1: Chris Voss has recently joined the FBI’s New York office, he writes in his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It.

“I want to be a hostage negotiator,” Chris told Amy Bonderow, who ran the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Team in New York.

“Everyone does—got any training?” she asked. 

“No,” Chris said. 

“Any credentials?” 

“Nope,” he answered. 

“Any experience?” she asked. 

“No,” he replied.

“Do you have a degree in psychology, sociology, anything at all related to negotiation?” 


“Looks like you answered your own question,” she said. “No. Now go away.” 

“Go away?” he protested. “Really?” 

“Yep. As in, ‘Leave me alone.’ Everybody wants to be a hostage negotiator, and you have no résumé, experience, or skills. So what would you say in my position? You got it: ‘No.'” 

Chris paused, thinking, “This is not how my negotiating career ends.” 

“Come on,” he said. “There has to be something I can do.” 

Amy shook her head again. Then she let out one of those “ironic laughs that mean the person doesn’t think you’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell,” Chris writes.

“I’ll tell you what. Yes, there is something you can do: Volunteer at a suicide hotline. Then come talk to me. No guarantees, got it?”

2: So, that’s what Chris did. He took a position answering phones for HelpLine, the crisis hotline founded by Norman Vincent Peale

“The basic rule was that we couldn’t be with anybody on the phone for more than twenty minutes. If we did our job, it wasn’t going to take longer than that to get them to a better place,” Chris recalls. 

“We had a thick book of organizations we referred them to for help. It was a paramedic approach; patch them up and send them on their way.”

As it turns out, less than half of the calls received were from people in crisis. “The majority of the calls came from frequent callers,” Chris writes. “These are highly dysfunctional people, energy vampires whom no one else would listen to anymore.”

One day, Chris answered the helpline. It was Daryl, a frequent caller, a cabbie afraid to go outside. He was scared he would lose his house and his will to live if he couldn’t work.

“Seriously, when was the last time someone tried to hurt you on the streets?” Chris asked. 

“Well, I mean, it’s been a long time,” Daryl said. 

“Like . . . ?” 

“I can’t really remember a date, Chris. Maybe a year, I guess.” 

“So it’s safe to say that the outside world hasn’t been too hard on you, right?” 

“Yes,” Daryl said. “I suppose so.” 

The conversation continued along these lines. 

“Thank you, Chris,” Daryl said just before he hung up. “Thanks for doing such a great job.”

Chris sat back and smiled. “I was feeling good about my new skills,” he remembers. “By the time I was done with him, he couldn’t give me one reason not to step outside.” 

At which point, Jim, the head of the office, motioned for Chris to come into his office. 

“Well, Chris,” he said. “That was one of the worst calls I ever heard.” 

Chris stared at him, gape-jawed. “Jim, did you hear Daryl congratulate me?” I asked. “I talked him down, man, I killed it.”

“That’s one of the signs, because they should be congratulating themselves when they get off the line,” he said. “They don’t need to be congratulating you. That tells me you did too much. If they think you did it—if you were the guy who killed it—how is he going to help himself? I don’t want to be harsh, but you were horrible.”

Chris felt acid rush to his stomach. He knew Jim was right.

“You see, that whole call had been about me and my ego and not the caller,” he recalls. “But the only way to get these callers to take action was to have them own the conversation, to believe that they were coming to these conclusions, to these necessary next steps, and that the voice at the other end of simply a medium for those realizations.”

The conversation was a turning point for Chris as a negotiator. His role was not to convince the other person logically that they were safe, secure, and in control. But to empathize with them, ask open-ended questions, listen well, and help them understand their emotions by labeling them.

3: Five months after Amy had told Chris to “go away,” he stopped by her office. He told her he had volunteered at HelpLine. 

“You did?” she asked, smiling with surprise. “I tell everybody to do that. And nobody ever does.” 

Amy shared that she had begun her negotiating career at HelpLine. “She started naming people who were now mutual friends of ours,” Chris writes. 

Then, in a sudden shift, Amy stopped speaking and stared at Chris. Then she smiled. “You get the next position.” 

Five other people wanted that spot, he writes, “people who had psychology degrees, experience, and credentials. But I was on the road to the next hostage negotiation training course at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, ahead of everybody else. My career as a negotiator had officially begun.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: What stands out to me about Chris’ story above?

Action: Share Chris’ story with someone who would benefit from it.

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