EPISODE 5 — Chris Voss — FBI Negotiation Tactics for Business and Life
Chris Voss, former Lead International Hostage Negotiator for the FBI and current CEO of The Black Swan Group, has had an action-packed career. He started out as a beat cop in New York City and moved laterally into hostage negotiations — thanks to his insatiable drive to learn and his insightful understanding of the human condition.
In this episode of The Game Changing Attorney Podcast, Chris explains how negotiation strategies are linked to cognitive understanding and how his theory of tactical empathy is evidenced in our scientific understanding of how our brains function.
We go deep into emotional intelligence. Do you have it, or do you need to work on it? Chris explains why it’s so vital and how it can lead to the ultimate collaboration — whether you’re negotiating fees or handling a case.
Key takeaways include:
- How can FBI hostage negotiation techniques level up your leadership?
- Why are emotional intelligence and tactical empathy the sharpest tools for negotiation?
- What is the “Oprah rule” and why should you live your life by it?
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2:48 – Uncomplicated and effective. “I like stuff that can give a regular person an advantage. Also, I think I’m open to learning. I grew up in a very can-do-figure-it-out environment. And my father gave me a task and expected me to just figure it out. I mean, literally, my older sister and I tore down the garage in our backyard when I was about 11 years old because my dad wanted a new garage. He gave us each crowbars and said, ‘Go figure out how to tear down a garage.’ So, I like stuff that is uncomplicated but is ridiculously effective.”
3:41 – Negotiation has nothing to do with logic. “Well first, you’ve got to make your argument that it’s a logical, rational approach. If you just make a great argument, that doesn’t mean you’re a great negotiator. There is nothing rational. Rationality by definition is just — beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
5:40 – Who will benefit the most from learning to negotiate. “If people matter to you, then you will benefit the most because you’re going to make better deals with people. It’s going to come to you more naturally. This style of negotiation, this emotional intelligence-based approach, is the ultimate collaboration. So if you want to collaborate, then this is you’re going to do well with this.”
6:35 – Two key traits of a good negotiator. “If you’re open to learning — you know, openness is a characteristic that you can actually test for in professional sports. They call it coachability. There’s something out there called the ‘Five Factor Inventory.’ One of those factors is openness or coachability. So if you’re open to learning or you work hard or both. I think of myself as somebody who works hard and who’s really open to learning. There are some people who are less open to learning, but they work so darn hard. they’re going to overcome that just by sheer force of will. So, those are the two principal characteristics for getting good at this.”
8:58 – Never split the difference. “Number one, it’s a sucker move. The other side is probably conning you. Now, what makes it a fool’s move — splitting the difference means I take a little of your idea, take a little of my idea. You know, we try to blend them together. It’s apples and oranges. The analogy we put in the book is ‘black shoe, brown shoe.’ You don’t know whether or not to wear a black shoe with this suit or brown shoes, so let’s split the difference and wear one of each. It’s just so bad, splitting a difference or compromising.”
12:19 – A lesson to learn. “What I really learned in that though was the negotiator that was the counterpart, he negotiated with us in good faith and his team wasn’t aligned behind him. Our philosophy is that there’s always a team on the other side. You can genuinely read that your counterpart is being honest with you — because as far as your counterpart knows, he or she really is. If you haven’t taken into account the team behind them and find a way to involve them, then your counterpart is going to have the limb sawed off behind him. It happened to us in the Philippines, and I was caught off guard because we assessed our counterpart as having legitimately made a deal. And our counterpart, when his side failed to back him up, he was actually genuinely humiliated. So, that taught me to take into account the team on the other side and how we adjust accordingly.”
14:24 – The illusion of control. “The secret to gaining in the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control. First of all, you’ve got to hear your counterpart comfortably. You’ve got to give them the illusion of control. That’s principally going to come through ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions. ‘How’ and ‘what’ questions are very deferential. It’s not that you got an answer. It’s the effect you had when you asked. But the point was you asked the question, which plants a seed in their mind, and then they’re going to think twice about it. You probably need to ask those questions a couple of times — enough so that this person starts thinking to themselves, ‘You know, maybe I better double check,’ because they think it’s their idea.”
16:01 – The mindset of discovery. “The mindset of discovery is actually a hack for you. It’s basically a positive frame of mind, and it’s curious. And you can actually take in more information. You see things faster when you’re in that mindset. You pull in more data. Your pattern recognition increases. All the things that go to higher mental performance. So first of all, if you have a mindset of discovery you’re going to be smarter. Probably at least 31% smarter, which is enough of an edge that if you’re interested in edges, you’re going to want it.”
24:53 – Understanding empathy. “I would try to put a little bit more of a spin on empathy, take it away from how to become used. I mean in society today, empathy is sympathy; empathy is agreement; empathy is compassion — and if that’s required, then it really limits who you can apply it with. Empathy was never meant that way. It was meant as understanding. So, tactical is on top of everything that we’ve learned about empathy, which is just genuinely understanding, not agreeing. We know how the brain works. We get neuroscience, like in the last five to seven years, we put people in an MRI as we watch the electricity move around in their brain. We watch how they respond to very specific emotional stimulations or what makes those emotional stimulations dissipate. So, if we have actual neuroscience rules, why don’t we tactically apply them? And that’s the idea of tactical empathy — understanding combined with neuroscience for effective communication.”
27:28 – Use your powers for good. “It’s a tool. One person’s influence is another person’s manipulation. I get asked, ‘Isn’t what you’re doing manipulative?” I’ll take out my phone and I’ll say, ‘You got one of these?’ and they’ll say, ‘Well yeah.’ ‘You know there’s some really bad people using these for really evil things. So doesn’t that mean you should give up your phone?’ ‘Well now, I don’t use it for evil things.’ But that’s exactly the point. You know tactical empathy is extraordinarily influential. What are you using it for? If you’re using it for bad things, ultimately it’s going to catch up to you, and your relationships are going to go away, and then you can’t be trusted. Use your powers for good and not evil, and you’re going to find yourself surrounded with phenomenal people.”
29:24 – Neural resonance. “Neural imaging — the neuroscience has shown us that the best and most effective way to deal with that negative part of our brain really is as simple as calling it out, not denying it. You don’t get rid of the elephant in the room by denying that the elephant is there or trying to say, ‘Don’t look at the elephant.’ You say, ‘Hey, you know there’s an elephant in the room,’ and that begins to diminish it, if not make it go away entirely. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re trying to get people to resonate with one another — understanding how we’re wired and how the electricity actually runs through our brain.”
34:28 – How to deliver bad news. “You just say, ‘I got bad news.’ Wait about a second, and you deliver the news. Never let somebody get blindsided by bad news. They need about a second to prepare themselves, no matter how bad the news is. If you wait longer than a second, now they really start to spin down. You don’t go, ‘You’re not going to like this. Are you sitting down?’ All that nonsense. People are remarkably resilient if you give them a second to brace themselves. So that’s the way you deliver bad news.”
37:17 – Rip the band-aid off. “That attempt to soften it is well intentioned — but torturous. You know, you rip the band-aid off. Just because you don’t want it to hurt doesn’t mean you should rip it off more slowly. The most humane thing to do is to let them have it. Don’t let them twist in the wind; you cannot soften a blow. There is no gentle way to cut off somebody’s head — unless you try to cut it off nicely, but then it’s going to be torture.”
38:48 – Why the name Black Swan. “Nicolas Nassim Taleb wrote a book in 2007 called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. At the same time, I’m coming out of the FBI. I stumbled across the book, and I took a deeper dive into it. He got the idea from 16th century Europe, where all they ever saw were white swans. They thought if there would ever be a black swan, it would be an impossible thing. Then subsequently, they discovered black swans in Australia. So it’s the idea that small, innocuous things can have a tremendous impact. How do you uncover those little things that have the impact of the highly improbable? How do you become the type of person that makes little changes, and it has a huge impact on everything that you do? So it’s a double metaphor: uncovering the black swans in the negotiation where the unknowns overlap, and then also being someone who just makes slight changes in your approach, and it has a huge difference on everything.”
40:08 – Growing or stagnating. “If somebody’s saying, ‘I’ve pretty much learned everything there is to know,’ that’s a closed mind, which means they’ve been stagnating. There ain’t no neutral — you’re either growing or you’re stagnating. There isn’t any other way around that, and to stay even actually takes effort. So, to crown yourself as accomplished pretty much says that you don’t think you have anything left to learn, and people that don’t have anything left to learn are remarkably mediocre.”
44:36 – What does being a game changer mean to you? “Having a positive impact on people. We’re going to do better, the more we have a positive impact on other people. I’m sure it’s going to sound corny, but we love doing business with people who are doing the right thing — you know, moving the world forward in a positive way. I’m ridiculously optimistic because there are so many business people out there that are actually making the world a better place. And they’re actually making a lot of money at the same time. There’s no problem with that. They need to make money in order to have more of an impact on more people, and also to demonstrate that what they’re doing is profitable. You know, you set a great example. So to me, being a game changer is being involved with people who are game changers.”
Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As if Your Life Depended on It by Chris Voss
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Talleb
The Emotionally Intelligent Leader by Daniel Goleman
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle