1: “We’ve got your son, Voss. Give us one million dollars or he dies,” Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

Chris was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator.

He paused and tried to catch his breath.

“I was intimidated,” he recalls. “I’d been in these types of situations before. Tons of them. Money for lives. But not like this. Not with my son on the line. Not $1 million.”

His negotiating counterparts? Robert Mnookin and Gabriella Blum. Robert was the Chair of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, “one of the big shots of the conflict resolution field and the author of Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight,” Chris writes.

Gabriella is the author of The Future of Violence. Before becoming a Harvard Professor, she spent eight years as a negotiator for the “tough as nails” Israel Defense Forces.

Chris was a former Kansas City beat cop who’d joined the FBI and risen through the ranks. He knew these academics were formidable opponents. “I’d come up to Harvard to take a short executive negotiating course to see if I could learn something from the business world’s approach. It was supposed to be quiet and calm, a little professional development for an FBI guy trying to widen his horizons.”

2: When Robert learned Chris was on campus, he invited him to join him in his office for a cup of coffee.

Soon after Chris sat down, “on cue, Mnookin’s secretary arrived and put a tape recorder on the table,” Chris remembers.

“Give us one million dollars or he dies,” Robert repeated. “I’m the kidnapper. What are you going to do?”

Chris experienced a wave of panic. “But that was to be expected. It never changes: even after two decades negotiating for human lives you still feel fear,” he remembers. “Even in a role-playing situation.”

“C’mon. Get me the money or I cut your son’s throat right now,” Robert said.

“I gave him a long, slow stare,” Chris recalls. “How am I supposed to do that?”

Now Robert paused. “So you’re okay with me killing your son, Mr. Voss?”

“I’m sorry, Robert, how do I know he’s even alive?” Chris asked. The apology and use of his counterpart’s first name were intentional, he writes, “seeding more warmth into the interaction in order to complicate his gambit to bulldoze me.”

“I really am sorry, but how can I get you any money right now,” Chris stated, “much less one million dollars, if I don’t even know he’s alive?”

3: Chris was utilizing what had become one of the FBI’s “most potent negotiating tools: the open-ended question.”

Calibrated questions like these not only buy time but give the other side “the illusion of control—they are the one with the answers and power after all—and it does all that without giving them any idea of how constrained they are by it,” Chris observes.

The questions changed the tone and direction of the conversation. From how Chris would respond to the threat of his son’s murder to “how the professor would deal with the logistical issues involved in getting the money,” Chris writes. To “how he would solve my problems.”

Robert continued to make threats. Chris continued to ask questions. About how Chris was supposed to pay Robert. About how Chris was supposed to know his son was alive.

“Don’t let him do that to you,” Gabriella said to Robert.

“Well, you try,” Robert responded, raising his hands.

Gabriella tried to rest back control of the negotiation. “She was tougher from her years in the Middle East,” Chris writes. “But she was still doing the bulldozer angle, and all she got were my same questions.”

Robert jumped back in. “But he got nowhere either, Chris recalls. Robert’s “face started to get red with frustration. I could tell the irritation was making it hard to think.”

“Okay, okay, Bob. That’s all,” Chris said, “putting him out of his misery.”

Robert nodded. Chris’s son would live another day.

“Fine,” Robert said. “I suppose the FBI might have something to teach us.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Why did Chris’s questions change the tenor of the negotiation? How might I use this tactic?

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

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