Negotiate Like A Top FBI Hostage Negotiator

“Who has control in a conversation, the guy listening or the guy talking?

The listener, of course.

That’s because the talker is revealing information while the listener, if he’s trained well, is directing the conversation toward his own goals. He’s harnessing the talker’s energy for his own ends.”

Chris Voss

That’s what Chis Voss, formerly the FBI’s lead international hostage negotiator, writes in his excellent “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It”. His insights shatter the idea that good negotiators engage in a battle of wills against their counterpart. If there is a guiding principle in the FBI’s elite negotiating team it’s that you have to remove yourself from the equation.

So, it is less “I want this..”, bull-dozing your counterpart into saying “yes” or thinking of your next line of attack while listening. And it is more mirroring the words your counterpart is using to build empathy, encouraging your counterpart to say “no” to make them feel safe and quieting the voice in your head so you can focus on what your counterpart is saying.

As for mechanics of a negotiation, Voss suggests the following approach:

Build rapport

  • Use the language of conversation and rapport – think Oprah Winfrey
  • Don’t commit to assumptions, but rather see your views as hypotheses that the negotiation will test
  • Don’t view negotiations as a battle. Silence the attacking voice in your head. The goal is to uncover information
  • Slow.It.Down. Going fast makes the other feel not heard
  • Use a positive and playful tone of voice. Relax and smile.
  • Use mirroring language, like using the last two or three critical words someone just said to quickly build report. For example, if your boss has a silly request (in your eyes) like “I want two copies of all paperwork”, you can reply “I’m sorry, two copies?”. It will make the boss feel heard and they’ll be more open to change.

Don’t feel pain, label it

  • Imagine your counterpart’s situation. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree (that’s sympathy). By acknowledging the counterpart’s situation, you convey you are listening
  • The reasons for not making an agreement are often more powerful than why they will make a deal. Focus on bringing barriers to agreement out into the open.
  • Label their fears and barriers. For example, to a landlord “it seems like you are worried my cat will damage your property
  • List the worst things the other can say about you, before they say it. When said aloud, it sounds exaggerated and the counterpart may end up claiming the opposite. For example, “you may think I work for big bad multinational company
  • Uses pauses. Let whatever you said sink. The other person will fill the silence.
  • Use labels to reinforce positive dynamics

Beware of “yes”, master “no”.

  • “Yes” is often a way for people to run away from a conversation and makes them defensive.  However, we are trained to elicit “yes” responses, so we need to train ourselves out of it.
  • Someone saying “no” is not a failure. Rather it is “wait” or “I’m not comfortable with that”. Hear it calmly and view it as the beginning of the negotiation not the end.
  • Saying “no” makes people feel safe, secure and powerful, so you actually want them to say it. Therefore, say “is now a bad time to talk” rather than “do you have a few minutes to talk
  • If someone is not listening, you can force a “no” by mislabelling their emotions and asking questions like “It seems like you want this project to fail” or “have you given up on this project?
  • Don’t beat them down with logic and brute force, rather ask questions that open paths to your goals
  • Along with “yes”, if they say “you’re right”, you need to be worried. They are not convinced and they want to get rid of you.
  • Instead you want to hear “that’s right”. It creates breakthroughs.
  • Whenever you feel you have made progress, summarise your understanding and see whether they say “you’re right” or “that’s right”

Get to the emotions

  • All negotiations are defined by a network of subterranean desires and needs. Don’t be fooled by the surface
  • Compromising means leaving both sides unhappy. For example, you want to wear black shoes, your wife wants you to wear brown shoes, so you wear black on one foot, brown on the other. No-one’s happy.
  • Approaching deadlines entice people to rush and make bad decisions. So be clear whether the deadline is meaningful or not. Often missing negotiation deadlines don’t have the dire consequences we think.
  • The F-word, fair, is an emotional term others use to put you on the defensive. Rather then getting suckered ask them to explain how you are mistreating them.
  • Anchor the starting points. Emotionally anchor on the negative side, so list all the bad stuff they could say about you and even “I’ve got a lousy deal for you….still, I wanted to bring this opportunity to you before I took it to someone else”.
  • People take more risks to avoid losses than to realise gains. Make sure your counterpart sees something they could lose by inaction

Discover the black swans

  • Don’t get blinded by your known knowns. Every case is new, so remain flexible and adaptable. You could discover a black swan, an unknown unknown.
  • Black swans are leverage multipliers. 3 types of leverage: positive (give what they want), negative (ability to hurt them) and normative (use counterparts norms to bring them around)
  • Work to understand the other side’s “religion”. This means moving beyond negotiating table and into the life of your counterpart.
  • Dig for what makes them ticks, and show you share common ground.
  • Review everything you hear. Double check it. Compare notes with team mates. Have back up listeners. They will hear things you missed
  • When someone seems crazy, they most likely aren’t. Search for constraints they face, hidden desires and bad information they may possess.
  • Get face time with your counterpart. 10 minutes face time reveals more than days of research. Pay special attention to verbal and nonverbal communications at unguarded moment (beginning and end of sessions).

Transform conflict into collaboration

  • Don’t try to force your opponent to admit that you are right. Aggressive confrontation is the enemy of constructive negotiations
  • Avoid questions that can be answered with “yes” or tiny pieces of information
  • Ask questions that with “how” or “what”. By implicitly asking for help, this gives the counterpart a sense of control and inspires them to speak at length. So “what’s the biggest challenge you face” or “how does this fit into what the objective its”
  • Don’t ask question starting with “why” – it’s an accusation
  • Bite your tongue. When attacked, pause and avoid angry emotional reaction. Reply, with a calibrated question like “how am I supposed to do that?”
  • There is always team on other side. If you are not influencing those behind the table you are vulnerable, so ask “How does this affect the rest of your team? Or “How on board are the people not on this call?

Bargain hard on price

  • Identify counterparts negotiating style. Accommodative (importance of relationship, sees free flowing exchange as valuable), assertive (time is money, win at all costs), analyst (methodical, diligent, not in a rush. can appear cold). Then you’ll know the correct way to approach
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. Game out goal, labels, calibrated questions and responses.
  • Get ready to take a punch. They may lead with an extreme anchor of a low/high price, so have dodging tactics ready such as “how can I work with that?” or pivot to non-monetary goals “what about giving me office space, an introduction to… etc)
  • Have your own extreme anchor price. If you want to buy something, then start with 65%, of your target price then move to 85%, then 95% and then end on a on a non-round numbers e.g. $1,012 (it makes it sound more precise and non-negotiable).

Guarantee execution

  • Use “how can I do that” as a gentle version of “no”. Force them to search for your solution
  • Don’t just pay attention to people you are directly negotiating with. Identify motivations of people “behind the table”. Do this by asking how a deal will affect everybody else
  • Pay close attention to tone of voice and body language. Incongruence between words and nonverbal shows lying or discomfort
  • Determine if “yes” real or counterfeit. Test with the Rule of Three. Use how/what questions, summaries and labels to get your counterpart to re-affirm agreement at least three times. It’s hard to repeatedly fake commitment.
  • Use of pronouns offers insights into relative authority. Lots of “I”, “me” and “my”, the real power probably lies elsewhere. Lots of “we”, “they” and “them” more likely dealing with savvy decision maker keeping options open
  • Use your own name to make yourself a real person. Humour and humanity best way to break ice and remove roadblocks.

These are the highlights from the book, and it’s well worth a read, there are a lot more insights that I didn’t have space for. The important thing to remember is not to get stuck a mechanistic formula, but rather get the foundations right, which is to make the negotiations less about how smart you are and more about the other person.


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