1: New York City. September 30, 1993. It was a brisk autumn morning. The time was 8:30 AM.
“Two masked bank robbers trigger an alarm as they storm into the Chase Manhattan Bank at Seventh Avenue and Carroll Street in Brooklyn,” Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.
Three bank employees are inside: two female tellers and a male security guard. “The robbers crack the unarmed sixty-year-old security guard across the skull with a .357, drag him to the men’s room, and lock him inside,” Chris writes. “One of the tellers gets the same pistol-whipping treatment.”
A bank robber grabs the other teller. He puts the barrel of his gun in her mouth. And pulls the trigger.
Click. The chamber is empty.
“Next one is real,” he says. “Now open the vault.”
A bank robbery with hostages. “Happens all the time in the movies, but it had been almost twenty years since there’d been one of these standoffs in New York, the city with more hostage negotiation jobs than any other jurisdiction in the country,” Chris notes.
Chris and his fellow FBI hostage negotiator race through the streets of Brooklyn in their black Crown Victoria and arrive on the scene.
“The whole cavalry showed up for this one—NYPD, FBI, SWAT—all the muscle and savvy of law enforcement,” writes Chris, “up against the knee-jerk desperation of a couple of bank robbers seemingly in over their heads.”
The assumption was that the crisis would be over quickly. “The bank robbers had little choice but to surrender—or so we thought,” Chris writes. “We actually started the day with intelligence that the bank robbers wanted to surrender.”
2: Today’s lesson: Engage in a negotiation with a discovery mindset.
The lead hostage-taker was “feeding us all kinds of misinformation,” Chris writes. “He wanted us to think he had a bunch of co-conspirators with him—from a number of different countries. He also wanted us to think that his partners were much more volatile and dangerous than he was.”
The bank robber maintained he wasn’t the leader and that others were making all the decisions. He said he was afraid or tentative about passing along certain information to the others.
“And yet he always spoke with a voice of complete calm and absolute confidence,” Chris writes. “It was a reminder to my colleagues and me that until you know what you’re dealing with, you don’t know what you are dealing with.”
In retrospect, Chris reflects the hostage-taker’s game plan was clear: “He wanted to confuse us as much as he could until he could figure a way out. He would constantly tell us that he wasn’t in charge and that every decision was the responsibility of the other guys.”
“I hadn’t yet learned to be aware of a counterpart’s overuse of personal pronouns–we/they or me/I. The less important he makes himself, the more important he probably is (and vice versa).”
3: At the start of every negotiation, we are “best served by holding multiple hypotheses—about the situation, about the counterpart’s wants, about a whole array of variables—in [our] mind at the same time,” Chris writes.
We aim to be “present and alert in the moment,” he notes. And “use all the new information that comes [our] way to test and winnow true hypotheses from false ones.”
To maximize our chances for success, we need to question our assumptions. The trap? Allowing our arrogance or impatience to get us locked into one way of thinking. Tunnel vision. Instead, we must force ourselves to remain open emotionally to all possibilities.
In any negotiation, our goal is “to extract and observe as much information as possible,” Chris notes. “Which, by the way, is one of the reasons that really smart people often have trouble being negotiators—they’re so smart they think they don’t have anything to discover.”
Having the right mindset is critical.
“Good negotiators, going in, know they have to be ready for possible surprises,” he observes. “Great negotiators aim to use their skills to reveal the surprises they are certain exist.
“Unfortunately, back in 1993, I was far from great.”
Reflection: What is my state-of-mind when I enter into a negotiation? Am I intentional about questioning my assumptions?
Action: Experiment with being open-minded in a negotiation today.