In a negotiation, laying bare crucial information that the other side — or a client, perhaps — is keeping from you is part art, part science.
Former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator Chris Voss — whose “emotional intelligence on steroids” was key to his success — reveals how to uncover black swans and other FBI negotiating tacks in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.
Voss’ bestselling book, “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It,” written with Tahl Raz (Harper Business- 2016), is packed with stories of Voss’ dramatic hostage negotiations, as well as serious how-to info.
His work for the FBI included a 14-year stint in New York City with the agency’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and serving there as lead crisis negotiator. Later, he was a lead hostage negotiator in Iraq and Gaza.
Retiring from the FBI in 2007, he founded The Black Swan Group consulting firm, which trains individuals and advises companies on complex negotiations. He is a frequent keynote speaker debunking “the biggest myths of negotiation.”
In the interview, Voss, 62, discusses how his style of collaborative negotiation, as opposed to attacking the other side, brings superior outcomes. Effective negotiation is “applied people smarts” to uncover value, he frames it.
This is not to say that collaborating means compromising, or splitting the difference. That’s tantamount to “caving in” and can result in “leaving millions on the table,” argues Voss, who has taught negotiation at the University of Southern California, Georgetown University and Harvard Law School.
In our conversation, he explores the biggest mistake made in negotiating and explains why he insists that focusing on getting to “Yes” is no way to build rapport.
ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Voss, on the phone from his Los Angeles office. Another strategy he revealed: the marketing tool he employs to reach hot leads. “Facebook voodoo,” he labels it.
Here are excerpts from our interview:
THINKADVISOR: Why is it inadvisable to split the difference — that is, to compromise in a negotiation?
CHRIS VOSS: There isn’t a real big difference between compromising and caving in, which is not a good thing. Compromising always turns out to have a bad outcome because you’re trying to blend ideas that probably don’t blend. I have story after story of compromises that destroyed businesses, relationships, value and left hard feelings.
Let the other party “convince themselves that the solution was their idea,” you write. Is that basic to your technique?
It’s a large part of it. People have to feel vested in an idea because if it’s their opponent’s idea, they don’t feel ownership or care if it collapses. But if it’s their idea, they’ll work extra hard to fix flaws.
There are three different negotiating styles, you write: Analyst, Accommodator and Assertive. Please explain.
If we get backed into a corner, we have a default type we resort to. But based on successes we’ve observed, we’ll start to adopt some characteristics of the other types.
What’s an example?
The Analyst wants to be very dispassionate and as a result, comes off cold and distant. They’ll see the Accommodator getting along really well with people and making more deals. So eventually, the Analyst will figure out that an Accommodator’s demeanor is their competitive edge, and they’ll adopt it. It’s a great tool to avoid conflict and get to an agreement quickly.
What’s the biggest negotiating mistake?
Wanting to go first, whether it be with the person’s argument or stating their case or price. The other side has a lot they’re just dying to tell us if we’d just listen. And if we do, it will make them feel bonded to us.
But suppose the other side asks, “What do you charge for this service?” Doesn’t that require an answer?
It’s the difference between answering a question and being responsive to what they’re really asking. If someone asks about price, what they’re really worried about is value: Are they going to waste their money and their time?
So should you launch into why the product or service you’re selling would be of value to them?
No. That didactic approach is making an argument. Because they’re worried about wasting their money, they’re feeling [highly emotional]. So to deactivate that negativity, if they insist on a price, you can say, “It sounds like you’re feeling a lot of pressure; sounds like you‘re worried about getting ripped off. Sounds like you’ve been stung in the past.”
Some experts say that in sales, the goal is to get to “Yes.” But you write that getting to “No” early in a negotiation is advisable because it makes the opponent feels like they’re “in the driver’s seat. No is pure gold.” Please elaborate.
There are three kinds of “Yes”: Counterfeit, Confirmation and Commitment. People have tried to use “Yes” as a shortcut to trapping the other side. Every “Yes” functions as a tie-down; and that begins to take away autonomy — people will choose death rather than give up their autonomy. So when someone tries to get a “Yes,” their opponent begins to react negatively. “Yes” is not rapport-building.
“The sweetest two words in any negotiation are ’That’s right,’” you say. So is that rapport-building?
Yes. “That’s right” is what people say when they feel they’ve heard the truth, especially when they have an epiphany, during which the brain releases dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin [often referred to as the bonding hormone]. When that happens as someone is talking to you, they’re automatically bonded to you, either in a small or big way.
Black swans are “the underlying breakthrough dynamics of a negotiation,” you say. That’s why it’s critical to expose them — correct?
Yes. The other side is holding back information: [i.e.] a black swan. You don’t know what it is, but they wouldn’t hold it back if it weren’t important and wouldn’t make a big difference. So you want to get them comfortable enough to trust you with information in general. At the same time, you’re holding back important stuff, too — and where black swans overlap is where the really interesting stuff is.
How do you uncover the other side’s black swan?
By creating rapport. For example, verbal observations in which you label people tend to open them up much more than asking them questions — and they’ll start to trust you with information. Then there’s a really good chance they’ll inadvertently say something to which you’ll react [inwardly]: Holy cow!
To expose black swans, it’s helpful to understand the other side’s “world view about their life, emotional and otherwise. That’s where black swans live,” you write. How do you do that without seeming nosy?
When your tone of voice sounds curious. People don’t mind revealing stuff about themselves as long as you don’t judge them. That’s what stops them from sharing intimate information. They aren’t particularly worried about the information, per se. It’s that they don’t want to be judged and attacked.
Why are open-ended questions starting with “what” and “how” effective but “why” questions aren’t?
“What and “how” appeal to us emotionally. They tend to be the best for getting expansive answers because they quickly trigger people’s advice-giving mode. “Why?” makes people feel accused.
What’s your brand of active listening?
Intentional proactive listening. For example, we know from neuroscience that the brain’s amygdala is the command post of our emotional apparatus and that 75% of the amygdala is dedicated to negative thoughts. We also know that calling out, or labeling, the other side’s negatives diffuses activity in the negative part of their amygdala. So listen [for] the negativity and call it out. This diminishes that activity.
Doing so makes your opponent “acknowledge their feelings rather than continue to act out,” you write. Suppose you observe that the other side seems distrustful. Should you say, “I don’t think you trust me”?
No. Instead, say, “It seems like I haven’t earned your trust yet.” Or you can ask it as a question: “It seems like you don’t trust me?” That’s not accusatory and implies that it’s OK.
“The most powerful tool in any verbal communication is your voice,” you write. Sometimes financial advisors in selling mode kick their voices up a notch and speak quickly. What’s a good tone of voice to use with clients?
The downward inflection of the late-night F.M.-DJ voice is calming, similar to the voice the best TV news anchors use. They want you to feel they’re authorities and trustworthy no matter what they say. It’s not what they say but the way they say it.
Being empathic is crucial in negotiating, you stress. Many advisors could probably brush up on putting themselves in the client’s shoes — which is helpful in understanding financial planning needs. Why don’t folks focus more on being empathic?
Empathy is a game-changer. People have a tendency to stay clear of it because in today’s vernacular, it’s synonymous with sympathy or having compassion. But empathy isn’t about compassion. It’s about understanding. A lot of financial advisors are trying to be dispassionate in their approach so they can provide the most effective financial advice. But using empathy is a great communication tool that saves time.
If someone attacks you verbally, just bite your tongue, you counsel. Sometimes clients blame their advisor for a loss in their account. How should the FA respond to this sort of attack?
Use empathy, which is just articulating [the client’s] point of view without agreeing with it. You can say, “You feel I let you down and that I should have seen this coming.” [Thus], you haven’t agreed that what the client said was true, fair or accurate — you just articulated their viewpoint.
What effect does that have?
If someone is attacking you because they lost money, their amygdala has kicked [negativity] into gear, but the logical part of their brain would kick back in as soon as you get the amygdala to calm down. You do that by articulating the same thing the amygdala is saying inside the client’s head.
In general, what’s a more nuanced response for you to give than “No,” even though that’s what you mean?
“How can I do that?” It’s designed to stop somebody in their tracks. What matters is the mindset you put people in when you ask that question. It forces them to empathize and see your situation. That’s why it’s so ridiculously effective.
To whom do you market your company’s services?
We get a lot of corporate business, but all of our outbound efforts are [marketing to] high-performance individuals.
How do you reach them?
The voodoo of Facebook’s psychographics [profiling]. If I give them 100 email addresses of people that attended our events, they’ll send our marketing to 2 million people that have the same psychological make-up. They know these people want that information.
Does Facebook give you their names and contact info?
No. They don’t tell us who they are or any of their psychographics. So they’re not violating anybody’s privacy. They’re not giving us their names or telling us how they spotted them.
I see why you call it “voodoo.”
It’s just a tool. We’re trying to help people get better.
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