Chris Voss | Never Split the Difference (Episode 534)

Chris Voss | Never Split the Difference (Episode 534)

Chris Voss | Never Split the Difference (Episode 534)

Chris Voss (@VossNegotiation) is a former FBI hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It. He joins the show to discuss how we can be more effective negotiators by using hostage negotiation techniques.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • The principles behind negotiation and emotional persuasion.
  • Three types of negotiators you’ll encounter — The Analyst, The Assertive, and The Accommodator — and how to size them up.
  • How to influence how people size you up.
  • Defusing negative emotions.
  • Generating rapport in difficult situations.
  • And so much more…


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Negotiating for anything — whether it’s a raise or a flea market antique — can be a terrifying prospect for a lot of people. But if the idea of haggling for something with financial consequences makes your palms sweat, imagine negotiating for your life.

Chris Voss, former FBI kidnapping and hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, knows what it’s like. He joins us at The Art of Charm to tell us how we can be more effective negotiators using hostage negotiation techniques.

More About This Show

After sustaining a knee injury, SWAT team officer Chris Voss was looking for less physically strenuous career options. Thinking back to his street cop days, he had always been fascinated by the ability of words to de-escalate bad situations. This led him to specialize in hostage negotiation for the FBI.

“I enjoyed SWAT. But as exciting as SWAT sounds…the SWAT guys stand around waiting for the negotiators to do their job,” says Chris. “The SWAT guy’s maybe in one shootout in his entire career; I worked 150 kidnappings in my entire career [as a hostage negotiator].”

The Negotiation Power of the Open-Ended Question

As one might imagine, the high stakes of hostage negotiation require a unique toolbox of techniques. One of the best is the open-ended question — and one in particular is what Chris considers “the ultimate way to say no in the entire world.”

“Just kind of calmly, with the last night FM DJ voice…say, ‘How am I supposed to do that?'” Here’s an example.

Kidnapper: “I’ve got your son. I need a million dollars or I’m going to kill him in the morning.”

Chris: “How am I supposed to do that?”

It’s a tactic that even stumped negotiation research professor Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School when Chris presented it.

“There’s great power in deference,” says Chris. “From a deferential approach, it’s ridiculous how assertive you can get away with [being]. The other side’s never going to see it coming. It’s a real stealth weapon.”

It shifts the burden of the entire situation onto the person with whom you’re negotiating while making them feel empowered — because people love to be asked how? “They think it gives them the opportunity to show how smart they are.”

Using the “How?” Question in Real-Life Negotiations

Whether you’re negotiating for the life of a hostage or trying to make a business deal, Chris will tell you there’s always a team on the other side. “There are always people away from the table on the other side that are looking to lie back and snipe your deals,” says Chris. “They want to kill those deals because they’re not involved in the negotiations. They’re mad that they’ve got no influence on the guys at the table. So the first chance they get, they’re going to kill that deal when it comes back to the company.”

The only way to beat that dynamic, according to Chris, is by asking the ‘how?’ question — perhaps a proof of life variation like: “How do we know the rest of your company’s on board with you?” or “How do we know that this fits into your company’s internal goals?” or “How do the people who are going to implement this deal see this deal?”

“Innocently asking these questions, your negotiator — just like our kidnapper in Ecuador — he’s going to answer those questions,” says Chris. “But they’re going to be concerned if they have to answer them four or five times that they might be climbing out on a limb all by themselves and they’re going to go back to their team and ask the same question: ‘This is what I’m being asked; am I on the right track here? Are we unified?’ Proof of life of your deal in a business is every bit as important as proof of life of a hostage – it’s just a different commodity.”

Getting to Yes by Emotional Persuasion

While Chris will tell you that bestselling negotiation book Getting to Yes: How To Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher is one of the best on the planet, he considers it more of a reference than a lesson in practical advice.

“Getting to Yes is like trying to learn the English language by reading the dictionary,” Chris says.

It explains how to logically and rationally bargain for what we want, but it leaves out the fact that — in real life circumstances — people aren’t often logical or rational. Recent studies have scanned human brains to discover that every decision we make is based on what we care about — that is, emotion trumps logic every time.

This is why, in order to effectively negotiate in real-life situations, we can’t leave emotion out of the equation. “The underlying language is always that of emotion — the selfishness of ‘What’s in it for me?'” says Chris. “It doesn’t matter who we are or where we are; the emotional aspect of ‘What’s in it for me?’ is the driving influence in all our decision making.”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to hear how Chris used open-ended questions to successfully track a hostage through the jungles of Ecuador, what Chris learned about logic from Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, how to size up the person on the other side of the table as one of three types of negotiators — and how to influence the way they size you up, why you should never lie to anybody you’re not going to kill (figuratively or literally), why the most powerful negotiators always use plural pronouns, how being playful makes you a smarter negotiator, ways to apply Jedi mind tricks and Matrix moments, and lots more.


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