A Top FBI Negotiator Shares 5 Tactics for Getting the Outcome You Want

October 24, 2019

When Chris Voss, the FBI’s former lead international kidnapping negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference, first began training in the art of negotiation, he was surprised to find that it was less like espionage than he had imagined — and more like a business transaction.

“There's going to be an expected initial demand,” he says, referring to the conversations that occur between kidnappers and agents. “There's going to be a percentage that they expect to settle for, and there's going to be an expected amount of time that they think the kidnapping will last…. [It’s] a market and the commodity is human beings.”

That might sound callous, but it happens every day — and Chris and his team saved countless lives by negotiating effectively. The skills and tactics he picked up along the way aren’t just useful in hostage situations. Negotiation is something humans do all the time, albeit with much lower stakes. And as a talent professional, your ability to negotiate can have a major impact on your success and the success of your organization — helping you win over candidates, access vital resources, get a seat at the table, and more. 

At Talent Connect 2019, Chris shared some of his tried-and-tested methods for getting what you want out of any negotiation. Whether you’re negotiating with candidates, hiring managers, or business leaders, here are some tactics Chris recommends. 

1. Recognize that when you’re in a negotiation, you must be willing to give in order to receive

While you might not think about it in these terms, you probably negotiate on a semi-regular basis. For Chris, recognizing that these situations are negotiations is essential — otherwise, you’ll be starting out on the wrong foot. 

“The most dangerous negotiations are the ones you don't know you're in,” Chris says. “If the words ‘I want’ or ‘I need’ or ‘will you’ are coming out of your mouth, you're in a negotiation.”

Once you’ve identified that you’re in a negotiation, you can approach it with the right mindset — specifically, the mindset that negotiation is a two-way street. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to focus solely on what you want. 

“The business model in any given negotiations, regardless of who it's with, it's not what's on the line for you,” Chris says. “What's on the line for the other side?”

This is true whether you’re asking business leaders for resources or chasing down a hiring manager for their feedback about a candidate. In order to get what you want, you have to make the other party feel like they’re going to get something in return. 

This doesn’t mean immediately agreeing to their terms, but showing that you’re willing to collaborate opens up the floor for a productive discussion. 

“That’s the nature of human interaction,” Chris says. “We want reciprocity. We want to know that the person that we’re about to help is going to help us.”

2. Demonstrate empathy for the other side’s challenges to establish trust and competence

The first question that the other party asks themselves in any negotiation is, “How are you going to help me?” The second is, “Do you have any idea what I’m faced with?”

That’s why empathy is critical to a fruitful negotiation. Chris references the advice of Dr. Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. 

“Just ramp it up a notch,” Chris says, “and seek first to demonstrate understanding in order to be understood.”

Chris aims to establish his competence and gain the other party’s trust within the first 10 seconds, since studies show that’s how long it takes to make a first impression. And immediately demonstrating an understanding of the challenges they face is a great way to achieve this. 

For example, when he was trying to convince a kidnap victim’s anxious father to collaborate and follow his negotiation plan, Chris explained that these particular kidnappers were not known for killing victims, and that they would likely want to go out partying on Saturday night. That meant that if the father heeded Chris’s words, his son would likely be returned by Saturday morning at the latest. 

In taking this tactic, Chris showed an immediate understanding of the father’s side — after all, the man was scared for his son’s life. And by giving some insight into the mindset of the kidnappers, he also demonstrated his expertise in a way that was far more effective than just listing his credentials (which he knows from experience doesn’t work). As a result, he earned the father’s trust and collaboration, ensuring the man didn’t make any risky knee-jerk reactions. And by Saturday morning, as Chris had predicted, the man’s son was safely released. 

“One of the things I didn't do was give him a single solution,” Chris says. “What I did was I laid out to that father exactly what he was faced with. I laid out the challenges that were in front of him.” 

You can use this tactic to great effect when negotiating with someone who argues they’re too busy to help you. For example, if your hiring manager says they can’t spare time to look at candidate profiles with you, you might first demonstrate understanding by laying out all the tasks that are demanding their time. This lays the groundwork for you to explain how your ask will ultimately help relieve their stress (e.g. by helping them fill the open role on their team much faster). 

Chris stresses that demonstrating empathy is not the same thing as sympathizing with or showing compassion for the other party. While you’ll hopefully never have to negotiate with kidnappers, there will likely be times in your career when you’re talking to people who seem rude or unreasonable. That shouldn’t stop you from negotiating with them successfully. 

“Empathy,” Chris says, “[is] just articulating our understanding of what the other side is thinking.”

3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and be corrected — it often encourages the other party to let their guard down

Another strategy that Chris uses in negotiations is to intentionally make a mistake or two. He says that while most people hate to be corrected because they find it embarrassing, having the opportunity to correct others helps put people at ease. 

“The other side enjoyed it so much, what they want to do is they want to continue the interaction,” Chris says. “When you're correcting, your guard is down. You feel like you’re collaborating and you feel like the other person is listening to you.” 

Chris often makes a mistake when demonstrating his understanding of the other side’s challenges — purposefully mentioning a challenge that he knows the other side isn’t actually facing. In the process of correcting you, they may share useful information that you can leverage later in the negotiation. 

For example, if you told your hiring manager that you understood they were overwhelmed with planning an event that they’re actually not involved in, they’ll take the time to correct you — and reveal that they’re actually busy training a new team member. 

“There's a really good chance they’re going to blurt out stuff that they would never say otherwise because they feel so powerful in the midst of doing it,” Chris says. “Which also means that if they shared information with you that they shouldn't have, they’re not going to regret it. Because people don't remember what they said — they remember how they felt when they said it.”

Being willing to be wrong is a tough skill to master. Chris recommends practicing this skill in day-to-day life by pushing yourself to make educated guesses about things going on around you. For example, if someone looks dejected, you can ask if they’re having a bad day. If you’re right, they’ll appreciate that you asked. And if you’re wrong, you can get used to being corrected. 

“Take a read on what's going on,” Chris says. “People give you massive amounts of information before you even approach them.”

4. Don’t push for an immediate “yes” — frame your question in a way that makes the other party agree on “no” 

Chris jokes that talent professionals are “yes” addicts. After all, it’s your job to get a “yes” from your top candidates. But in a negotiation, pushing for a “yes” too hard or too fast can be counterproductive. 

“What happens when somebody’s trying to get us to say ‘yes?’” Chris asks. “We get leery. We know there’s a hook there. We’re always wondering, ‘What’s the catch?’”

Even if you’re trying to get to a “yes” in a respectful, non-pushy way, people may still be wary. To combat this, Chris recommends flipping the question — framing it in a way that encourages the other person to agree “no.” For example, rather than saying “Will you do this?” you might say “Are you against this idea?” or “Is it a bad idea to do this?” 

Chris used this technique himself when he approached Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, at a book signing. Knowing that everyone in line was asking Jack for something, Chris framed his question as, “Is it a ridiculous idea for you to come and speak to the negotiation class I teach at USC?” After a moment of silence, Jack put Chris in touch with his personal assistant. 

You can use this technique to help people see that your request is not unreasonable. For instance, you might ask your interviewing team, “Are you against the idea of submitting your feedback by end of day, while it’s still fresh in your memory?” 

This is virtually the opposite of the “yes momentum” closing technique, in which you get a person to say “yes” to lots of little things before hitting them with the hard sell. When it works, you don’t need to get a single “yes” or sell them on the idea at all in order to get what you want. 

“One calibrated ‘no’ is worth at least five ‘yeses,’” Chris says. “You’d be stunned at what people will say ‘no’ to.” 

5. If a “no” isn’t enough, empathize with the other party’s perspective until you hear “that’s right”

In some cases, you won’t be able to get what you want from a “no” alone. When that doesn’t work, Chris recommends shifting gears and trying to make the other party say “that’s right.”

“‘That's right’ is what people say when they feel completely understood,” he explains. “Every time somebody says ‘that's right’ to you, a small or a large bond of empathy has been built between the two of you. They're confirming to you that they feel empathy from you.”

If you’ve already demonstrated that you understand what the other person is going through, this tactic should come easily. Essentially, all you have to do is reaffirm that you empathize with them by summarizing their perspective, whether you personally agree with them or not. And since you’ve likely gained more insights over the course of the negotiation, you can weave those in to show you’ve really been paying attention.

For example, if you learned that your hiring manager is snowed under because they’re training a new hire on top of everything else on their plate, you can stress this again at a critical moment in your negotiation. This can help them feel truly seen and understood — making it harder for them to turn down your request.

“If you don't feel like you're laying the other side's perspective on thick,” Chris says, “you are not laying it on thick enough.”

During one hostage situation in the Philippines, Chris advised the negotiator he was coaching to use this technique after they’d seemingly reached a stalemate. The kidnapper was demanding $10 million for “war damages,” bringing up events that had happened hundreds of years ago. The negotiator went over every grievance that the kidnapper had voiced, and when he finished speaking, they were silent. After that, the $10 million was never brought up again, and eventually, the hostage was allowed to simply walk away. 

“That’s the strength of the response to completely hearing the other side,” Chris says. “Not agreeing to any of it, just hearing it out, and letting them know that you heard.” 

Final thoughts: If you show respect when you negotiate, you will receive respect in return 

There was one more twist to the kidnapping in the Philippines. A few weeks after the hostage was released, the kidnapper called the negotiator again — asking if he’d been promoted for doing such a great job. 

“He called to tell the guy I coached, ‘We're good,’” Chris says. “‘I felt respected by you. I’d deal with you again.’”

Respect is one of the most impactful tools you can wield in a negotiation. That’s true whether it’s a life-or-death situation or a salary discussion with a candidate.

“As long as your approach is to genuinely understand, to genuinely hear them out, to make them feel respected and understood,” Chris says, “everybody you deal with, when you're done, will look at you and say, ‘We’re good…. I’d deal with you again.’”

To learn more of Chris’s tips and tactics, you can read his book, Never Split the Difference, sign up for his weekly newsletter by texting FBIEmpathy to 22828, or watch his full talk from Talent Connect 2019 below.

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