1: It was the first day of Harvard Law School’s Winter Negotiation course.  

It was “the Olympic trials for negotiating,” Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. “The best and brightest compete to get into this class, and it is filled with brilliant Harvard students getting law and business degrees and hotshot students from other top Boston universities like MIT and Tufts,” 

There were 143 brilliant students in the class. Plus Chris, the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator.  

The prior year, he had visited Harvard to take a short executive course on negotiating to supplement his skills. Yesterday, we looked at how Chris had held his own in a high-stakes negotiation with Robert Mnookin, the director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and Gabriella Blum, a Harvard Law School professor who had spent eight years as a negotiator for the Israel Defense Forces. 

Now, Chris had talked his way into this class. His goal: To combine his extensive knowledge regarding negotiations with academic rigor.  

“I lacked confidence outside my narrow world,” he writes. “Our techniques were the products of experiential learning; they were developed by agents in the field, negotiating through crisis and sharing stories of what succeeded and what failed. It was an iterative process, not an intellectual one, as we refined the tools we used day after day. And it was urgent. Our tools had to work, because if they didn’t someone died.”

The question on Chris’s mind was: Would this approach work with “normal humans”?

2: On the first day of class, all students were matched with a partner and sent into a mock negotiation. The exercise was simple: “One of us was selling a product, the other was the buyer, and each had clear limits on the price they could take,” Chris recalls.

Chris was the seller. Andy was the buyer.

“Andy would throw out an offer and give a rationally airtight explanation for why it was a good one—an inescapable logic trap—and I’d answer with some variation of “How am I supposed to do that?” Chris writes.

The two went back and forth until they arrived at a final figure. “When we left, I was happy,” he remembers. “I thought I’d done pretty well for a dumb guy.”

After everyone gathered back in the classroom, each pair reported their agreed-upon price. The results were recorded on the whiteboard.

Finally, it was Chris’s turn: “Chris, how did you do with Andy? How much did you get?” 

“I’ll never forget [the professor’s] expression when I told her what Andy had agreed to pay,” Chris writes. “Her whole face first went red, as if she couldn’t breathe, and then out popped a little strangled gasp like a baby bird’s hungry cry. Finally, she started to laugh.” 

Chris smiled. Andy squirmed. 

“You got literally every dime he had,” the professor said, “and in his brief he was supposed to hold a quarter of it back in reserve for future work.”

Andy shook his head and sank deep into his chair.

The following day, Chris reported similar results with another partner. “I mean, I absolutely destroyed the guy’s budget,” Chris recalls.

“It didn’t make sense. A lucky one-off was one thing. But this was a pattern,” he writes. “With my old-school, experiential knowledge, I was killing guys who knew every cutting-edge trick you could find in a book.”

Back in the classroom, the professor called on Chris to reveal his secrets.  

“It seems like all you do to these Harvard Law School students is say ‘No’ and stare at them, and they fall apart. Is it really that easy?”

Chris smiled and shrugged. “I’m just asking questions,” he answered. “It’s a passive-aggressive approach. I just ask the same three or four open-ended questions over and over and over and over. They get worn out answering and give me everything I want.” 

Reflecting on his approach, he notes: “While I wasn’t actually saying, ‘No,’ the questions I kept asking sounded like it. They seemed to insinuate the other side was being dishonest and unfair. And that was enough to make them falter and negotiate with themselves.  

“Answering my calibrated questions demanded deep emotional strength and tactical psychological insights that the toolbox they’d been given did not contain,” he writes.

3: Chris’s comments highlight the importance of “a deep understanding of human psychology” in all negotiations. We are, he observes, “always acting and reacting first and foremost from our deeply held but mostly invisible and inchoate fears, needs, perceptions, and desires.” 

Which the academic approach he observed at Harvard does not take into effect. “Their theories and techniques all had to do with intellectual power, logic, authoritative acronyms like BATNA and ZOPA, rational notions of value, and a moral concept of what was fair and what was not,” he notes.

“And built on top of this false edifice of rationality was, of course, process. They had a script to follow, a predetermined sequence of actions, offers, and counteroffers designed in a specific order to bring about a particular outcome. 

“It was as if they were dealing with a robot, that if you did a, b, c, and d in a certain fixed order, you would get x,” he notes. “But in the real world negotiation is far too unpredictable and complex for that. You may have to do a then d, and maybe a q,” he writes.

His big takeaway? “If my time at Harvard showed me anything, it was that we at the FBI had a lot to teach the world about negotiating.”

In other words, the FBI’s methods are effective for more than just terrorists and bank robbers. “It turned out that our approach to negotiation held the keys to unlock profitable human interactions in every domain and every interaction and every relationship in life.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Think back on a recent negotiation or high-stakes conversation. Was I able to keep my emotions in check?  

Action: Experiment with asking open-ended questions in an upcoming negotiation.

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