Chris Voss

Former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator, Chris Voss, says negotiating like your life depends on it could radically change your chance of a better outcome in just about any scenario.

Now running negotiation firm Black Swan, Chris Voss reveals the strategies he used throughout his career in the FBI, which also included working with the New York City Division and the terrorist task force, to defuse criminals and hostage-takers out of high-stake and deadly situations.

Voss describes the art of negotiation as an emotional experience.

“Human beings are emotional creatures, they’re not robots. Human beings make deals based on what they care about, which means they’re driven by emotions, so that’s where we need to start.”

The author of Never Split the Difference, a guide to negotiating like your life depends on it, explains that the overarching driver for sealing the deal in any situation, is figuring out what it is that people can’t live without.

“I need to figure out what you’re afraid of losing. Because what you’re afraid of losing is going to drive you to the transaction,” he shares, adding that in order to do this, you have to become a good sounding board.

“People want to feel heard and understood,” Voss says.

“You’re going to catch a bank robber off guard by asking if they’re ok. That’s going to startle them and they’re going to wonder what you will say next. That’s the key to hostage negotiations and it’s the key to business negotiations,” he explains.

On top of that, Voss says it’s important to take a back seat.

“The other person is burning to talk just as much as you’re burning to talk. So, if you step back and let them talk first, on some level they will be enormously grateful and that’s the gratitude that pays tremendous dividends in all negotiations.”

Voss, who’s also a university professor, says we should all start practicing letting the other side go first.

“Just pick an hour a day that you’re going to let other people have their say before yours and you’ll be shocked at how much information you get.

“The way you practice letting them go first is by turning it into a game you have with yourself. You want to really listen to the other person and start taking an educated guess about what they’re really after.”

According to the former FBI agent, negotiation is about guiding the conversation in a direction that enables you to gather information by provoking responses from the other party rather than asking direct questions.

“You almost want to trigger an answer. For example, you can say things like, ‘It seems like you’ve got something on your mind’.

“Or, ‘It seems like you’ve given this a lot of thought…’

“Avoid pushing someone to say ‘yes’,” Voss says.

It might seem counterintuitive but he believes getting people to say ‘no’ in a way that works in your favour is a more desirable outcome, by asking questions like, ‘Is it ridiculous that this could work for you?’

It’s about carefully crafting questions that are likely to lead to a desired outcome for both parties.

On top of that, maintaining long term strong relationships is crucial when it comes to good negotiating.

“The other side will sense if you’re planning to do a hit and run. If you take as much as you can and leave the other party high and dry people aren’t going to trust you. And you can’t have a long-term relationship without trust,” Voss says.

“Put it this way if I’m in a negotiation with a bank robber and I strike a good deal with him so he surrenders and eventually serves time in jail, what’s going to happen when he gets out? There’s every chance he’ll go and rob another bank.

“I met a guy in Los Angeles a while ago who almost went to jail for life because he got arrested for robbing banks three times! He just keeps doing it. And some bad guys are going to keep doing it until the day they die, so hostage negotiators have to build a relationship that will stand the test of time. Their reputations have to precede them because if a criminal has a bad experience with a negotiator, the trust is gone. If they don’t feel good about the last interaction and they reoffend again, somebody’s probably going to die.”

Most importantly though, Voss says a deal should never be rigged.

“A negotiation shouldn’t be one sided at all because if it is one sided, they’re never going to want to deal with you again and you can’t stay in any business long if you burn everyone you work with. What people want more than anything else is to feel like they were treated fairly and the key word there is feel.”

He also says that while it’s important to know what you want going into a negotiation, you should never be too fixed on a particular outcome.

“Never be so sure of what you want that you wouldn’t take something better. How that plays out is, if you get really focused on your outcome, it gives you tunnel vision and there’s a really good chance you’re going to miss the clues of the better deal.”

Voss believes as long as people are involved, you can use the art of negotiation in any situation.

“I mean…what’s the difference between a terrorist and a teenager?” he laughs.

To help people brush up on their negotiation skills, Voss and his team at Black Swan have a whole host of information, articles and resources on their website at, as well as Voss’ book Never Split the Difference, which is an in depth look at the tools and techniques required to become world-class negotiator.

“Ultimately, if you’re a good negotiator you save time, you have happier relationships and you have the ability to create bigger opportunities and better outcomes in business and in life,” Voss says.

Christopher Voss