Chris Voss was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator and having the possibility of people dying when he didn’t do a good job motivated him to improve his negotiation skills. The FBI historically tried to use formal negotiation processes, like those that came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project, popularized in the book “Getting to Yes“. The have discovered limits to this approach and this book summarizes some of the additional techniques people like Chris Voss have developed.
I read “Getting to Yes” years ago (I touched on it in this old blog post) and liked it quite a bit, but the only technique from it that I’ve actually used is the idea of BATNA – best alternative to a negotiated agreement. The idea is that there’s no reason to agree to something in a negotiation if you have another alternative that is better than what the person is currently offering.
This book similarly tries to offer something more useful than the theoretical techniques that are commonly taught in business schools.
One of the core ideas, which the author returns to throughout the book, is that kidnappers are typically businessmen. While it seems to be a unique, high stakes situation when they’ve captured a loved one and are demanding millions dollars, in actuality it is a more balanced situation where there are more options for the negotiator than at first present themselves. Due to this, he claims that the techniques he’s used during hostage negotiations are applicable to all of us in our daily lives.
The Emotional Component of Negotiations
Quite a bit of the book is focused on the emotional interaction. Mr. Voss stresses repeatedly that he treats the people he’s negotiating with respectfully and often differentially. He has what he calls his “late night DJ voice” which is intended to calm everybody down by slowing down the process. Early in the conversation his goal is for the other person to say “that’s right”, indicating that he has correctly summarized their position. He gives an example of when he worked on a suicide hotline and learned that having the other side say “you’re right” felt like a victory, but in fact it was a passive aggressive way for them to stop listening. Instead of getting them to agree with your perspective, showing that you understand theirs let’s the actual negotiation begin.
He talks about labeling emotions as a useful tool for dampening negative emotions and heightening positive ones. Telling someone “it seems like you’re getting angry” during an interaction helps to diffuse it. Similarly, if you were negotiating to buy a house and the seller kept talking about all their memories over the years living there saying “it sounds you really loved this house and want to make sure the right person lives here next” can help build that emotion.
Mr. Voss acknowledges that reading about such a technique seems awkward and his students expect that labelling people’s emotions will make them angry. His claim is that this isn’t the case and people should try it a few times and see what sort of reaction they get to it – it will usually be positive.
One of the ideas that seemed quite useful to me was when someone makes a demand during a negotiation such as “pay me $5 million dollars or your son dies” or “I won’t consider any offer less than market rate” is to ask them “how am I supposed to do that?” Specifically focus on the logistics, if you don’t have a ton of cash sitting in a bank account, where are you suppose to get it from? If the house has repairs that need to be done, how can you justify paying market rate for a property that money will need to be put into immediately for repairs?
This has the effect of forcing the other side to think about things from your perspective when they try to suggest how you can do what they want you to do. If they can’t think of any way for you to achieve what they’re demanding, the logical next step is for them to modify their demand to something you can do.
Don’t Be Afraid Of No
Apparently quite a bit of sales training focuses on getting people into a pattern of saying yes, with the hope that they continue saying yes when you try to make the sale. Rather than being afraid of No, Mr. Voss suggests that No is useful as it establishes the person’s autonomy, they established their right to not go along with what is being proposed and identifies something that won’t work so the dialogue can move towards something that would. He talks about a “counterfeit Yes”, where someone agrees to something to end an unpleasant interaction then doesn’t follow through.
When I did a 5 day sale of my condo in Toronto years ago, I had a similar experience to this. I made it clear to people bidding that their bid wasn’t legally binding. I told them they could sleep on it overnight and if they decided in the morning it was more than they wanted to pay than I’d just sell it to the second highest bidder. This made people far more willing to make a bid and engage in the offer. If I’d had a legalistic document and scared people that I’d sue them if they didn’t follow through on their bids, it would have been really hard to get people to participate in the process. Everyone involved seemed to have good feelings about the process, with both the buyer and some of the people who were outbid thanking me.
Who Should Read It?
I’d recommend this book to anyone who negotiates regularly (which is all of us). I haven’t had the opportunity to try out the suggestions yet, but I’m excited to give it a go in the future. The book is written in an engaging, readable style.
A video of Chris Voss’ appearance on the 700 club is available here.
“Never Split The Difference” can be purchased at Amazon or borrowed from your local library.