Chris Voss and I first met four years ago when he was teaching international business negotiations at Harvard University.
Chris was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator for years and he currently teaches business negotiation in the MBA program at Georgetown University ‘s McDonough School of Business. He’s also CEO of the Black Swan Group.
The full interview was over 30 minutes long so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.
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What Hostage Negotiators Know That Most Negotiators Get Wrong
In terms of basics, what do you think people can learn from hostage negotiating that they don’t learn in your typical negotiating class?
…business negotiations try to pretend that emotions don’t exist. What’s your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or ‘BATNA.’ That’s to try to be completely unemotional and rational, which is a fiction about negotiation. Human beings are incapable of being rational, regardless. There’s a lot of scientific evidence now that demonstrates that without emotions you actually can’t make a decision, because you make your decisions based on what you care about.
So hostage negotiators come at negotiation from a very different perspective. They believe that everything is about negotiation, and that you have to understand how to control and influence and impact negotiations from the very beginning. So 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, which is the reality of the way all negotiations go…
What’s The Biggest Myth People Believe About Negotiating?
The great myth out there, and I know why Roger Fisher came up with the idea of BATNA, but the great myth out there is either that you have to have a BATNA, or that you even need to think about your BATNA. The real effect of that is that if you don’t have a BATNA that you like, or you don’t have a BATNA at all, then you’ve just taken yourself hostage and put yourself at the mercy of the person you’re dealing with.
I think that’s a great mistake that everybody makes. They’re worried about their BATNA, and they spend a lot of time calculating their BATNA, when they should be spending time figuring out how to influence the other side. And how to figure out how to listen to them effectively to find out what will influence them…
What’s The Best Technique for Influencing Someone?
The idea is to really listen to what the other side is saying and feed it back to them. It’s kind of a discovery process for both sides. First of all, you’re trying to discover what’s important to them, and secondly, you’re trying to help them hear what they’re saying to find out if what they are saying makes sense to them.
Someone may have a stated goal in a negotiation, but what they’re trying to negotiate for isn’t going to get them that. You can say, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” Then, “How is what you are asking for going to get you that?” If you make them explain it to you, a lot of times both you and them are going to discover whether or not it makes any sense. So you can become a real sounding board in the negotiations to try and figure out whether the solutions match the problems.
Is Compromise A Good Thing Or The Very Worst Thing?
…A lot of corporate positions are the result of compromise. You’ve got a representative of a corporation who’s representing a compromised point. Their goal may be a compromise that might not necessarily line up with what they are trying to accomplish. The real problem with compromise is everybody talks about compromise as a good thing, that in good relationships you’ve got to compromise. Compromise has come to be known as this great concept. In relationships and politics and everything. Compromise is a good thing.
It’s really one of the worst things in disguise. I was trying to describe this to a woman who is a neighbor of mine just a couple of weeks ago about how much I hate compromise. She said so what you’re telling me is like if a husband wants his wife to get breast implants, and she doesn’t want to, a compromise would be that she gets one… So you’re negotiating with a company, they have a compromised position, that’s what they want. So you’ve got to ask them open-ended questions to get them to see. You’ve got to use basic hostage negotiation skills to get them to hear it and sound it out, so that they begin to see that what they want might possibly be ridiculous…
The Two Biggest Mistakes You’re Making In Negotiations
I would put it in a tie with, they neglect to pay attention to emotional factors, and they really neglect to listen. I compare a lot of negotiations to dealing with a schizophrenic, because a schizophrenic’s always got a voice in his head talking to him which makes it very hard for him to listen to you.
Now most people in business negotiations, they approach the negotiation, and they’ve got firmly in their mind all of the arguments that support their position. So when they’re not talking, they’re thinking about their arguments, and when they are talking, they’re making their arguments. They view negotiation as a battle of arguments.
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.