The Master Negotiator

An exclusive interview with the legendary former FBI hostage negotiator, entrepreneur and author, Chris Voss.

Chis Voss is the CEO and founder of the Black Swan Group and author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It. Voss began his career with the New York City SWAT team before finding his true calling, negotiation. He rose through the ranks quickly and soon became the lead crisis negotiator for the New York City Division of the FBI, and ultimately went on to become lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI.

He proceeded to teach business negotiation at USC, Georgetown, and Harvard business schools, gaining international recognition for his expertise in negotiating with real terrorists, giving him plenty of context to help in the corporate world, where companies seem to get legally taken hostage all the time.

How did you find the link between dealing with negotiating with terrorists to the corporate world?

I started to use the skills in my personal life when I was with the FBI. I used them with family, friends, and colleagues. This was as much as to keep them effective and accurate as anything else. Practice makes perfect, as they say. I learned a lot by doing this. I made mistakes and learned from them.

When I got the opportunity to attend Harvard Law School’s Negotiation Course – the only on duty FBI Agent to ever attend as a student while not actually being enrolled -I used the skills with tremendous success with the law school students- some extremely high-IQ people. That’s when I really began to learn that EQ usually gets the upper hand over IQ.

The teachers at Harvard Law School told me, “You’re doing the same things as us, it’s only the stakes that are different.” Two years after I left the FBI, I was asked to be part of the teaching staff there.

The real proving step came when my Black Swan team and I taught negotiation in the MBA programs at Georgetown University and The University of Southern California. We had students in both universities from all over the world who were actively engaged in business negotiations in their home countries. They used The Black Swan Method to make fantastic deals.

The Black Swan Group has been applying these skills to create life-changing deals and build great relationships globally ever since.

What are some of the most common negotiation traps companies find themselves in when closing a deal?

Three Things:

1. Thinking there isn’t information to be gained at the table that will change and improve the deal – A fear of surprises.
2. That asserting yourself or saying “no” will deter your ability to close.
3. That “yes” is actually agreement.

First: The typical businessperson sees negotiations as an opportunity to use the information they have as leverage to assert for what they want. They may also be waiting to see how the other side is going to assert their leverage. The typical negotiator thinks that negotiation is a “zero-sum” game – that whatever one side gains the other side loses. And, they tend to be afraid of surprises.

Black Swan-trained negotiators see the negotiation as an opportunity to develop a better relationship and at the same time find out the things the other side is holding back. These are the things that the other side is afraid to tell you. And there are always things they are afraid to tell you. Always. If the other side is holding something back – it’s important. If it’s important, and you can gently uncover it, it will change the deal.

Second: To collaborate well, you must let the other side know what you need. And you must be able to say “no” gently. Black Swan-trained negotiators see the immense value of a long-term relationship and know that negotiation is really a “positive-sum” game. With this approach, you will use what you learn in the negotiation to create a better deal for both sides. Subsequent negotiations tend to go much faster as a result.

Third: Since hope is not a strategy, then it’s just as true that “yes” is not agreement. You need to that know that 90% of all “yeses” are counterfeit. Even if they aren’t counterfeit, “Yes” still never take implementation into account. Therefore, the other 10% of”‘yeses” are aspirational at best. Hopeful. And hope is not a strategy.

A deal that can’t be implemented isn’t worth doing in the first place. “Yes” is nothing without “how”.

What is the difference between cooperation and collaboration?

Cooperation is passive and collaboration is active, even proactive. If you’re a cooperator you tend to hold back and not be actively engaged in the process. You are less likely to gently ensure that what you need to make a great deal is included.

If you collaborate you are more engaged. You gently contribute more to the process both on your behalf and on the other side’s behalf. The more you contribute in a way that looks out for all sides – the more you can guide the process in a trusted way. This also increases the deal velocity of future deals.

How does one master the skill of negotiation?

Small stakes practice for high stakes results. Great negotiation comes with simple everyday practice in normal interactions. A fun adjustment is to change your normal greeting of “How are you?” to “It seems like you are (well busy, stressed, thoughtful, preoccupied)” – use whatever your perception is of how they are at that moment.

They will be appreciative that you truly put some thought
into how they actually are at that time – even if it is something
like “stressed.” This everyday practice will give you a tremendous boost in your ability to read the other person in a high-stakes negotiation. When you do a verbal observation like this in a high-stakes deal – the other side is much more likely to work with you to not only give you what you want – but even more importantly – follow-through and honor the agreement.

What are the traits that make a good negotiator?

There are four main traits:

1. Genuinely listening. Not just waiting for your turn to assert your position. Hearing where the elements of a great deal are in what the other person is saying.
2. Likability. Communicating with the other person in a pleasant way. You can’t control if they like you – you can control if you communicate in a likeable way. These are two separate things.
3. Empathic assertion. Advocating gently for what is in your interests. Listening well and communicating pleasantly increases the chances the other side will be willing to give you what you need to make a great deal. Don’t make them guess. How are they supposed to give you what you want if you don’t tell them?
4. Continuous learning. Be willing to be smarter today than you were yesterday.

Every person alive naturally has one of these first three traits. They key is learning (the 4th trait) which ones you need to add to your existing traits in a way that complement what you already know how to do. That’s one of the things The Black Swan Group does – help you discover your natural abilities and then help you add the traits you need to go to the next level.

Most people think they need to simply get better at what they are already good at. It’s often a trait you thought was a strength that is causing a negotiation impasse. What got you into the deadlock won’t get you out of it.

Who are the most difficult people to negotiate with?

Those that are only focused on maximising their own short-term gain. They see the negotiation as simply getting to “yes”. These people generally are loud. They will fail to take implementing the deal into account. They will be poor with follow-up and dealing with the problems that the irregular nature of life will inescapably produce. And you will not want to deal with them again.

What was the most stressful negotiation you’ve ever been involved in?

About two years after I left the FBI, we got a huge (it was huge to us at the time) opportunity for a lucrative year-long deal This was about 12 years ago. Unknown to us, the company we were supplying services to ran into financial difficulties. They stopped paying us, started making new demands in scope and began lying to us about nearly everything. Up to the point of their financial problems, we had a great relationship with them, and they had paid everything on time.
Many people working for us failed to get paid for several months. They had trusted me in the entirely of the deal. felt I was letting them down. It was my first significant deal after I had left the FBI and there were times I definitely felt like I had failed.

Ultimately, we finished the contract and got paid everything, but it took over 12 more months to get all our money. The stress of losing that business relationship, and the anxiety from the people that felt I had let them down was very hard on me at the time. It taught me some great lessons that I am grateful for.

What has been the most valuable negotiation technique you’ve learned through your years of experience?

The Black Swan Group has invented a technique called The Accusations Audit. It’s a very counterintuitive technique of calling out all the negative feelings the other side might have in advance, even guessing and speculating what they might think or feel. Of the many skills we teach that border on Jedi Mind Tricks – this one may be the most effective.

Most people are too terrified to try it because it is so counterintuitive. They fear this is introducing negative thoughts or feelings because of their experience with denials of negative thoughts. For example, a denial would be “I don’t want you to think we are being too pushy, self-centered, or greedy.”

It’s incredibly hard to believe that by simply changing from denying a negative (“I don’t want you to think we are…”) to calling it out gently (“It probably seems we are…”) – would have such a disarming effect and be such a deal accelerator.
And I’m proud to say that this is one of several reasons that Black Swan trained negotiators really have a competitive edge globally.

What is the number one business progress killer?

Leaving the other side wondering what is going on. Most businesspeople only communicate when they have results – good or bad. Therefore, momentum dies. When the results are bad, they really stop communicating. Because of this, people are left in a higher state of stress – the stress of uncertainty, which is completely unnecessary. It leaves them unable to plan or to help solve problems.

The best practice is to communicate on regularly scheduled intervals to let your colleagues/partners know about progress Even if there is no progress, regularly communicating this on a scheduled basis removes a tremendous amount of stress and builds trust.

What are some of the tools you use to help in your decision-making process?

Assessment of implementation and Core Value assessment. We consider opportunities if we can implement them. Is the idea, opportunity, or strategy in a direction that we are already going, or plan to be going in? The greatest idea in the world is useless without implementation. And a new idea in a new direction is useless because… Who is going to implement it? No matter how good it is, if it requires a complete pivot, it’s probably not worth it.

We assess things as a team. If you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far…. go as a team. The first assessment is Core Value Alignment. We live by our Core Values.
Our Core Values are Team First, Be Blue Collar (Meaning: whatever the challenge is have the initiative to help each other, think of solutions yourself, have a sense of humor, be candid and always have integrity), finally – Have an Abundance Mindset.
Since we are aligned on Core Values, we think well as a team. If a business project or partner doesn’t align with our Core Values, we don’t engage.

What is “mirroring” and how does it help in the negotiation process?

It is ridiculously simple and effective! When you use The Black Swan mirror, you just repeat the last 1 – 3 (or so) words someone has just said. This “mirror” has nothing to do with body language – it’s only the words.

It can be as few words as 1, but no more than 5. When you get very practiced at it, you can pick 1 – 3 words from within what they have said. It doesn’t always have to be the last words.

It’s often best to inflect upwards (sound as if there is a question mark at the end). This way you sound curious and inquiring. You are non-threatening.

It’s amazing how people will connect their own thoughts when mirrored. They will reword and expand on what they have just said. It’s a superior replacement for: “What did you mean by that?”. “Can you please say more?” or “Tell me more.” They often blurt out things they otherwise wouldn’t have shared.

Surprisingly, the use of this skill is invisible as they will typically talk so much after your mirror they won’t notice what you have done.
It’s also a great response to any demand, request, or assertion by your counterpart. One of our smartest clients told us he always mirrors the other side’s demands. Their response immediately shows how firm they are in what they want or whether they are just trying to position themselves.

We find that people with both high IQ (intellectual intelligence) and high EQ (emotional intelligence) really love this skill. Mirroring feels awkward when you first use it and then after you see how effective it is, you will love its elegance and simplicity.

Are you working on any special projects for the coming year?

We just finished a brand-new series of lessons on Masterclass that just came out! Several more members of The Black Swan Group – Brandon Voss, Derek Gaunt and Sandy Hein are featured. It’s phenomenal and fun to watch the other members of the team use the skills. The course is set up to create an interactive environment with other people studying the material across the world. There are exercises and it’s a fantastic structure to learn from other people who believe in the power of The Black Swan Method.

Masterclass was founded by David Roger, and they are an amazing organisation to work with.

Next, there’s a documentary film being produced about The Black Swan Group by Emmy Award winning film maker Nick Nanton and DNA Films.

We are also working on two follow-up books with Scribe Media that should be ready for publication by the end of the year. One will be about using tactical empathy in real estate transactions and the other will be more of an operations manual for our bestselling negotiation book, “Never Spilt The Difference.”

We are building several new courses for negotiation training for all levels of ability on our website: The material is especially for those who are curious, ambitious and want to use their success to make the world a better place. It’s going to be an amazing year and I am proud to be a Global Citizen!