Bottom Line Inc

How an FBI Negotiator Gets What He Wants


And You Can, Too

Life is a negotiation. Whether you are haggling over the price of a car or finding common ground with a family member, it pays to know how to get what you want without ruffling feathers. Some of the techniques FBI negotiators use to secure the safe release of hostages can be helpful in these everyday situations. Five smart strategies…

• Repeat the last three words you hear. You might already know the power of “mirroring”—if you copy the posture, speech patterns and vocabulary of the person with whom you are negotiating, that person is likely to feel in sync with you, trust you and perhaps offer you a better deal. What most people do not know is that there’s an extraordinarily easy way to take advantage of mirroring—one that does not require you to become a master mimic. Simply repeat the last three words that the other person just said (or the most ­important three-word phrase), then go quiet. Your counterpart will feel in sync with you and often will fill the silence by improving his/her offer or revealing additional information useful to you. It’s the closest thing to a Jedi mind trick that FBI negotiators have.

Example: I know a businessman who always repeats financial terms presented to him during negotiations. If his counterpart insists that he can do no better than “$100,000 per unit,” this businessman says “$100,000 per unit” back in a neutral tone, then waits. If the terms truly are inflexible, the person across the table almost always will repeat the terms without adding many extra words. If this person has wiggle room, he usually will expand on his description of the terms, adding lots of extra words…have an uncertain tone…and/or quickly lower the demand.

• Expose negative thoughts to daylight. Most people are afraid to bring up bad news during negotiations—they fear it will squelch the deal. But if your counterpart is harboring fears, voicing these actually diminishes their negative impact. Verbalizing fears takes the scary thing hiding in the shadows and makes it seem less frightening.

Example: When I teach, it can be difficult to get students to volunteer to come to the front of the room so I can role-play negotiation techniques—they know that as a ­novice negotiator up against a pro, they are likely to end up looking foolish. I always get plenty of volunteers if I add, “In case you’re worried about volunteering to role-play with me in front of the class, I want to tell you in advance…it’s going to be horrible.” The students’ fears no longer seem so daunting after I have voiced them.

Similarly, if you sense hesitance or frustration in your counterpart during the negotiations, bring the likely source of this hesitation or frustration to light. Speak in a nonjudgmental tone, and use sentences that begin with, “It sounds like…,” “It looks like…” or “It seems like…” (not “I” statements such as, “I’m sensing that…” “I” statements make it seem like you care mainly about yourself). Then replace those negative thoughts with a positive alternative.

Example: A man whose grandfather always seemed grumpy at family gatherings told that grandfather, “It seems as if you feel like we don’t pay much attention to you, so why should you make time for us? Well, for us, seeing you is a real treat. We want to hear what you have to say.”

• Think through how you will speak, not just what you will say. People start to react to you on a subconscious level the moment they hear the tone of your voice. A positive, playful tone is the best choice for most negotiations—it keeps things light, ­relaxed and friendly. To achieve this tone, smile as you speak. Do this even on the phone—your smile will come through in your voice.

Alternative: When dealing with a nervous negotiating partner, strive to evoke the slow, cool, calm, self-assured tones of a late-night FM radio disc jockey. This sends the message, “I’m in control, and everything will be OK.”

• Ask questions that encourage your counterpart to solve your problems for you. Well-selected questions can inspire your counterpart to reveal important details about his position…cement the value of the deal in his mind…and/or get him to think up solutions that work for you—all while giving him the illusion that he is in control.

The best questions tend to be “what” and “how” questions, such as, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” and “How am I supposed to do that?”

Example: One of my clients was owed fees for marketing work she had done. The company called to ask her to do yet more work. She replied, “How am I supposed to do that?” The other person said, “You’re right. You can’t. We owe you money. I’ll connect you with the person who can pay you.”

• Don’t give up before trying the “looks like it’s time to give up” gambit. Here’s a last-ditch tactic worth trying when you cannot reach an agreement—say, “It sounds like there’s just no way we can make this work.” Most people hate to feel that they have failed, so this might prompt your counterpart to improve his offer.

When Negotiating Prices (and Other Numbers)

Ask the other guy for a figure first. Otherwise your opening offer might accidentally sell you short. But be wary of tough negotiators who intentionally make low-ball (or high-end) opening offers in an attempt to “anchor” your thinking. Psychologists have discovered that the human mind tends to give great weight to the first number cited. So if your counterpart’s opening number is way low—for example, what you’ll be paid for a freelance job—it could lead you to agree to a final price that’s low, too, if you’re not careful. Or conversely, if an opening number is way high—for example, the price of a used car you are interested in buying—you could agree to paying more than you should.

Rather than immediately counter when faced with a bad opening offer, try one of these three alternatives—shift the conversation to the nonfinancial aspects of the deal…ask, “How am I supposed to do that?” in a neutral tone, then go silent…or repeat the offer back in a neutral tone, then go silent.

• Do quote a figure first when you need an exceptional price. If you know that your budget is well below your negotiation counterpart’s expectations, for example, it’s wise to anchor his expectations to this unpleasant reality from the outset. Tact and flattery can prevent a low offer from being taken as an insult.

Example: You have a budget of $500 to hire a consultant who normally charges $2,000. Start the negotiation by saying, “I have a lousy proposition for you. I can’t afford to pay you what you’re worth, but I know you’re the best, so before I go elsewhere, I thought I’d bring the opportunity to you…”

• Quote a range. When it’s your turn to mention a figure, give a range. If you were planning to ask for a salary of $110,000, instead say, “I need between $110,000 and $120,000.”

Your counterpart likely will treat the low end of your range as your opening offer—but in doing so, he will feel that he has scored a victory by getting you off the higher figure.

• Offer an unusual figure as an endgame. Rather than offer $2,000 following a back-and-forth negotiation, for example, you might offer $1,883. The strange number sends the message that the offer is the result of careful calculations and that it might be immovable. It also raises the possibility that this amount truly is all you have to offer.

Source: Chris Voss, formerly the lead international kidnapping ­negotiator with the FBI. He is founder and CEO of The Black Swan Group, Ltd., a consulting firm in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, that specializes in negotiation strategies. He is author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It. Date: April 1, 2016 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
Keep Scrolling for related content View Comments