Why Great Negotiators Rise Beyond Rhetoric and Let the Other Go First

In this series, I share my perspective on books that profoundly influenced my thinking about the human psyche and how we perform in conversations. In this article: “Never Split the Difference” by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss.

The most powerful words uttered by President Frank Underwood in "House of Cards" were phrased as a question. When his Russian counterpart Viktor Petrov said he wanted to discuss "the elephant in the room", the notoriously cunning Underwood calmly responded with four simple words: "Tell me your concerns."

“Never Split the Difference” by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss helped me better understand why these words stuck with me.

Although technically an imperative and not a question, the sentence is unmistakably a request for information – or more specifically, an attempt to gain access to Petrov’s thinking. This “mindset of discovery”, as Voss calls it, is the cornerstone of his book.


Crawling Out of The Trenches

In my own words, a negotiation shouldn’t be about you, it should be about the other person. To succeed, you have to crawl out of the trenches and move beyond the usual practice of exchanging arguments.

It begins with listening, making it about the other people, validating their emotions, and creating enough trust and safety for a real conversation to begin.” – Chris Voss

While many of us think about a negotiation as an exchange of statements, Voss attests that it’s much more powerful to ask questions and let the other side go first. If you go first and limit yourself to the usual rhetoric – for instance, by expressing your demands or opinions - you waste an opportunity to learn about your counterpart’s situation, desires and needs. Instead, you should ask open-ended questions and actively listen to dig deep into the underlying concerns, values and motivations of the other person. That's where you’ll find common ground – or gain information you need to assert control.

Tactical Empathy

As a former lead international kidnapping negotiator, Voss spent two decades negotiating seemingly impossible deals in the highest-stakes settings imaginable. As he writes: “A successful hostage negotiator has to get everything he asks for, without giving anything back of substance, and do so in a way that leaves the adversaries feeling as if they have a great relationship.”

Voss’ tested approach starts from the premise that humans are emotional and irrational beings. In his well-written book, Voss lays out the concept of Tactical Empathy, which is essentially a toolbox to gain access to the mind of the person at the other side of the table. It’s built around basic knowledge about the human brain and our inherent tendencies and desires. If you overlook the human factor, you’ll seriously undermine your effectiveness as a negotiator.

Who has control in a conversation, the guy listening or the guy talking?” – Chris Voss

According to Voss, one of the most powerful tools in negotiations are calibrated questions. These are open-ended queries that begin with “How?” or “What?” followed with silence, forcing your counterpart to contemplate your problems when making demands. A frequently used calibrated question in the book is “How am I supposed to do that?” 

“By implicitly asking the other party for help, these questions will give your counterpart an illusion of control and will inspire them to speak at length, revealing important information,” Voss writes.

The Negotiation Paradox

The overarching mindset of discovery that Voss promotes in his book – and that I’ve discussed thus far in this blog - reminds me of the Socratic paradox: the wisest man knows nothing beyond knowing that he knows nothing.

But that doesn’t mean that skilled negotiators don’t use any assumptions. In my own words, the secret to gaining the upper hand is to use assumptions strategically to explore your counterpart’s reasoning – and make sure that you don’t mistake them for truth. Consider the following property negotiation as mentioned on page 239 of the book:

“The building is in great shape, especially compared to the other options available to students,” the broker said.

“It seems like this building functions more as a glorified dormitory than a classic multifamily building,” my student said […]

“Fortunately and unfortunately, yes,” the broker said. “The occupancy has historically been one hundred percent and it is a cash cow, but the students act like college students…” […]

“If he or she is selling such a cash cow, it seems like the seller must have doubts about future market fundamentals.”

“Well,” he said, “the seller has some tougher properties in Atlanta and Savannah, so he has to get out of this property to pay back the other mortgages.”

Voss calls these sentences starting with “It seems like…” labels. In this case, the student purposely mislabeled the situation, encouraging the broker to correct him and reveal crucial information. 

Until you know what you’re dealing with, you don’t know what you’re dealing with.” – Chris Voss

Finding Black Swans

The holy grail in any negotiation is to unearth the unknown unknowns, which Voss calls Black Swans. These pieces of information have the potential to produce dramatic breakthroughs. In the example from Voss’ book, the student discovered that the property seller was suffering financial constraints, which allowed him to negotiate a great deal. 

The transformative power of Black Swans is another reason why you should move beyond the usual rhetoric and let the other side go first.

As Voss writes in his book: “Your goal at the outset is to extract and observe as much information as possible. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons that really smart people often have trouble being negotiators – they’re so smart they think they don’t have anything to discover.” That explains why I was so impressed with Underwood.

Related links and books:
- The blog of Black Swan Group, Voss’ consultancy
Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury
- Start with NO by Jim Camp

The opinions expressed in this blog are my own. I’m not affiliated with anyone mentioned in this blog and I don’t receive any compensation for discussing their work.