Today’s guest is the FBI’s international hostage and kidnapping negotiator: Chris Voss. He is the author of Never Split the Difference (1,000+ five star reviews on Amazon!), and he knows that even the smallest situations can feel high stakes if you aren’t prepared — whether that’s buying a home, negotiating your salary, or arguing with your partner.
Tucker Max joined us to discuss the most effective strategies Chris employed while working for the FBI. By the end of the episode, you’ll have bulletproof methods for being more likable and persuasive in every area of your life.
Chris Voss’s High Profile Background in Negotiations
Author Hour: What is it like at Quantico?
Chris Voss: After you train as an FBI hostage negotiator, you go through the school at Quantico, which is an extraordinary school. It’s completely unexpected experience. You go back thinking, “This is another week isolated at the academy.” And, “I’ve got to figure out what to do with the weekend.”
You don’t know before you get there that there’s going to be anywhere from three to five cops from around the country who are experienced hostage negotiators who have been through extraordinary, jaw dropping, frightening situations.
You’re with these extraordinary people that have been through stuff that you can’t imagine. You know, you just think it’s the guy sitting next to you, and four days later you find out that he was in a siege that was horrific.
Then you start hearing about these guys that travel all over the world working kidnappings, then towards the end of the training, at the end of the two weeks, you get a presentation on their team, and you’re like, “Jeez, I want to be with those guys. I want to jump on a plane, I want to have a ready bag. I want to be able to rock inside of four hours and get on a plane and go anywhere in the world.”
“When you get the invitation, you think they’re going to give you the secret sauce, the secret handshake, the magic words.”
But then they explain the commodities exchange. This is a market. The commodity happens to be human beings, but the guys on the other side are in business in the commodity exchange. I remember being blown away by that thought. In many ways, it was the beginning of me knowing that these were just business skills.
It’s just a high performance, highly evolved, ridiculous application of emotional intelligence into a crazy business that happened to be in the commodity exchange of human beings.
Author Hour: What were some of the things that you practiced?
Chris Voss: If you look at bargaining as offer/counter-offer, then that becomes a sequential game with rules and the expectations and sometimes a meeting in the middle. If it’s a game, there’s a way to evolve and come in with a better strategy.
So they taught us the game strategy.
They taught us the basic rules of it, and it was pretty straightforward. They left it very open to us to see what we could do. My former bosses basically just dragged their feet, stalled for time. Not an incredibly sophisticated approach, so I thought, “You know, I’d be able to get smarter than this.”
So I went back to my crisis hotline days. I knew that a tactical application of empathy is almost like an anesthesia. You can use it however you want. You can use it to lessen pain. If you turn it way up, you can use it to render the other side unconscious.
I laid it into the bargaining process and was constantly experimenting with it. I trained all the time and was always finding ways to apply it. While I still had time, I used to volunteer on a suicide hotline, then the terrorism work there I was doing in New York, so I was always looking for ways to experiment and drop it in.
Writing the FBI’s Playbook
Author Hour: How much did you author or develop in the FBI negotiation playbook?
Chris Voss: Right after I got to the crisis negotiation unit, which is where everything was rewritten, that was part of what our mandate from 2000 to 2003. We literally wrote everything.
“Everything that’s there now, I was either an author or the author.”
One of the things that was really gratifying to see was, at the time, we didn’t have what we referred to as an active listening block. It amazed me that we didn’t have a separate block of instruction. We also didn’t have a kidnapping instruction.
Author Hour: What is an active listening block?
Chris Voss: There is a list of eight skills of hostage negotiation like motion labeling, open-ended questions, minimal encouragers, there were eight of them. We had the list, but we didn’t have the actual instruction written that clearly defined each one, explained how they worked, explained why they worked and gave very clear, specific examples.
I just wrote it, and then when I was down there for training just a couple of years ago, I wondered whether that block would survive. There were some people that I worked with that were jealous of what I had done. I thought maybe as soon as I was gone, they would throw that in the trash. But the block is still there, word for word.
Not only is a block still there, but the FBI instructional material is not copyrighted.
“When you write for the government, you can’t copyright it. Anybody can steal it.”
The four big players internationally, the FBI, the Scotland Yard, etc. We each have our own school and we steal from each other liberally.
I’ve seen my stuff word for word in Scotland Yard negotiation training. Typically, when negotiators retire and leave, they take the intellectual property with them and they open up their own shop and copyright it because it wasn’t previously. I was teaching in the United Arab Emirates and the guy from Scotland Yard put up a block of instruction that was word for word what I had written.
Author Hour: Did you tell him that? And call him out about that?
Chris Voss: It wouldn’t have done any good, and he wasn’t that good at teaching it anyway. I knew he was missing some insights and nuances to it.
The funny thing that happened was when it caught me so off-guard, every now and then, you look up at the sky and you go like, “Alright universe, I’m not going to complain about this. I just know this is what happens.”
So I leaned back in my chair and was looking up at the sky, and the major from defense forces in the United Arab Emirates tapped me on the shoulder and goes, “Are you okay?”
“No, I’m fine. I just thought of something back home that really was blowing me away.”
I couldn’t say, “This guy thought he stole his material from Scotland Yard, but since Scotland Yard stole it from me, he actually stole it from me.”
Just the way it is.
Author Hour: What do you think is the #1 one take away to try out this week?
Chris Voss: The simplest thing to learn is the mirror technique: repeating the last one to three words of what someone has just said. Nothing more complicated than that.
It’s not mirroring their effect, it’s not mirroring their body language. Just the last one or three words, nothing could be simpler. Some people find that ridiculously awkward and frightening, and they won’t do it because it scares the hell out of them.
But there are certain skills that are so effective that it’s all anybody does, and there are mirroring addicts out there.
Author Hour: What are mirroring addicts?
Chris Voss: There you go. That was a nice mirror on your part.
We ran across a guy, I called him Johnny Mirrors. He had read the book, and all he was doing was mirroring whatever people say.
We actually had a conversation with them for about twenty minutes before I realized that’s what he was doing. He was having the best time. Every time he would mirror, his wife would look at him and go, “Stop doing that!”
People just said, “Your husband is so nice, he’s so interesting, we love talking to him, he’s the best guy, he’s so pleasant.” And he had this big dopey smile on his face because all he was doing was mirroring people, and he was the most popular guy the entire weekend.
Another one of the guys, a guy named Randy, Randy’s got to be the smartest guy we ever trained. He loves mirroring so much because it’s so easy to see when it’s being done if you’re watching.
He mirrors every single time on the other side’s position. That will always tell him how firm or soft their position is. It’s a great diagnostic tool.
“He pulls his people together in advance and says all I’m going to do is mirror, one to three words, the entire time.”
He loves showing off and deploying the skill that has been pointed out by everybody but the listeners. It’s blatantly obvious.
I don’t mirror that much, but I do it when I need to buy myself time if I get caught completely off-guard by what somebody said. That’s actually one of the stories in the book: The Chase Manhattan bank robbery.
I confronted the bank robber because we ID’d him and he was hiding from us who he was. We found his vehicle and ran the registration and got somebody there that gave us a voice ID. In trying to back slightly into that, we tried to limit the shock of a “got you.”
I said, “But the van is registered to you, Chris Watts.”
He goes, “Well, we don’t have more than one van.” So I said, “More than one van?”
“Yeah, we only have one van.” “Did you only have one van?”
He says, “Yeah, you chased my driver away.” I said, “We chased your driver away?”
“Yeah, when he saw the police he cut and run.”
Now, what he just did there was that vomiting of information: there was the third bank robber we didn’t even know was involved. He was the getaway driver who got away. I had no idea the guy was there. None of us know he was there. We convicted that guy on the strength of the spontaneous utterances from one of the most manipulative people we ever came across.
He also did a great CEO’s move: When somebody on the other side has got outside influence and they’re actually at the table, they’ll only use plural pronouns. Never say I, me, my. They’ll always say we, they, them, the other guys, my board of directors, I got so many people I’m accountable to…that’s where they avoid getting pinned into a corner at the bargaining table.
This guy, a bank robber, did that completely.
He kept saying, “You know, these other guys here are more dangerous than I am. I’m the reasonable guy here. These guys, I don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re in charge, I mean, they’re telling me what to do. And as a matter of fact, I’ve got to get to the phone right now because they want me to get off the phone.”
“He was the guy.”
And he used it the entire time. He was the most together, manipulative bank robber that we’ve ever run across. And the mirrors got him. As controlled as he was, the mirrors caused him to vomit information that he had no control over, and we nailed the getaway driver just because of that.
Author Hour: What are some everyday situations you find yourself using mirroring?
Chris Voss: Well, the main one I use is as a substitution instead of “What do you mean by that?” A lot of times, if somebody said something to you, especially if they’re thoughtful, and most people are, they’ve chosen their words very specifically.
They may be the type that thinks that what they’ve said is so blatantly obvious that when you say to them, “What do you mean by that?” They’ll repeat it word for word only louder, like an American overseas. Because they think the words are so well selected it’s blatantly obvious.
“But if somebody says, ‘This is a fluid situation,’ I might say, ‘A fluid situation?'”
They might say “Yeah, there’s four or five players involved here in the timelines, they’re moving around, and the first player this and the second player that…” And they’ll lay it all out and give me a much better answer than if I said, “What do you mean by a fluid situation?”
I usually upward-inflect on the end. Usually. Not always, but most of the time.
Author Hour: When do you not? Why would you not?
Chris Voss: If I would not, it would be because I’m simply trying to convey a complete understanding of what was just said, and it’s not as encouraging. I probably have a couple of times, but I probably almost always upward-inflect.
When it’s genuine curiosity, then it’s going to come across in your tone of voice.
There’s a difference between, “Why did you do that?” and “Why did you do that?!” Same words, different tone. When you’re genuinely actually really curious, then that’s going to come across in your tone.
Author Hour: Can you elaborate, or what do you mean by that?
Chris Voss: Again, it’s kind of come to your tone of voice more than anything else. You know, technically by definition, “Can you explain that?” comes really close to a close-ended question, almost a statement. The definition of a closed-ended question means it starts with a verb. So that, “Can you,” is a verb.
“You are not going to say to your boss, “Can you explain that?” They’re going to throw you out of the office.”
They’re going to say, “I don’t got to explain nothing to you, you work for me.”
There’s certain wording that people who perceive themselves to be above you in the hierarchy or the pecking order, they’re going to be over sensitive to the way that it’s phrased.
Which means there’s a limitation there. What happens if they think they’re above me in the hierarchy and I don’t think that? Or I’m trying to prove to them that they’re not? I may choose some phraseology that asserts.
Now, it’s silly to get over a wrestling match over who is in charge when I just need the information.
How Chris Studied Negotiations
Author Hour: What things did you study?
Chris Voss: Well, on a crisis hotline, there was a basic manual. I dug into that really hard. Wherever I was getting training, if they gave me a book, I read the book. I would dig hard to the instruction and participate fully in what they wanted us to do.
Start with No who is probably the first book that I started to really dig into in this stuff.
It was mostly experiential, but then also trying to learn as much as I could for the people that were teaching it. It wasn’t like it was all trial and error on my part. Even if instruction at the suicide hotline was really good instruction, it wasn’t terribly well organized. There were a lot of nuggets in there that I tried to figure out from the people who were good at it.
“I try to learn from the people who were good at it. I think that’s primarily it.”
Author Hour: What is the #1 thing most people in negotiations are getting wrong?
Chris Voss: Getting to “Yeses” is intellectually flawless, but negotiation is not an intellectual process. That’s where that begins to break down. It doesn’t in factor into the wackiness of emotional intelligence.
Hostage negotiators are taught from the very beginning look for the loss, look for the loss, look for the loss. It most likely happened in the last 24 to 48 hours.
Author Hour: What does that mean, look for the loss?
Chris Voss: If somebody is engaged in some form of extreme behavior, there is going to be a recent trigger. There’s no bigger trigger than a loss. Based on Daniel Kahneman’s Prospect Theory, which he won the Nobel Prize for relatively recently¾after all of these negotiation books were written, Kahneman points out that the biggest motivator of human behavior is a loss.
Not just somebody waving a gun around, but every human being on the planet.
So I ended up getting trained on this whole loss idea, and I just thought it was hostage negotiation. Then I came to learn that getting the guy to agree to come out and getting them out were two different things. It is really an implementation issue. Shortly after I left the FBI, I also came across the book called The Point of The Deal: How To Negotiate When Yes Is Not Enough.
“That is one of the first lines in there, ‘A deal that can’t be implemented isn’t worth making.'”
I remember reading that in a bookstore at Cambridge, a Harvard bookstore, and I remember laughing out loud. I said, “Okay this is a 1000%. I’m on track here.” So there are certain things that I learned as a hostage negotiator that I thought was unique to hostage negotiation. But I found out that’s unique to everything else.
Pre-prospect theory, those guys have a disadvantage because it just hadn’t been in the body of knowledge yet. If they were academics, then it’s not in the academic literature either.
The other thing also is like Stewart Diamond’s book, Getting More. Stewart Diamond is a dead-on analytical guy. It’s a great book if you want to understand how an analyst thinks through negotiation. I don’t know how aware he is that it’s a playbook for the analyst.
Jim Camp’s book, Start with No, Jim Camp’s Dead On Assertive. That’s the playbook of how assertives think.
Changing Your Verbiage in Business
Author Hour: How can we tactically use that?
Chris Voss: I just wrote some instruction for real estate people. I said, “Understand you’re not putting the loss at them. It’s there. That driver is already there, and it’s already got the gas pedal on the floor. So you might not like it, but they are being driven by in an outside way, by loss and fear. So you’re not doing anything on that.”
That’s really where a tactical application of empathy comes in. Without an emotionally-intelligent compassionate, empathic approach, you are taking them hostage. You run the risk of being very threatening and being a bully and being a bad guy.
So what’s the precursor to your assertion? If you assert bluntly, then it’s going to go bad. You’re going to wear people out.
Author Hour: How do you deliver or say something to gently guide somebody?
Chris Voss: I would start out by saying, “Look, this is going to sound harsh. You are not going to like this,” and I did this in a negotiation. I had some contractors that I had to cut their pay by 75%. I don’t know the last time you went to a 75% pay cut, but that ain’t easy. That ain’t an easy pill to swallow.
“I said, ‘I got a lousy proposition for you. By the time we got finished with this conversation, you’re going to think I’m the worst businessman on the planet.'”
“You’re going to think Chris Voss, big talker, all these years been talking about going into business…” I had been talking about going into business with starting my own consulting firm for years. So you know, all these big talks all these years, and Chris wants the big talkers’ very first project after he leaves the FBI. He doesn’t know how to manage a project. He’s a bad businessman and he may even have lied to me.
And then I just let it sit. Then I said, “But I wanted to make this offer to you before I took it to somebody else.”
Now if I started with, “I wanted to make this offer to you before I take it to somebody else,” without that emotional intelligence precursor, a thousand percent of those guys would have been like, “You know what? Take it to somebody else and don’t ever call me again,” bang and they hung up the phone.
Literally every single one of those guys took the deal, and all but one took it in that conversation.
There was no argument, there was no counter offer, there was no complaint. One called me back the next day and said, “You know, my wife says I can stay at home and do nothing, or I could go out and do this with you.”
Author Hour: What have been some of your reader’s results?
Chris Voss: What I get the biggest kick out of lately, is when a woman has read the book and has gone out and gotten a raise.
These days, the stereotype says that women don’t negotiate well and it’s their fault or that they can’t or that somehow they’re constrained. If they negotiate, they get penalized. So I found out about a woman who shared with me on Facebook recently, a big fan of the book.
“She said, ‘I gave your book to my daughter. She read your book and got a 30% raise.'”
Author Hour: What are you working on now?
Chris Voss: Well we are trying to keep up with how people are applying what we are doing. Smart, interesting people are taking the ideas and reassembling them in their own way or in their own application and then hitting them out of the park.
A lot of the real cutting edge stuff is on cold calling and cold email. About three months ago a guy, put some of the skills in an email, a cold approach, and it was brilliant. He got the appointment.
He sent me the emails and said, “Hey this is what I did with a potential client. Did I do it right?”
“‘Not only did you do it right, but that’s a combination I haven’t seen before.'”
It started out with a no-oriented question then with the label, and then an open-ended question. And the person responded to two consecutive emails. You could tell from his writing that he thought he was sending rejections, but he sent a rejection and the reason for his rejection revealed another more important issue.
So what my cold-emailer did was focused enough on what the reason for the rejection was and picked out something that was even more important that was unaddressed. He followed this thread, and the guy was in a long term relationship with a previous vendor and just didn’t want to reinvent the relationship with somebody that wasn’t actually going to pay attention to him.
So through the email, the guy showed him how quickly he could pay attention to him and hone in on what was important to him¾through three emails. Three short emails, and now suddenly the guy who sent the emails is honing-in and paying more attention to the potential client than any of his existing vendors are, and he’s refreshed by that.
He’s like, “Yeah I want to talk. You’re actually hearing needs that I’m expressing,” and he couldn’t wait to get the appointment.
Training with Chris Voss
Author Hour: What do you do when someone asks you how you got better?
Chris Voss: Well first is practice, which sounds too trite. But I realized recently that the learning curve is steep.
We’ve always said the learning curve is steep but it’s not high. If you look at the bell curve, that’s exactly right. The learning curve is steep initially, but all you’ve got to do is get halfway and then suddenly you take off like a rocket.
So when people get started on a scale and it’s really difficult at the beginning, they figure it’s always going to be that way. Nobody connects the shape of the learning curve with knowing it’s only going to be steep for a brief period of time. As soon as it levels out, not only is it going to be easier, but my progress is going to take off. But since you are blind with that progression when you are trying to learn something, people start going, “Ah, I was good at it. It didn’t work out.”
“They don’t understand how close they are to remarkable breakthroughs.”
We like to do an exercise: I am going to attack something that is important to you, and you are supposed to label in the mirror.
In any group, if I’ve got more than 20 people in a room, I know the easiest people to attack are going to be people from the Boston area, and they’re going to be ridiculously emotional about the Patriots and Red Sox. That’s a ground ball.
“So who’s here from Boston? Raise your hand. I want you to label and mirror me: the New England Patriots are a disgrace to the NFL,” and watch their face get red.
I can say, “The New England Patriots are cheaters,” and your label can be, “It sounds like you hate cheaters.”
Or you can immediately diffuse that by saying, “It sounds like you love the rules. It sounds like you love integrity.”
And if you get into an exercise of let me label the flipside positive, that’s really fun and it leaps your skills ahead in big chunks.
Author Hour: What’s the workbook for this?
Chris Voss: Since our focus was on teaching before it was on any of this, when I sit down with a group I will say, “Alright labels are it seems like, it sounds like, it looks like, or you seem, you sound, you look.” And then I’ll say, “Take out a pencil and write it down.”
I will walk around the room and see who’s writing it down and I’ll say, “Because if you do the activity and write it down, that is actually building your neuropathways now.”
I’ll see who didn’t write it down, and that’s who I would pick on for the verbal exercises. In order to build the habit I’ve got to actually make the synapses in their brain fire. If I can get a good label out of that person in front of everybody else then they go like, “Wow he got a label out of Tucker and we know how tough Tucker is. I must be able to do it.”
Why Read Never Split the Difference
Author Hour: What is the future going to look like if people don’t read your book?
Chris Voss: You’re not going to know how much time you’re wasting. Take a look at your present and figure that ain’t going to change much. There is a saying that whatever system you are working in now is perfectly designed to give you exactly what you have.
So, you want a bigger house? The house you’re in now is the house in your future. You want a nicer car? The car you’re driving now, your four-door Chevy that’s 10 years old, that’s what you are going to be driving.
It’s really hard to see what you’re missing out on, or how much you’re leaving on the table. Since the vast majority of people are just not great at communicating, you’re not going to get that much better at this to make a big difference.
I am shocked at how much bad communication is out there and how little you have to do to jump ahead.
Author Hour: If you could give this book to only one organization or one individual, who or what would that be?
Chris Voss: It would probably be a woman’s organization, or an individual would be Sheryl Sandberg. The faster women are continuing to be integrated in the business world, the Rising Tide raises all boats.
The more women that are competitive in the business market, the more competitive the rest of us have to be. It’s going to raise everybody, and they are the ones that will probably be least represented across the board.
The more successful they are, they’re going to by and large bring the biggest infusion and evolution and success in the way the business is done. They’re going to have the most impact over the next ten years because their integration is at an ever-accelerating rate.
Author Hour: Does Sheryl have your book?
Chris Voss: I don’t know if she does or not. She seems to be, for a very good reason, one of the more revered thought leaders in women and business out there. I don’t know if she’s got it or not. I hope she doesn’t, because if she did, I wish she would have reached out to me.
Author Hour: Are you doing an implementation workbook or a video guide?
Chris Voss: We’re in the process of doing a bunch of online training with a very specific company that we hope to have done over the next couple of months. Now, the workbook question has come up before and it’s something that I’ve had in the back of my mind. The mere fact that you just bring this up to me again now lets me know that it needs to be on our list of stuff to do.
Plus on top of that, a workbook is a resource that stays there, whereas if we come in for training we’re only there for a couple of days. It also plays a lot more to culture too.
Connect with Chris Voss
Author Hour: How can our listeners follow you, connect with you, bring you in to their company?
Chris Voss: You know, the easiest way is to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. It comes out once a week and it’s free.
I used to always love this saying: “If it’s free, I’ll take three.”
The Edge comes out once a week, with short digestible articles that are easy to read. It’s not going to take you ten or fifteen minutes to get through it. It’s going to take you three to five minutes.
Plus, on top of that, we put training announcements in there, we put product announcements in there. It’s a gateway to our website, blackswanltd.com. It’s the gateway to everything that we’re doing.
The easiest way to subscribe to it is you can go to the website and hit the tabs and fill out the form, or you can just send a text, fbiempathy all one word, no space. Spellcheck and autocorrect will put a space in there. fbiempathy to 2828. That will sign you up and that will keep you up to speed on everything that we’re doing.