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Today we’re in for a real treat – we’re speaking to Chris Voss – the author of the new book Never Split the Difference. To me this was undoubtedly one of the best negotiation books I have ever read. I finished the book in three days and I took 31 pages of single space notes.
He has a very unique approach to negotiations because of his background as an international hostage negotiator for the FBI. In this episode we’re going to discuss how to stand your ground in a negotiation while maintaining a cordial relationship with the other side. We also talk about how we can get the other side to reveal their hidden interests, and we also discuss how to use emotional intelligence to persuade the other side. The majority of the things that we talked about in this episode were things I haven’t shared in the podcasts in the past, so I know you’re going to get a lot out of this. So without further ado, let’s jump into the interview.
So I’m here with Chris Voss. So can you tell the audience a little bit about your unique negotiation background?
Hostage negotiation for business, I’m a retired FBI hostage negotiator, I spent 15 years as a hostage negotiator for the FBI, and ended up being the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. In went through Harvard Law School’s negotiation course, ended up teaching at that course.
The crazy, ridiculous idea here is that the underlying dynamics are the same, it’s human nature, it’s emotional intelligence – hostage negotiation is military-grade emotional intelligence and we can use it in our business and personal life – and that’s that I’ve been doing since I left the bureau.
In your book you shared a really fun story about how you were able to take one of the classes at Harvard and you were in a negotiation simulation and you actually did pretty well – can you tell us about that story?
The head of the programme on negotiation, Bob Mnookin – a great guy and a brilliant guy, he wrote a book called Beyond Winning, and there’s a chapter in that that’s got a great chapter on empathy. And Bob kinda wanted to test me out a little bit, wanted to see what I got. So he said – if I was a kidnapper, what would you say to me in order to do the negotiation?
And I said, “I’d just ask you some open ended questions.” And I realized I’m setting him up a little bit with a bit of an innocuous answer, because I know open ended questions – that sounds stupid like it’s not going to do anything. And I knew that’s the way he was going to react, he was going to be like, “Really? That’s all you got? That’s the extent of your hostage negotiation Jedi mind tricks?”
And I go, “Yeah – just ask you a couple open ended questions.”
So now he’s kind of chomping at the bit – he wants to go one on one. And he actually gets a couple people come in and watch. He has his secretary come in with a tape recorder, he has Gabriella Bloom, who’s a phenomenally smart negotiator from Israel, and she was in the Israeli defense forces attorney and happened to be a visiting scholar at Harvard.
So he says, “Alright – I’ve got your son, we’ve got your son – I need a million dollars by tomorrow morning, a million dollars or we kill him! Yes or no – what are gonna do?” And I ask him the open ended question that I know is a killer.
I just go, “How am I supposed to do that?”
And he kind of blinks a couple times, he goes, “No, no – we’ve got your son, we’re gonna kill him. I need a million dollars!”
I said, “Bob, how am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to pay if I don’t know he’s alive? And if I don’t know he’s alive – how am I supposed to do that?”
And I just tied him in knots with it.
The ‘how’ question is really the number one way to say no. It’s a killer question, it is a sneak attack question – the other side never knows where you’re coming from and it works every time. And Bob was satisfied that I knew what I was doing when I did that.
You know what’s so brilliant about it – this is something you go in depth in your book is with the calibrated question. In the calibrated question you allow yourself to say no without actually saying the word no; it’s a question that allows you to put up a barrier without seeming unreasonable, and I think that’s the brilliance of it.
You’re capturing it exactly. and I like that you recognize that we use the term calibrated question instead of open ended question, because every question is going to have an impact – so why not calibrate that impact? If you know it’s going to have an impact, don’t be surprised by it, calibrate it and let it hit its target – that’s why we call this approach tactical empathy. We’ve learned enough over the past 40 years about these skills that it’s no longer: just use empathy and just be nice.
Here’s what we’re looking for and here’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to trigger relationship building, we’re trying to intentionally trigger a feeling of empowerment. We know enough now, why don’t we calibrate what we’re doing to let it hit where we want it to.
And one of the points that you made that was fascinating is that even if you want to say something directly, there’s a point that you want to make – you can turn that into a calibrated question which allows the person to come to your conclusion themselves.
Meaning has a much bigger impact when the other side perceives it. when you tell someone something, it’s very passive on their side, so you actually have to tell somebody something 19 times. It’s an incredibly inefficient way to get a point across.
But if I calibrate what I’m saying in a way where you perceive it, where the light bulb goes on over your head, where you figure it out – I will get my meaning across much faster by taking the indirect route.
The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. If I try to be direct, if I try to tell you – that’s a highly inefficient way to get meaning across. If I figure out a way to say it so that you perceive it and you pick up on it, it will happen much faster.
Ok, that’s fascinating. Can you give an example here? If the point that you’re trying to make is that someone’s offer is kind of ridiculous, it’s being unreasonable and it isn’t taking into account the personal factors that you’re dealing with on your end – how would you turn that statement which if you were to say it directly would be very aggressive – how would you turn that into a calibrated question?
It gets back down to “How am I supposed to do that?”
First of all, people always ask for more than what they want to start with. So when you say “How am I supposed to do that?” in a subtle way you’re saying to the other side, “I know you’re asking for more than you actually want.” And you do it in a way that’s very non-accusatory, it’s making them aware without accusing them.
Secondly it causes them to take a real hard look at your situation. Let’s say that everything that they were asking for was reasonable – which never happens. That still doesn’t mean that these things are easy for you to do. And what you’re trying to say to them is, “Look – I’m trying to cooperate with you, but please just take a look at my situation.”
These things will come across to them, and they figure it out based on what you said, it’s implied – so it’s soaked up. And then on top of that – everybody’s nightmare response is the other person is going to say, “Well that’s your problem – you figure it out.”
Number one if they say that, the first thing you have to ask yourself is do I want to deal with this person at all?
And number two, what you’ve actually just done is found out there’s no movement.
In any negotiation on any giver term, your objective as a negotiator is to find out how much latitude there is without driving the other person from the table. And to push them to their extreme, you have to draw the fine line between making them slightly uncomfortable and driving them away. And it is a fine line, and that’s the artist’s line if you will. How do I come up to that line without going over it? How do I come up to the cliff without falling off?
And that’s what: how am I supposed to do that does, it tells you you’re really close to the edge but you haven’t gone over.
Because when the other side looks at you and says, “That’s your problem – you figure it out.” You’re still talking! They haven’t slammed their hands down and walked away from the table, they haven’t hung up the phone and they’re still telling you that they want to collaborate with you. They’re a little more direct at this point in time, but you’re still talking. So you’re doing your job as a negotiator by gently finding out where the boundaries are.
What’s so interesting about your approach, and obviously this comes from your background as a hostage negotiator – you are more willing to push then what I find is seen in the typical academic approach to negotiation. Which is almost strictly cordial and interest-based, yours is a little bit more aggressive, but you’re able to do it in a way that still builds trust and maintains a relationship with the other side.
Exactly. And that’s a crazy thought – how can I be aggressive and still build trust? How can I be aggressive and still build a relationship?
I actually like to think of it as being assertive rather than being aggressive. We’re not attacking the other side. And we use this all the time with kidnappers, with terrorists, with killers where you went over the edge somebody really did die, the consequences were dire. And we never had, no matter what the bad guy, nobody ever pushed back, no harm ever came from us saying, “How am I supposed to do that?”
The worst thing that has ever happened is when the other side has said, “Because you have to. That’s your problem – you figure it out.”
That’s as bad as it gets, and we never had a negative consequence with any killer in the world.
That’s incredible. And like you said, you’re dealing with the highest of stakes negotiation with people who are very volatile, and still – your mode of pushing back didn’t push them over the edge.
That’s right – no-one was ever actually physically harmed – no animals were harmed in the making of this movie! It worked for us.
What about the danger of assuming rationality in negotiation? Typically people approach negotiation and they’re like one plus one equals two, everybody knows that. And then those people always end up being frustrated – so what role does rationality play to you?
If this was a rational world would we have the presidential candidates that we have today? If this was a rational world would the US government lockdown and go into sequester? If this was a rational world – would we need the United Nations? If this was a rational world would somebody’s 13-year-old child not want a video game that doesn’t do them any good?
Rationality is this absurd fiction of our lives. We make decisions based on what we care about – and that makes decision-making by definition an emotional process. Rationality is what we come up with after we’ve already decided what we want.
So a hostage negotiator never thought it was a rational world, we always thought we were driven by emotions and that’s why this stuff works.
So how do we use this information?
I challenge anyone to spend only one day, just one day just trying to validate what people say – don’t say I understand, say, “Hey, from your perspective this is the way it looks to you. You’re upset about this because of this.”
Just spend a day – a vacation from rationality if you will, and see what happens. People in your life are going to love you, you might just have the most enjoyable day that you had. It’s amazing how things will work themselves out.
Spend the next day seeing if you can then add in, “How can we reach some agreements based on my newfound emotional intelligence superpowers?”
This sounds like what you mentioned in the book as tactical empathy?
Tactical empathy is taking empathy and making it operational. Knowledge isn’t any good if you don’t apply it. Let’s apply our emotional intelligence. That’s the whole idea – it’s a tactical approach. I know if you’re upset about something, if I just recognize you’re upset, that will help you gain control over it. If I know you like something, I can say I see this really matters to you. I know, tactically speaking, you’re going to feel better about it.
Is it wrong to apply it tactically? Is it wrong or nefarious in some way? Only if you’re trying to manipulate somebody into something that’s bad for them. One man’s manipulation is another man’s persuasion or another man’s influence.
You see a beautiful girl, you tell her she’s beautiful – you’re trying to manipulate her into going on a date with you. You see someone you work with who’s done a great job for your company and you say, “Man – great job!” You’re actually trying to manipulate them into feeling better about their efforts and doing it again.
It’s not that any of these tools are by definition wrong – it’s about what you’re trying to do with them.
It comes down to whether or not you’re doing it in a way that’s detrimental to them – that’s the ethical line.
That’s right – because emotional intelligence is ridiculously powerful. There was an article written called The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence because it can have a dark side. But in the same vein, ask somebody:
“Have you got a smartphone?”
And everybody does.
“There are some really bad people that use these.”
But that didn’t stop you from using your phone because someone else is using it with bad intent? No, it’s just a tool and it depends on how you use it.
Some people have fooled themselves into believing that emotions don’t belong in the business world – so they’re leaving one of the most powerful persuasive tools on the table, because they believe it’s all logic.
And the same guy who will tell you emotions don’t belong will tell you, you should be passionate about your company! Wait a minute – aren’t those synonyms? Emotion versus passion? It’s in the eye of the beholder isn’t it?
One of the things I really liked about tactical empathy is that you didn’t just stop there when it comes to identifying with people’s emotions and getting deeper there. You brought in mirroring to get people to get deeper and elaborate – can you tell me a little bit that?
Mirroring is this ridiculously simple tool that works wonders, and it might be the closest thing to a Jedi mind trick that we’ve got. It’s not the mirroring you learned in your Networking 101 where they say mirror someone’s body language or mirror their tone of voice or energy level.
It’s repeating the last one to three words of what someone has just said. It causes people to go on – they reword, they clarify, they feel encouraged to tell you more. And if you don’t do it naturally, you won’t believe it until you try it! People say it’s too wooden, or it’s too formulaic and it feels awkward… until you know how it works. And then once they catch on they absolutely love it and do it all the time.
I believe one of the things you mentioned in the book was being patient and comfortable in the 3 – 4 seconds of silence that happens after you mirror?
Three seconds can feel like an eternity – and people are horrified to shut up and let those three seconds pass and even be silent until the other person speaks.
Effective pauses are named that for a reason, they can be powerful tools if you can just learn to be still for 3 seconds.
Do you have a story that could speak to the benefit of taking the time to wallow in silence for strategic purposes?
We were training some people in a company on a critical negotiation, and we had them rehearse with a specifically selected, calibrated question designed to provoke a response. That question was – why would you ever do business with us?
Because that’s designed to get the other side to defend you. People are supposed to say, “We would do business with you for these reasons and these reasons and these reasons” – that’s how you get the other side to make your case for you. We set them up for this, and we went to the simulation and the people asking the question were so uncomfortable with it, that they could only last for about 2 seconds – and then they jumped in with more reasoning and they continued to talk, they didn’t let the other side talk first.
And in the out-brief afterwards their counterparts said, “Thank God that you kept talking, because when you asked us that question – you had us. And we looked at each other and we were getting ready to give in completely, and if you’d just waited a few more seconds… but you couldn’t. And thank God you kept talking because you bailed us out of that.”
So they blew the calibration of what they said by not being able to live in the silence.
That’s a brilliant example because it just demonstrates that it’s not a situation where nothing is happening in that gap – there is a lot of action in that silence, and sometimes it’s the most critical point of action during the conversation. Because in that time, in their brain, they’re working for you. And if you jump in too soon, bail them out, all that work you put in with that calibrated question – you didn’t give it time to work.
Very well said, exactly. You blew everything you built up to that point in time.
I’m going to take a quick pause here. It’s do funny that all this is happening right now because this book just changed everything for me, because I was getting to yes, interest-based, all the way – and you brought in some things that just completely blew my mind, things I never even thought of.
Like with the questions structured for a no? That was utterly brilliant, because I never would have thought of doing that, it’s almost scary to suggest something that on its face seems to be not in your best interest. But psychologically like you demonstrated it’s just a powerful technique.
There’s some really fin stuff there I’ve been lucky enough to some across based on ideas that other people have given us and have taken several steps farther. Even the fact that this works on all cultures is really cool as well.
When you think about it, we’re dealing with the same psychology, different societal impacts of course, but at its base, cognitively speaking there are going to be similarities, so these things will work cross-culturally.
Especially when we’re taught that culture creates so many barriers, it’s nice to negotiate in a way that moves below the barrier.
This is similar to the thing that you said when you talked about not being afraid of no – because typically in a negotiation you want to get yes, yes, yes – get there quickly and efficiently without much problem. But you uncovered the fact that getting to a no can tell you a lot more than a yes.
No is protection, yes is commitment. My setup question is if yes is success, then what is no? And people always say, well no is failure. And I’ll say no, that was a trick question. Who says yes is success? Yes isn’t success – yes is a trap that we lure other people into.
There are three kinds of yeses – there’s confirmation, commitment, and there’s counterfeit. People try to lead us into commitment yes with confirmation yes so much that everyone is an expert at giving the counterfeit yes. So if you think yes is success, you’ve just taken a counterfeit $100 bill and you can’t spend that anywhere.
And can you tell the audience a little bit more about how dangerous it can be to accept a counterfeit yes thinking that it’s a confirmation yes or a commitment yes?
Because many business people are used to saying, aha, go on – have you ever taken a yes and found out later it was a no? Yes is a great device to fish. If you are trying to get me to say yes – I actually want to suck as much out of you as possible, I want to know where you’re coming from, I want to know what you’re offering, I want to use you against somebody else. So I will string you along to try to get somebody else interested, to play you off against somebody else. If you’re dumb enough to sucker by the counterfeit yes. So I may schedule meetings with you, I may use you to drive somebody else’s price down. I might say I’m talking to Kwame and he can do this for me, he can do X, Y and Z for me. Well I never wanted to do business with Kwame in the first place, but I’ll start saying yes to you because I want to drive my preferred vendor down on price. Procurement people are great at this, the supply chain people, they will hammer you with this kind of an approach, because they know how much in love with the word yes we are.
Taking a counterfeit yes – there are a lot of sharks out there that are experts at giving out that kind of yes in order to set us up to be hung out to dry.
And so how do you tell the difference if you’ve received a yes – how do you know it’s a commitment yes, that gold standard of yes?
Yes is nothing without a how. If at any given point in time you’ve got a yes in a conversation, then you’ve got to 3 plus it. You’ve got to get them to give you a real solid yes three times in the same conversation. So you paraphrase it, you mirror it, you summarize it. If it’s a counterfeit yes, they’ll hesitate. Nobody gives a strong counterfeit yes every time. Even if they’re good at the counterfeit yes, yes is nothing without how. How are we going to do this? How are we going to implement? These are called visioning questions. If it’s a counterfeit yes, they won’t have an answer. If they go dead silent – since they had no intention of implementing they have no vision of it.
The flipside is, say they didn’t mean to have given you a counterfeit yes, it was inadvertent. If they have no vision for implementation you’re screwed anyway – because it isn’t going to happen. So yes is nothing without how. You’ve got to pivot the how – how are we going to get this done, how will we know we’re on track, and how will we address it if we’re not. If you get answers to those three hows – you are rock solid.
For those of you who want more – you can buy the book! In my opinion without a doubt it’s the best book on negotiation to come out this year…
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Kwame Christian, Esq., M.A. Negotiation Consultant and Negotiation/Persuasion Coach
Keep listening to the podcast, Negotiate Anything, to learn the keys to confident communication, negotiation, influence, and persuasion.