Bacon's Essays: Of Negotiating

This promises to be a useful essay. Bacon must have engaged in and witnessed a great deal Of Negotiating in his long career at court.

Letters are good


Quodlibet, by Cornelius Gijsbrechts. 1675

“It is generally better to deal by speech than by letter; and by the mediation of a third than by a man’s self.” He doesn’t elaborate, but having a mediator speak for you makes you seem more important, and also avoids the hazard of emotional excess.

“Letters are good, when a man would draw an answer by letter back again; or when it may serve for a man’s justification afterwards to produce his own letter; or where it may be danger to be interrupted, or heard by pieces.”

Modern advice is to get everything in writing. Don’t make deals over the phone; make them by email so you have dated copies of everything. Not making deals in places where you’re liable to be interrupted is just plain common sense.

Unless your face favors your cause


Would you buy a used car from this man? I would.

“To deal in person is good, when a man’s face breedeth regard, as commonly with inferiors; or in tender cases, where a man’s eye, upon the countenance of him with whom he speaketh, may give him a direction how far to go; and generally, where a man will reserve to himself liberty, either to disavow or to expound.”

I guess your face would breed regard if it’s a well-known face — or an especially handsome one. Or maybe it’s a patrician sort of face, with a patrician habit of expression.

We would say “delicate matters” instead of “tender cases.” If you need to assess the immediate effect of your plea or argument on the person you’re negotiating with, you have to be there, watching their face. You can alter your course on the spur of the moment. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. Let me explain it again.”


Choose your instrument

“In choice of instruments, it is better to choose men of a plainer sort, that are like to do that, that is committed to them, and to report back again faithfully the success, than those that are cunning, to contrive, out of other men’s business, somewhat to grace themselves, and will help the matter in report for satisfaction’s sake.”


The Mountebank, by Pietro Longhi (1701 – 17785.) Not the guy you want to negotiate for you, but I couldn’t resist this painting. Lots of persuasion going on here!

You definitely want a rep who will pursue your project, rather than their own. Let’s say you’re getting divorced and you’re negotiating ownership of the lake house. You want your lawyer to argue in favor of you getting that house, not letting your spouse win on condition that they let the lawyer buy it later at a bargain price.

“Use also such persons as affect the business, wherein they are employed; for that quickeneth much; and such, as are fit for the matter; as bold men for expostulation, fair-spoken men for persuasion, crafty for inquiry and observation, froward, and absurd men, for business that doth not well bear out itself.”

He must have a lot of men available to negotiate. If you have the choice, choose a bold man to expostulate (to reason earnestly), a persuasive man to persuade, a crafty (clever) man to observe the situation while negotiating, and an absurd man for uh… No idea what this means! Some business that really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I guess. Your absurd negotiator will distract your opponent from the inadequacies of the thing being negotiated.

“Use also such as have been lucky, and prevailed before, in things wherein you have employed them; for that breeds confidence, and they will strive to maintain their prescription.”

Hire people who have success in the thing you’re hiring them for. More common sense. Also, you definitely want a person who is confident about their abilities, not a mealy-mouthed foot-shuffler. And you want people who take pride in their abilities and thus aim to succeed on that account, as well as to fulfill your request.

First sound from afar

“It is better to sound a person, with whom one deals afar off than to fall upon the point at first; except you mean to surprise him by some short question.”


Peter Falk as Columbo with his dog. Budapest.

Get a general sense of where the person stands with regard to your matter before negotiating. Except for the short question gambit. Bacon seems to love this little verbal tactic, which I think of as the Columbo Maneuver. You pretend you’re walking away or interested in something else, and then you turn and ask a very pointed question. “By the way, wasn’t that your car in front of the office yesterday?” Zappo!

“It is better dealing with men in appetite, than with those that are where they would be.”

The more your opponent wants what you have, the stronger your position. A person who already has everything they want can walk away at any time.

“If a man deal with another upon conditions [prerequisites], the start or first performance is all; which a man cannot reasonably demand, except either the nature of the thing be such, which must go before; or else a man can persuade the other party, that he shall still need him in some other thing; or else that he be counted the honester man.”

In truth, I don’t know what this means. If there are pre-conditions to the negotiation, like let’s say, the house must be freshly painted, then if you go look and if it’s not painted, you’re done. First performance makes or breaks the deal.

You can only set such conditions if they make sense. You can’t stipulate that a house be furnished before it’s built. But then it seems like he jumps to another topic with the stuff about persuading your opponent that you can employ them in some other fashion so they won’t feel bad if they lose.

Discover yourself

“All practice is to discover, or to work. Men discover themselves in trust, in passion, at unawares, and of necessity, when they would have somewhat done, and cannot find an apt pretext.”

Yes to the discovery of self part, but how that relates to not having a good excuse to get their thing done, I couldn’t say.

“If you would work any man, you must either know his nature and fashions, and so lead him; or his ends, and so persuade him or his weakness and disadvantages, and so awe him or those that have interest in him, and so govern him.”

Phew! At last, some more common sense, clearly stated.


A pair of cunning characters

“In dealing with cunning persons, we must ever consider their ends, to interpret their speeches; and it is good to say little to them, and that which they least look for.”

Cunning persons, and persons who wish you harm: consider their goals in order to evaluate what they say to you. Engage them as little as possible and say the thing they least expect.

“In all negotiations of difficulty, a man may not look to sow and reap at once; but must prepare business, and so ripen it by degrees.”

Be patient, build slowly, let things grow. Always good advice. But I’m not finding a juicy quote in this essay. He’ll have to come back and give it another polish.

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