It's one thing to negotiate an end to a hostage situation when you're working for the FBI.

But it's another thing entirely to negotiate when you travel: say, a flight upgrade, or an earlier check-in time, or to figure out how to be the one person on line at the car rental counter who actually gets their reservation fulfilled.

Is the life-and-death hostage negotiation is more serious? Sure. But, which scenario is more likely to come in handy for you? 

That's why I paid attention recently when former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss sat down with the New York Times's Elaine Glusac to discuss travel negotiations. 

At a conceptual level, there's not much difference. As Voss put it a couple of years ago, when my colleague Justin Bariso interviewed him for his book, EQ Applied:

"The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. It involves taking steps, and each step becomes the foundation for the next. It's about building rapport--and that requires empathy. And one step leads to another, which then puts you in a position to influence others." 

Here are five key steps Voss described to use FBI negotiation techniques when you're traveling-and get better service as a result.

1.    Be casual and friendly.

Don't ask right away. Instead, be "friendly and playful," as Voss put it.

Think about both the words you use and the tone you convey. The person you're dealing with will develop an impression of you before you get more than a few words out of your mouth.

"Never be mean to someone who can hurt you by doing nothing," Voss suggested. "If you're good, they'll be delighted to do for you whatever they can."

2.    Set up opposite expectations.

OK, I would have probably gotten the "be friendly" advice, but now Voss suggests something counterintuitive: Set the customer service agent up to think that you're going to become entirely unreasonable.

"You want to say something like, 'I'm getting ready to make your day incredibly difficult,'" Voss suggested. Of course, you want to follow this up by making a request that won't actually make their day difficult at all.

"They imagine way worse than what you end up asking for," he continued. "But, with a positive vibe, there's no downside. Wherever I go is upside."

3.    Show them that you can see things through their eyes.

Your next phrase should demonstrate that you understand the customer service agent's fear. Characterize yourself as the person you think they least want to deal with.

"You disarm their concerns with empathy. You can say, 'I'm a self-serving, predictable traveler demanding the world,'" Voss suggested.

You're doubling down on what you did in Step 2 now, as well: showing that no matter what you come out with next, it's nothing anywhere near as demanding as wherever their imagination just took them.

4.    Give them a chance to say "no."

Now, you're going to ease into wording your request in the best possible way. That involves starting with a question that they can answer "no" to.

Voss suggests: 

  • Don't say something like: "Please, can I have a later check out?" 
  • Instead, say something like: "Would it be a ridiculous idea if I asked to check in early with no fee?" 

The goal is to get them to say no, so they'll later be more comfortable saying yes.

"A no-oriented question is designed to let the person behind the counter feel safe and secure," Voss explained. "You haven't made them feel badgered. As long as you're playful, you can keep asking."

5.    Deal with bad news in an unexpected way.

Glusac offered a scenario in which you're not asking for something you haven't paid for, but instead learning that something you did legitimately expect (say, a rental car you reserved) isn't available.

Voss's suggestion: Take the blame to throw them off guard, even though it's not your fault.

"Say 'Oh, I'm sorry,' because they are expecting you to yell at them," he said.

Ultimately, you want to put them in a position where they recognize that your position is untenable -- the car that isn't available, or the airplane seat or hotel reservation that suddenly evaporated, and you can ask: How am I supposed to accept that?

"We refer to this as 'forced empathy,'" Voss continued. "The Brits say you can be as rude as you want as long as you're polite by it. There's so much magic in the tone of your voice."