How to handle business negotiation like a hostage situation

By Kitty Knowles 23 May 2016

We asked entrepreneur and former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss for his best tips.

Did you know that good entrepreneurs and hostage negotiators share some similar traits?

Chris Voss does, but that’s because he’s been both.

The diversely talented man is not only a former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI, but a businessman who founded his own corporate consultancy firm Black Swan Group.

On top of all this, Voss is an award-winning professor who’s taught at the McDonough School of Business and at Harvard Law School, and he’s just released a book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

We caught up with Chris Voss to find out why we should all treat business as if our lives depended on it…

Treating business like a hostage situation

For Voss, the similarities between a hostage situation and a tricky business negotiation are a matter of passion.

“In both cases what each side wants is driven by what they care about most,” he told The Memo. “What they care about most will guide the decisions they make.”

“If you can understand the driving force behind their decision making, their behaviour becomes predictable.”

Step into your counterpart’s shoes

Dealing with either of these situations, Voss says, is a matter of embracing the opposite perspective.

Ultimately, if you want to fare well, you need to see the situation from the other person’s perspective, he explains.

“To win in any negotiation you’ve got to win in your counterpart’s world and in a way that makes them feel respected and heard.”

Struggling to boss it?

Many businesspeople worry that they are not naturally assertive when it comes to tackling negotiation head on.

But, says Voss, you can work always work this temperament in your favour.

“The nicer you are the more you can push for what you need,” says Voss.

“Once you let go of needing to be in control you can realise that the secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control.”

Being nice might even make it easier to lay down what you want, in business or in challenging life situations.

“To make a great deal with the other side, you do them a favour by being clear about what you need out of the deal, if you don’t get what you want, you’ll never be in a position to be a great long-term partner for them,” says Voss.

“With deference, it’s easy to be clear about what you need.”

Making it work in an online world

We may be living in an increasingly online world. But while we can use digital tools to support difficult conversations, real-life interaction remains vital, says Voss.

“Negotiation via email is a way to support your in-person and telephone conversations, but not replace them,” he explains

“A relationship is the foundation of a negotiated agreement and you can’t build relationships in email.”

Always work towards a face-to-face

Instead digital communications should always be working towards – or alongside – face-to-face meetings.

“100% of a message is made up of body language, tone of voice, and the content,” says Voss.

“Every step you take away from in-person communication makes the message harder to accurately interpret.”

Essentially, our digital lives should never stand in the way of a real-life meet-up.

“In today’s world it’s impossible to always meet in person,” adds Voss.

“Using telephone instead of email when you can to supplement your in-person meetings makes for the best combination.”

Artificial Intelligence is not the answer

We may have ranted and raved about our AI assistants Amy, Crystal and Charlie, but AI does not help negotiations, says Voss.

“AI apps try to build a 3 dimensional profile from 2-dimensional snapshot in time that you’re not even sure was written by the person you’re trying to communicate with,” he explains.

Even the best AI is a deception of trust, Voss adds: “Using it would essentially be a lie, in that you’d be hiding the fact that it wasn’t you crafting the communication but a program”

“Relationships based on deception are poor long-term strategies for relationships of trust.”

What to avoid

Beyond AI, the biggest mistake to avoid is ‘taking yourself hostage’, says Voss.

“To become hostage to “yes” and only want to hear it. To fear “no” instead of mastering it’s nuances,” he explains.

“To yourself hostage by being so sure of what you want you refuse to take something better.”

Being open-minded is the way forward in every business or hostage situation, he concludes.

“It’s stunning how much people will cooperate with you and change their course of action once they feel you completely ‘get’ where they are coming from.”

Want to read more? Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It is available in paperback on Amazon from £13.99.