1: Chris Voss and the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit were stuck.  

They were five hours into a negotiation with bank robbers who had taken three hostages at a Chase Bank in Brooklyn.  

The year was 1993.  The problem?  They were limited by the negotiating approach that hostage negotiators were using at the time, Chris writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.  

“We were in too much of a hurry, driving too hard toward a quick solution; trying to be a problem solver, not a people mover,” Chris recalls.  “Going too fast is one of the mistakes all negotiators are prone to making.”

When we are in a hurry, focused on reaching an agreement quickly, “people can feel as if they’re not being heard and we risk undermining the rapport and trust we’ve built,” Chris notes.  “There’s plenty of research that now validates the passage of time as one of the most important tools for a negotiator.  When [we] slow the process down, [we] also calm it down.  After all, if someone is talking, they’re not shooting.”

The lieutenant in charge turned to Chris and asked him to take over as lead negotiator.  “Basically, it was the only strategic play at our disposal that didn’t involve an escalation in force,” Chris writes.

Chris began to talk to the lead hostage-taker.

“Hey, what happened to Joe?” the bank robber demanded.

In this tense situation, Chris intentionally focused on one thing.  

And it’s likely not what we’d expect.

“When deliberating on a negotiating strategy or approach, people tend to focus all their energies on what to say or do, but it’s how we are (our general demeanor and delivery) that is both the easiest thing to enact and the most immediately effective mode of influence,” he suggests.  

“Our brains don’t just process and understand the actions and words of others but their feelings and intentions too, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.”

2: Where did Chris put his focus?  His voice.  

Imagine a late-night FM DJ.  Deep.  Slow.  Reassuring.  “The voice of calm and reason,” he writes.

We can use our voices to signal our mindset and our intention.

“When we radiate warmth and acceptance, conversations just seem to flow,” Chris notes.  “When we enter a room with a level of comfort and enthusiasm, we attract people toward us.  Smile at someone on the street, and as a reflex they’ll smile back.  Understanding that reflex and putting it into practice is critical to the success of just about every negotiating skill there is learn.”

Chris notes there are three tones we can use in a negotiation.  

First, the direct or assertive voice.

“Forget the assertive voice for now, except in very rare circumstances,” he recommends.  “Using it is like slapping yourself in the face while you’re trying to make progress.” Why?  We are signaling dominance to our counterpart, who will “either aggressively, or passive-aggressively, push back against attempts to be controlled.”

The second alternative is our “go to:” The positive/playful voice.  This voice is our default in any negotiation.  “It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person,” Chris notes.  Our “attitude is light and encouraging.  The key here is to relax and smile while we’re talking.  A smile, even while talking on the phone, has the impact tonally that the other person will pick up on.”

One person who used this approach successfully was the girlfriend of a negotiating instructor.  “She approached each encounter as a fun game, so that no matter how aggressively she pushed, her smile and playful demeanor primed her merchant friends to settle on a successful outcome,” Chris writes.  “When people are in a positive frame of mind, they think more quickly, and are more likely to collaborate and problem-solve (instead of fight and resist).  It applies to the smile-er as much as to the smile-ee: a smile on your face, and in your voice, will increase your own mental agility.”

3: But five hours into the negotiation with the hostage-takers in Brooklyn, “playful” clearly wasn’t working.

Time for option three.  The late-night FM DJ voice.  We talk slowly and clearly.  We are self-assured.    

Chris suggests we make a “a downward-inflecting statement, in a downward-inflecting tone of voice.”  

Because when we end a sentence by inflecting upward, we invite a response.  We’ve suggest uncertainty.  We’ve made a statement that sounds like a question.  Which encourages our counterpart to take the lead.  

In contrast, when we use the late-night FM DJ voice, we send a message that we have everything covered.

“It’s the same voice I might use in a contract negotiation, when an item isn’t up for discussion,” Chris writes.  “If I see a work-for-hire clause, for example, I might say, ‘We don’t do work-for-hire.’ Just like that, plain, simple, and friendly.  I don’t offer up an alternative, because it would beg further discussion, so I just make a straightforward declaration.”

Which is how Chris played it with the bank robber that day.  

“Joe’s gone.  You’re talking to me now,” Chris said.  Done deal.

We “can be very direct and to the point as long as we create safety by a tone of voice that says I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s figure things out.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Think back on a recent negotiation.  Was I in a hurry?  Focused on reaching an agreement quickly?

Action: In my next negotiation or conversation, focus on slowing things down.  Experiment with using my late-night FM DJ voice.

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