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Chris Voss and the Art of Negotiating

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I recently heard expert hostage negotiator Chris Voss speak on the topic of negotiation and thought it was worth highlighting some of his important points. Each of us negotiates all day long, sometimes without even knowing it. The better skilled we are at it, the better will be our outcomes.

Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator, the CEO of The Black Swan Group Ltd, and co-author of the book, Never Split the Difference.

Prior to founding Black Swan Group , Chris was the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the FBI’s hostage negotiation representative for the National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group.

During his government career, he also represented the U.S. Government at two international conferences sponsored by the G-8 as an expert in kidnapping. Prior to becoming the FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator, Christopher served as the lead Crisis Negotiator for the New York City Division of the FBI. Chris was a member of the New York City Joint Terrorist Task Force for 14 years. He was the case agent on such cases as TERRSTOP (the Blind Sheikh Case – Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman), the TWA Flight 800 catastrophe and negotiated the surrender of the first hostage taker to give up in the Chase Manhattan bank robbery hostage taking.

The art of negotiation as taught by Voss, is anchored in the idea of empathy. “When people feel listened to, they tend to listen to themselves more carefully – and they openly evaluate and clarify their own thoughts and feelings. They tend to be less defensive and oppositional. They listen to other points of view.”

Tactical Empathy

Voss calls this tactical empathy – listening as a martial art. Listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.

Tactical empathy is not about agreeing with the other person – that is sympathy – instead, it is understanding a situation from another’s perspective. Understanding the other person’s feelings and what is behind those feelings will increase your influence in all the moments that follow. This is in stark contrast to the all too common fosuc on our own goals and perspectives. We become obsessed with telling our story.

One component of listening Voss teaches is mirroring. Mirroring is commonly used to reflect the other person’s physical presence by imitating the other person’s stance and body language. Voss uses this in his verbal interaction by matching the words, pace and other attributes. It makes people feel that they are being bonded with and in sync. It establishes rapport that leads to trust. We fear what’s different and trust what is similar and familiar.

One subtle application of familiarity is what Voss calls a Jedi mind trick: repeat the last three words the other person said as you begin to counter.

Four proven tactics Voss employs in his negotiations

  1. The “late night DJ voice” (calm and assured)
  2. Mirroring
  3. Get the other person to confirm, “That’s right” rather than “You’re right”
  4. Allow four seconds of silence before responding

Negotiation is a process of discovery. Quiet the voices inside your hear so that your all-encompassing focus is on the other person and what they are saying.

To believe we can control or manage other’s decisions with compromise and logic, we’re leaving millions of dollars on the table. We can’t control other’s decisions but we can influence them by inhabiting their world and seeing what they want.


Labeling is the act of rephrasing in concrete terms what you are hearing and believe the other is feeling. In one negotiation he described, an example was, “It seems like you are scared and don’t want to go to jail.” In your business, it might be a question that reflects a reality of how your company or offering is being interpreted or misinterpreted. It’s a place to reach common understanding.

Labeling uncovers and identifies the emotions underlying and driving all of your counterpart’s behaviors. Going after negativity through labeling brings us to a safe zone of empathy. Everyone has a need to be understood.

Human connection is the foundation. State the negatives the other party feels. It prepares you to handle negative dynamics before they take root in the negotiation.

Often, because they are stated, and often feel exaggerated to the other person, it often encourages them to say the opposite is actually true. You will often discover something important.

Starting With “No”

“Good negotiators know that “No” is pure gold.

Negotiations start with “No” but we’ve been conditioned to fear the word. People use “No” to protect themselves and will fight to the death to say “No”, so give them that right and the negotiation will become more collaborative almost immediately.

Common negotiating thought is to get to “Yes”. Ask them questions, the answers to which they can’t help but answer with yes. Voss contends that steering people to say yes makes them feel manipulated or committed to an outcome. We become deluded into thinking we are making progress by hearing “Yes” in early stages of negotiation.

Everyone is driven by two primary urges: to feel safe and secure and to feel in control.

While we are driven to be nice, it is often employed as a ruse and is manipulative and disingenuous. Instead of getting selling with logic and false smiles, we get there by asking for “No.”

“No” is their protection. Ask a question that solicits “No” and you give the other person the feeling that they are in the driver’s seat. By asking a question that solicits “No” shows the other party that we are engaged in thinking, not manipulating. Trying for a “Yes” makes the other person skittish, defensive and wary.

An example Voss gave was in asking for time. Rather than asking, “Is this a good time to talk?”, ask “Is this a bad time to talk.”

Voss reminded us of Ronald Reagan’s famous question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

He used this idea of asking for “no” one time when trying to get Jack Welsh to talk in front of one of the university classes he was teaching. He traveled to a book signing featuring Welsh. He prepared his question carefully and once at the table in front of Welsh, he asked, “Would it be a ridiculous idea for you to come and speak for me at (the name of the college)?” To which Jack gave him his card and said to set something up with his secretary.

Voss said, “You’ll be shocked at what people will say “No” to.

“If you fear ‘no’, you can’t negotiate. You’re a hostage to “Yes”.

An answer of “No” from the other person:

  • Is a reaffirmation of their autonomy and control
  • Allows the real issues to be brought forth
  • Protects people from making mistakes and allows them to correct poor decisions
  • Slows things down and lets them freely embrace their decision and the agreements they enter into
  • Helps people feel safe and emotionally comfortable
  • Moves everyone’s efforts forward

One technique for extracting “No” is to mislabel the other’s emotions. “So it seems like you are really eager to leave your job.” That forces them to listen and correct you: “No that’s not it. It is actually…” You may find truth in their next statement and the key to advancing the negotiation.

Another example Voss provided is to ask, “Have you given up on this project?” This plays on their aversion to loss and implies that you are willing to give up and walk away on your own terms.

Getting to “No” is not unkind, but authentic. “Yes” is at the very end of the negotiation.

Success is getting the other party to believe the solution was their own idea so instead of beating them over the head with logic or brute force reasoning, ask them a question that opens paths to their goals. And remember, it’s always about them, not you.

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