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Hostage Negotiator Chris Voss on the Skills Every Leader Needs

negotiation skills

Having good negotiation skills is an essential skill for leaders, says FBI veteran Chris Voss. Voss, who used to be the lead hostage negotiator for the FBI, started off the second day of the Global Leadership Summit 2019 (GLS) by outlining a series of negotiation skills that all of us, not just leaders, can use on a daily basis. 

“Any time the words ‘I want’ or ‘I need’ are coming out of your mouth, you’re in a negotiation,” said Voss, who now helps Fortune 500 companies navigate complex negotiations. And, he told interviewer Paula Faris, “The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in.”

Key Negotiation Skills

All of us are in five to seven negotiations per day, whether we realize it or not. These negotiations could look like trying to get our kids to go to bed, asking for a raise at work, or buying a car. They could even include debates we’re having with ourselves. And as Daniel Coyle makes clear in his book, The Talent Code, negotiating—like any talent—is something anyone can develop. Voss described a variety of negotiation skills to keep in mind in any negotiation scenario.

  1. First, hear the other side out. “Turn the negotiation into a collaboration,” said Voss, and connect with the other person. 
  2. Use tactical empathy. Empathy is being able to completely understand where someone is coming from, even if you don’t like that person. Voss emphasized, “Empathy is not compassion. It is a very compassionate thing to do.” When he would negotiate on behalf of the FBI, he would use tactical empathy by saying, “You must be nervous about negotiating with a negotiator.” He would call out the elephant in the room and empathize with the person he was talking to.
  3. Mirroring is a tactic where you simply repeat what the other person said, which helps people feel that they were heard. If you include upward inflection when you repeat their words (making it sound like a question), this encourages them to elaborate. While this strategy sounds extremely simple, Voss said not to be fooled by its simplicity. The simplicity is what gives these strategies elegance.
  4. At some point, allow people to say “no” to what you’re asking because doing so allows them to feel safe and honest. Said Voss, “You’ll talk to me a lot more after you’ve said ‘no’ than you will if I’ve cornered you into a ‘yes.’”
  5. Avoid the phrase, “You’re right” and instead say, “That’s right.” The greatest practitioners of the phrase, “You’re right,” are husbands, Voss said in a joking manner. However, what this statement really means is that you want the other person to stop talking. 
  6. Use effective pauses. Two out of three people are uncomfortable with silence, said Voss, but silence is important because it gives other people the chance to talk. 
  7. Be likable. “I can’t control whether you like me,” Voss said, “But I can control whether I’m likeable.” People are six times more likely to make a deal with someone they like, and being likeable is often as simple as smiling.
  8. Don’t say “I understand.” Similar to the “You’re right” phrase, “I understand” is what we say when we want the other person to stop talking so we can talk.
  9. Avoid the word, “Why?” Asking “why” makes people feel as though they’ve done something wrong and causes them to be defensive. So instead of saying, “Why do you want that?” say “What makes you want that?” 
  10. Along the same lines, focus on using open-ended questions that begin with “What?” and “How?”
  11. If the negotiation is slipping out of control, it’s because you haven’t earned the other person’s trust. Again, call out the elephant in the room. Say, “I don’t think I’ve earned your trust.”

One takeaway Voss offered at the end of his interview had to do with dealing with fear. While he always had enough faith in the negotiation process (as well as a good team backing him up) that he doesn’t remember being afraid, he does believe fear is a common struggle people have. “We’re hardwired to be afraid,” he said. Curiosity, however, keeps us in a positive frame of mind and helps us not to feel as though we’re committing to something. As a result, Voss believes, “Genuine curiosity is the fastest hack to avoid fear.”

For more content on the 2019 Global Leadership Summit, please see:

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