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HBX Business Blog

How to Talk Like an FBI Hostage Negotiator

Posted by Professor Mike Wheeler on June 28, 2016 at 1:25 PM



This post was originally published on Linkedin Pulse

The last couple of months I’ve interviewed a dozen expert negotiators who’ll appear in an online negotiation course I’m helping develop at HBS. Among them are a dealmaker at Microsoft, a couple of entrepreneurs, the head of a real estate investment fund, and the mayor of a mid-sized city.

And then there’s Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator. What, you might ask, can a hostage negotiator like him teach the rest of us about making business deals or negotiating in our daily lives? Plenty, it turns out.

Chris is skeptical about a lot of conventional wisdom about negotiation. And on some important points, I’m convinced he’s right.

Specifically, he thinks the focus on win-win outcomes and expanding the pie has things backwards. To him, the process—not the result—is the heart of negotiation. In order to get something done, you have to connect with whoever it is that you’re dealing with. And if you can do that in a life-and-death situation, as he has done, then you can connect with anyone.


I found three of Chris's negotiation strategies particularly striking:

1. Employ Tactical Empathy

Chris says it’s not what you do or even say that drives success. Rather, it’s how you behave, your general demeanor, and your delivery that really matter.

Chris has perfected what he calls his “late night FM voice.” I heard it during our interview. He slows his pace and brings the pitch down.

There’s nothing threatening in his tone. He’s comfortable with silence. The idea is to get the other person to relax his defenses. It’s almost hypnotic.

Chris draws people out by asking how they are feeling, though he is ultra-careful in his phrasing. He wants to take any hint of aggression out of the conversation. In his experience, the singular pronoun ‘I’ gets people’s guard up. So Chris would never say, “I’m hearing that you think . . .” Instead he’d observe, “It sounds like . . ..”

2. Embrace a Negative Response

Rather than striving to get to yes, Chris loves it when the other person says “No.” It gives that person an active role in the conversation. They can feel a degree of control and security. And for Chris, who is listening, it opens up an opportunity for him to probe—delicately—for what it is they really want. According to Chris, “Great negotiators often seek ‘No’ because they know that’s where the real negotiation begins.”

Chris treads lightly when probing the other person’s mindset. He avoids asking any questions that might sound like cross-examination. For instance, he would never ask, “Why did you do it?” Instead, he’d say, “What caused you to do it?” In his view, the former phrasing invites defensiveness and self-justification. Instead, he prefers questions that begin with “what” and “how” because they are more open-ended.

3. Lead With Potential Objections

Chris believes the reasons why a counterpart won’t make an agreement with you are often more powerful than why they might. So, deal with objections first.

That’s akin to my post last year “To get a YES, expect a NO.” But in our interview, he took the idea further by describing the importance of doing an accusation audit in preparing for negotiation. I’d never heard that phrase, but his explanation seemed right to me.

“List the worst things that the other party could say about you,” he said, “and say them before the other person can.”  Starting out a negotiation by acknowledging the other person’s objections and resentments, takes them off the table. And it’s also disarming.

Chris gives an example in his recent book, Never Split the Difference. Since retiring from the FBI, Chris has been doing consulting and training. For one particular job, he had teamed up with some other people. But before the deal was struck, the client cut the budget significantly. That meant that the fees would be less than Chris originally offered his partners.

When he called them to break the bad news, the first words out of his mouth were, “I have a lousy proposition for you...” Chris went on to say that he knew that they would think he was a “big talker” and that he had “screwed up completely.”

Essentially, he was anticipating their negative reaction and if anything, exaggerating it, in order to clear the air. But then Chris added, “Still, I wanted to bring this opportunity to you before I took it to someone else.”

And as you might expect, after a little grumbling, his partners agreed to cut their rates.


About the Author

Professor Mike Wheeler's current research focuses on negotiation dynamics, dispute resolution, ethics, and distance learning. He is the author or co-author of eleven books, and his self-assessment app—Negotiation360—was released early in 2015. Professor Wheeler is developing a new HBX program on Negotiation which will launch in 2017.


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