3 Negotiation Techniques From An FBI Lead Negotiator

3 min readJul 4, 2018

Life can be viewed as a series of negotiations. Here’s 3 ways to get better at them.

Although the stakes of day-to-day negotiations with your boss, client or child aren’t likely to be as high as a genuine hostage situation, the same techniques apply.

There are many subjects I wish I had been taught in school.

One of those is negotiation.

Almost everything in life involves some form of reaching an agreement. Jobs, relationships, business contracts and so on and so forth.

But who is it best to learn from?

One person who knows what he’s talking about is Chris Voss.

His book Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it recounts his time as the FBI’s top hostage negotiator.

What makes it a valuable read, apart from the incredible real life stories, is that it’s also highly practical.

The key to negotiation, Voss argues, is the ability to empathise with your opposite number in the negotiation. Where most people go wrong is in believing that their opponents are driven by purely rational desires.

In reality, understanding emotional needs are the basis for good negotiation. By empathising with the other person and demonstrating to them that you understand where they are coming from you will end up building a greater level of trust that will, in turn, lead to a more favourable outcome.

Here are three techniques you can use right away in your own life to help talk yourself into (or indeed out of) any situation:

1. Labelling — labelling fears reduces their impact. If you acknowledge your opponent’s worst fears about the outcome of your discussion up front it dramatically helps to reduce their severity.

In the book, Voss uses the real world example of a hostage situation in New York. By acknowledging their greatest fear was going back to prison or being killed he was able to lessen their overall level of fear.

2. Mirroring — copying the behaviour of your negotiating partner helps to build empathy. Also known as isopraxism, mirroring is essentially any subconscious imitation of the other person’s behaviour.

This can occur through speech patterns, vocabulary, tone of voice and body language. Whilst we are rarely aware of it when it’s happening, it is nevertheless a sign that people are bonding and establishing rapport which leads to trust.

3. Open questions and the art of silence — asking closed questions i.e. questions where the answer can only be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will only lead to short answers. This will not allow you to glean the information you need to be an effective negotiator. Instead use open questions.

For example, a good open-ended question might be “That sounds unfair. Tell me how it all happened.” It shows interest, is non-judgmental, and is likely to encourage the person to give you more information about their situation. Try and resist the temptation to interject if you don’t receive a response straight away. People will volunteer a surprising amount of information if you just let them talk.

Using these techniques (especially the first two) may feel odd in the beginning but it won’t be long before you start to see their potential. Practice them regularly and you will become a better negotiator.




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