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50+ Negotiation Tips with FBI Hostage Negotiator Chris Voss

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Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference, Negotiation, Negotiation skills, FBI Hostage Negotiation

In this article I interview former FBI lead international hostage negotiator Chris Voss author of the bestselling Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It easily the best book on negotiation I’ve ever read.  

A 24-year veteran of the FBI, Chris retired as the lead international kidnapping negotiator after working in the FBI as a hostage negotiator from 1992-2007. 

Chris has been featured in TIME, Business Insider, Entrepreneur, Inc., Fast Company, Fortune, The Washington Post, SUCCESS Magazine, Squawk Box, CNN, ABC News and more.

This article is a deep dive into the art and science of negotiation and contains a lot of good counterintuitive information you won’t find elsewhere.

Let’s begin:

“Your career, your finances, your reputation, your love life, even the fate of your kids—at some point all of these hinge on your ability to negotiate” – Chris Voss

The most dangerous negotiation

Michael Frank: I’ve heard you say:

“The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in” – Chris Voss

What does that mean?

Chris Voss: Well most people think they’re only negotiating when money’s being talked about on the table. They think you’re not really negotiating until the very end when you’re talking about dollars.

But negotiation is an influence and information gathering process. So if you don’t think you’ve been negotiating until the very end, well the other side has been gathering information and influence on you the entire time, and if you’re oblivious to it, then you’re the fool in the game.

More important than money

Michael Frank: What are the most important things in a negotiation outside of money and price?

Chris Voss: Money and price are minimal. Terms are everything. You can take almost any price and make it either a good deal or a bad deal depending upon the terms. Terms completely determine whether or not the price is any good.

Why Getting to Yes is wrong

Michael Frank: One of the most famous books on negotiation ever was Getting to Yes

Chris Voss: Unfortunately!

Michael Frank: Why do you disagree with the philosophy of:

  • Getting to Yes
  • Win-Win
  • BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement)
  • ZOPA (Zone of Possible Agreement)

Chris Voss: First of all, Getting to Yes is an intellectually sound book. Intellectually flawless. I met Roger Fisher one of the guys who wrote it, genius guy, his emotional intelligence is through the roof. Brilliant guy. But it just doesn’t translate in the book.

The book is logical, rational, and the ideas for having a BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and ZOPA (Zone Of Possible Agreement) are intellectually sound, it’s so you don’t take yourself hostage. It’s so you go into a negotiation and you say to yourself “I’ve got alternatives”, “I don’t have to make this deal”, and so you don’t take yourself hostage. It’s intellectually sound, but in point of application, it’s very, very flawed for a whole variety of reasons.

Problem one: BATNA becomes the goal and people have a tendency to quit as soon as they’ve exceeded their BATNA.

Problem two: If you need a BATNA, what do you do when you don’t have one? You freak out, you lose control, you lose everything, you can’t function.

As a hostage negotiator we started out saying that there is no BATNA. You take it for granted, and not having a BATNA is no big deal, and so you’re not handcuffed by needing a BATNA.

Those are just a couple of reasons. Nearly everybody I know, and even hostage negotiators, we’d give him Getting to Yes and everybody would read it, and first of all it reads like the dictionary, it’s like trying to learn how to speak English by reading the dictionary, it’s just heavy reading, but everybody has struggled through it would be like, “WOW, this makes sense. These are great ideas here!”

But I never heard one single person ever say, “and I turned around and cut this great deal based on what I read in Getting to Yes”. I’ve never heard it. Maybe there are people, but I’ve never heard anyone say that, but people read our book Never Split The Difference and they’re cutting deals before they’ve finished the first 10 pages, which is very frequent because there’s a great story that’s very applicable, the strategy in the very beginning, nobody says that about Getting to Yes.

Why you should never split the difference

Michael Frank: You don’t believe in win-win, you don’t believe in compromise, and as per the title of your book Never Split The Difference you don’t believe in splitting the difference. Why no to compromise? Why no to splitting the difference?

Chris Voss: Let’s go back to win-win because I really don’t like the phrase “win-win” because people who really believe in win-win get taken advantage of a lot. They get worried about whether or not the other side wins, and that becomes a dominating goal, and they get taken advantage of.

And those that frequently express the desire for win-win, in fact, if somebody calls us on the phone and says in the first three minutes, “We want a win-win deal”, I know that means they’re going to try and cheat us. They’re going to try and take everything we’ve got, not pay anything for it, or pay a ridiculously low price.

“We want a win-win deal” is a huge tell of throat cutters because frequently they know that people who believe in “win-win” are so vulnerable, that all they’ve got to do is say that’s what they want, and the other side starts giving in.

Michael Frank: It’s used to make you lower your defenses…

Chris Voss: Frequently. Almost every time. We’ll be in a company teaching their people negotiations and one of their senior execs who’s chosen not to be in the negotiation training will come up to me at lunch and go, “I hear you bad mouthing win-win a lot, and I always tell people I want a win-win dealWhy is that?”

And I’ll say, “Well the person who offers to meet you in the middle is usually a poor judge of distance”.

And they’ll say, “Well, actually I really like to high anchor for triple what I want, so I can offer to meet the other side in the middle, and then I end up exactly where I wanted all along!” So that’s what those guys do. They pay lip service to try to get people to give it.

Why no to compromise?

“I’m here to call bullshit on compromise. We don’t compromise because it’s right; but because it’s easy, it’s safe, it saves face, and we can say we got at least half the pie” – Chris Voss

Michael Frank: Why don’t you believe in compromise?

Chris Voss: Compromise is the effective application of indecision. It’s like I don’t know whether your idea is better than my idea, so why don’t we blend the two of them together and see what happens. That’s how it ends up.

In the book we talk about a negotiation between a husband and wife over a real tree and an artificial tree for Christmas. So what’s the compromise there? One year real tree, the next year an artificial tree? I don’t know what that compromise is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t change anybody’s opinion, and it means that one side is unhappy every other year.

So the husband wants the artificial tree, so he uses what we term a label, because she’s not changing her mind, she’s not giving her reasons why, and she doesn’t want to listen to his reasons. She’s adamant that she wants a real tree. So he hits her with a label to try to diffuse the emotion (more about labels later)

Husband: “It seems like you had real trees growing up”

Wife: “Yeah, and I get such great memories being around a Christmas tree, the smell of a real tree, the love of my family, my brothers and sisters and how close we felt, and how phenomenal the smell of a tree brings all those memories back in, and I want the same memories for our children”.

That’s when he realized that her goal was superior to his goal. He went from a decoration on a holiday to immortal lasting memories of love for the family. And she was right. And no compromise would’ve gotten him to that awareness. And so they got a real tree and they started creating lasting immortal memories of love for their family.

You can’t ask “why” to get to “why”

Michael Frank: So it’s a deeper understanding of the deal and the why’s behind it.

Chris Voss: Yeah. But you can’t just ask why to get to why. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and so much business and negotiation advice is this simplistic, “find out their why”, “get to their why”, but if it was that easy, we’d be making deals right and left.

If you could just ask why to get to why people would say, “Why do you want that?” And other people would say, “Wow, I’m glad you asked, let me lay it out for you in in-depth detail”. But the brain doesn’t work that way. We don’t regurgitate deeply held ideas whenever somebody says, “Why do you feel that way?” Humans aren’t wired like that.

Michael Frank: We’re not often conscious of our reasons, or the reason behind the reason.

Chris Voss: Exactly.

How to prepare for a negotiation

Michael Frank: I love one of the quotes in the book:

“When the pressure is on you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to your highest level of preparation” – Chris Voss

How do we actually go about doing our homework, our preparation, our research? What kind of questions should we be asking? What kind of things should we be doing? I know it depends on the type of negotiation, but as a general rule of thumb, how do you do your homework and prepare properly for a negotiation?

Chris Voss: The gathering of data needs to be minimized. You’ve got to do it, but you can’t go overboard. One guy who’s in sales told us as soon as he started applying our techniques that he did far less research on counterparts then he ever did before. I said, “Less research? How’s that?” He said, “They’re going to tell you more than you could ever look up. They’re going to tell you more about what matters to them then you’re going to get out of looking at their LinkedIn profile. So look at it minimally and get them on the phone”.

So prepare in advance some predictable, scripted things to say around some ideas, maybe no more than five ideas, max three or four scripted things on each one.

Script your dialogue. Have it varied. You’re coming in on very specific types of emotional ideas, themes that you’re after, that you want to hear. And the interesting thing is that you’re going to start saying the same things over and over again because they work in so many such situations.

So get a shortlist of go-to questions and go-to labels, and a classic one that works under almost all circumstances is to say the other side:

“Sounds like there’s something on your mind”

That triggers torrents of information!

Think from their perspective

Michael Frank: I think if I was going into a negotiation, the first thing I would do is try to put myself in the shoes of the other party. Think about what might be important from their perspective, what they might want, what might concern them, and start thinking from that perspective. And then I’d do my research. Do you agree with that approach?

Chris Voss: Well as long as you understand it’s flaws. Anything that’s a starting point for thinking, you’re going to be wired substantially different than your counterpart. Their are basically three approaches to conflict, fight, flight and make friends. You’re going to be one of those three, and they’re going to be one of those three, and the chances of the two of you lining up are one in three, which means two out of three times you’re not going to line up.

So take a look at it from their perspective, but understand that by definition, you’re probably wrong on projection bias issues, and that means you’re putting yourself in their shoes in a flawed fashion.

So it’s not a bad way to start, as long as you don’t allow it to put blinders on. So you can use it as a starting point for your thinking to give you a rough hypothesis, but then you’re going to need their help and feedback to then hone in and find out what’s right and what’s wrong.

What information do you need?

Michael Frank: What kind of information do you want to be sitting down at the negotiation table with at an absolute minimum?

Chris Voss: At an absolute minimum, you need a rough idea of what you want, and a rough idea of what they might want, but you need to know that there’s no such thing as perfect information, which means that even if you’re Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Warren Buffet, you’re going to show up at the table in the dark about a lot of things. And the only way to find out about those things is to hear them from the other side, which then is gonna to adjust your evaluations.

What are their biases against me?

Chris Voss: Your best preparation is:

“What are their biases against me?”

And then you use our tools (discussed in this interview) to disarm those biases, to put people in an open mind, because nobody’s ever in an open mind, but they’re closed in predictable ways. And those barriers are disabled in counterintuitive but really simplistic ways.

Michael Frank: How might you go about identifying what some of those biases against you might be?

Chris Voss: Well we’ve all got the instinct to pick it up.

If you were talking to a friend about the upcoming negotiation, and you say to your friend, “I hope this isn’t what they’re thinking, I hope it’s not, because it’s so wrong…”

Now whatever your gut instinct is, your intuition is ridiculously strong, and it’s picking up that those biases are there. Otherwise you wouldn’t be saying, “I hope this isn’t what they’re thinking”. “This is what I want to tell them not to think”. So your intuition has picked those up, and that’s a great indicator of where you should start. And then the two millimeter shift is saying, “Look, I don’t want you to think we’re bullies, I don’t want you to think that we’ve ignored you, I don’t want you to think that we’re overpriced”, and then you call it out. The elephant in the room.

And that’s important because the elephant in the room was never kicked out of the room by denying it was there. The elephant in the room actually shrinks when you just call it out, say, “Hey, you know there’s an elephant in the room. It probably looks like we’re overpriced”.

And then shut up.

Don’t drop the word “but” in there. Anytime you want to say “but” is when you should really just be going dead silent and let what you just said sink in. And that’s actually incredibly disarming.

Preparing for a negotiation

Michael Frank: Are you doing a lot of role playing, rehearsing, visualization, positive self-talk, that kind of thing going into a negotiation?

Chris Voss: We don’t do role play per se. What we do is brainstorm on their biases, prejudices and negatives up front.

Any self-talk that there may be, is designed to put you in a better frame of mind, and you’re up to 31% smarter in a positive frame of mind, you perform at your highest level in a good mood, and you have a tremendous amount more mental ability if you’re in a good mood. There’s solid brain science data behind it.

So when you say something like, “The only reason we’re here is because we’re successful”, that’s an automatic hack to put yourself in a good mood, which means that you’re going to listen more, and you’re going to do a better job.

How to build rapport

Michael Frank: How do you go about building rapport at the beginning of a negotiation and throughout?

Chris Voss: You know it’s pretty easy, but it’s really counterintuitive. You start by demonstrating an understanding of your counterpart’s perspective, especially their emotional perspective, and if you do that you get instant rapport. I mean instant report.

Hostage negotiators establish rapport with an extremely upset, unreasonable, if you will, human being in minutes, by demonstrating an understanding of where they’re coming from.

“The last thing you wanted today was to have your house surrounded by the police I’ll bet…”

Simple little things like that. Start demonstrating an understanding. Steven Covey said “Seek first to understand, before being understood”.

We say demonstrate your understanding. That is instant rapport. It’s fast.

Michael Frank: So verbalize your understanding of their perspective, their world.

Chris Voss: Right. And especially the stuff they don’t like, that builds rapport the fastest.

Mirroring

Michael Frank: What about mirroring? How does your approach to mirroring differ from the usual approach to mirroring which is just copying the body language and tonality of the other person, and mimicking them?

Chris Voss: Yeah the FBI hostage negotiators mirror is not about copying body language or mimicking their body language or their tonality.

The FBI hostage negotiators mirror is to simply repeat the last one to three words of what they just said. I mean it’s stupidly simple. People love it. People just go on and on. It’s one of the best clarification tools out there. And it is so simple. People are shocked at how effective it is.

Michael Frank: You’re just repeating the last one to three words of what they’ve just said, or you’re repeating the most important thing that they’ve just said, to convey your understanding?

Chris Voss: It’s the last one to three words until you get really good at it. That’s to get your reps in and to build the skill. Then you start to shift and you pick one to three words. In many cases, it’s not really to display understanding, it’s to get them to clarify, to get them to add more words to something without repeating with the exact same words. So it’s one of the best clarification tools out there and people will blurt out stuff prompted by a mirror that they would almost never say if question directly.

The three different types of voices

Michael Frank: In terms of tonality in negotiation you talk about these three different types of voices.

Chris Voss: Yeah. There’s a direct and honest voice, the voice that belongs to the assertive and it’s very blunt: “This is what I want”. But people feel assaulted when they hear that voice, and they get very combative with one another as a result of that voice, there’s just no two ways around it.

Then there’s the analyst voice which is a late night FM DJ voice. It’s the hostage negotiators default voice. It just has this shutdown effect on the brain, and as it slows the brain down, emotion slows down at an even higher rate. It’s a calming, soothing, hypnotic voice. It’s very powerful.

The last voice is a smiling voice, a relationship oriented voice, and you can hear it, you can feel it, you can be on the phone and people can feel it.

This comes back to what we talked about before about being 31% smarter in a positive frame of mind, because if you can hear the smile in my voice and how much I have regard for you, instantly it triggers chemical changes in the brain, it makes us smarter, it makes the brain move faster, it establishes rapport, and it gives people more of a capability to figure out how to give you something because they like you more.

How to convey the impression of fairness

Michael Frank: In a negotiation, everyone wants a good deal, or the very least to be treated fairly. What you actually say to a person at the beginning of a negotiation to give them the impression that they were going to be treated fairly?

Chris Voss: Well if I wanted to establish that up front, I’d say:

“Look, I want to make sure that you feel treated fairly every step of the way. And so at any given point of time, if you feel at all like you’re being treated unfairly, I want you to stop the process and let me know and we will fix it before we take another step forward”

Michael Frank: I love that.

Chris Voss: Well I’m proactive. If there’s a problem, let’s get out in front of it. If there’s a potential problem, let’s head it off at the pass. And so, fairness is a likely thing to be dealt with during the course of the negotiation, so set it off at the pass. Let’s keep the unfairness accusations out of the negotiations entirely.

Accusation Audit

Michael Frank: What is an accusation audit? And why should we do one?

Chris Voss: An accusation audit is a listing of the negatives the other side’s got in their head against you. Biases, prejudices, preconceived notions. I mean, human beings by nature are wired to be defensive.

We know from hostage negotiations how to deal with this stuff. And interestingly enough, it’s backed up by brain science, and an interesting book called The Upward Spiral goes into specific detail about how simply calling out the negatives diffuses them.

So let’s make a list. Let’s be practical. Let’s get out in front of this stuff because calling them out in advance, even if they’re not there, has this inoculating effect. Instead of planting negatives that aren’t there, it inoculates the situation from having them happen. And since our brain is wired to be negative, it’s only smart to get out in front of that stuff.

Michael Frank: Can you give me an example of how an accusation audit might sound?

Chris Voss: Well I had someone call my company on the phone, and we’ll say something like:

“It’s gotta make you nervous as heck talking to the guys at the Black Swan Group. I mean these guys are professional negotiators. They’re supposed to know how to take your money. You probably feel over matched, like this isn’t fair in any way. You probably rehearsed with each other, practiced how you were going to not let us push you around, and sat around and stared at the phone for an hour before for you picked it up to call us, it’s gotta be very intimidating…”

and that would be getting out in front of all those negatives in advance.

Michael Frank: What if you don’t know what their fears or concerns might be, and then you accidentally plant a negative idea in their head that they didn’t have before?

Chris Voss: That’s a common fear. You asking me that question because you’re wired to be worried about problems in advance. That was a human nature question. But we know from point of fact that we don’t plant negatives with straight observations.

Denials is another thing. If I were to say to you, “Look, I don’t want you to feel like I’m taking advantage of you…” that’s going to raise your guard. That was a denial.

But if I say, “Look it probably seems like I’m going to take advantage of you”, that is going to diffuse that potential negative, and if it wasn’t there in advance, you’re like, “Oh okay, well nah, I didn’t feel that way”, you actually deny it and you block it out.

So the accusation audit doesn’t plant negatives, but the only way you get used to it is by test driving it. Most of these skills, you’ve got to test drive them before you truly believe in the power of how they work.

Clear the barriers to agreement first

“The fastest and most efficient means of establishing a quick working relationship is to acknowledge the negative and diffuse it. The reasons why a counterpart will not make an agreement with you are often more powerful than why they will make a deal, so focus first on clearing the barriers to agreement. Denying barriers or negative influences gives them credence; get them into the open.” – Chris Voss

Michael Frank: So as a general rule of thumb, you like to begin each negotiation by clearing the barriers to agreement, and focusing on what might stop the agreement from going forward, and getting that out of the way immediately.

Chris Voss. Yeah. Because we want to get to a deal as fast as we can, and the reasons why you won’t make a deal will weigh more heavily in your mind than the reasons you will. So let me take the fastest route in. Let me get rid of the reasons why you won’t make the deal because that’s my biggest barrier.

Should you name a price first?

Michael Frank: Should you name a price or figure first in a negotiation? And if so, should you anchor high? Or should you let the other side set their anchor first? What do you recommend?

Chris Voss: This is one that I love where we differ vastly from the academics. I mean vastly. They will tell you to always name a price first. Aim high, anchor high, move the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA), and they’ll say that always works in your favor.

The big problem with that is their analysis is flawed. Their analysis is based on pretend negotiations that they have their students go through. But basing your real life rules on pretend negotiations is problematic. The other problem is they’ve got no data for how many deals you’ve made go away.

Now in point of fact, if I high anchor upfront or too early, I will blow the deal. And I’ll have no data that shows that. And I’ll make up all sorts of reasons. I’ve heard business people say, “I’ve never lost money on a deal I didn’t make”. Well you lost time, and time is money. So if you blew a deal by high anchoring early, and scared the other side off, you lost time. You could’ve made that deal. You could have been making a better deal.

What I found pretty regularly is that the most seasoned practitioners are really leery of high anchoring, and they’ve turned on their heels and walked away when the other side high anchored on them. I mean they just completely walk away. And that’s the difference between a practitioner and an academic, practitioners have to live with blowing deals and academics don’t.

What if you’re pressed to give a figure?

Michael Frank: What if you’re pressed to give a figure, or you have to give a figure for some reason. Would you then anchor high? What would you do if they’re saying, “What are you thinking Chris? What do you think is a reasonable figure here?” And they’re just putting the pressure on for you to give a figure…

Chris Voss: First of all, I’m not gonna let you get that number out of me easily, because there’s a real good chance you just want to use my number against somebody else and you don’t really want me. The harder you press me for a number, the less likely you want to make a deal with me. You just want that data and you want to move on. And I’m not going to let you do that. I’m not going to allow you to play me off of somebody else.

Let’s say we’re getting into it, if I give you the number easily, human nature is that anything acquired easily is treated as if it was a cheap commodity. So if I just give you the number, “That was easy, you know, maybe I can get him to come down”. I mean it becomes a whole secondary set of problems.

There are times when we’re going to drop a number on the table. But I don’t drop a number out there naked. Every single time I’ve dropped a number out there naked it’s burned in my brain where the other side went “It’s too much money!” because if you do business with Black Swan group, and we’re giving away a lot of stuff for free, but if we’re talking about fees, our fees are high.

So if I’m getting ready to drop a number, I’m going to say to you:

“It’s high”

“It’s more than what you have”

“It’s more than what you budgeted for”

“You’re not going to like it”

“It’s going to be out of your range and there’s no point in me giving it to you cause it’s gonna be high”

And then I’m going to shut up.

Michael Frank: “Just tell me what it is. I know it’s too much, but what is it?”

Chris Voss: “Nah it’s more than you got”

Michael Frank: You put the brakes on that way. You want them to give a figure? Or you want to go deeper into the deal before you talk numbers?

Chris Voss: No, I want them to really think about whether or not whatever I charge, is going to be worth what they have at stake. I’m trying to trigger what Daniel Kahneman referred to as slow thinking.

I was sitting down talking to a business executive about a year and a half ago, and the guys telling me about the millions and millions of dollars he’s got at stake in a deal. He says, “I want you to coach me”, and I say, “I’m not the best coach. We’ve got other guys that coach, they do a much better job than me”. He says, “I want you. How much to get you to coach me?” And so I dropped the number naked. I don’t characterize it in any way. I throw it out there on its own. I say, “Alright you want to know? It’s $3500 an hour”. He says, “Oh it’s too much” and he walked away. And I’m thinking, “You idiot, that’s less than one half of 1% of what you have at stake”.

But you know what? I was the idiot cause I dropped the number naked without preparing him for it, and he gave me a knee-jerk reaction and completely forgot about what he had at stake, and just turned and walked away. So I high anchored, I dropped the number naked, and a deal I should have made, walked away.

Michael Frank: Let’s say you wanted a figure of $10, 000 for whatever reason, would you ask for $10, 000, or would you high anchor and say, “I want $15, 000” or “I want $18, 000” to give yourself some space for negotiation?

Chris Voss: When I throw a number, it’s what I mean. We’re not messing around. We name a price, we stick to the price, we’re not screwing around on price. Intentionally high anchoring in my view is intentional deception. There’s a lot of fine lines and gray areas with deception, and we try to stay as far away from it as much as we can. So if I want $20,000, I’m not going to ask for $40, 000. I’m going to say the price is $20, 000. Period. There it is. You don’t want to make the deal, don’t make the deal.

The F word

“The F-word—“Fair”—is an emotional term people usually exploit to put the other side on the defensive and gain concessions. When your counterpart drops the F-bomb, don’t get suckered into a concession. Instead, ask them to explain how you’re mistreating them” – Chris Voss

Michael Frank: What if you give your figure, and then they give you the “F” word. What if they say that’s not “fair”?

Chris Voss: I’ll say, “How’s it not fair?”

Michael Frank: So you’ll make them articulate their reasons, not just accept their objection.

Chris Voss: Yeah. I need to know if they’re using the F word as a tool to manipulate me, which a lot of people do, or do they really mean it? And it’s one of those two things. Now, before I proceed on trying to really understand where they’re coming from, I’ve got to know which one it is. And I don’t want to guess. So I’m going to ask them how it’s not fair and their answer is going to tell me. I may have to read between the lines, but if I’m listening, I’m going to know.

Controlling emotions in a negotiation

Michael Frank: A lot of people get anxious and stressed out in negotiations. Maybe it’s not a life and death hostage negotiation, but maybe they’re really attached to that contract/deal/job.

What advice do you have about controlling and regulating your emotions going into a negotiation and throughout?

Chris Voss: If you’re nervous about the negotiation then you’re not comfortable with your process. You need to rehearse your process in low stakes conversations until you get comfortable with it. Practice with the guy at Starbucks, with the guy at the drug store, with the waiter or the waitress in the restaurant. Get comfortable with the negotiation skills when you’ve got no skin in the game.

No deal is better than a bad deal

Then there’s a couple of philosophical ideas. One of them we believe is:

“No deal is better than a bad deal” – Chris Voss

Bad deals will make your life miserable for years, it’ll be blood money, it’ll destroy your career or your company. Bad deals are what kill people.

So if you say: “No deal is better than a bad deal”, what you’re horrified of then is making a bad deal, and you’ll be completely content to walk away, as opposed to making the bad deal where you felt like you had to have it and you were taken hostage.

Tactical Empathy

Michael Frank: A lot of what you speak about is emotional intelligence and tactical empathy, which you’ve referred to as “emotional intelligence on steroids”. What is tactical empathy? How do we practice it?

Chris Voss: Well we know from neuroscience that the brain is largely negative, and that all human beings are driven by fear of loss.

Tactical empathy is knowing that we’re driven by the negative, and your negative feelings and fear of loss are going to be driving you much more than anything else. 70% of buy decisions in sales are made to avoid losses, not to accomplish gains.

So tactically I’m going to be aware of that. I’m going to predict it. I know what we’re looking for. I know what’s getting in our way. And I’m going to have specific scripting worked out in advance to diffuse the negatives and to help people get to a better decision. That’s the tactical application of the neuroscience of what we have referred to as empathy.

Because we know that an emotional brain works in predictable ways, and that negative emotions have three times the impact of positive emotions, and that negative emotions are the barriers, we use a technique we call labels in advance to diffuse negative emotions. We’re also using it to trigger information gathering.

In fact, you pick up a lot more information if you avoid questions entirely. Because if you ask somebody a question, it triggers their guard to come up. So we use questions to shape thinking, to make comparisons, not to gather information. So it’s an application of those two ideas basically.

Michael Frank: So how do you gather information if you’re not asking questions?

Chris Voss: Instead of saying:

“What do you mean by that?”

I’ll say: “It seems like you have a reason for saying that”

You’re going to give me much more unguarded information as a result of:

“It seems like you have a reason for saying that”

Then if I said: “What do you mean by that?”

That simple shift from questions to labels works wonders.

And in the application of real estate for example, we’ve had a number of agents refer to labels as “Unlocking the floodgates of truth telling” because people will give you so much more information reacting to a label then they will reacting to a question.

Questions sometimes confine thinking, because they shape it on a specific area. So if you haven’t articulated your question properly to gather information, the chances are that you’re not going to get good information.

Labels

Michael Frank: Let’s go into labels a little bit deeper. How do they work? You’re just articulating the way you imagine the other person might feel?

Chris Voss: It’s a verbal observation.

You say:

“It seems like”

“It sounds like”

“It looks like”

“It feels like”

“The last rule of labeling is silence. Once you’ve thrown out a label, be quiet and listen. We all have a tendency to expand on what we’ve said, to finish. But a label’s power is that it invites the other person to reveal himself” – Chris Voss

Your senses are picking something up, and then you’re feeding that back to them as a simple observation, and then you’re checking with them for a reaction, as you’re triggering a response.

You’re also inducing a certain type of thinking by saying, “It seems like”.

There is also an intentional avoidance of the word “I” in a label. “I” is a word that becomes self-centering. It’s a pattern interrupt.

If I say: “What I’m hearing is you have objections”

What I’ve just said is I’m more interested in my own perspective than yours. “What I’m hearing”, that comes through to you in a very subconscious way. It’s a pattern interrupt, and an indicator that I’m more interested in me than you.

If I say: “It sounds like you’ve got some objections”

Then the “I” word as a pattern interrupt is not there. You’re more likely to respond with your objections, and you’ll add to them. You might say, “No, I don’t have any objections, but there are other obstacles that are in the way”.

I mean you’ll start giving me information that you wouldn’t if I’d used the word “I” or if I said, “What are your objections?” And you might think, “I don’t have any”, but there may be external obstacles, and you’ll think, “You didn’t ask me about that” and not answer that question.

What if they disagree with the label?

Michael Frank: What if you give someone a label and they disagree with it?

You: “It seems like you’re uncomfortable with the deal”

Them: “No, I’m okay with it”

But you know they’re uncomfortable because their body language clearly displays anxiousness or uncomfortability.

What would you do if they denied the label?

Chris Voss: Well, the crazy thing about mislabels, and that comes close to a mislabel, is that it puts people in a correcting mindset. And actually a lot of our negotiators mislabel on purpose because people are much more candid when they’re correcting.

So if you’ve got objections and your body language is telling me your uncomfortable, and I say:

“What are your objections?”

It’s less likely that you’ll answer.

But if I say: “It seems like you have objections”

Or

“It seems like you are uncomfortable”

That’s the highest percentage approach to get you to tell me.

If you say: “Nah, nah, nah, I’m good with it”

I’m going to say: “I hear you say you’re good with it, but you sound like you got misgivings that for whatever reason it seems like you can’t tell me about ’em?” I mean the art and science is all in the delivery.

Pronouns

Michael Frank: You say it’s important to pay attention to the counterparties use of pronouns. Why is that?

Chris Voss: Pronouns can either be a conscious or an unconscious tell of a person’s position. Somebody who’s in love with personal pronouns: “I”, “me”, “mine”, doesn’t have a lot of influence on their side. They don’t get to say “I”, “me”, “mine” that much on their side. They’re trying to enhance their importance at the table because they don’t get a lot of “I”, “me”, “mine” away from the table.

The guy or gal using plural pronouns are shrewd. They are hiding their influence. They don’t want to get pinned down at the table. When I’m really the decision maker, I’m going to say, “I’ve got a board of directors, I’ve got all these people that I’m accountable to”. The more someone tries to make themselves seem powerless in a negotiation, the more they deflect attention away from themselves, the more likely it is that they’ve got a tremendous amount of power.

Calibrated questions

Michael Frank: Let’s talk calibrated questions. What are they? Why do you use them? When do you use them? How do you use them?

Chris Voss: Calibrated questions are a subset of what some people refer to as open-ended questions or interrogatives or the reporter’s questions. We like to confine them down to “How” and “What” because they prompt the longest responses, and they do what Daniel Kahneman would refer to as triggering slow thinking, in-depth thinking, and you really use them to shape perceptions, to shape somebody’s thinking, as opposed to gathering information.

Calibrated questions examples:

“What about this is important to you?”

“How can I help to make this better for us?”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“How would you like me to proceed?”

“What is it that brought us into this situation?”

“How can we solve this problem?”

“What’s the objective? / What are we trying to accomplish here?”

Or I might say:

“What’s the biggest challenge you face?”

“What are you up against here?”

“What keeps you up at night?”

Now that’s the same question asked three different ways, it’s not three different questions, it’s the same question asked three different ways. Now most people are sick to death of the question, “What keeps you up at night?” only because they’ve been asked that a million times and nobody ever listens to the answer. So what once was a great question has now become a sign of someone who doesn’t listen, and you overcome that by asking it three different ways, and that helps to shape their thinking around a specific idea.

Beware of “yes”, seek out “no”

“Yes” and “Maybe” are often worthless. But “No” always alters the conversation. “Yes” is often a meaningless answer that hides deeper objections (and “Maybe” is even worse). Pushing hard for “Yes” doesn’t get a negotiator any closer to a win; it just angers the other side” – Chris Voss

Michael Frank: One of the most counterintuitive pieces of advice in the book was to “beware of yes” and to “seek out no”.

Why should we “beware of yes” and “seek out no”?

Chris Voss: Well, there’s three kinds of yeses:

  1. Counterfeit
  2. Confirmation
  3. Commitment

Counterfeit “Yes” they want to say “no” but they feel that “yes” is an easier escape route

“People will often say “Yes” but only to make you shut up and go away. They’ll weasel out later, claiming changing conditions, budget issues, the weather. For now, they just want to be released because you’re not convincing them of anything, you’re only convincing yourself” – Chris Voss

Confirmation “Yes” is generally innocent, a reflexive response to a black-or-white question; it’s sometimes used to lay a trap, but mostly it’s just simple affirmation with no promise of action

Commitment “Yes” is the real deal. A true agreement that leads to action, a “yes” at the table that ends with a signature on the contract.

Most people in hoping for the commitment yes, are going to put together a series of confirmation yeses that lead you down that path.

And people are used to the counterfeit yes because somewhere along the line, somebody convinced everybody that if you could get someone to give you three yeses in a row then the other person has got to say yes. If you get them to say yes to the little things, each one of those things is a tie down, and it builds momentum, it corners them, it traps them, and then you put them in a position that they have to say yes. Otherwise they show themselves to be inconsistent with the yeses they said before.

And we’ve all been trapped by that. We’ve all got these situations where somebody starts to try to get us to say “yes”, and we don’t know what it is, but we know something’s making us uncomfortable, and it’s this whole “yes” approach. That’s why people are so good at the counterfeit yes, cause they know that there’s a trap coming, they just don’t know where it is.

A lot of business people I talk to I say: “How many of you like the word “maybe”?”

And 90% of the room will say: “We hate the word maybe! It’s horrible! We hate it!”

We’ll you ain’t hearing “maybe” unless you’re trying to get people to say “yes”.

It’s not that “maybe” is the problem. The problem is the question you asked in the first place was trying to get a “yes” and they gave you a “maybe” instead. So you’ve got to get out of “yes” entirely.

What you get into instead is “no”. “No” is protection. People feel safe and protected when they say “no”, and if I’ve protected myself I’ve got nothing to worry about. I can be honest. I can tell you where the problems are. I can tell you what the other issues are.

If I asked you: “Do you disagree with this?”

You might say: “No, I don’t disagree, but here are the following problems…” and you’re going to be real candid with me because you feel no commitment whatsoever. You didn’t agree that any of it would work. You just agreed to point out the problems, and you’ll probably be very, very honest with me because you don’t feel that there’s any commitment to sharing that information with me.

How to move forward from “no”

Michael Frank: How do you move forward from a “no”?

Chris Voss: I string them along. I mean, we can make a lot of deals just by saying, “Do you disagree with this?” And they won’t go “no”. You never get that.

They’ll go: “No I don’t disagree”, but then they’ll tell you where all the problems are.

And I’ll go: “Alright, it sounds like if I did this this and this, we’re getting closer” and then you let the deal shape itself. You let the communication shape itself. There are a number of ways to proceed. An awful lot of deals are going to have a tendency to make themselves maybe 75% of the way, just by what people say after they’ve said no.

What if you need to say “no”?

Michael Frank: Well if you need to say no in a deal? Would you just directly say “no” or “nah that’s no good”, or would you say it in a different way?

Chris Voss: Well, we like to let out no a little at a time. First of all I want you to feel no, I want you to feel it coming, cause I want to keep the process collaborative.

I want you to brainstorm and I want you to start coming up with options that I can choose from, so that I could pick your idea and then you’re gonna really like it, if it was your idea. So we let “no” out a little at a time. Plus, I don’t want to hit you in the face real hard with a flat “No”. I mean I’m going to be careful about how that lands. I don’t want it to kill the collaboration process, so we’re real careful with how we let no out, we let it out a little at a time.

The rule of three

Michael Frank: You also mentioned in the book you want to get the other party to agree to the same thing three times in the same conversation.

“The Rule of Three is simply getting the other party to agree to the same thing three times in the same conversation. It’s triples the strength of the agreement and it uncovers problems before they happen. It’s really hard to repeatedly lie or fake conviction.

  1. The first time they agree to something or give you a commitment
  2. Then you label or summarize what they said so they answer “That’s right”
  3. Could be a calibrated “How” or “What” question about implementation that asks them to explain what will constitute success, something like “What do we do if we get off track?” – Chris Voss

Chris Voss: Yeah. It’s not three different yeses, it’s yes to the same question in the same conversation. It’s someone giving you the answer three times, three commitments, all strung together, at the same time. Now that is so close for so many people to this yes momentum nonsense, that we really don’t talk about it that much at all anymore.

If I need to close a deal, I close with the word “no”. I don’t close with trying to get three yeses in a row.

Instead of:

“Are you willing to do this?”

I always close important conversations with:

“Do you disagree?”

“Are you against this?”

“Are you against making a commitment?”

“Do you reject this commitment?”

We don’t close with yes. I don’t even bother with the word anymore at all.

“Yes” is nothing without “How”

“While an agreement is nice, a contract is better, and a signed check is best. You don’t get your profits with the agreement. They come upon implementation. Success isn’t the hostage-taker saying, “Yes we have a deal”; success comes afterward, when the freed hostage says to your face, “Thank you.” – Chris Voss

Michael Frank: You mentioned earlier that “yes” is nothing without “how”. Can you go into that a little bit?

Chris Voss: “Yes” is nothing. Let’s just go with that. “How” is everything. The person who lying to you is not going to be able to give you a “how”, cause they’re lying to you and they haven’t even thought about it, and they will go dead silent when you start focusing on how, because they haven’t thought about it, and they have no intention of completing the deal. So they ain’t got a thought in their head about how.

There’s a lot of other people who haven’t thought “how” through either, that just think it will magically appear if we get a yes. And those people are every bit as big of a problem as the liar is, because in either instance, there is no implementation to be had. You do not want to be figuring out implementation after you’ve come into an agreement. So “Yes” is nothing, “How” is everything. You live in “how” and you’re going to do really well.

Deadlines in a negotiation

“Trying to speed up the negotiation process is a mistake that many negotiators make. If you’re in too much of a hurry, it can make the other party feel like they’re not being heard, and you risk undermining the rapport and trust that you’ve tried to build. There’s plenty of research that now validates the passage of time as one of the most important tools for a negotiator. When you slow the process down, you also calm it down. After all, if someone is talking, they’re not shooting” – Chris Voss

Michael Frank: You say when it comes to negotiation: SLOW. IT. DOWN. But sometimes you’re dealing with deadlines.

How do you deal with deadlines from the other side if you want to slow it down, and would you use a deadline against the counterparty, and if so when?

Chris Voss: Deadlines are really just an attempt to kick the process into gear. As soon as you start making progress, deadlines become irrelevant. I mean people are looking for actual progress.

If you switch over into progress, what do we have to get done? How long is it gonna take to get done? It’s much more advantageous to think in terms of progress than deadlines. And as soon as you get progress, deadlines have a tendency to fall away.

Michael Frank: If you were presented with a BS deadline, and you were being pressured into making a snap decision, would you call them on that deadline?

Chris Voss: No. If someone was pressuring me, if somebody was giving me a deadline, I’d say, “Sounds like you’re under a lot of pressure” cause I need to know what’s going on in your world. I need to know whether or not you’re ever actually going to make the deal. I need to know whether or not this is a ruse.

“Deadlines are the bogeymen of negotiation, almost exclusively self-inflicted figments of our imagination, unnecessarily unsettling us for no good reason. The mantra we coach our clients on is, “No deal is better than a bad deal.” If that mantra can truly be internalized, and clients begin to believe they’ve got all the time they need to conduct the negotiation right, their patience becomes a formidable weapon.” – Chris Voss

Is everything negotiable?

Michael Frank: Is everything negotiable? I’m sure that you get as a hostage negotiator:

“Just fucking do it”

“Just fucking do it or else I’ll fucking kill these people”

“There is no negotiation. Just do what I say or they fucking die”

Is everything negotiable or not always?

Chris Voss: Well, it depends on your definition of negotiation. My definition of negotiation is information and influence gathering. I’m gathering influence. I’m gathering information. I’m trying to find out where you’re coming from. And many times an objection is a counter-offer in disguise.

So if you say:

“Give me what I want or I’m going to kill these people”

I’m going to say:

“So if you get the outcome you want, you’re not going to hurt anybody”

“Did you just make me an offer?”

I want to know are you negotiating in good faith?

If you say: “Give me a car so I can get away or I’m going to kill somebody”

First of all, the anatomy of that is very vague. And so I know that the threat level on that is very low. There’s a lack of specificity in what you just said there, and what sort of specificity you’re looking for in business deals and in hostage negotiations is key.

Now, what you’re really telling me if you say you want a getaway car or you’re going to kill the hostage, is that you want to live, that’s your primary driving motivation right now, you want to know that you’re going to live.

So my reaction to that is going to be:

“It sounds like you want to survive this”

Michael Frank: You continue to talk to them, you continue to unpack, to dive deeper to get them to continue to talk to buy time. And also a lot of people like the sound of their own voice, so the more they’re talking, the less they’re shooting.

Chris Voss: Yeah.

Michael Frank: Chris Voss has been an absolute pleasure. Anything you want to say in closing?

Chris Voss: Yeah. We have a free negotiation newsletter that comes out once a week every Tuesday morning called The Edge. People love it. Not because it’s free, but that’s one reason to love it. It’s short and sweet and it’s practical and simple.

Michael Frank: Thank you Chris.

Chris Voss: Yeah, man, my pleasure. This is a great conversation and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christopher Voss, Never Split The Difference

Chris Voss, CEO, Author, Negotiation Expert

Chris Voss is CEO of the Black Swan Group and author of the national best-seller Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It which was named one of the seven best books on negotiation. A 24-year veteran of the FBI, Chris retired as the lead international kidnapping negotiator. Drawing on his experience in high-stakes negotiations, his company specializes in solving business communication problems using hostage negotiation solutions. Their negotiation methodology focuses on discovering the “Black Swans,” small pieces of information that have a huge effect on an outcome. Chris and his team have helped companies secure and close better deals, save money, and solve internal communication problems. 

Chris has been featured in TIME, Business Insider, Entrepreneur, Inc., Fast Company, Fortune, The Washington Post, SUCCESS Magazine, Squawk Box, CNN, ABC News and more.

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