7 business tips from an FBI hostage negotiator

Find out how to get the deal you want in negotiations - without turning into Donald Trump.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 15 Jan 2019

Picture in your mind a world-class negotiator. Someone who never gets duped, who doesn’t take no for an answer, who always gets what they want.

Be honest, are you thinking of Donald Trump?

The US president (and author of the thrilling Art of the Deal) is the archetype of the macho negotiator. It’s a zero-sum approach – for me to win, you have to lose – and its favoured technique is bombastic compromise: ask for more than you actually want, then ‘negotiate’ downwards.

Yet the very reason we tend to think of Trump-esque figures as good negotiators – that they keep telling us they are– is actually a sign that they aren’t. After all, who wants to do business with someone who has a reputation for forcing great deals out of other people?

Besides, even if you do get them to the table and convince them against their better judgement to say yes to your demands, it may not help – people are less likely to implement deals they’ve made if they think they are bad for them.

Karen Walch, a consultant to the Thunderbird School of Global Management, summarises it like this:  ‘Negotiation is moving from a skill in getting compliant behaviour to a skill in connecting with others to get co-operation.’

So much for ‘here’s my offer, take it or leave it’ then. But how do you actually get good deals without turning into The Donald?  

1. This isn’t chess

‘People think negotiation’s chess, but in fact it’s more like dating,’ says Chris Voss, former FBI lead international hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference.

The quality of the relationship is essential, especially if it’s ongoing – with your boss, for instance, if you’re asking for a raise or promotion. Strategy, on the other hand, is overrated.

‘Your tactical moves are only around one fifth of what’s actually happening,’ says Walch. ‘You can’t possibly imagine every iterative move.’

2. Stop trying to convince them

‘You can never get someone to see something the way you’d like them to see it,’ says Voss.  So stop trying.

Instead, try to get inside their head. Understand what’s motivating them and turn it back on them.  

‘If I can articulate what’s driving you that you’re blind to and it sounds like it’s against my interests, then I’ve just increased the chances that you’re going to make a deal that favours me to a ridiculous degree.’

3. Know thyself

The really successful negotiators invest time not only in understanding the other side, but also themselves.

‘Think about who you are, what you want, why you want it, how you’ll behave if you reach an impasse, and then do the same with the other side. You’ll break the impasse every time,’ says Walch.

Knowing yourself also helps you to attain ‘buoyancy’ – the ability to adapt quickly to the unexpected in negotiations.

4. Get Emotional

Often the unexpected is a feeling rather than a fact. Many a negotiation was ruined by an inopportune flush of anger. But if you think you can eliminate emotions from the negotiating table altogether, think again.

‘Rationality is a complete fiction,’ says Voss. ‘You make decisions based on what you care about. What is negotiation but the management of passions?’

The secret then is to use those passions to your advantage.  

‘Emotions are great information,’ says Walch. ‘If something makes you angry, you need to understand why. Maybe you feel excluded by something they said – that’s important information because you are being excluded, so you need to speak up.’

4. Embrace the power of ‘no’

The apparent objective in a negotiation is to get the other guy to say yes to you, and agree to your terms. This is misguided, says Voss.

‘Yes is commitment, it makes people feel nervous. If I say to you "would you like to make more money", your gut instinct is that this is a trap.’

Instead, the focus should be on the word no.

‘Saying no creates a powerful psychological reaction inside you. No is protection. Some people say it all the time, to protect themselves. But if you’ve just protected yourself by saying no, you’re actually more open to listening.’

So instead of cold-calling someone and asking if they have a few minutes to talk, try instead asking if it’s a bad time to talk, and take it from there. The more ‘no’s you get, the better.  

5. Play on their sense of loss

Another ‘voodoo’ technique Voss has picked up from his decades at the FBI involves playing on the other side’s sense of loss. If they appear reluctant to give in, ask what will happen if you don’t make a deal.

It’s a useful technique when bringing up a subject you know will be unpopular.

‘Most people want to use small talk, to try to put the other guy in a good mood first, but it happens so much we’re sick of it,’ says Voss.

‘The smart move is to pre-empt those feelings. If I want a raise, I’ll say "boss I’ve got something to talk to you about that you don’t want to hear, you’re going to be really angry". The boss will assume I’m going to quit and the over-reaction will benefit me.’

6. Get your radio voice on

Your tone has a powerful impact on the other side’s emotions. ‘If you take a really calm, downward inflected tone of voice – I call it the late night FM DJ voice – it can be irresistible.’

Once you’ve hooked them with the voice, reel them in with the smile. ‘It will lead you into an emotional stage where when I smile you want to agree. If what I’m proposing isn’t agreeable to you, you’ll start brainstorming and coming up with stuff you hope I’ll agree to.’

7. Let them ‘win’

Closing negotiations can be tricky if the other side doesn’t want to say yes. So swallow your pride and get ready to lose.

‘I want them to feel like they’ve won. I want to get them to get me to say yes. So I’ll spend a little extra time to make you come up the deal. It really is the art of letting the other side have your way.’

The main advantage of letting the other side ‘win’ is that they’re less likely to back out later. ‘Anything that comes out of your mouth, you’re more likely to stick to.’


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