1: “It was 1998 and I was standing in a narrow hallway outside an apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of a high-rise in Harlem,” Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

Chris was the head of the New York City FBI Crisis Negotiation Team. At least three heavily armed fugitives were inside. Earlier in the week, the fugitives had fired automatic weapons in a shoot-out with a rival gang.  

Members of the New York City FBI SWAT team were positioned behind Chris. Snipers had been deployed onto the rooftops of nearby buildings with rifles focused on the windows of the apartment.

“In tense situations like this, the traditional negotiating advice is to keep a poker face. Don’t get emotional,” Chris writes. “Until recently, most academics and researchers completely ignored the role of emotion in negotiation. Emotions were just an obstacle to a good outcome.

“Separate the people from the problem” was the standard recommendation.

Really? How do we separate people from the problem when emotions are the problem?  

“Especially when they are scared people with guns,” Chris notes.  

“Emotions are one of the main things that derail communication. Once people get upset at one another, rational thinking goes out the window.”

Chris recommends a different strategy: “Instead of denying or ignoring emotions, good negotiators identify and influence them. They are able to precisely label emotions, those of others and especially their own. And once they label the emotions they talk about them without getting wound up. For them, emotion is a tool. Emotions aren’t the obstacles, they are the means.”

2: “It looks like you don’t want to come out,” Chris said, using his late-night FM DJ voice.  

Because they didn’t have a phone number to call, Chris had to speak to the fugitives through the apartment door.

“It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing. It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.” 

Chris didn’t give orders. He didn’t ask what they wanted. Instead, he imagined himself in their place. He repeated the same lines over and over.  

For six long hours, there was no response.

But then the front door of the apartment slowly opened. “A woman emerged with her hands in front of her,” Chris recalls. “I continued talking. All three fugitives came out. None of them said a word until we had them in handcuffs.”

Chris wanted to know: “Why did they come out after six hours of radio silence? Why did they finally give in?”

All three responded the same way: “We didn’t want to get caught or get shot, but you calmed us down,” they said. “We finally believed you wouldn’t go away, so we just came out.”

3: Instead of avoiding or denying the emotions at play that day, Chris made it his business to address them directly. He calls this approach “tactical empathy.”

He defines empathy as “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.” Which is an “academic way of saying that empathy is paying attention to another human being, asking what they are feeling, and making a commitment to understanding their world.”

Note that Chris does not say anything about agreeing with the other person’s values or beliefs.  

“That’s sympathy,” he writes. “What I’m talking about is trying to understand a situation from another person’s perspective.”

Empathy is not about “being nice” or “agreeing with the other side,” Chris notes. “It’s about understanding them. Empathy helps us learn the position the enemy is in, why their actions make sense (to them), and what might move them.”

Because the more we know about someone, the more power we have.

He likens this approach to “emotional intelligence on steroids.” When we practice tactical empathy, we aim to understand the feelings and the mindset of the other party at that moment. We listen for what is behind those feelings so we can increase our influence in what comes next.

“Getting to this level of emotional intelligence demands opening up our senses, talking less, and listening more,” he surmises. We “can learn almost everything we need—and a lot more than other people would like us to know—simply by watching and listening, keeping our eyes peeled and our ears open, and our mouth shut.” 

In a negotiation or heated conversation, we often fall into the trap of focusing on our goals and our perspective.

That’s a big mistake. The best negotiators “are tuned in to the other party—their audience.”

“Think about the therapist’s couch,” he notes. “A soothing voice, close listening, and a calm repetition of the words of your ‘patient’ can get us a lot further than a cold, rational argument. It may sound touchy-feely, but if we can perceive the emotions of others, we have a chance to turn them to our advantage.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Think back on a recent negotiation. Was I focused on my argument or understanding the other party’s perspective and emotions?

 Action: Pay attention to someone who’s talking nearby. Or watch a person being interviewed on TV. As they talk, imagine we are that person. Visualize being in the position they describe. Imagine it if I was actually there. Use as much detail as possible.  

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