to use them.

    • Yes it is all about perspective. Its probably helpful to note, we need to acknowledge the feelings of our friends and family, I believe the business world should be treated fundamentally differently. I care about my family’s feelings on a certain subject, I don’t care at all about the feelings of the person I am attempting to do business with are, or at least I don’t think it should be anyone’s first priority.