The Secret to Gaining the Upper Hand in Negotiations, with a Former FBI Negotiator

Ex-FBI crisis negotiator Chris Voss explains the golden question that will give you the upper hand in a negotiation.

Chris Voss:  The secret to gaining the upper hand in negotiations is giving the other side the illusion of control. And the illusion of control is typically best given with either questions that begin with the words what or how. Well what and how should be the form of nearly any question where you're trying to gather information. And it's actually one of the ways we say no. The first and best way to say no to anyone is how am I supposed to do that? Now the other side actually has no idea as to the number of things you've done with them at the same time. You conveyed to them you have a problem. It's something that we also referred to as forced empathy because one of the reasons why we exercise tactical empathy is because we want the other side to see us fairly. We want them to see our position; we want them to see the issues we have; we want them to see the constraints that we have.

And when you say to somebody, "How am I supposed to do that?" You make them take a look at your situation before they respond. And they think about it in a number of different ways. And a number of different people I've coached through negotiations who have felt completely helpless, they felt completely taken hostage, in the one instance where a woman thought she was taken hostage to the future and she just wasn't getting paid. They called her up to give her more work and we taught her to say, trained her, counseled her to say, "How in my supposed to do that?" They thought about it for a while and they said, "You're right you can't."

I've noticed that response is not word for word directly responsive to her question, what they responded to was they felt like she said to them, I can't do this any more. I've reached my limit. And it's a way to establish a limit in a way that doesn't back the other side into a corner. You really want to be able to let out no a little bit at a time. And the first way to start letting out no as an answer is how am I supposed to do that? Now ultimately with that question we all imagine that the other side is going to say because I said so or because you have to. That's actually where you ultimately want to be with that question. Because when you say how am I supposed to do that and the other side says because if you want this deal you'll have to, what you've just found out is they've been pushed to the limit on that issue as far as they'll go and that paternal question is, have I gotten everything I could that was on the table?

That's a great way to find out whether or not you've gotten everything you could on that particular term. Because the other side most angry response is because you have to, which is not them walking away. It's not them terminating the deal. It's not them giving you any more of an ultimatum; it's them saying no I've got no more room to give without the negotiations breaking off. So giving the other side the illusion of control while signaling limits, it's a great way to stay in the conversation and find out that you're not leaving anything on the table. I was coaching a real estate negotiation recently and the agent was trying to lease a very expensive home in the Hollywood Hills. And the first time they said to the leasing agent, "How are we supposed to do that," the leasing agent relented on a number of the terms. The conversation continued for a while. They came to another term that was pretty much almost an impasse and the person doing the negotiation says, "How are we supposed to do that?" And the leasing agent said, "If you want to the house you're going to have to do it," which was a confirmation that they've gotten as much as they could've out of that term.
So it's a great way to give the other side the illusion of control. Because many people need to feel like they're in control in a negotiation. And when they feel like they're out of control they're impossible to deal with. So the more you let the other side feel like they're in control the more amenable they are to collaboration. You really don't want people to feel out of control.

Negotiating is hard, and it’s even harder when there is something you really want. The stakes are higher, and you may not know how to get the upper hand. Negotiating takes skill, it's something that a person needs to hone over time through practice, so they can carefully judge when to swoop in for a win and when to hold back. It’s a delicate, instinctual art. But it can definitely be learned.


According to Chris Voss (former FBI crisis negotiator, and founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group), the key to mastering the art of negotiation is empathy. Specifically, it is making the other person empathize with you.

By making someone look at things from your point of view, they have to see what position they’re putting you in. All it takes is one golden question, "How am I supposed to do that?"

As Voss states, these could be the most important seven words you ever say in a negotiation. This is going to throw the ball in your opponent’s court. They will call the next shot -- while subconsciously seeing the situation from your side of the argument. It's sly genius. They have to understand what you’re thinking, and ask themselves if you can actually reasonably do what they expect of you. If they can’t come up with an answer or the answer is ‘I don’t know’ - even better. It highlights their unreasonable request, and gives you the chance to speak and gain valuable ground.

This question also gives your negotiating opponent the illusion of control. Many times, especially dealing with employers, people have the need to be in absolute control. Without the Boss in Charge feeling, they will focus on getting the upper hand, which can make them difficult and stubborn. So instead, give them control by appearing submissive, and asking a question that defers to them for wisdom on how you are supposed to do said thing. It’s a very simple strategy to get people to see multiple points of view, and force them to empathize with who they are negotiating. Once they empathize, it’s harder to ignore your requests.

Chris Voss's book is Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It.

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