Behavior change is hard.

“Consider the typical patient with severe coronary heart disease recovering from open-heart surgery,” Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference

“This surgery isn’t a cure,” the surgeon tells the patient. “The only way to truly prolong your life is to make the following behavior changes . . .” 

“Yes, yes, yes, of course, Doctor! This is my second chance. I will change!” the patient declares.

Then what happens? 

“Study after study has shown that, no, nothing changes; two years after their operation, more than 90 percent of patients haven’t changed at all,” writes Chris.

Which helps explain why the FBI’s approach to negotiating with terrorists is so deliberate and intentional. If a doctor can’t get a motivated patient to change their behavior, what’s the likelihood a negotiator will get a terrorist to change theirs? 

And yet they do.

The FBI’s approach is negotiation is rooted in the Behavioral Change Stairway. There are five steps: Active listening, empathy, rapport, influence, and behavioral change.

“If you successfully take someone up [the stairway], each stage attempting to engender more trust and more connection,” Chris writes, “there will be a breakthrough moment when unconditional positive regard is established and you can begin exerting influence.”

Chris believes there are two words at the heart of this strategy. “That’s right.”

2: In August 2000, the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf captured Jeffrey Schilling, a twenty-four-year-old California native traveling near the rebel base on Jolo Island in the southern Philippines.

Chris was assigned to be the FBI’s lead negotiator on the case. At the time, he was a Supervisory Special Agent attached to the FBI’s elite Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU). He worked directly with a Filipino military officer Benjie.

They would negotiate directly with the rebel leader Abu Sabaya who was demanding $10 million for Jeffrey’s release.

“Problem was, Jeff Schilling came from a working-class family,” Chris writes. “His mother could come up with $10,000, perhaps. The United States wasn’t about to pay one dollar. 

“But we would allow a payment to be made if it could be run as a ‘sting’ operation,” Chris notes.

But for months, Abu would not come off the $10 million asking price. 

“He argued that Muslims in the Philippines had suffered five hundred years of oppression, since Spanish missionaries had brought Catholicism to the Philippines in the sixteenth century,” Chris writes. “He recited instances where atrocities had been committed against his Islamic forebears. He explained why the Abu Sayyaf wanted to establish an Islamic state in the southern Philippines. Fishing rights had been violated. 

“You name it, he thought it up and used it.”

Chris and Benjie tried a dozen different tactics. “No matter what approach we took to ‘reason’ with Abu over why Jeffrey had nothing to do with the ‘war damages,’ it fell on deaf ears.

Chris decided to double down on the Behavioral Change Stairway approach: “We were going to use nearly every tactic in the active listening arsenal.”

Here are the strategies Chris instructed Benjie to use:

“A: Effective Pauses: Silence is powerful. We told Benjie to use it for emphasis, to encourage Sabaya to keep talking until eventually, like clearing out a swamp, the emotions were drained from the dialogue.

B: Minimal Encouragers: Besides silence, we instructed using simple phrases, such as “Yes,” “OK,” “Uh-huh,” or “I see,” to effectively convey that Benjie was now paying full attention to Sabaya and all he had to say.

C: Mirroring: Rather than argue with Sabaya and try to separate Schilling from the ‘war damages,’ Benjie would listen and repeat back what Sabaya said.

D: Labeling: Benjie should give Sabaya’s feelings a name and identify with how he felt. “It all seems so tragically unfair, I can now see why you sound so angry.”

E: Paraphrase: Benjie should repeat what Sabaya is saying back to him in Benjie’s own words. This, we told him, would powerfully show him you really do understand and aren’t merely parroting his concerns.

F: Summarize: A good summary combines rearticulating the meaning of what is said and acknowledging the emotions underlying that meaning (paraphrasing + labeling = summary). We told Benjie he needed to listen and repeat the ‘world according to Abu Sabaya.'”

Two days later Abu Sabaya phoned Benjie. Abu spoke. Benjie listened. He followed the script Chris had laid out. 

“He commiserated with the rebel group’s predicament. Mirroring, encouraging, labeling, each tactic worked seamlessly and cumulatively to soften Sabaya up and begin shifting his perspective. Finally, Benjie repeated in his own words Sabaya’s version of history and the emotions that came with that version.” 

Abu was silent on the line for nearly a minute. Finally, he spoke. 

“That’s right,” he said. 

We ended the call. 

What happened next? 

“The ‘war damages’ demand just disappeared,” Chris writes.

“From that point forward Sabaya never mentioned money again. He never asked for another dime for the release of Jeffrey Schilling. He ultimately became so weary of this case and holding the young Californian that he let down his guard. Schilling escaped from their camp, and Philippine commandoes swooped in and rescued him. He returned safely to his family in California.” 

3: Benjie’s phone rang two weeks after Jeff Schilling had escaped. It was Abu Sabaya.

“Have you been promoted yet?” he asked. “If not, you should have been.”

“Why?” Benjie responded.

“I was going to hurt Jeffrey,” Sabaya said. “I don’t know what you did to keep me from doing that, but whatever it was, it worked.”

In June 2003, Sabaya was killed in a shoot-out with Philippine military units.

Looking back on the transcripts of the conversations, Chris realized the power of “That’s right.”

Those words signaled a significant change in the negotiation. “It broke down a barrier that was impeding progress. It created a realization point with our adversary where he actually agreed on a point without the feeling of having given in,” Chris writes.

“That’s right” often leads to the best outcomes.

More tomorrow.


Reflection: What stands out to me about the hostage negotiation above? 

Action: Experiment with the practices Chris recommends: effective pauses, minimal encouragers, mirroring, labeling, paraphrasing, and summarizing. 

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