How to Think Like an FBI Negotiator? Use Empathy.

Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss sheds light on communication and indirect messages, the value of empathy in business and in life, and when and how to walk away from a deal.

Chris Voss: The best messages in any given negotiation are really implied indirectly, come to the other person based on thinking that you're getting them to do, getting them to get some really solid thought behind their answers. And so a great thing to send someone in an email is have you given up on this project? Because nobody likes to give up on anything, and at the same time nobody wants to say yes to that because they don't know what they're letting themselves in for when they say yes.

You know, and it's interesting because that particular email has restarted negotiations that have seen dead silence for weeks prior to that. And simply sending that email all by itself, and in many cases you can get a response within three to five minutes of reading the email or the text, that's a great way to get things restarted. Now the problem with that is there's a really good chance you contributed to the silence in the first place. And your next move, when they respond, is you've got to get a that's right out of them next because they have to feel like that their communication is being paid attention to.

A summary is designed to let the other side know that you really understand what's going on now and if nothing else at least you understand their position. There are a lot of negotiators that really will give in on a deal because being understood is more important than getting what they want. And there's a particular type in particular, the assertive negotiator, being understood is actually more important to them than actually making the deal. So everybody wants to be understood anyway. Let people know you completely understand where they're coming from and that's the design of a summary, summarizing the facts and how they feel about the facts, and actually if you can summarize their feelings about the facts that are driving them but that they're blind to will make a big difference to them because then they feel really understood that empathy connection is there and they may actually change their mind about what decisions they've made once the empathy has been established.

Chris Voss, former FBI negotiator and current CEO of the Black Swan Group, knows a few things about striking a deal and equally as much about walking away from one that has soured or lost its direction.


Many of us have seen a lead go cold, in our personal and business lives. We have dreamed up collaborations and projects that have fizzled out, whether for a lack of motivation or because two parties have been unable to resolve an issue where cooperation was desperately needed. Voss knows from experience that the best way to negotiate with someone is through indirect messaging, by planting a seed of thought in someone’s mind that gets their thinking to where you’d like it to be. So if you’d like to reopen a deal, or know for sure that it’s dead, he recommends emailing or texting a simple question: Have you given up on this project? No one wants to admit that yes, they have given up, so this question will either lead to a renewal of cooperation, or if they come back with confirmation that they have indeed given up, then at least you move out of limbo, and you can examine your part in where the deal may have gone wrong (it’s rarely one-sided).

Another effective negotiation technique is summarizing. If you are really listening to the other person, and are able to condense their thoughts into a sentence or two, it is a huge acknowledgement of the fact that you understand their position. Voss states that many people – assertive negotiators – would prioritize being understood over making a deal. Being understood is such a basic human driving force, pervading everything from art and music to fashion and our personal relationships, so if you really want to think like an FBI negotiator, it’s not about force, or smarts, or an ace up your sleeve; it’s about empathy. A connection based on empathy is hugely powerful, and demonstrating that you understand someone may actually change their mind about something they seemed so stubborn on.

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

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