Professional negotiators know all the tricks. Their ability to persuade using words, and sometimes silence, is akin to hypnosis in its power. So I was curious, and just a bit wary, to talk to former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss for our Expert Interview podcast. Would he use any of his negotiation techniques on me?
Spoiler alert: he did. But luckily we both had the same goal in mind – to share some of the tips in his new book – so this wasn’t so much a negotiation as a masterclass in the nuances of communication.
The insights begin with the book’s title, “Never Split the Difference.” Everyone knows that compromise is central to any negotiation, right? Absolutely wrong, says Voss. Compromising is like wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe when you can’t decide which pair to wear.
“Let’s water down both solutions and we’ll both be happy, but we’ll have a really bad outcome,” he says, putting it simply. “You leave money on the table, you leave better options on the table.”
To get to the better options, you need the right mindset. You need to be aware that there may be a solution out there that neither side has thought of. And it will only emerge if you are willing to listen.
“The American general Colin Powell used to like to say, ‘Never let your ego get so tied to a position that, if the position collapses, your ego goes with it.’ That sort of thinking also applies to negotiation. Never be so sure of what you want that you wouldn’t take something better,” Voss cautions.
Mindset matters, then, and so does how you put things. For instance, there’s a big difference between “you’re right” and “that’s right.”
“When we say, ‘That’s right,’ we totally and completely embrace that and we feel enlightened by it, and if somebody said it to us, we feel bonded to them,” Voss says. “When someone says, ‘That’s right,’ they’re at the moment where they’re going to throw something better on the table and you just created that moment by getting them to say, ‘That’s right‘.”
“It’s the worst answer to hear, because people say that when they have no intention of going along with the other person. They will not comply. They’re not going to change what they’re doing.”
Another tip is to avoid using questions that begin with “why.” Why? Because it always sounds like an accusation. Once you’re aware of that, it’s easy to rephrase your question into something softer.
“Instead of, ‘Why did you do that?’ you say, ‘What made you do that?’ Instead of, ‘Why was that a good choice?’ you say, ‘What makes that a good choice?’… No one ever asks, ‘Why?’ unless they think that there’s something wrong with what somebody is doing,” Voss says.
“‘Why‘ can be very legitimate. You need to know ‘why‘ so much of the time. It’s just that when I think you’re wrong, I’m going to say, ‘Why did you do that?’ When I’m supportive of you, I’m never going to ask you why.”
If this sounds a little bit like manipulation, it really isn’t, Voss says, challenging, “What’s the difference between manipulation and influence?” His own answer to that question is, it depends where you’re coming from.
“As a hostage negotiator, my negotiation approach has always been: what I want to do for you is going to be good for you. I want to save your life. So I guess the difference between manipulation and influence is: where are your ethics?”
Voss talks more about the ethics of negotiation in this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast.