Personal Growth

A Hostage Negotiator's Three Tips for Bargaining

Let's say you're trying to decide what's for dinner. "I want to have tacos," you say. "I want to have curry," says your spouse. "Do you think that we should just skip dinner?" you ask. "Uh...no," says your spouse. Well, that was probably a little dramatic of you. But the power of "no" can actually go a long way towards bargaining for what you want, according to former FBI hostage negotiator Christopher Voss.

Three Rules for Bargaining

Most of the bargains that we make are for things like higher salaries, lower prices, and the next turn on "Galaga". But in his former job as an FBI hostage negotiator, Voss was literally bargaining for people's lives. So when it comes to the lower-stakes deals that we might want to cut, it's probably handy to keep some of his rules in mind. Here are his suggestions:

  1. Know where your opponent is coming from. It's not about soothing them with platitudes like "I get what you're going through." It's about making the effort to actually do so. When it comes to kidnappers, that means seeing the lives they put at risk as just business, not a horrific act. And when it comes to deciding on dinner, that means seeing curry as rich and flavorful, not unbearably spicy.
  2. Get them to say "no." It's natural to think that in negotiating, you want your opponent to say "yes." But the thing is, they assume you want them to say "yes." When you start negotiating from the opposite direction, it can throw them off and make them more open to talking to you. "Is it ridiculous to say that we could both get what we want?" is something that Voss might have said on the job. And for your dinner negotiation, you could try something like "Should we just make something at home?" instead of a no-dinner ultimatum.
  3. Respect your opponent. It's similar to rule one, but not quite the same. You can't genuinely know where they're coming from if you don't respect them on some level. But respect goes beyond that — if you are negotiating well, your counterpart shouldn't even have any ill will. "They should want to call you and say how you did a good job." So respect the spiciness of the curry, and suggest the spiciest taco on the menu. You'll both go home with full and happy bellies.

One More From the Book

There's another tip that you'll find in Voss's 2016 book "Never Split the Difference". It's kind of a fine distinction, but it's easy to understand. Basically, you don't want your opponent to say "you're right." It makes sense, if you think about. We'll let Voss explain. "Whenever someone is bothering you, and they just won't let up, and they won't listen to anything you have to say, what do you tell them to get them to shut up and go away? 'You're right.'"

But there's something very similar that you could angle for: "that's right." While "you're right" can signal annoyance or dismissal, "that's right" suggests mutual understanding. It means that the two of you have come to a common ground — and even the smallest patch of common ground can be enough to start making agreeable terms.

Want more tips from the master negotiator? Check out "Never Split the Difference", co-written by journalist Tahl Raz.

Negotiation Tips from an FBI Insider

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