1: The call came in at 8:30 a.m. A robbery at a Chase Bank in Brooklyn had gone south. Three bank employees were being held as hostages.

Chris Voss and the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit had been called to the location. The Negotiation Operation Center (NOC) had been set up in a building across a narrow street from the Chase branch. 

“The word when we came on the scene was that this was going to be cookie-cutter, by the book, short and sweet,” Chris writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. “We arrived on the scene to take a surrender, but the situation went sideways almost immediately. Everything we assumed we knew was wrong.”

What is one of the biggest mistakes we make in any negotiation?  

Being so preoccupied with the arguments that support our position that we fail to listen attentively. 

“For those people who view negotiation as a battle of arguments,” Chris writes, “it’s the voices in their own head that are overwhelming them. When they’re not talking, they’re thinking about their arguments, and when they are talking they’re making their arguments.”

In one of the most cited research papers in psychology, George A. Miller found that at any given moment, the human brain can only process about seven pieces of information in our conscious mind.  

“In other words, we are easily overwhelmed,” Chris notes.

In many negotiations, both sides focus exclusively on their arguments and point-of-view. Chris calls it “a state of schizophrenia: everyone just listening to the voice in their head (and not well, because they’re doing seven or eight other things at the same time). It may look like there are only two people in a conversation, but really it’s more like four people all talking at once.”

2: So what does Chris recommend to calm down our racing minds?  

“Instead of prioritizing our argument—in fact, instead of doing any thinking at all in the early goings about what we’re going to say—make our sole and all-encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say.”

This belief is one of the reasons FBI negotiators always work in teams. “The thinking behind this policy was that all these extra sets of ears would pick up extra information. In some standoffs, we had as many as five people on the line, analyzing the information as it came in, offering behind-the-scenes input and guidance to our man on the phone.” 

Some of Chris’s students have questioned this tactic. “Seriously, do you really need a whole team to . . . hear someone out?” 

The short answer? Yes.  

“It’s really not that easy to listen well,” Chris observes. “We are easily distracted. We engage in selective listening, hearing only what we want to hear, our minds acting on cognitive bias for consistency rather than truth.”

3: When we listen well, our counterparts begin to feel “safe enough to talk and talk and talk some more about what they want,” writes Chris.  

While they talk about what they want, we listen for what they actually need—be it monetarily, emotionally, or otherwise.  

“Wants are easy to talk about, representing the aspiration of getting our way, and sustaining any illusion of control we have as we begin to negotiate,” Chris notes. “Needs imply survival, the very minimum required to make us act, and so make us vulnerable.”

But we don’t start with wants or needs. We start by listening: “Making it about the other people,” Chris writes, “validating their emotions, and creating enough trust and safety for a real conversation to begin.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Think back on a recent negotiation. Did I prioritize listening or making my case?

Action: Practice listening well in my next negotiation or conversation.

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