Empathy. It’s a soft, fuzzy word you’re more likely to associate with social workers than the high stakes world of international hostage negotiation. But for Chris Voss, the former head of the FBI’s international kidnap and hostage negotiation team, ‘tactical empathy’ was his number one tool.
“Hostage negotiation is like emotional intelligence on steroids,” says Voss. “Most of us avoid negotiation because we’re hard-wired to fear confrontation. We imagine conversations going down negative paths and tend not to give others a chance, or don’t hear the opportunities they give us.”
Voss is on a mission to teach people how embracing negotiation can make you a better partner, employee, parent.
Many of the techniques he learned with the FBI (outlined in his bestselling book Never Split the Difference) are simple, but they work like Jedi mind tricks because they go against what we’d ordinarily do.
For example – the best way to gain trust and eventually influence someone? Is to ‘shut up and listen’. Not ‘listen for points we can argue against,’ but put aside our agenda and listen with an open mind.
“Counterintuitive skills are necessary to gain a competitive edge,” Voss tells me. “Once anyone begins to see the huge tactical advantage listening makes, they really get into it.”
Let your ego be the first casualty
Successful negotiation, Voss contends, hinges on your ability to surrender your need to be ‘right’.
“An assertive [personality type] will initially have trouble listening because ‘I want control and I’ll feel out of control if I’m not talking.’
“Once they realise their ability to make a deal by not talking and giving the other side a chance to talk themselves part way there, they love it. It’s actually less work.”
But empathising with people who trigger you (partner, boss, or teenage banshee offspring) isn’t always easy.
“Listening is hard for everyone,” Voss tells me. “As soon as you begin to make an effort to listen you wake up to how many people don’t do it. It becomes frustrating.”
“In some ways it’s easier to empathise with a Haitian kidnapper than our own family,” he says. “That Haitian kidnapper didn’t steal attention from us during family gatherings when we were kids. So, our buttons aren’t pushed because old wounds aren’t being reopened. But it becomes a challenge with a terrorist if their actions seem to be attacking values we hold personally.”
Understand that emotions fuel negotiations. Not logic.
“We are all crazy, irrational, impulsive, emotionally driven animals. Instead of denying or ignoring emotions, good negotiators identify and influence them,” writes Voss. “A surprisingly high percentage of negotiations have more to do with self-esteem, status and other non-financial needs,” writes Voss.
In order to ‘hear the need under the need’, we have to let go of our internal commentary (‘If they say this, I’ll say that’) and listen. Why? When people feel ‘heard’, you disarm them and make them feel safe, says Voss. And that’s when you in a position to influence them.
Reflect what you’ve heard in a non-judgemental way. Paraphrase key points, and remember; you don’t have to agree with someone in order to show them that you understand.
Non-judgemental labelling (‘It sounds like you don’t want to go back to jail’ / ‘It seems like you’re frustrated about our progress’) brings the emotion to the surface and diffuses it.
Labelling also works the other way – by labelling all the bad things someone might think about you (“I know it looks like I’m being harsh”) you can neutralise them.
‘No’ is the beginning of the negotiation – not the end
‘No’ makes people feel safe, says Voss. But sometimes ‘no’ just means ‘I need more information’ or ‘I don’t trust you yet’.
Listen out for the ‘Black Swans’
Black Swans are vital pieces of information that have the power to turn negotiations if only you knew what they were, says Voss. It may be a hidden fear or desire. It may be that they’re operating on false information. It may even be their worldview. Voss uses the example of realising, mid-negotiation, that his counterpart was a devout Christian, and introducing biblical language into his speech as a way to create rapport. It worked.
Bonus FBI Jedi mind trick
Be a mirror. “Be a mirror?” Repeating their last three words your counterpart said not only invites them to elaborate (and perhaps inadvertently reveal information you can use as leverage) but it also makes them feel like you’re on the same page.
“My hands are tied.”
“Your hands are tied?”
“Ok, they’re not really, I just don’t want to give it to you because of X.”
“Let’s talk about X.”
(Yes, it a simplification, but the technique is bizarrely effective. Try it.)
Calibrated questions: ‘how’ and ‘what’
“Once you figure out where you want a conversation to go, design questions to ease the conversation in that direction while letting the other guy think it’s his choice to take you there.” Voss writes.
If they’re asking for something you can’t or don’t want to give (“A million dollars or he dies!”) a ‘how/what’ question will buy you time, make the other person feel in control and often ends up getting them to solve the problem for you.
‘How am I supposed to do that?’ delivered in a non-confrontational way implies you want what they want, but need their help. Also try ‘What about this is important to you / doesn’t work for you?’ or ‘How can we find a solution?’
A fun way of saying ‘frame the negotiation’. Anchor their emotions with low expectations. ‘I’m sorry, you’re not going to like it,’ sounds ominous, so whatever you say after that can only be a step up.
In salary negotiations, establish a range (‘125 – 150’) with your real number at the bottom. Use odd numbers (they sound precise and based on complex calculations) and negotiate terms, not just money. Pushing for more holiday time may make the salary increase instead (or you may just get more holiday time. Still, win!)
Second bonus Jedi mind trick
Negotiations stalled? Next time you can’t get someone to reply to your email try a straight “Have you given up on this project?”
It feels uncomfortable at first but according to Voss, it plays on your counterpart’s natural loss aversion and encourages them to explain themselves. I tried it last week after months of emails failed to yield a response. The person responded within two hours, full of apologies and a plan for next steps.
These techniques may sound like manipulation. But if we end up learning empathy, open our minds and truly listen to others all in the name of self-interest – is that such a bad thing?
Never Split the Difference is published by HarperCollins.