How A Veteran FBI Hostage Negotiator’s Diplomacy Skills Can Help You In Business

Looking to close a deal? Want to have more sway in meetings, or land a promotion? Then meet veteran hostage negotiator Chris Voss – his unique experience of psychological diplomacy is about to make your 9-5 a whole lot easier.

‘The only difference between business and kidnapping scenarios is there are fewer guns involved.’ As an industry partly driven by headhunters, raging testosterone and metaphorical knife sharpening, should we be all that surprised to learn of similarities between boardroom politics and international hostage situations? Not according to former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss.

A savvy operator with the Bureau for 15 years, who in his last seven years in the field even headed up an international response operation team, Voss eventually traded his bulletproof vest for a ballpoint pen, taking up a job teaching at Harvard Law School where he applied his unique psychological diplomacy to business situations.

Now a manager of the Black Swan Group as well as author of Never Split The Difference Voss took time out to help RISING readers become masters in psychological office warfare…

When You Want To Get People To Do What You Want ‘Control is a nebulous issue,’ Voss says. ‘The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control. Make them believe they control the process; they’ll accept almost any outcome.’ One of the examples he gives for this comes from during his last few years as a hostage negotiator, when working on two subsequent kidnappings – one in Ecuador, one in the Philippines: ‘I’d just introduced a new proof of life strategy, which some at the FBI were not comfortable with. This change had a massive impact on both of the kidnappings as not only did we get people out, but no ransom got paid. Not a single dime. The purpose of the proof of life strategy was really to gain control and influence within the negotiation. The serial killer in the Philippines provided us with proof of life immediately, which blew my mind. He even later told me that our tactic affected his thinking.’

Why” makes people defensive. If you’re smart you never ask people “why” during negotiations

When You’re Angling For A Promotion It’s a situation we’ve all been in: one minute you’re walking into the manager’s office, telling yourself you deserve that promotion; the next you’re bottling it like Lee Westwood missing a putt in the Tetra Pak Invitational playoff. Well, be glad that you did: ‘Most bosses see employees as selfish people, who only go to see them because they want something – more money, more time off, a bigger desk,’ offers Voss. ‘Instead, ask your boss how you can be involved in projects critical to the strategic future of the company – that’s an instantaneous game-changer, because the moment you start talking about factors important to the business, what they hear is that you’re going to make their life better. Now, suddenly, you’ve got more leverage.’

When A Job Offer Comes With A Wage Lower Than You Expected Whether it’s a machine-gun-toting maniac demanding a helicopter, or a senior manager offering you less than you expected on a job offer, Voss claims the smart response in both instances is to find the politest way of keeping the conversation going: ‘A great line to use is “Your offer is very generous but that doesn’t work for me.” This is a technique we call “letting out no a little at a time,” and you want to let it out in a way that doesn’t let the other side feel a little insulted or cornered; plus nobody gets insulted when you tell them what they offered you is generous, they’re going to like that, as it hits the positive side of the caveman brain and makes people even more generous. Importantly, you do it without ceasing negotiations.’

When You’re In A Pay Review Meeting But Fear The Worst Along with asking open-ended questions in a negotiation, Voss thinks you should ask them with specific purposes: ‘We call them “calibrated” questions, because every question you ask is going to have an impact, and if you’re not calibrating that impact, or second-guessing the responses, you’re effectively firing off a weapon you don’t know where or what you’ll hit. One of the classics to avoid is “why?”. This makes people defensive. If you’re smart you never ask people “why” during negotiations.’

When You Want To Avoid A Rollicking Doing nothing to dispel RISING’s view that he’s a real-life action hero, Voss really was a maverick renegade during his time with the FBI; an occasional loose cannon who didn’t play by the rules. It might not have reached a gun-badge-on-my-desk level, partly because he has plenty of experience with irate superiors: ‘I’m an extremely independent guy, who goes by the motto “better to ask forgiveness than ask permission”, so I’ve been dragged into the boss’s office many times.’

Better still, Voss knows how to turn the tables in your favour: ‘The key is to articulate what’s in your superior’s brain before they do. I’d say, “You’re really disappointed in me. You feel like I’m out of control. That I don’t follow instructions.” This takes the wind out of their sails – training as hostage negotiators, we would articulate what the kidnapper is thinking. We knew it worked back then and now with neuroscience studies we have data to prove doing this doesn’t reinforce negative emotions, but dissipates them. Science backs it up.’

Make somebody believe they control the negotiations and they’ll accept almost any outcome

When You Want To Give A Worker Bad News But Avoid Low Morale ‘If you know they’re going to be disappointed, pre-empt it by saying “I’ve got bad news for you – you’re not going to like this at all,”’ says Voss. ‘Now let that sink in. At this point whatever they imagine, it’s either going to be equal to or worse than the news I’m going to give them, so whatever I hit them with next, chances are it will be a relief to them. They walk into my office expecting nothing and I give them a two per cent raise. They may even think they’re going to get fired. A two per cent raise they’ll be grateful, reinforcing you as a good character who wants the best for them.’

When You Want An Obstinate Employee To Pull Their Weight If one of your staff is at risk of ruining a project, the answer may not lie with disciplinary action but gauging their emotional state, as Voss reveals: ‘Everybody reacts in patterns – they’re predictable, you just don’t always happen to like their patterns. And given these are triggered by emotion, hostage negotiation techniques are designed to dial up and dial down emotions at will, giving you a control panel to play off people’s patterns. For example, if they’re angry, they might not feel recognised – make them feel appreciated. If they’re lazy, they may not feel challenged – give them something to manage. Every time you talk about negative behaviour, it’s based on how someone feels. Figure out the emotional root, make a connection and you solve the problem.’

When You’re Pitching Your Startup To Potential Investors Much like pimping, pitching ain’t easy. But if you want people to buy into your idea as much as you do, Voss believes you stand a better chance of hitting a home run by first understanding which stand they’re sitting in: ‘Most people are so determined to make their sales pitch and to be heard that they completely overlook where the other side is coming from. The stuff that you believe is critical may not be important to the other side. If you start pitching before figuring this out then you’re flying blind – and you’re gonna hit something.’

WHAT NEXT? For all the mind games, Voss believes the ultimate tool for getting what you want and being successful in business comes down to one trait: honesty. ‘I always say, “Integrity is a currency.” Because promising what you can’t deliver is a bad strategy – people always find out if you’re lying.’