Insights on negotiating from an FBI expert


No one can accuse Chris Voss of being a yes-man. The former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator believes the art of negotiation lies in mastering the intricacies of “no,” not “yes.”

If that sounds counterintuitive to conventional negotiation strategies, it’s because it is. More importantly, it works.

Voss spent more than two decades on the front lines, working for the FBI and serving as the lead crisis negotiator for the New York City division of the bureau. Today he serves as the CEO of the Black Swan Group and spends his days providing business negotiation coaching. He also teaches in the MBA programs at the University of Southern California and Georgetown University.

Last year, Voss published “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It,” co-authored with journalist Tahl Raz. The book draws on Voss’s experiences throughout his career, breaking down key tactics into strategies that can be applied across the spectrum. At the NRF PROTECT loss prevention conference, set for June 26-28 in Washington, D.C., Voss will share some of the principles companies and employees can use to become more persuasive in their professional and personal lives.

STORES Editor Susan Reda recently spoke with Voss about his theories on tactical empathy and emotional intelligence and how they could make a difference in approaching everyday conflicts.

Where did your career in law enforcement begin?

I knew early on that I wanted to get into law enforcement. Initially, I envisioned myself as a police officer — I was intrigued by the opportunity to apply creative and innovative tactics. That idea was based on a movie I saw as teenager about two police officers who were incredibly creative, had a great time doing their job and made a difference.

Do you recall the name of the movie?

“The Super Cops.” It was based on a true story of two young officers in New York City who applied some wildly creative methods to policing and arrested a bunch of drug dealers. What stuck with me was the way they helped the community they served and in turn how the community appreciated them.

My first job was as a beat cop in Kansas City, Mo., but shortly after I became interested in federal law enforcement. I spoke to a guy who was Secret Service and traveled all over the world working for the Secret Service, and I thought to myself, “There’s an interesting idea — travel around the world and get paid to do it.” As fate would have it, the Secret Service wasn’t hiring, but the FBI was. Eventually I joined the bureau and was sent to New York.

The unit I was assigned to was a terrorist task force. It was chock-full of creative hardworking folks and the challenge and pace were compelling.

How did you make the jump into international kidnapping negotiator?

I’d always wanted to be a member of the SWAT team. I did a stint in SWAT when I was with the FBI in Pittsburgh, but I injured my knee and knew that eventually I’d blow it out completely if I continued in that capacity. That’s when I started considering hostage negotiation because it’s aligned with crisis response.

The thing about crisis response that I was drawn to is that you’ve got to make a decision. Paralysis or analysis is not allowed in a crisis. Being involved on the negotiation side turned out to be more satisfying for me than the SWAT team because of the level of engagement.

How might you apply some of the negotiation methods you’ve developed over the years to diffusing an active shooter situation?

Active shooters have rehearsed in their mind ahead of time how it’s going to go — right down to envisioning the news coverage. They’ve anticipated people begging for their lives, and possibly shooting those people while they’re doing that. They’ve anticipated steeling themselves to some sort of begging and pleading, so that’s not going to matter to an active shooter. It’s what we refer to in negotiations as anticipated dialogue. In any negotiation, the last thing you want to do is engage in an anticipated dialogue.

You need to start by catching them off guard. Start by giving yourself a name. It’s harder for them to shoot someone they know than it is for them to shoot at a nameless person. If I was facing an active shooter and I thought he was going to shoot me, I’d say, “I’m Chris.”

What are some other things that might catch them off guard?

An active shooter is ultimately doing this because there’s a deep fear of obscurity inside: This is an infamous thing to do, a way to live in infamy. You can look at an active shooter and say, “You don’t have to be afraid,” because that’s the last thing that they’re going to expect to hear and it cuts deeply into what’s driving them to begin with.

Based on what I’ve read in your book, a large part of the art of negotiation lies in mastering the intricacies of “no” and not “yes.” How does that work?

I think the appeal of the book is that there’s nothing in it that’s complicated — you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to understand it or to understand how to execute. It’s very different than what we’ve been taught. The idea of trying to get people to say “yes” is overdone. It’s grounded in what you do to get them to listen.

You’ve got to say something that catches them off guard. Then, whatever words you say after you’ve got their attention carry more weight. It’s about figuring out how to startle them in a good way and to articulate what’s going on in their head.

That’s the whole idea behind a term I coined — “tactical empathy.” Basically, you’re trying to show the person you’re negotiating with that you can see things from their perspective. Doing so makes it easier to influence them.
It’s about how to confront without being confrontational. It’s about using listening as a martial art, balancing the subtle behaviors of emotional intelligence and the assertive skills of influence to gain access to the mind of another person. One of the simplest ways to engage in tactical empathy is through mirroring … by repeating the last few words your counterpart just said back to them, you can establish a rapport. It encourages the other side to talk and reveal their strategy.

Retail loss prevention executives frequently deal with crisis management. Managing local protesters or a cyber breach is different from crisis negotiation, but are there lessons that might dovetail?

The first thing I’d say is tell the undisputed truth. When you tell the indisputable truth and don’t try to assign blame, then people begin to look at a situation fairly and make up their own mind as to where blame lies.

Showing that you’re not afraid of the indisputable truth conveys confidence: It shows that you see the situation for what it is without putting a spin on it, without trying to deny any of it. You’re increasing people’s confidence that you can then deal with it.

Nobody expects perfection 24/7. There are going to be things that no one can anticipate, but what I want is the guy who doesn’t get rattled when something unanticipated happens.

“The idea of trying to get people to say ‘yes’ is overdone. It’s grounded in what you do to get them to listen.”

What are some points you might use when discussing the cost of safety and security equipment or programs balanced against a hard return on investment?

You ask questions like, “What happens if we fail? What’s the cost of failure?” Some psychologists believe human beings are driven completely by fear of loss. Others will say people are driven by fear and love. No matter how you cut it, fear of loss is a primary motivator. The key is to design questions … to move people’s vision to the potential loss.

What advice would you share with retail companies about travel safety as employees make trips to countries that are unfriendly to the United States or its allies?

There are a few simple, short steps. Every company should have kidnap and ransom insurance. It’s not very expensive. Employees are not supposed to know they have it, but they should have it.

When traveling internationally, people should have a special forces approach to the mission. In any given mission, the first thing that a special forces person figures out is how to get out — what’s the exit plan? Know where the closest American embassy is located. Embassies are hallowed ground.

It’s no different than noticing where the fire exits are in a building in case there’s a fire. It’s not paranoia — it’s smart.

One thing that can make you a target overseas is predictability. If you’re an extremely punctual person, you’re a great target. All you have to do is start varying your arrival times by 10 or 15 minutes. Do whatever you need to do to make yourself a little less predictable.

And finally, if you’re traveling to a dangerous place, don’t be afraid to be afraid. If things seem off, get out of there.

You often say that “no” doesn’t need to be the end of a conversation. What’s the right approach after “no”?

Saying “no” makes people feel protected and safe. You would be shocked at what people will comfortably say “no” to. “Do you want me to fail?” is my favorite “no” question. Loss prevention executives can ask that question of the people in their company that they’re trying to get funding from. You can look at the CEO and [say], “Do you want us to fail?” and a CEO will comfortably say, “No.”

You’re currently teaching business negotiation in the MBA programs of some elite universities. What two or three things do you hope your students would take away?

Stop asking people “why.” Instead of saying, “Why did you do that, why do you want that,” change the “why” to “what.” “What made you do this? What made you want that? What makes that a good idea?”

“Why” is an accusatory term, and saying it makes people defensive. I get it — a lot of times you have to know why — but by changing “why” to “what,” the outcome can be very different.

Another thing, all your negotiations will go faster and you will get your point across more quickly if you hear the other side out first, and you repeat back to them what they’ve said until they give you a “That’s right.” You’re not looking for a “You’re right,” but “That’s right.” It will speed up the progress of negotiations immeasurably.



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