Learning Negotiation from an FBI Agent

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Eric Barker, a contributor for Wired.co.uk and owner of the blog “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” sat down with Chris Voss to talk about negotiation. Normally that wouldn’t pique anyone’s interest, unless they knew that Chris Voss is a former member of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, and the former lead international kidnapping negotiator. He now runs the negotiation consulting firm the Black Swan Group.

According to Voss, there are five steps to any negotiation. And all negotiations have the same result in mind: a behavior change. In Voss’ line of work, the behavior change may be letting hostages go or putting down weapons. In our world it may be a lower plea offer, a higher settlement offer, or a bigger end-of-year bonus. But behavioral change is the fifth step. That means there is work to be done to get through the other four steps. Barker lays out all five steps:

  1. Active Listening: Listen to their side and make them aware you’re listening.
  2. Empathy: You get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel.
  3. Rapport: Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. They start to trust you.
  4. Influence: Now that they trust you, you’ve earned the right to work on problem solving with them and recommend a course of action.
  5. Behavioral change: They act.

But as Barker points out “you usually skip the first three steps. You start at 4 (Influence) and expect the other person to immediately go to 5 (Behavioral Change).” Voss emphasizes that the most important part of the negotiation is listening. And none of us are doing it right.

If while you’re making your argument, the only time the other side is silent is because they’re thinking about their own argument, they’ve got a voice in their head that’s talking to them. They’re not listening to you. When they’re making their argument to you, you’re thinking about your argument, that’s the voice in your head that’s talking to you. So it’s very much like dealing with a schizophrenic.

If your first objective in the negotiation, instead of making your argument, is to hear the other side out, that’s the only way you can quiet the voice in the other guy’s mind. But most people don’t do that. They don’t walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They walk into a negotiation wanting to make an argument. They don’t pay attention to emotions and they don’t listen.

Imagine going into a meeting with opposing counsel this way. Think about how much smoother a meeting might go if you walk in and ask them their position, then follow up with an appropriate summation of their point. Instead of a debate on the contested issues (which may come later) you can get a real feel for where opposing counsel and, more importantly, her client is coming from.

If either side had a slam dunk legal argument, they would probably file the appropriate pleadings to have the case dismissed. Negotiations happen because neither side wants to go through the risk or possible expense of a legal battle. Nonetheless, in every negotiation I’ve participated in, each side expects the other side to be completely rational and rely solely on logic. According to Voss “[h]uman beings are incapable of being rational…[s]o instead of pretending emotions don’t exist in negotiations, hostage negotiators have actually designed an approach that takes emotions fully into account and uses them to influence situations[.]”

And at the root of it, we are all being driven by emotion to some degree. So why not attempt to gauge those emotions and use them to your advantage? Voss explains that negotiators use six techniques regularly, and lawyers could use the same:

  1. Ask open-ended questions – Encourage the other person to open up. Don’t use yes/no questions.
  2. Use effective pauses – Use pauses for emphasis or to encourage the other side to keep talking.
  3. Encourage the speaker – Simple phrases like “OK” or “I see” can make it clear you’re listening and care about what they’re saying.
  4. Use mirroring – Rework the last phrase the other person used into your own sentence.
  5. Paraphrase – Use your own words to repeat what the other person said.

Barker’s article goes into a lot more depth about the strategies. I would recommend checking them out. And you can sign up for his newsletter to read the entire interview with Voss, which is interesting.

(image: Robbery, businessman grasped in hostages via SHUTTERSTOCK)

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