1: “Give us the money,” the kidnappers told the nephew of a prominent Haitian political figure, “or your aunt is going to die.”
It was Monday morning in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The year was 2004.
The nephew called the FBI office. Chris Voss, the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator, came onto the line.
“He spoke so fast he had to repeat his story three times before I understood,” Chris writes in his book Never Split the Difference.
Eventually, Chris grasped the basics: The nephew’s aunt had been kidnapped. The kidnappers were demanding a $150,000 ransom.
“In the lawless, chaotic wake of the rebellion that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti surpassed Colombia as the kidnap capital of the Americas,” Chris writes.
“In fact, with between eight and ten people abducted every day in the Caribbean nation of eight million, Haiti earned the dubious honor of having the highest kidnapping rate in the world.”
Most of the seizures occurred similarly: ski-mask-clad kidnappers with guns would encircle a house or a car and take hostage a vulnerable victim—usually a woman, child, or older person.
“So you pay the ransom and they release your relative, right?” Chris writes.
“There’s always leverage,” he observes. “Negotiation is never a linear formula: add X to Y to get Z. We all have irrational blind spots, hidden needs, and undeveloped notions.”
Chris and his team would focus on “how many of the four questions—What? Who? When? And how?—were addressed” by the kidnappers.
“When people issue threats, they consciously or subconsciously create ambiguities and loopholes they fully intend to exploit. . . Increasing specificity on threats in any type of negotiations indicates getting closer to real consequences at a real specified time.”
For example: “Give us the money or your aunt is going to die” is an early stage threat, as the time isn’t specified,” Chris observes.
Using this strategy, the FBI agents began noticing patterns with the kidnappings.
“First, Mondays seemed to be especially busy,” Chris writes, “as if the kidnappers had a particularly strong work ethic and wanted to get a jump on the week.
“And, second, the thugs grew increasingly eager to get paid as the weekend approached.”
Why was this?
“By listening closely to the kidnappers and debriefing the hostages we rescued, we discovered something that should have been obvious,” Chris reflects: “These crimes weren’t politically motivated at all. Instead, these guys were garden-variety thugs who wanted to get paid by Friday so they could party through the weekend.”
Understanding these patterns, the FBI agents were able to capitalize.
“First, if we let the pressure build by stalling the negotiations until Thursday or Friday,” Chris observes, “we could cut the best deal.”
Second? “Because you didn’t need anything close to $150,000 to have a good weekend in Haiti, offering a lot, lot less would suffice.”
2: In the case of the nephew’s aunt, the family could not pay $150,000. Instead, the nephew told Chris they could pay between $50,000 and $85,000.
“But since learning that the ransom was just party money, I was aiming much lower: $5,000,” Chris writes. “We were not going to compromise. It was a matter of professional pride.”
Chris advised the nephew each step of the way, starting with one of his go-to questions: “How am I supposed to do that?”
The power of this open-ended question is that it says “No” without actually saying “No.”
The kidnapper responded by making another threat and demanding the $150,000 payment.
“That’s when I had the nephew subtly question the kidnapper’s fairness,” Chis writes.
“I’m sorry,” the nephew responded, “but how are we supposed to pay if you’re going to hurt her?”
Which brought up the topic of the aunt’s death. The one thing the kidnappers did not want to happen.
“They needed to keep her unharmed if they hoped to get any money,” Chris writes. “They were commodity traders, after all.”
3: To this point, Chris had advised the nephew not to talk about money.
“This game of attrition finally pushed the kidnappers to name a number first,” Chris writes. “Without prodding, they dropped to $50,000.”
Once again, Chris advised the nephew to stay firm and ask more open-ended questions.
“How can I come up with that kind of money?” he told him to ask.
The kidnapper dropped the ransom to $25,000.
It was finally time for a counter-offer: An extremely low anchor of $3,000.
“The line went silent and the nephew began to sweat profusely, but we told him to hold tight,” Chris recalls. “This always happened at the moment the kidnapper’s economic reality got totally rearranged.”
The kidnapper seemed “shell-shocked,” Chris notes. “But he went on. His next offer was lower, $10,000.”
Chris advised the nephew to utilize another tactic: Respond with “a strange number that seemed to come from deep calculation of what his aunt’s life was worth: $4,751.”
The kidnapper lowered his price again: $7,500.
Another tactic: Reference a non-monetary item: “We had the cousin ‘spontaneously’ say he’d throw in a new portable CD stereo and repeated the $4,751. The kidnappers, who didn’t really want the CD stereo felt there was no more money to be had, said yes.”
The family made the $4,751 payments six hours later, and the aunt came home safely.
Reflection: What strategies and tactics can I learn from Chris Voss’s story above?
Action: Journal my answer to the question above. Commit to experimenting with what I’ve learned.