In the early 2000s, whenever an American was kidnapped overseas, the FBI would turn to Christopher Voss. The agency's lead international hostage negotiator successfully convinced terrorists in the Philippines, guerrilla soldiers in the Colombian jungle, and professional kidnappers in Haiti to let their hostages go. After leaving the FBI, Voss started his own consultancy, the Black Swan Group, to improve executives' bargaining skills.
At Inc.'s iCONIC conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Voss told the audience that all negotiations are the same, regardless of the details. Every successful negotiator--whether in a hostage situation or a corporate boardroom--follows three guiding principles. Here's what you need to know.
1. Make it clear you see the other side
Voss said it's important to let your counterpart know you understand the situation from their side without relying on empty phrases like "I understand what you're going through." Empathy is key. When negotiating with professional kidnappers, for instance, he would think about what they did not as a horrific, evil thing, but as a business--they were simply in it for the cash. With terrorists, he said, he recognized they were fighting for ideology.
"Everyone is asking themselves, 'How will you help me?'" Voss said. If you can see their side, you'll be in a much better position to answer that question.
2. Get them to say no
"We're all taught that 'getting to yes' is the goal in negotiations, but 'yes' is always a trap," Voss said. Everyone knows they're being manipulated when someone tries to get them to say yes--if you can get someone to agree to small things, you can probably get them to agree to bigger ones.
But what if you try to get people to say no? Ask questions like "Do you want me to fail?" or "Is it ridiculous to say that we could both get what we want?" (For a good example, watch Ronald Reagan's speech a week before Election Day in 1980, when he urged Americans to ask themselves, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" before casting their ballot.) This method flips the conventional way most people ask questions, which will cause your counterpart's defenses to drop.
The last principle is to conduct a negotiation in a way that shows you respect your counterpart. To pull off a negotiation in the Philippines, Voss related, he coached a member of the police department to talk with a terrorist directly. At the end of the negotiation, the terrorist let the American go and didn't collect the $10 million he was demanding. A few days later, the terrorist called the police officer, asking if he got promoted.
Voss says if you're good at negotiating, your counterpart will not hold any ill will toward you. "They should want to call and say how you did a good job," he said.