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Lessons from FBI’s top hostage negotiator

By December 18, 2019December 2nd, 2021No Comments

I’m a big fan of, and would be a customer if I had the time commitment.

Today I saw that has a new course by Chris Voss on negotiation:

I saw the trailer, and then I watched one sample lesson that talks about the concept of “Tactical Empathy”. This only reinforced what I’ve known before (we call it Emotional Intelligence), but putting it into the perspective like Chris does really helped drill the concept into my head and made it a practically learnable skill.

Then I went down the rabbit whole. I watched a TEDx talk by Chris. And then found his Medium blog posts. Needless to say, his will be the first book/course I’ll be consuming in depth as soon as I am able to.

(Update: my roommate happened to have his book and lent it to me. Here are my notes from the book!)


According to Phil Knight, the founder of Nike (as he said in his autobiography Shoe Dog), the FIRST RULE of negotiation is to know what you absolutely cannot walk away without. If you don’t, you can never win the negotiation – and if you do, all the rest of the “tactics” can potentially fall into place and win you the deal. This key factor was a crucial underlying assumption that wasn’t driven home very well in Chris Voss’ content.

Another: negotiate the terms, not just the price.

  1. Empathy = becoming completely aware of the other person’s perspective/point of view, even if you don’t agree with them or like them. You need to understand what rules they follow in their own decision making process, and what their motivations are. You don’t need to adopt these rules, but you can use their perspective to find a solution.

  2. Our decision making process is governed by what we care about, and what we care about is controlled by our emotions. So ALL decision-making is inherently an emotional process, regardless of how cold or calculating people may seem to be.

  3. Terrorists are living beings, living beings have brains, and brains have emotions. Tactical empathy / emotional intelligence helps us use their emotions to solve the problem at hand using their own rules.

  4. This is not manipulation or deceit – it’s both morally righteous AND effective that you are taking the other perspective into account. Great negotiation is not a win-lose contest. It’s about collaboration.

  5. Showing that you understand is even more important than caring. Constantly clarifying what they say etc is the key.

  6. How to catch a bluff: mirroring and labelling. Repeat the exact last 3 words they said, but say them as if there was a ‘?’ at the end, as if confirming/clarifying. If they are bluffing, they’ll soften their reworded stance. If not, they’ll reinforce it with equal confidence.
    “I heard you say yes, but I also heard something in your tone of voice that sounded like…”

  7. To build empathy and show them you understand: “labeling”. Say an assumption. “It seems like…”, “it sounds like…” etc.

  8. To dig for more information: mirroring and labeling. Also use mirroring for digging into the question behind the question (“why do you ask?”). Labels are even better than calibrated questions for unlocking more details:

  9. When faced with a demand/compromise you’re not excited about: 3 questions that ask the same thing repeatedly: “How am I supposed to do that? / What would happen if I do that? / How do I overcome the challenges that I have here?” or deflect with “what are we trying to accomplish here?” <- this will make them show empathy for you. Once you say this, shut up. The second time, you can try “I’m sorry your offer is generous but it just doesn’t work for me.” And third, “I’m sorry but I’m afraid I just cannot do it.” <- Always use a gentle and asking help tone.

  10. How to know if you’re in a good faith negotiation or a bad faith negotiation (is there a deal to be had in the first place, and how do we know the deal will be okay with the people who have to live with it?): “Proof of life” questions: the type of legitimate questions your buddies would ask you if they were dissecting a deal in private, to see if you’re being screwed over —
    How’re we gonna move forward if we’re gonna make this deal? How do I know if you’re not just looking for free consulting/etc? How have you worked with people like me in the past? How have you made this deal in the past? How do you know they have the budget? Etc etc. Ask the question that wouldn’t make them feel like you don’t trust them.
    Asking a legitimate question is better than asking for information (in which case you automatically owe them). 
  11. To guarantee execution and eliminate uncertainties Rule of Three, and using labeling to highlight uncertainty in their words. Get them to talk about the deal terms 3 times. No 1 is the first time they give the offer. No 2 is you summarize and paraphrase, and they say “that’s right”. No 3 is asking a direct question about implementation and challenges – “what do we do if this goes off track?”, “what do you see as the biggest challenges”, “how on board is the rest of the team”.

  12. “You’re right” is bad – means they were seeing it as win-lose, and have given up. “That’s right” is good – it means you completely understand what they believe is true.

  13. Bargaining:
    1 – Always refuse gently with questions and say sorry, unless you are at the more powerful position and can say No.
    2 – “What else could I/you offer to make this a good deal?”
    3 – If forced to name a number, use emotional anchors first: Or you can give a super premium price charged by someone else if you think it will sit well with them (XYZ charge $$$ for the service). Or, at worst, a huge anchor. Then ask what their expectations are.
    4 – If you are offended: Show poise with confidence and assertiveness, but barely any anger (don’t accuse): “I’m sorry but that just doesn’t work for me.” Or “I’m sorry, but when you use a number like that, I feel like I’m wasting our time because it’s completely unworkable.” And SHUT UP for the next 5 seconds.

  14. Haggling:
    1 – Set target price (your ideal goal).
    2 – Set first offer at 65% of target, or 35% above target (buying vs selling)
    3 – Calculate 2 intermediates: 85/95 or 105/115.
    4 – Always get other side to counter first, and try to reduce it. Use lots of empathy and gentle NOs to get other side to counter before you say each number.
    5 – Always use a very precise number for the final offer.
    6 – At the end, add a nonmonetary item that they don’t want, to show your limit.

  15. Never split the difference. Don’t look for BATNAs.

  16. We don’t rise to the occasion; we fall to our highest level of preparation.

One Sheet

  1. Before: Identify best reasonable case, and worst case. Best case should be based on genuine research and should be your goal. It’s about collaboration, not screwing them.
  2. Summarize the known facts in the discussion/negotiation so far, to get a “that’s right“.
  3. Accusation audit. Prepare 3-5 labels for the worst accusations they could make. Then expand each accusation into 1-5 labels:
    – It seems like _ is valuable to you
    – It seems you don’t like _
    – It seems _ makes it easier
    – It seems you’re reluctant/worried about _
  4. Prepare 3-5 calibrated questions:
    – What are we trying to accomplish here?
    – What’s the core issue?
    – How does this affect the rest of your team?
    – What do your colleagues see as their main challenges here?
    – What happens if we don’t come to a deal?
    – What does doing nothing cost you?
    Prepare labels for responses, borrowed from accusation audit expansion.
  5. What concrete things would they lose by not making this deal?
  6. List of noncash offers you could receive. “What could they give that would almost make me do it for free?”

How to use the word “fair”

As a negotiator, it’s your job to strive for a reputation of being fair. Your reputation will always precede you.

  1. We just want what’s fair” – an implicit accusation that the other side is being unfair, which rattles them into making a better offer. If you receive this, say “I’m sorry. Let’s stop everything and go back to where I started treating you unfairly and we’ll fix it.”
  2. We’ve given you a fair offer.” – used to distract the other side’s attention and make them negotiate with themselves, trying to evaluate the “fairness”. If you receive this, go to active listening to expand and uncover information. Maybe label “it seems you’re willing to provide the evidence that supports this.”
  3. In the beginning itself – “I want to be as fair as possible. If at any time you feel I’m being unfair, please stop me right there and we’ll address it.”

The Behaviour Change Tools

Active Listening > Empathy > Rapport > Influence > Behaviour Change.

The key that if you can trigger a “that’s right”, then you have permission to move forwards to the next step in your persuasion process. The active listening part is extremely important, because this is where you can reveal black swans:

  1. Effective pauses: silence is powerful, use it for emphasis. Wait 3-5 seconds after a person is quiet, before you speak in return.
  2. Minimal encouragers: use very simple syllables like “hmm”, “ok”, “yes” “I see” instead of words that could intercept their train of thoughts.
  3. Mirroring
  4. Labeling – give their feelings/position a name.
  5. Paraphrase (use your OWN words to say what they are saying, to show that you understand)
  6. Summarize (paraphrasing + labeling emotions)

Tips for email vs phone vs face to face:

So the basic milestones in a sale/negotiation are as follows:

  1. First step: figuring out what they really want.
    • Get them to say what they like about you.
    • Active listening throughout, to uncover lies and black swans. Hear them out till they have nothing new to say.
    • Get them to tell you the real benefits they’re looking for.
  2. Use a good summary to show you understand “the world according to them”.
    • Get to a true “that’s right”, which confirms that you are now aware of their perspective and they trust you. You have broken their “pattern” and now you can lead the discussion instead of “reacting” or just responding.
  3. Once you see the green signal, you can TAKE CHARGE. You’re now in control of the conversation and can get going with the pitch you have to influence their thinking or change their behavior.
  4. Play on loss aversion. Convince them that in case of a “no-deal”, they miss out on the benefits they’ve already talked about. People are more averse to loss than they are enticed by gain (given they have enough information).
  5. Bargaining: Usually, avoid this situation using tactical empathy.
    • You don’t want to go first with a number. If they refuse to give in, say “I’d be happy to give you a price. But let’s put that aside for a second and talk about what would make it a good deal for you/me. What else would you have to have to make a great price / what else could you add to make it a great price?”
    • Brainstorm the terms, engaging them. They could offer stuff that you wouldn’t ask for or think of.
    • Long accusations audit and apologies before giving them a number. Anchor emotions, not dollars.
  6. Always close confidently.
    • Be sharp as a tack — like you’ve done this a million times.
    • Paint a clear picture of what the close looks like / how it would work. The exact steps involved.
    • Only proceed after “that’s right”.
  7. Guarantee execution:
    • Ask if there’s anything that could cause the deal to NOT CLOSE.
    • Do you have any reservations, is there any reason why you’d change your mind?
    • How could we help guarantee that this comes to a close?

Chris Voss’ ted talk:
3 steps to find out if you’ve left anything on the table:
6 minute video to refresh voice before every negotiation:

Actually his whole Medium blog is a bloody treasure trove that includes some tactics that he doesn’t mention in his book.


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