Episode 4 - Chris Voss
How to Negotiate When You Have No Leverage, Straight From The FBI’s Lead Hostage Negotiator
4 Key Learnings – Chris voss
About this Episode
Negotiating without any leverage is a lousy position to be in, but is a place many of us at least early in our careers find ourselves. Chris’ experience as a hostage negotiator turned business negotiation consultant gives us just about the best advice you can possibly get from someone who has negotiated with terrorists around the world to CEOs in the boardroom. Learn the tricks of the trade you can use today in your career.
“The only people you have no leverage on are the people that refuse to talk to you, the people that refuse to meet you, the people that you’ve never had any interaction with. If they agree to meet with you, if they agree to sit down with you, if they’ve ever communicated with you, you had something they want.”
More on – Chris
Christopher Voss is an American businessman, author, and professor. Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator, the CEO of The Black Swan Group Ltd, and co-author of the book, Never Split the Difference. He is an adjunct Professor at Georgetown University‘s McDonough School of Business and a lecturer at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California.
Connect with Chris
- Tim Ferriss Podcast,
- Barking Up the Wrong Tree
- Start with No by Jim Camp
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday
Welcome to this episode of The Career Hacking podcast. Today’s guest is Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference, and former FBI hostage negotiator.
Before we get started, I just wanted to say a special thanks to our sponsor, ZipRecruiter. I’ve been a customer of theirs even before they were a sponsor at some of my previous companies, and I just love the way that their platform works. It’s really hard to find great talent and really inefficient if you’re not doing it the right way, and ZipRecruiter just makes it really easy, efficient, and effective at the end of the day to find the right talent. Whether you’re a candidate looking for a job, it’s really easy. Google Play app or a iTunes app, one click, you can apply to jobs. If you’re a company looking to hire, there’s no better place to list. Right now my listeners can try it for free at ZipRecruiter.com/Hack. That’s ZipRecruiter.com/Hack, and it’s the smartest way to hire, so go check them out.
Really excited for today’s guest, Chris Voss, talking about how to negotiate when you have no leverage. He learned a lot of this stuff working for the FBI as the lead hostage negotiator. Traveled internationally for them, taking on all sorts of different hostage negotiation situations. Chris is from Iowa, owes his New York accent to all the time he spent in New York with the FBI, and now he’s consulting with companies on negotiation. He works at Black Swan Group and wrote a book called Never Split the Difference. Best-selling book.
We’re really excited to have Chris on the show. Chris, thanks for joining us today.
Thanks, Max. Absolutely a pleasure to be here with you. Appreciate it.
Excellent. We’re going to get right into the meat here. First I want to know, any funny stories, things that made you kick yourself when you were an FBI hostage negotiator, and any unexpected lessons that came from that?
Well, the funny thing that we’ve learned is we use first names to keep hostages alive. If you get the bad guy to say the hostage’s name, not only is it going to keep them alive but they’re going to be treated a lot better. I use this stuff all the time personally, like to get out of fights, to get discounts. I’m at a bar one night, my favorite bar steakhouse in Washington D.C., and I know the bartenders pretty good so I walk in and the bar’s jammed and I just give a nod to one of the guys and I say, “Give me the first piece of real estate at the bar that opens up.” I don’t have to watch the whole bar. I can have a drink and I can relax because these guys are going to look out for me.
There’s a seat at the far end that’s coming open up and my bartender waves me down to sit down. Now there’s been a guy hovering over this thing the whole time. He spotted that the people are getting ready to get up and leave. He’s new to the bar, he doesn’t know to check with the bartender, so he’s getting ready to sit down and I swoop in out of nowhere and the bartender sits me right down. This guy is clearly upset. Although it’s a pretty nice bar, the guy’s tatted up a little bit. He looks like he’s probably a handful. He’s coming over to me and he’s like, “That’s my chair,” and I just look at him and you know, this first name thing, because the guy’s getting ready to hit me. I look at him and I just hold up my hand, I go like, “I’m Chris.” It just stops him dead in his tracks. I thought his brain was going to short circuit because as soon as I became Chris and a human being, he just froze. I could tell that he can’t hit me now. He doesn’t know what to do. He’s completely upset, he doesn’t know what to do.
Bartender sees this go down. Tom the bartender, great guy. He looks at the guy and he says, “Hey, man. Let me buy you a drink. I got a seat for you right over here.” The guy moves off to the side and goes to sit down. These techniques that we saved hostages work to preserve my seat and my well-being in bars on a regular basis.
That’s an incredible story. You used what you’ve learned in FBI hostage negotiation now in your personal life. What I really want to know is how the hell did you become an FBI hostage negotiator?
Yeah, well first you got to be an FBI agent. I was a local police officer and I decided to apply for the FBI, fortunately in a year where they were hiring a lot of people, because I don’t have any advanced degrees. At the time I didn’t have any advanced degrees. I don’t speak any languages. Not an attorney, accountant, or a scientist. I’m a regular guy, so I got in when they were hiring a lot of people and I was on a SWAT team. I was on FBI SWAT when I was in Pittsburgh and was in a process of trying out for the Bureau’s version of the Navy SEALs, which is the FBI hostage rescue team, which as a matter of fact have a number of former Navy SEALs and a number of Delta Force guys on it.
An old injury that I had from my college days, I’d torn up my knee in martial arts. I still wanted to be in crisis response. I knew we had hostage negotiators, I didn’t know what they did. A hostage negotiator with the FBI starts out as an additional duty. It’s not your main full time job. I went to the woman who was in charge of the team in New York, and she very clearly let me know that I was eminently underqualified. I had no reason other than wanting to do it, but I had no psychological degrees, no job experience, nothing about hostage negotiation. She asked me about it and I said no. She said, “Well, you know what? Go away,” and I said, “There has to be something I can do.” She said, “There is. Go volunteer at a suicide hotline. Until you’ve done that, go away.”
I volunteered at the hotline and that was the keys to the kingdom. That was the entryway, the gateway to getting in and to learn everything. I learned so much about human nature on the hotline and have been applying it in everything since. One thing led to another and I became our international kidnapping guy who was in charge of the negotiation response for every American kidnapped anywhere in the world, outside of the U.S. for about seven years.
That’s pretty incredible. Your time as working in … It was a suicide prevention hotline?
Yeah, it was technically a crisis intervention hotline. The crazy thing about this is there are some suicide hotlines, that if you’re not suicidal they won’t talk to you if you don’t want to kill yourself, if you’re only in such crisis that you can’t leave your house. Fortunately the one I was on was a crisis hotline, no matter what was debilitating you. You didn’t necessarily have to be suicidal. Then I learned how to talk to people with all sorts of problems.
What were some of the things you learned from that experience?
The crazy thing that I learned more than anything else is once you’re actually listening for certain emotional cues, how quickly you can get to the heart of the conversation and get it resolved. On the hotline, when I first showed up for my training they said, “If you follow our process that we teach you, you’ve got a 20 minute time limit.” I remember thinking, “20 minutes? You got to be kidding me. This should take hours.” No, not if you work the process right, with the right application of emotional intelligence. That’s another reason why this is so effective in business. The amount of time that you save getting to the heart of the matter is insane. I learned how to apply it really quickly, to bond quickly with people, to get inside to them and to defuse their emotions and increase their positive ones and come to a resolution really fast. That was one of the biggest things I learned there.
And I’m [crosstalk 00:08:35]-
That’s incredible. What are some of those questions that you ask to get to the root of that problem? I can see how this is reflected in business in so many ways where you get some kind of negotiation for a deal and you get a no and they tell you that they don’t have budget for our product or service, but there’s really this underlying issue, and if you could just get to that root of that underlying issue you can actually overcome the budget objection.
In this case, there were some questions that you asked to get to that root.
Well, you kind of need to be able to pivot back and forth between two skills, and one of them is being able to ask the right what or how question. Or to flip flop and be able to make an observation that’s going to trigger that same amount of information.
The what question on budget would be, “We’d love to do this but we just don’t have the budget for it.” The what question would be, “What’s going to happen if you guys don’t do this?” Because you need to focus them on loss. What’s the potential loss? Loss is the single dominating influence on human decision making.
When I was a hostage negotiator, we were taught to look for the loss. That’s what their trigger behavior is and there’s going to be a loss in the last 24 to 48 hours that triggered all this behavior. We thought that was just for hostage negotiation, but in 2002 I believe it was, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in behavioral economics on the idea that loss, and they called it prospect theory or the prospect of loss, was the single overriding dominating influence of human behavior. Not the only influence, but the biggest and most dominating influence. That really is how hostage negotiation begins to immediately apply, because the recognition that the loss … If you’re lazy you’re looking for the loss. You want a communication hack? Figure out the loss. You figure out the loss by asking a couple of the right what or how questions, and usually what’s going to happen if you do nothing. Where are you left? What’s the status quo going to cost you is another question. That’s another what question.
Now the flip side is people often get their guard up just on the structure of a question. The way to ask a question without having somebody know it is to make a label. The label would be, “It seems like the status quo is costing you money,” or, “It seems like if you guys don’t do anything there would be consequences.” The good negotiator is being able to pivot back and forth between these seemingly innocent observations, but the innocent observation designed to focus the other person’s attention on a specific spot. We call these labels and we construct them very specifically. We’re looking to identify and uncover losses, what people in the business sector would often call the pain. Uncover the pain. Pain’s a loss. People are talking because they’re trying to alleviate the pain. This is a much more specific definition of that and then how to get at it. It’s going to be either with an observation, a verbal and seemingly innocent observation that focuses attention and triggers a thought, or a question that does the same thing. Only we know as negotiators that questions might not be the best way to gather information.
Wow. That’s incredibly powerful. I might even use that in my relationships outside of business, a relationship with a significant other. I feel like it’s so versatile to be able to get to the root of that why in almost any mean of communication in life.
Exactly. If I can, I want to throw in another subtle tweak on this too that we know as hostage negotiators, because there’s so much advice, rightly so, to get to someone’s why. Why does this make sense to them? Why are they doing that? The why is the motivator. The problem is that why as a word makes people defensive, so you’ve been properly counseled to get at their why but if you ask them why it’ll actually diminish rapport. It’ll interfere with the relationship. It’ll make them feel accused. Why is the universal word in every society on this planet that someone asks someone else when they think they’ve done something wrong. When someone says to you, “Why did you do that?” they always think you’re wrong, and we’re so beat into this that we inadvertently ask the why question innocently and it actually damages rapport and communication exchange.
That’s such a good lesson. As somebody who’s always working on their communication skills as a leader in my own business and my relationship, being able to get to that why without putting somebody on the defensive, being able to operate in a tactful manner, it’s so important. It’s a really good lesson. It’s going to take us into the main question and the episode title, how do you negotiate when you have no leverage? So many of these millennials are early in their careers and they are getting job opportunities that are underpaying them, or they’re looking for promotions but don’t really have a lot of other options but they’ve been putting in the work. People really want to understand how to negotiate when you have no leverage. It’s incredibly important early on in a career when you don’t have a lot of leverage. You’re the guy to talk to when it comes to this topic, right? What are your key lessons for negotiating when you have no leverage?
Yeah, so leverage is in the eye of the beholder. Leverage is like duty. In my company we’ve always said there’s always leverage. The reality of the situation, if anyone is communicating with you at all, then you have something by definition that they want or they hope you have something they want. The first thing is discovering what that is and then approaching it slowly so that they don’t feel threatened as you begin to find a way to capitalize on what your leverage is. It’s just absolutely true.
We used to always say, for example in a kidnapping, who’s got the leverage: the kidnappers or the victims? Well, the victims have all the leverage, but most people think the kidnapper has it because of the circumstances. Well, leverage is in the eye of the beholder. Kidnapper’s calling the family because they want money from the family. That instantly gives the family leverage, as long as they’re not jerks about it and aren’t too heavy handed and treat leverage respectfully and calmly and slowly. Again, just like the suicide hotline example, you get to where you want to go a lot faster with emotional intelligence if you don’t rush it. It’s a delay to save time or the empathy accelerator, we like to say.
First of all, if a company’s talking to you at all, they’re hoping you have something they want. What they want more than anything else is competence and reliability and whether or not you’re a team player and whether or not you’re going to look out for them. “How do you manifest that?” you might ask yourself.
A friend of mine is the head of an international bank in the U.S. It’s an international bank based out of [inaudible 00:13:37] His name is Tom McCabe. It’s the Development Bank of Singapore and he’s the head of country for the U.S. Tom and I are from the same place. We went to high school together. What does that mean? What that means is by and large when we entered the job market, neither one of us had any leverage. We’re from a small town in Iowa, which means we got no big family connections. He’s got an undergraduate degree, not an advanced degree, and it’s not from a prestigious university. What does that mean? His educational credentials are not overwhelming and he’s not tied into an alumni network. He went from small town Iowa to the head of country in an international bank. How did he do that, and what has that got to do with the story I’m telling right now?
How he did it was in each and every job negotiation he’s ever been in, instead of focusing on salary, his question has always been, “How can I be guaranteed to be involved in projects critical to the strategic future of the organization?” That instantly transforms him into, just by asking that question, a valuable teammate who’s there to make everybody else wealthy as opposed to being there strictly for his own benefits. The mere fact that he’s asked it, in an instant he’s transformed himself to the people that are interviewing him as a valuable commodity. No longer self-focused, and not just team-focused but success-focused because the strategic future of the organization will make everybody wealthy.
Then if he gets granted the opportunity to work on these projects, now he’s got visibility with the highest levels of the company on projects that are going to have maximum impact on a company’s future, which now gives him a career accelerator like no other because people want him to succeed. People look out for him. He’s involved in projects that matter. He’s got visibility with the top levels of the company. What happens is then his job drags high salary and promotion along with it as a secondary benefit, as opposed to being focused on salary from the very beginning and having no leverage because there’s nothing special about him. So he creates how he’s special in the moment of the interview.
Step one is creating that leverage?
Right. Step one is creating the leverage in the eyes of the other people. Recognizing not what they love, but even more what they lust for. We gain power over kidnappers because what they lusted for was money. The first thing we would say in a kidnapping negotiation is, “You’re going to get your money.” Then we would launch into an extensive negotiation of how they were going to get their money, but we would gain the upper hand every step of the way. It’s understanding at an interaction, your leverage is based on what the other side wants. If they’re talking to you they want something from you and you need to find out what that is in that interaction, and then you need to maximize it in a non-threatening way by effectively stepping to their side. You’re no longer threatening when you’re stepping to their side. You step to their side in the strongest possible way when you start talking with them about how you’re going to make them successful in the future.
I love that. I think you go on, and I read your book obviously and followed you for a long time, so I think that’s a great step one. Step two, understanding how to sprinkle the magic dust, so to speak.