While returning from a business trip to Ghana, I got hit with a scam; a fake drug bust meant to negotiate away some dollars from my wallet from legit police officers. Well, the police tried their best to swindle me with a common scam to earn some bread on unsuspecting tourists. Here’s how I averted their scam using some basic negotiation skills and kept my ass out of jail on fake drug charges.
At the airport, after I got my passport stamped by customs for my return journey home. Boom, stamp, click, I am going home after six weeks of work in Accra, Ghana. Flights home are few and far in between so missing a flight means a few extra days, if not a week, in Ghana. As I rushed towards the gate with my business partner Kyle, three plain clothes police officers pulled us over and asked for passports.
They were not smiling. My heart froze.
They took our passports.
Do you take drugs?
No, I replied.
Are you willing to take a test to prove that?
Sure, I responded.
The police separated me from Kyle and led me to the men’s bathroom.
We arrived at the stall. I stared at the standing urinal and the officer handed me a plastic bottle cap from a Pepsi bottle. I squeezed it with my thumb and forefinger.
You want me to pee in this?
This? You don’t have a cup or bottle?
Into the cap.
I started to calm down and I got it. This is a scam, nothing more, nothing less and there is no passing this test no matter how clean my urine is. I unzipped and waited.
So, um, I cannot go. I just went to the bathroom.
I can’t! There’s is nothing left. You know?
He bit his lip. They led me to a table to start drinking water. I saw my flight boarding and people getting onto the plane. I had very little time to get out of this without forking out some cash. I was not going to fork out cash.
So I started to break their frame with negotiation and compromise.
Rarely is anything given outright. Once you leave the womb of the home, the world is completely malleable to those that know how to ask and negotiate for what they want, whether on the behalf of themselves or their communities. Not all negotiations are pleasant experiences though all our incredibly valuable as a learning exercise. From dodging scams at foreign airport to getting millions of dollars invested in my projects, here are general lessons of negotiation.
Speak to the Heart
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail in South Africa. During this time, he taught himself Afrikaans, the language of his colonialist oppressors. And he leveraged that power of language as a devastating weapon against the brutal regime of apartheid. He knew a simple yet incredibly powerful notion: If you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head. If you speak to a man in his own language, you speak to his heart.
In the above story of my false arrest, I leveraged a brief opening by saying a basic phrase of “Thank you and I’m sorry” in the native language of the police. I knew that this would register to his subconscious and start to establish rapport, which I define as the process of getting the attention and trust of the unconscious mind. Trust, however minimal, is the foundation of every negotiation and rapport must be established at some level.
Controlling Time Controls Everything
Time is the most finite resource on the planet, can never be borrowed, and is therefore the most important factor in any negotiation. I had everything against me in this regard when I walked into that airport scam. The guards knew that there is only one flight per day and that if I did not show up on the plane, it would leave without me, causing me distress and financial woe. They intercepted me a the perfect time, right during the boarding process where humans become anxious lemmings desperately awaiting entry to a mechanical bird. The strongest position you can have in a negotiation is all the time in the world which necessitates a Buddhist mindset that removes desire from the mind. If you can remove the desire – even if just superficially – for the car or home you are negotiating for, you have created space to make a wise decision and greatly increased your position in the dialogue. I could not control the plane’s departure, this I knew.
Expect the Unexpected
Sun Tzu, the great Chinese general and military strategist once said “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles,”capturing the essence of being adequately ready to engage in negotiation. You must think of all possible outcomes of the current state and then be prepared to face them all. I have personally been sued a few times though never I have been unprepared for litigation. When things start going remotely south, I tap the counsel of experienced individuals and legal professionals to understand all my options and remove all of the unknown unknowns. Together, we mentally explore each path and become prepared to trudge down each and every one. Yet it took epic failures like this random drug bust to truly make me always be on my toes.
Third Party Parry
The most clever move at onset of the drug bust scam was to separate me from Kyle. I am not sure why they decided to pick me though I am fairly certain the decision was haphazard. Negotiating with one individual as opposed to many has many obvious benefits. The Japanese were very wise to this notion and at a negotiation table, would wear identical suits and would purposefully – through words, lack of titles and hand actions – mystify who the decision maker(s) was/were in the group. In the world of business sales, delineating executive sponsors from decision makers to influencers is vital in getting the upper hand. Everyone wants the ear of the King and if you don’t even know who the King is, then you are at a great disadvantage.
This same principle works when buying a car. If I am meeting a car salesman and express interest in a car, we will inevitably enter into a bidding tussle. If I find the terms not to my liking, I parry with my third party: “Thank you for the information and I need to speak to my wife about this.” I have now rendered his arguments useless against me as my wife is not present, he cannot directly negotiate with her, and I have also increased the time we need to make the decision. (Note: this is a highly fictitious scenario as my wife is a far greater negotiator than I am.) At my position in life now, when I look at job opportunities and an offer is made, I never accept the first offer and parry that I must review my options with my Board of Advisors, a select circle of trusted friends and mentors that provide insight on how to strengthen my position so I can provide more for my family and community.
Always Act, Never React
All of us have buttons that can be pushed and we cannot allow that to happened during powerful dialogues where we are seeking agreement between parties. Controlling the mind, steadying the breathing, and realizing when your emotions trump logic are vital navigational skills that direct your ship towards a successful resolution. An impassive zen like state of solidity is the most masterful way to handle any negotiation. Like all great poker players know, finding a ‘tell’, a change in a player’s behavior or demeanor that gives clues to that player’s assessment of their hand, is incredibly useful tool in controlling the game within the negotiation.
Once my make-shift captors realized I could not urinate, I was asked to sit at table. Their backs were to the gate and I faced them, where I directly see the dwindling line of passengers getting on board. Perhaps this was unintentional though it would be remarkably effective in eliciting panic from a person who is desperate to get on a plane. After they handed me a Pepsi cap for my “drug test”, I knew immediately this was a shake-down for a bribe. Once I stalled to buy more time, they did their best to push my buttons. I sat stolidly and in a pose of comfort, focused on them while keeping the dwindling line in my periphery. I tried to maintain my calm and then questioned their authority.
Badge of Authority
A powerful tool in any negotiation is showing a badge of authority, a document, title, certification, or shiny metallic object to convey that one party has dominance over another. I rarely am ever impressed with badges of authority. While I realize and respect the mastery of craft in receiving a certification or badge, I am also quite aware of the myopic views this same focused path can create. I’m also aware of how many people and companies dilute the value of these words with baseless certifications that exist not for compliance to excellence (such as an Olympic gold medal or a PhD in a given field) and more oriented for profit generating purposes (such as an MBA from an online ‘university’ or Salesman of the Year statues on a car dealer’s desk). Badges are important though they are prolific to a point that their value is questionable, are politically corruptible (let’s not forget Adolf Hitler was nominated for a Nobel Prize), and can be greedily leveraged for profit or advantage. So question authority, poke the bear.
Sitting at that table, a whirlwind of thoughts entered my mind as I stared at my opponents. First of all, I was beyond customs and therefore in international territory. What on earth were local policeman even doing here? This is no longer Ghana, it’s a no mans land of expensive perfumes, ugly knick-knacks for travelers , and duty free cigarettes and alcohol. These badges are useless outside of the fact they existed to merely prove their dominance. And hence my next thought that I should counter with my own badge of authority. If they were going to play the cop card, I trumped with the “I know your boss” card. I looked like a haggard back-packer and they misread me as a clueless tourist who could easily be shaken down for a $100 bribe. Given a partnership with the United Nations, I knew both the chief of police in Accra and people in the CID) so I could disrupt their illusion of power, my own badge trumped theirs.
I poked the bear, a risky gambit for sure, though they turned over and howled.
Be Kind to the People, Be Tough to the Cause
I am not mad or upset at the officers as human beings. They have tough jobs and are probably paid very little. Corruption is systemic in all parts of the world and while I may hate the game, I love the player. That is the person, the individual that is trying to increase his or her choices in life and who am I to judge them without fully understanding their why? Fundamentally, I believe nearly all people are trying to do good in the world. Even those we personify as evil are only puppets to their negligent upbringing, trapped in the world of hungry ghosts that cause malfeasant addictions in their brains, leading them to do ‘bad’ things.
Yet the cause, whatever that may be, is fundamental and to be considered as non-negotiable. To that, I stayed tough as what these officers were doing was clearly wrong. They were abusing their power for quick gain and lurked upon two shaggy looking backpackers who looked like an easy score. I wasn’t ready in my mind to miss my flight so I did not want to show fear.
Rather, I revealed my ace card and upped the game to a risky place: I know your bosses and are they cool with this?
I mitigated this political risk (NO ONE likes the person who can go over their heads) by being very kind and gracious to these police officers, offering them compliments, speaking their local language, and peppering in notes of “I’m just here to help”.
Be kind to all people, you never know when you might need their help to stay tough to the cause.
And as for the scam? Once they learned I knew their bosses, they shoved back my passport and let me go back home.