Adverse Transparency

In persuasion, adverse transparency is the act of being transparent about things that are not good for you, and that you didn’t need to share. Choosing to share them anyway communicates honesty and authority. It can be used for two different purposes:

  • To increase honesty and authority at the framing stage (to show you’re trustworthy, a trusted advisor);
  • To test the person or provoke objections (you admit the negative aspects and gauge whether they affect the person’s interest);

Underlying Psychology/Biases

Adverse transparency works as you are actively sharing negative elements about yourself that you didn’t need to, which conveys honesty and trustworthiness.


Usually, you can be honest about three key areas:

  • Being transparent about other options;
    • If there are other similar products (even better ones), making sure the person knows that before buying;
    • If there are other good candidates, making sure the person knows that before hiring you;
    • Flight search engines on an airline’s website – when they show other options (even when they’re better), they stick with the original one due to the trust;
  • Being transparent about minor flaws
    • Sharing the small things you don’t know, the small occasions where you had bad performance, and so on;
    • A key component of this is to be honest about what you don’t know;
      • When someone asks something that you don’t know, not defending or making excuses – simply saying, “I don’t know”;
  • Being transparent about the opportunity cost
    • If someone wants to buy but they will be locked into a 2-year contract, making sure they know this before the buy;
    • If by investing in your fund the person will run out of funds to invest in other ones, making sure they know this before they buy;

You can also use some additional techniques:

  • Self-encapsulating or polarizing ownership
    • Saying “I do this in specific because I don’t do all of these other activities”;
    • The small negative thing is all the other activities you don’t do;
  • Being self-demanding
    • When the person is thinking of hiring you or buying, you forcing them to hold you accountable;
    • “Unless there’s a performance clause, I won’t let you buy, because I demand results from myself”;
  • Conditional self-flagellation
    • Giving the impression that, if you’re wrong, you will be the first to hold yourself accountable;
    • “I’m 99% sure of this, but in the case I’m wrong, I will be the one to give you a discount/refund/beat myself up over it”;
  • Unsatisfactory backtracking
    • Going back to an answer that you previously gave that you’re not happy with;
    • “Wait, there’s an answer I gave you 5 minutes ago that is not completely correct. I should have mentioned [ABC]”;
    • Witnesses in police interrogations. The ones that have one original “perfect story” are usually liars. Those that backtrack and correct details are usually the ones telling the truth;
  • Admitting flaws that aren’t flaws
    • This creates this effect without actually having to admit something negative. For example, contrasting areas of expertise
    • If you’re a corporate sales consultant but you know nothing about startup sales:
      • “I don’t know anything about startup sales, but in terms of corporate sales, I know [ABC]”;
    • If you’re an executive coach but not a personal coach
      • “I don’t know a lot about personal coaching, but in terms of executive coaching, I’m one of the top ten in [ABC]”;


To build authority:

  • In Ultimate Persuasion Psychology
    • Challenging the “Yes”
      • Used by top coaches and frequently mentioned by Rich Litvin;
      • Even when someone wants to buy, you stop them and ask, “Are you sure you want to buy? Take your time”;
    • Saying, “I don’t do that”
      • When someone has an opportunity that can be profitable but that is not your specialization, simply refusing it;
      • “I don’t have the skills to do this and I don’t want to provide a bad service, so I respectfully refuse this”;
    • Product search engines
      • In travel search engines, or book search engines, in some cases they will include a small price comparison box with other alternatives;
      • Even when other sides have better prices, most people stick with the original one out of loyalty;
    • Trusted advisors
      • In client-facing roles, the concept of the “trusted advisor” is key. This person is honest about things that are not good for the client, even when it goes against the company;
    • “You only need this”
      • When selling a product or service that has multiple components, only recommending the ones the person needs instead of selling a big, bloated solution. It’s less profit at the time, but it creates more lasting relationships;
    • “I’m just starting out
    • When a consultant (or candidate, or other) is starting out, being honest about it with the client;
    • This risks the person losing the client, but they come across as more transparent and the person may stay due to this;
  • Others
    • Bad things about homes
      • When showing a home, many real estate agents will start by mentioning the negatives. “You’re aware this is on a fourth floor without an elevator, right?”. This filters people and communicates transparency from the beginning;

To elicit objections:

  • “It doesn’t solve everything”
    • When someone is ready to buy or do something, but you want to make sure they understand it doesn’t fix everything, you can say it;
    • “John, I know you want this, but this doesn’t fix all of your products. It fixes 90% of them. Are you still in?”;
  • Opposite of “salesy”
    • High-pressure salesmen force products down people’s throats;
    • This frame is the opposite. You’re being honest about things you didn’t, slowing down, and gauging whether the person is still in at several points;
  • “Are we still OK?”
    • When something happens between friends that leaves a bad or negative aftertaste, but one of them wants to check that things are still well, they will usually say something as, “You and me are still OK, right?”;

Commercial/Known Uses

  • Challenging the “yes” (coaches);
  • “Trusted advisor” frame (client-facing roles);

Key Takeaways

  • For building authority
    • Adverse transparency is the equivalent of saying, “please hold it against me”. You’re giving the person the weapons to use against you, and due to this, many times they don’t;
    • This signals honesty and vulnerability. And due to this, it frequently persuades;
    • It can be used in multiple formats. You can beat yourself over errors, demand performance from yourself, be transparent about your flaws or lack of experience, or anything else;
  • For provoking objections
    • In this case, we use adverse transparency to reveal the small negative elements, and then gauge the person’s commitment. It’s objection bait;
    • You can use any of the same types as for building authority. Being honest about minor flaws, other options, the opportunity cost, and so on;