Haggling for the hostage or the humdrum: how to handle tense negotiations.
Never Split the Difference

Haggling for the hostage or the humdrum: how to handle tense negotiations.

Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator turned business consultant, has a long career of overcoming tense, difficult situations under his belt. 


At first glance, author Chris Voss sounds overqualified. Do you really need a life-saving hostage crisis negotiator and former FBI agent to help you negotiate the sale of a used printer or sign a rental agreement?

Voss makes a convincing case that his experience dealing with crises is highly transferable to more quotidian circumstances.Whether you’re talking down a bank robber or convincing a toddler to go to bed, he says, it all comes down to the same core negotiation skills.

Voss teaches professional negotiating techniques, including “active listening,” “tactical empathy” and “calibrated questions,” and he shares his negotiating war stories. He uses these case studies to teach valuable lessons. He tells you a lot of what you need to know about negotiating in business and life – advice that can work for you if you keep your wits about you and listen carefully.

Getting what you want out of life is all about getting what you want from – and with – other peopleChris Voss

People often settle for less than they want because it seems convenient, or they get frustrated. Both behaviors are unhealthy in private and business relationships alike. Voss argues that negotiation is the only good way to navigate conflict. Negotiators must have the confidence to pursue what they need. On the flip side, he says, you should never get so focused on a predetermined goal that you reject something better, if offered.

If the idea of negotiating makes you anxious, never fear. Voss shows that you don’t have to be an FBI-trained expert to bargain effectively. You don’t even have to like conflict. All you need are the right tools, knowledge and a little practice.

People who think about thinking have praised Voss’s book. Author and Wharton professor Adam Grant, who wrote Give and Take, said, “This book blew my mind. It’s a riveting read, full of instantly actionable advice — not just for high-stakes negotiations, but also for handling everyday conflicts at work and at home.” Daniel H. Pink, author of To Sell Is Human and Drive, said Voss, “Emphasizes the importance of emotional intelligence without sacrificing deal-making power.” This is “from the pen of a former hostage negotiator — someone who couldn’t take no for an answer — which makes it fascinating reading. But it’s also eminently practical. In these pages, you will find the techniques for getting the deal you want.”

Fundamentally Irrational

Many people believe that successful negotiating hinges on reasoning and raw intellectual prowess. Foundational texts of negotiation, such as Getting to Yes and Thinking, Fast and Slow, reinforce this impression. Voss claims that this approach is mistaken, because humans are, fundamentally, irrational. Taking a different tack, Voss brands his style of negotiation “tactical empathy,” and explains that it calls for understanding your counterpart’s deeper motivations. The trick is to make your opponents feel that they came up with your desired solution, giving them the illusion of control.

Don’t treat others the way you want to be treated; treat them the way they need to be treated.Chris Voss

Voss asks open-ended questions to assess people’s motives. Asked in the proper sequence and with the correct tone and clear interest in the answers, these questions can buy time, re-balance the power dynamic, help you avoid being rude, and foster trust and understanding. He also recommends performing an “accusation audit” before a negotiation, so that you anticipate potential criticism the other party might level against you. Acknowledging these “accusations” at the beginning of the encounter can build trust and credibility.

Show You’re Listening – and Listen

Voss encourages negotiators to pay careful attention to the other party’s answers, and their nonverbal clues like body language and facial expressions. As he shows, when people feel you are really heeding what they say, they’re more likely to stay calm and listen to you. Focus on the other person. Encourage him or her to feel safe and to talk openly. Ascertain what he or she needs. Time is a negotiator’s best friend. Never offer a quick solution. Speak slowly, calmly and softly. Keep your demeanor and delivery light and playful, not aggressive or confrontational.

Instead of doing any thinking at all in the early goings about what you’re going to say – make your sole and all-encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say.Chris Voss

Voss recommends a few techniques you can use to show that you’re listening carefully: mirroring (repeating the last one to three words the other party said, often in question form), labeling (verbally identifying the emotion that the other party seems to be experiencing) and responding (addressing the other party’s concerns in good faith). Voss advocates being humble and considerate, yet firm and uncompromising. Resist the temptation to dismiss difficult opponents as irrational or crazy. Likelier, they just have needs, gripes, expectations or rules you must work to understand.

Hostage Negotiations

To show these techniques in action, Voss begins each chapter with the story of a hostage negotiation. He dissects each instance, explaining what worked and where negotiators made mistakes. Voss also includes various examples from more ordinary contexts, such as salary negotiations and car purchases. He offers plenty of advice for the novice negotiator, such as embracing the initial “no,” disregarding deadlines, using controlled anger strategically and letting the other party set the price first.

Deadlines are often arbitrary, almost always flexible and hardly ever trigger the consequences we think – or are told – they will.Chris Voss

Voss explains some other effective theories of negotiation and debunks the ones that usually backfire. In addition, he discusses how various circumstantial factors might change a negotiation strategy and cause you to deviate from the Voss orthodoxy.

Confident and Conversational

Voss’s hostage anecdotes are thrilling, even if their retelling sometimes seems hard to believe. If you’ve seen Voss speak in public or online, or teach negotiation, as he does in his segments of the Master Class video subscription series, you’ll grant him extra credibility. He’s a straightforward, low-key speaker, though his written examples seem pretty amazing without that level voice in your ears.

In one of the adventures Voss recounts, he conducted an impromptu survey of three just-handcuffed hostage takers to find out why they gave up when they did – and they all gave identical answers.Voss also recounts his negotiating mistakes, but not failures. His hostages all made it out alive, which is good news, but it also adds to his stories’ air of humble-bragging.

Prepare, prepare, prepare. When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion; you fall to your highest level of preparation. Chris Voss

Voss, writing here with Tahl Raz, uses a confident and conversational tone that reminds you he’s an expert and a consultant. As with any text that makes sweeping generalizations about human behavior, he has to work to show the originality of his ideas. He focuses on negotiations between two parties, so this book may not satisfy readers who need guidance on manage multiparty arrangements.

Voss shares well-developed ideas about negotiating, and his entertaining book is well worth reading. Readers who are new to negotiation will learn basic principles and experienced readers will get a handy refresher. Voss is at his most enlightening when he offers examples of how to practice the skills he demonstrates by using role-playing games (“60 seconds, or she dies” is especially memorable). The book’s appendix includes a preparation worksheet for would-be negotiators. Becoming a master negotiator takes decades of experience, but Voss offers a good place to start and some intriguing inside revelations.

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