in: Career & Wealth, Podcast, Wealth

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #234: Haggling and Deal Making Advice From a FBI Hostage Negotiator


If you’re like most people who grew up in the West, particularly America, negotiation might make you uncomfortable because it’s not really part of the culture. The price someone asks is usually the price we pay.

But negotiation is something all of us will have to do at one time or another. A job salary or car price are two obvious examples that come to mind, but you can also negotiate internet charges, hotel rates, Craigslist deals, and more.

The problem is that the way most folks go about haggling when they do have to is often counter-productive. For example, it’s typically assumed the best way to negotiate is to quickly get to yes and make compromises. But what if the better approach is to make “no” your goal and to never split the difference?

Well, that’s what my guest on the show today argues. And his insights have been field-tested in truly critical situations. His name is Chris Voss, and he’s a former lead international kidnapping negotiator and the author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As if Your Life Depended On It. Today on the show, Chris shares tactics and strategies he developed to better negotiate with kidnappers which also work in the civilian world. And many of his tips run counter to what you’ve probably been taught. If you’re looking to become a better haggler, you’re going to love this episode. It’s packed with tons of actionable advice.

Show Highlights

  • How Chris went from a SWAT officer to an international hostage negotiator
  • Why working for a suicide hotline helped Chris become a better negotiator
  • The types of cases Chris worked on as an FBI hostage negotiator
  • Why bank robberies with hostages (like you see in the movies) are actually really rare
  • How hostage negotiation changed during Chris’ tenure at the FBI
  • The negotiation tip Chris picked up from a drug dealer
  • Why asking for non-starters can be an effective approach to negotiation
  • The assumptions people have about negotiation that make them fail even before they start
  • Why you shouldn’t be the hostage to “yes” in negotiation
  • Why most “yeses” in negotiation are deceptive
  • Why you want people to say “That’s right” and not “You’re right” during a negotiation
  • What tactical empathy is and how to develop it
  • Why repeating the last three words a person said gets them to open up
  • Why “no” can propel the negotiation forward more than “yes”
  • Why asking “how” is the best question to ask during a negotiation
  • The “black swans” in negotiation
  • And much more!

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

Never Split the Difference book cover Chris Voss.

If you’re looking to become a better negotiator in business and life, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Never Split the Difference. I’ve read several books on negotiation and it’s by far the best one I’ve come across. You’ll be able to implement Chris’ advice right away and see results.

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Connect With Chris Voss

Chris’s Website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Negotiation. I feel like most people who grew up in the west, particular America, negotiation might make you uncomfortable because it’s really no part of the culture. The price someone asks is usually the price we pay. Negotiation is something all of us will have to do at one time or another. A job salary, a car price are two obvious examples that come to mind. The problem is the way most folks go about haggling when they do have to negotiate, is that they often do it in a very counter-productive way.

For example, it’s typically assumed the best way to negotiate is to quickly get to yes and make comprises. What if the better approach is to make no your goal, and never split the difference? Well, that’s what my guest on the show today argues in his incisive and field-tested, and truly critical situations. His name is Chris Voss and he’s a former, lead international kidnapping negotiator, and the author of, “Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.”

Today on the show, Chris shares tactics and strategies he developed to better negotiate with kidnappers, that can work in the civilian world. Many of his tips run counter to what you’ve probably been taught. If you’re looking to become a better haggler, you’re going to love this episode. It’s packed with tons of actual advice. Make sure to check out the show notes at for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Chris Voss, welcome to the show.

Chris Voss: Thank you, man, my pleasure to be here. I’m honored to be here.

Brett McKay: All right, so you’re a negotiation expert. Right now you own your own company that consults businesses or business clients on how to negotiate. Before that, you were the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI. First question, how did you get involved with high stakes hostage negotiation in your career?

Chris Voss: I’m happy to get into that, but I want to add a little qualifier on what I am. What I really think of myself as, is a person who’s great at negotiation coaching and consulting. I was just thinking earlier, I will flatter myself to compare myself to Phil Jackson. Phil Jackson, I don’t think he even started for the New York Knicks as a player, but he’s probably arguably the best coach ever, and he coached people … You can be a much better negotiator than me, and I can still help you get better at negotiations.

How I got started at this, was I was your typical … I’m allowed to say, I was a knuckle-dragging SWAT guy. I was on the SWAT team in the FBI, and I had always wanted to be in SWAT. I studied some martial arts in college and ripped up my knee. The knee injury was actually a blessing in disguise. How could that be, that something that bad is good? I was trying out for the FBI’s equivalent of Seals, which is the hostage rescue team, and I hurt my knee again, and I got put back together again, and then I decided I needed to maybe take a job in crisis response, that ultimately wouldn’t have repetitive injuries to it, while they could still put my knee back together. I wanted to be a hostage negotiator.

I went to the woman who was in charge of the hostage negotiation team in New York, and she told me to go away. I asked her advice on how to get in and followed it, much to her shock, and ended up getting in, and started as a hostage negotiator with the FBI.

Brett McKay: Right, I thought that was interesting that what she told you to do was to go sign up, volunteer for suicide hotlines.

Chris Voss: Yeah, yeah. To me, it seems obvious. You ask the right person what to do and then actually do it. When I talked to her and told her I was going to put that story in the book, she said, “I must have told a thousand people to do that, and two people did, and you were one of them.” It was great. I learned about how to really listen and read between the lines with people. Not just read between the lines, because I think a lot of people are good at that, actually good at that. When your gut instinct … When somebody does something and you say to yourself, “Darn it, I knew they were going to do that,” I think that’s us telling ourselves … Our instincts are good, we can read between the lines … just learned how to read between the lines, and then what to say to make a difference in what people are going to do.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. During your time on hostage negotiation team for the FBI, what sorts of cases did you work on?

Chris Voss: We kept a lot of cases out of the media, because we were successful, but I worked on … My first real deal case for the bureau was a bank robbery with hostages in Brooklyn. Even though bank robberies with hostages happen in the movies, and like every other movie, every other action film, in real life, they happen in the whole country about once every twenty years. It’s a black swan event, if you will. That went well. Negotiated one of the bad guys out. He surrendered to me personally, and then we got everybody out, we got all the hostages out.

I worked … Then I worked a couple of really small things in New York that were great experiences. There was a teacher that was accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student, and he barricaded himself because he didn’t do anything wrong, but the mere fact that it was a thirteen year old girl, he was horrified that his life, his career was over. We talked … Dobbs Ferry Police Department, Dobbs Ferry, New York talked him out, saved his life, and so then worked a couple of major sieges, worked a DC sniper case in Washington DC, and there was another case in DC, a guy we referred to as tracker man, who shut down the nation’s capital just before the beginning of the second Iraq war, which is kind of like … It was a hallmark, if we did a good job, you didn’t know about it. Very few people knew why we were getting ready to go to war with Iraq, and this guy who claimed to have four bombs shut down the center of Washington DC. We kept him from getting killed too, we talked him out.

Then I worked a bunch of kidnappings around the world, which are really just commodities deals, as horrifying as that sounds. I worked a lot of kidnappings.

Brett McKay: Okay, yeah, I had no idea about the tractor guy. That was in 2013, and I don’t even remember that happening.

Chris Voss: I’m talking about, actually, it was 2003.

Brett McKay: Okay, 2003, excuse me, right.

Chris Voss: Yeah, and I was talking to my son about this the other day because he still lives in the DC area, and he knows tons of people in DC that grew up and lived in DC through the whole time that have no memory of it. We kept it contained, we kept in under control in the news, and we talked him out. Nobody died. The media, if it bleeds, it leads. That’s why the vast majority of the stuff that were my successes didn’t get a lot of publicity, because nobody died.

Brett McKay: That’s good. That’s a success. You got a new book out where you take your years of experience as a high stakes negotiator, working on teams where you’re dealing with these high stakes negotiations, and you show civilians how they can apply these tactics or these skills in regular life, whether in business or their personal lives. It’s called, “Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On it.” Before we get into the nitty-gritty of some of these tactics and skills, I want to talk about … Because I thought it was interesting … You discussed the evolution of negotiation at the FBI and how it changed during your tenure there. Let’s talk about, what were the standard protocols that case agents had followed before you got there, and how did those change as you were involved there and just things evolved at the FBI?

Chris Voss: Yeah, all we really did, really, was just stall for time, and then try to patiently out-power the other side. There’s some success to that because patiently out-powering or having a stronger will in a patient fashion, at least keeps you from open conflict, which is never productive, and even if you get what you want in open conflict, it’s like nuclear war. It leaves toxic waste behind. Even very successful negotiators, I use Donald Trump as an example, Mr. Trump, he has such a tendency in all the negotiation wars that he’s won, that after a while, people in the environment, there’s enough toxic waste … I can’t remember the last time he put up a building in New York City. He’s put up some of the most phenomenal buildings you’ve ever sen in your entire life in New York City, but it’s been thirty years since he’s done that. At least getting out of that open conflict, because it just leaves toxic waste when you beat the other side. They never forget it, and so they don’t want to cooperate in the future.

That was kind of what we were doing in the FBI. We’d gotten out of open conflict in negotiation, but very definitely trying to just bull our way through with a relentless approach. By and large, it wasn’t horrible. The success rate was higher, but we had a … I had a kidnapping go back in the Philippines. The kidnappers didn’t kill our hostages, our hostages ended up dying in a botched rescue attempt and shot by friendly fire. The bottom line is they still didn’t get out. For me, that was the most difficult professional moment of my life. I remember a distinct memory of five-thirty in the morning, getting a call from the Philippines, being told that Martin Burnham was dead, and it was … For me, it was horrible. I think it’s selfish of me to say that it was horrible because it wasn’t my family member that died. As bad as it was for any of us at the FBI who tried very hard to save Martin Burnham’s life, it wasn’t our family member that died. It was nothing compared to what the Burnham family went through.

We had to get better. We did everything we could at that time. We had to get better. Had to, had to, had to get better. It’s either get better or quit. I wasn’t going to quit. That’s when I went back to … Started looking outside of hostage negotiation, and collaborated with the Harvard people, and saw Jim Camp’s book, “Start With No,” which was the seed of a lot of our ideas. I think we very … He has brilliance in that book, and I think we evolved his thinking, and we came to a new approach that was much more … It was actually a lot trickier, leakier, but was more effective. Instead of trying to bull our way through, we came up with some great psychological nuances. You and I were talking earlier, the effectiveness of the, “How,” question. “How am I supposed to do that?” I actually heard a version of that from a drug dealer in Pittsburgh.

Brett McKay: You’ve got to go wherever, whatever works, you’ve got to take it.

Chris Voss: Yeah, so one of my negotiation mentors is someone I never met, a drug dealer in Pittsburgh whose girlfriend was kidnapped. The famous line that he said, “Hey, dawg, how do I even know she’s all right?” That flipped the entire dynamic of that kidnapping. I was looking for the answer at that time, and I realized it was right in front of us and stuff we already knew about … It was something we knew about, but we just changed how to apply it. A new approach to a lot of different ideas, nobody ever thought to themselves, “How do I … Can I put up a boundary in the negotiation and stop the other side in their tracks just by asking them how?” It stops people dead in their tracks.

Brett McKay: Right. I thought it was interesting with that, before the … Instead of asking, “How do I know if the person’s still alive,” FBI would be like … As these questions like, “What’s her grandma’s maiden name,” or, “What’s the name of her first pet?” Sort of the like the bank security questions, and that’s how you’d figure out if the person was okay.

Chris Voss: Yeah, yeah. We did that in the kidnapping, in all the previous kidnappings, and the one that went bad, the one that really bothered me about that was, that wouldn’t get us anywhere. It would prove somebody was alive and wouldn’t get us anywhere, and in the midst of that case in the Philippines, it comes to my attention that the hostages have been overheard on the phone, but not our phone. I remember kind of freaking out about that. I’m like, “What in the world? Why is this going on and how does this happen?”

I talked to my boss at the time, Gary Nester, great guy, and he said, “Well, a hostage is never on a phone unless it’s for proof of life.” We never got anybody on the phone. We didn’t even bother asking because we knew if we asked, the bad guys would say no, so don’t ask, because they’re going to say no, which is another assumption that I now realize is wrong, and a fallacy in the approach. Asking for non-starters can be a very smart thing to do, which most people are horrified at doing, and we were horrified for asking for a non-starter. Then, when I found out somebody else who was not this enormously sophisticated, smart FBI hostage negotiator the way I was, was doing stuff that I couldn’t do, that blew me away. That’s why when I heard the drug dealer in Pittsburgh do it, I knew that was the answer.

Brett McKay: Right, just ask straight up, “How? How?” We’ll get more into the detail about how, and other calibrated questions, but let’s start off with this. I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with negotiation, whether it’s in business, or even life, just in negotiation, where you’re talking to your kids. I think part of the problem is that people have assumptions about negotiation, where they go into a negotiation. What are some of these assumptions that people have, that make negotiations go sour or south, or just not work or break down?

Chris Voss: First of all, everybody imagines they’re going to face Donald Trump. When you expect to get into a negotiation, you expect to be faced by a guy that’s going to attack you, a guy or gal that’s going to attack, or that they’re going to try to get the best of you. Two-thirds of us, that makes us very defensive. There’s a portion of the population that actually likes that, and they’ll say, “Yeah, when I negotiate, it’s like getting in the ring with the best, and I’m going to go toe to toe,” and you can see when they even talk about that, they kind of move their arms like they’re getting ready to box. They get very excited.

The first assumption is that’s always going to be the case, and that the other person on the other side of the table’s always going to cut our throat, when in fact, they are a minority of the time. Seventy-five percent of the people we come across are actually trying to work with us to make good deals. We treat everybody that they’re the throat-cuter, that they’re going to kill us. That’s the first problem.

The second problem is that we become to hostage of yes. We’re so desperate to hear yes, and yes has been cited as one of the most beautiful words in the English language, if not any language, that if we don’t hear yes, we’re horrified, we’re desperate for it. That becomes anything that sounds like yes. We want to go, “They said yes!” We have a deal, and then we want to run away before we figure out how. I really try to reaffirm to people over and over again, “Yes is nothing without how.” The real key to the negotiation, what’s the key here? Yes is nothing without how. If you haven’t got how, you haven’t got a deal. Many people stop at yes because they’re in love with yes. They’re seduced by it, and they become the hostage of it, and then they don’t cut a deal.

I was doing a talk one time, CEO brings in his chief corporate council, and they say, “I want you to teach my chief corporate council how to negotiate penalty clauses into deals.” My thought was, “You are in love with yes, and you get a deal, and you think you’ve got a deal with yes, and it always goes sideways, so now you want to know how to punish people because you can’t negotiate a good deal.” That’s all a result of becoming a hostage of yes. I think those are the biggest things.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, yeah, go … Continue off this, “Hostage of yes,” thing. You argue in the book that often times when people do get a yes, it’s a deceptive yes.

Chris Voss: Right.

Brett McKay: What are some of the ways that counter parts of negotiation process use yes as a throw-off, or a deceptive yes?

Chris Voss: Yeah, well, there’s three kinds of yesses. There’s commitment, confirmation, and counterfeit. So many people try this, and there’s actually an academic term for it. It’s called mirror agreement and if you get somebody to say yes several times to the little yesses, they’ll say yes to the big yes. It’s such nonsense, but everybody does it. They try to trap us with yes. Since we’re used to that … The shrewd businessperson, the shrewd negotiator, wants to suck all the intelligence possible out of you. They’ll bring you in under the illusion that you’re going to get to business, so that you can pitch all this competitive information, or market information, which they’ll take from you, and they’ll use it to drive down a price with somebody else they want to actually do business with.

They make it sound like they’re interested, they’ll make it sound like, “Yeah, we’d love to hear what you have to say.” They know that they committed to listen to you, and since you’re in love with yes, you think they committed to making a deal. You will put yourself in a position where you’re highly vulnerable to them because you thought they were dealing with you in good faith. They’ll lead you down this path, and they get very good at it, and then at the end, they’ll either just flat out say, “Well, things have changed …” These people are great with the excuses of, “Well, things have changed and I can no longer do this, and it’s not my fault, but it’s beyond my control.” They’ve sucked up your time, which is your most valuable commodity, by giving the illusion of yes, the counterfeit yes. I think this happens to a lot of people.

The other way they’ll get you is they’ll make you the hostage of the future. That happens a lot, being taken hostage by the future of the business community. “If you come do this for us at the cut-rate, you will be exposed to all this potential business. If you do a good job, you’ll get all this business.” You come and do something for them for free, and then if you didn’t get the follow-up business, which never happens anyway, and then it was your fault, but you did work for them for free. That’s the hostage of the future, or the vision of yes in the future. People kill themselves and kill their resources under this illusion of yes.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You argue, instead of aiming for yes, first off, instead of going for yes, you should go for that’s right. What do you mean by that?

Chris Voss: Yes. The distinguishing, “That’s right,” from, “You’re right,” is the first critical step in that, understanding that when someone looks us in the eye and says, “You’re right,” this is in fact what we do with people we’re trying to preserve the relationship with. We really like them, but we want hem to get off our case. We want them to shut up, and maybe we want them to shut up, smile, and go away. There’s one particular type of person around the world that is the leading practitioner of using, “Yes, you’re right,” in order to get the other side to leave them alone and go away. You know what the world’s pre-eminent practitioner of, “You’re right,” is?

Brett McKay: I’m going to guess kids?

Chris Voss: Husbands.

Brett McKay: Husbands, oh, okay. Right. “Yes, dear, you’re right, dear.”

Chris Voss: You’re right, because we say, “You’re right,” To somebody, and they get this really happy look on their face, and they leave us alone. They stop. They change the subject, or they go away. They’re so happy that they forget … It takes about twenty-four hours to catch on that we’re not going along. I think this is actually … This is a great … This is a thing that sucks up more time and energy within businesses these days, our colleagues saying, “You’re right,” to each other and not getting anywhere.

We found that just the subtle change, getting someone to say, “That’s right,’ to us, there’s a different change. There’s something else that happens, here, because when somebody says, “That’s right,” they put out something is the complete truth. What they just heard is the truth. That’s where they can embrace it. When someone is saying, “You’re right,” They say, “Okay, your solution.” What they’re really saying is, “I can’t argue with you right now, but it’s not my solution, it’s not the truth, it’s your truth.” I’m figuratively putting the hand up in your face, and I’m not accepting it, but when they say, “That’s right,” bang. Crazy things happen.

It triggers and epiphany in the person that says it. They feel bonded to us at the moment. Excuse me. They feel bonded to us in that moment, and every single time … This is across cultures … This has happened … I’ve seen it in Asia, I’ve seen it in Africa, Korea, and a Korean company was negotiating with his boss and got a, “That’s right,” out of him, and his boss admitted some deeply personal things to him right after he said, “That’s right.” This guy was a student in one of my classes and he said, “Thank god we were on the phone because my mouth was open. No one in my culture, never ever, does a superior admit those sort of personal things to a subordinate.” When he admitted all these personal things after saying, “That’s right,” he then turned around and supported him for his promotion.

There’s something that makes people step towards us, when we … You have to say it in a way that almost sounds like you’re trying to talk them into their position. You feel this way, because … If you say it almost counter to your interest, how they feel about it, that’s when then the big steps take place.

Brett McKay: You’re saying to get to, “That’s right,” you have to do this what you call active-listening or tactical empathy, right?

Chris Voss: Yeah, it’s a very tactical … We’ve taken active-listening … This is not your grandfather’s active listening. This is not the ’70s feel good, give everybody a hug stuff. This is actually a very mercenary approach, because in a hostage negotiation, I learned enough about the specific emotions to look for, and how to take a tactical approach to empathy, to reinforce what works for you and to diminish what doesn’t work for you. You want to nurture the positives in the relationship, that positively move you towards and agreement, and you want to diminish and diffuse and preempt the negatives. In a very counter-intuitive way. You do it by observing it, which sounds like, “What good is that going to do? That sounds stupid.” There’s actually brain science data and experiments now that show that when you observe the negative, the part of the brain that magnifies negative thoughts, the electrical activity in that part of the brain diminishes.

It’s the difference between a person saying, “I know I seem like a jerk. I know seem like I’ve been unfair for you. I know it seems this proposition is very self-centered.” As opposed to, “I don’t want you to think I’ve been a jerk. I don’t want you to think I’ve been self-centered. I don’t want you to think this proposition is unfair to you.” Those are denials, and denial magnify negatives. Just flat-out observing it, which is a very tactical approach, makes them diminish every single time. This is so effective in deals …

If you and I were in a negotiation, I’m going to pitch you on something that I know you’re not going to like, the first thing I’m going to say to you is, “I’ve got a lousy proposition for you.” I’m going to shut up and wait for you to respond. Every time I’ve used that, the other person has hesitated and said, “Well, a lousy proposition is better than no proposition, what have you got?” When somebody says that to you, they are completely open hearing what you have to say. They’ve already said they’re willing to consider it.

Brett McKay: Right, so you’re doing some anchoring there, a bit, lowering their expectations in a way.

Chris Voss: That’s a really good point. That’s exactly it. You threw them an anchor of low expectations out there, and since in a vague sort of way, I’ve allowed them to create those low expectations … What we do to ourselves is always worse than what happens in real life, so the expectations that they’ve created are always lower than what I’m going to throw out, so they’re actually relieved when I come back with something that’s not as bad as what they’ve braced themselves for.

I’ve used a person’s inner voice that makes things worse than they really are to my advantage. I’ve never had anybody say, “That was worse than I expected.” Every single time, they take their expectations … They anchor themselves much lower than anything I’ve ever come at them with. That’s a really good point. It is an anchoring of expectations, and they did it for me.

Brett McKay: Let’s get into some specific tactics of active listening, so you can use tactical empathy. You were defining tactical empathy, you said, “This is not your grandpa’s empathy.” I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding empathy that you feel the same way as the person. If they’re sad, you feel sad. If you’re dealing with a drug dealer, you feel their sense of injustice. It’s not that, it’s just, you understand it. You’re inside their head, you can see where they’re coming from.

Chris Voss: Right.

Brett McKay: What are some tactics? One of the tactics you mentioned is mirroring. What is mirroring and how do you do that?

Chris Voss: Yeah, what is mirroring? Mirroring is different than what most people think. Most people think it’s, “I’m going to mirror your affect, I’m going to mirror your energy level. I’m going to be a reflection of you.” What mirroring is, as a hostage negotiator, as a business negotiator, is not that at all. It starts with just simply repeating the last one to three words of what someone has just said. That sounds ridiculously stupid, and mechanical, and ineffective, and inauthentic. It is none of those things. It is enormously effective. It’s very easy to do.

The other side always likes it. It connects their thoughts, and it keeps them going, and I’ve seen it used effectively in hostage negotiations. I haven’t talked about this example for a long time, but I remember a long time ago, when Howard Stern was still on public radio. I think Howard Stern is one of the great communicators and one of the great negotiators, because he gets people to talk and he always has. They’ve got a listener on the phone, and it’s one of those guys, the guy is kind of … They used to like to put listeners on the phone and then just ignore them, but this person kept mirroring everything that Howard Stern was saying, and the great communicator couldn’t pull himself away from this person.

Finally Howard Stern says, “Stop repeating everything I say.” The person said, “Everything I say?” He said, “Yeah, you’re repeating everything I say, it’s driving me crazy.” The person said, “Driving you crazy?” He said, “Yeah, you’re driving me crazy, you’re repeating everything I say. You’ve got to stop doing it.” By simply mirroring him, he couldn’t let go, and every time he answered, he’d say more and he’d expand, and he’d go on and on and on. I thought, “If you could do this to a guy who’s used to turning the tables on others and makes a living doing that, you can do it anybody.” It’s ridiculous how effective it is.

Brett McKay: Right, so you just simply repeat the last few words they say and the goal of that is just to keep them talking to you and revealing more information.

Chris Voss: It’s to keep them talking in many places, in many cases, it actually replaces, “What do you mean by that?” I’m a very assertive guy, so if you ask me what I mean by that, I’m going to repeat exactly the same thing that I just said, only louder, kind of like an American overseas. Say it again, only louder, and they’ll understand. I’m working with my director of operations once, and I kept asking him if he’d prepared the notebooks for this training. He said to me, “What do you mean by notebooks?” Because he knew the way I was asking, that what I had in my head was different than what he had in his head. He just asked me in a general question, “What do you mean by that?” And every time he said, “What do you mean by notebooks?” I’d go, “Notebooks, notebooks!”

Finally, he just mirrored to me, “Notebooks?” I said, “Yeah, three-ring binders.” That caused me to reword what I was saying and connect the thoughts in my head, and instead of repeating the exact same thing, I expanded on it and illustrated it in other words. That’s what happens when you mirror someone. The last one to three words, or when you really get good at it, you’ll pick out one to three words in the middle of what they’ve said, but it’s just one to three words, word for word.  The other person will expand and give you more information on that concept, every time.

Brett McKay: Okay, that’s a great tactic there. Let’s go back to this, “Hostage of yes,” Thing. We talked about, instead of trying to get to yes, our first goal should be to get to, “That’s right,” and we can do that through using active-listening, tactical empathy. Earlier you said that people were a hostage of yes, when they actually should also be going … They should be going for, “No.”

We were talking about this earlier, when I was in law school, I took a negotiation class and the textbook we used was, “Getting To Yes.” I’m sure anyone who’s listening to this and they’ve done research on negotiation or taken a class on negotiation, they probably read this book. You argue that the goal shouldn’t be getting to yes, it should be getting to, “No.” Why is no so powerful in propelling the negotiation forward?

Chris Voss: All right, and I’ll make a side comment on, “Getting To Yes,” because I own, “Getting To Yes,” and almost everybody does, but I don’t know anybody that’s sat down and has ever said, “I read it cover to cover.” It’s like reading the dictionary. It’s completely accurate. It’s brilliant intellectually, but it’s a tough read. I think you should have it in your library. It’s a great resource, but it’s a tough read. There’s something crazy when you get somebody to say no.

First of all, the whole idea behind the book by Jim Camp, “Start With No,” is as soon as you let somebody feel free that it’s okay to say no, they feel their autonomy is respected, they’re less defensive, and they’ll collaborate with you, just by making them feel it’s okay to say no. We started to experiment with what happens when you actually get somebody to say no. You’d be stunned at what people are willing to say no to, because it’s protection. It started with Marty E., who’s a negotiator in Pittsburgh. Her boss was getting ready to fire her from the negotiation team, and she was a phenomenal representative of the FBI Pittsburgh as a negotiator, and she knew that if she was removed it would be embarrassing for the office. This guy didn’t care.

She says to him, “Do you want the FBI to be embarrassed?” He answers no. It’s a manipulative question, but since the answer was no, it was okay to say no, because when you say no, you protect yourself. You don’t let yourself in for anything. It’s a psychological process that happens with people when they say no. When my son was seventeen, he’d said, “Dad, can I …” and I would say no before he was finished. As soon I said no, then I would say, “All right, so what was it that you wanted to talk to me about,” because I’d already said no, and now I was willing to listen.

We use this, and I was actually on the phone with a consultant with a client, just a little while ago, and I said, “This guy is making it so hard on you. Ask him if he wants you to not be able to pay your bills. If you can’t pay your bills, you can’t pay him.” The answer to that is no. People will say no to that because they haven’t let themselves in for anything.

I’ve had … I was consulting with a client who was working on … They were creating a job forum in Beverly Hills, and the job description was off. I said, “Sit down and ask them if they want you to fail. Do you want this person in this job to fail?” Because he needed them to see what they had constructed was out of place, but they were in love with the description they came up with. He needed to shock them in a way that would make them feel protected. When you trigger somebody into saying no, it shocks them and they feel protected at the same time, and it moved the action.

A student in my class was working on a Republican fundraising committee where they call people at night and they ask them the three standard yes questions, and then they ask for the donation. The first yes question was, “Would you like to take the White House back … Would you like to see the Republicans take the White House back in November?” They just flipped it to, “Have you given up on taking the White House back in November?” They took each on of those questions that used to be a yes and flipped them to nos, and that night, they got a twenty-three percent higher donation rate on the no questions. No spurs people forward in a way where they feel tremendously protected at the same time. It’s ridiculous how effective it is.

Brett McKay: Yeah, from my own experience .. I get a lot of business pitches. They want to write for me, advertising deals, and the ones that I’m more likely to say yes to are when they end with, “Hey, I understand if you can’t do this or don’t want to do this.” I’m like, “Wow!” I feel free. It’s a protection. I’m more willing to listen to them. It’s kind of silly. I’ve even implemented this on my emails when I make a pitch to someone. I just say, “Here’s my pitch, understand if you have to say no, no hard feelings, don’t worry about it, and that’s it.” I usually get a better response when I leave that gateway open, surprisingly, which is interesting because the counter-intuitive … You’re always told, “Don’t leave a gateway.” You have to funnel it the way you want, but it actually just puts people off.

Chris Voss: Right, right. Once you respect somebody’s autonomy, it changes the dynamic instantly, doesn’t it?

Brett McKay: Right.

Chris Voss: Let me tell you my Jack Welch … Can I tell you my Jack Welch story?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’d love to hear the Jack Welch story.

Chris Voss: All right, so about a year ago, Jack and Suzy Welch are out doing book signings on, “The Real Live NBA.” I’m at a book signing. A book signing for any celebrity, and Jack Welch is absolutely a celebrity. He’s the rock star of American CEOs. Book signings are dangerous places for celebrities. People walk up, they come within arm’s length, you don’t know what this person who’s trying to get his book signed is going to do. You don’t know … Jane Fonda, she got spit in the face at a book signing. They don’t know … I come up to Jack Welch, I’m within arm’s length, they don’t know if I’m going to kiss Jack Welch on the lips, they don’t know what I’m going to do to this guy. They’re very defensive, they couldn’t be more defensive, and they’re trying to let you only be there for long enough for Jack to sign your book, smile for a photo, and move on.

I’m sure in these instances that people are constantly, “This is my opportunity to pitch Jack Welch, ask him to do something, ask him to do something when he answers yes, right?” I want Jack Welch to come speak, see if he’s even willing to speak at the course I teach at USC, so I get in front of him, and I say, “Mr. Welch, is it a ridiculous idea for you to come to speak at the class I teach at USC?” Now, I’m driving for no, and he looks up and to the left, and he gets this extremely intense look on his face. He actually … To me, I don’t know him … I’m told, he has this incredible, when he’s focused, that he has this almost frightening gaze. He almost looks furious to me. He freezes. He doesn’t move, for what to me, seems like an eternity. My first thought is, “I just killed Jack Welch. He just had a stroke. He’s going to die right in front of me. He’s getting ready to fall over, and I’m going to go to jail for giving him a stroke.”

Then his face softens a little bit, he looks back at me and he says, “This is my personal assistant’s name. This is how to get a hold of her. I will let her know you’re going to be in touch with her, and we’ll see if the calendars can sync up.” All because I triggered a no.

Brett McKay: Triggered a no. Go for no. That’s a great tactic to use in negotiation, or just daily life to help persuade people. Let’s talk about this, we talked about this before the show, before we go on recording, about calibrated questioning. I’d never heard of this technique, but I’ve been implementing it. I’ve seen it work. What are calibrated questions, and how do they help draw you closer to negotiating successfully?

Chris Voss: I use the term calibrated because every question you ask is going to trigger an emotional response on the other side. Every single question. If it’s going to trigger a response, are they predictable, and can we then calibrate the emotional response that we want? That’s why the questions are calibrated, for the intended impact.

On our level one, our basics are the how and what questions, because they create a feeling of empowerment on the other side, while you have limited their responses. They have no idea that you’ve limited how they could response because you’ve created this empowerment, and how is beautiful for what we call this process of forced empathy. You are forcing the other side to take a look at you. How and what questions are critical in that.

Most people say the open-ended questions, or the interrogatives, which are reporters questions, who, what, when, why, how, and where … We eliminate almost all of those, especially eliminating why, and focus on how and what. When you say to someone, a great how question that substitutes for no, is, “How am I supposed to do that?” Before people learn to use that question, they think, “Oh my god, I’ve left myself open, I am so vulnerable at this point in time.” You’re not. You have to try it find out. It forces the other side to take a look at you.

The client that I was talking to on the phone earlier, he’s in a business deal where he signed a personal guarantee for a significant amount of money, and until he can pay that personal guarantee, the interest rate, the compounds on it is very high, and the guy’s trying to get him to sign the documents again or be sued, and he says, “How am I supposed to do that?” It stopped the other guy in his tracks. The other guy has all the advantages in the world, and it stopped him in his tracks. If they’re going to propose … If there’s any softness in their position, which is the point of negotiation … How do I push the other side to get all the value out of this, to get every option, without making them so angry that they storm out and they threaten to sue me?

The how question is calibrated to push the other side to the maximum. The worst thing they’ll ever say is, “Because you have to.” Somebody saying, “Because you have to,” that means you’re still in the conversation. They haven’t slammed their hands down on the table and walked out, they haven’t threatened to sue you. They want you to comply, and they’re being still civil in their reaction to you. The how question and versions of it are calibrated to create that response.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah, it’s extremely powerful. The other thing, too, like you mentioned earlier, there’s no deal unless there’s a how. That how question …

Chris Voss: Exactly.

Brett McKay: … Helps you get closer to a deal. Someone could say yes, but they don’t have a how that’s going to happen, then you don’t have a deal.

Chris Voss: Exactly right. Exactly right. That’s actually the way to tell a liar from the guy that just hasn’t thought things through. Either person that you’re dealing with, you’ve got the same problem, they can’t answer how. You use how to deal with a liar, and then either the liar’s going to stop lying or he’s going to go away, and you use the how question with the person who hasn’t thought things through and they think yes is enough, because you’ve got the exact same problem. Without how, you’ve got no deal.

Brett McKay: Right. It’s not just in negotiation, like business negotiations, but just sort of negotiations of life. If you have your boss that comes to you and says, “I need this project done by tomorrow,” and you’ve got a full plate, you could just ask them, “How am I supposed to do this?” And that will force them to empathize with you.

Chris Voss: Right, exactly right. It’s a deferential question, because we used it in kidnapping, and we found that there’s … We had to be deferential in kidnappings, because they’re going to kill the victim. We can’t be assertive, we can’t be demanding, we have to be deferential. We found there was great power in deference. That’s why you can use it with your boss, because you don’t say it to your boss like you think he’s an idiot. You don’t say, “How am I supposed to do that, you dope?” Is what your tone of voice says. You look at the boss and you say, “How am I supposed to do that?” In a deferential tone, and your boss will feel wonderful because you’re being deferential and you’re asking them for help, which makes them feel large and in charge, which is what bosses like.

Brett McKay: Right. That’s awesome. Your company, now, Chris, is called Black Swan. You argue in the book, within negotiation, you have to be on the lookout for black swans. What is a black swan in the context of negotiation?

Chris Voss: Right, right, right. If I may, the company is the Black Swan Group, and that’s the full name of the company, and Black Swan, you have to think two steps to see them, but they’re always there. A black swan is a piece of information that neither side could predict, that if it gets out in the open, it’s going to change everything. The reason they’re always there is because every negotiation you’re in, you will have information that you are holding back from the other side. You know you’ve got cards you’re hiding that they don’t know about. Every negotiation. Which means that’s also true for the other side. Now, the question is where do these cards overlap and what happens on the overlap of the hidden information? That’s where the unknowns are. If we can dig that out through good calibrated questions, through triggering nos, through triggering, “That’s rights,” suddenly crazy stuff happens, that either …

I triggered a black swan in a negotiation not long ago, where I questioned whether or not the deal on the table was a good deal, and when I triggered the black swan, I knew I had a good deal. It would simply reaffirm that you negotiated a good deal, or it may show you a new idea of something you never thought of because neither side thought it was valuable.

I got another negotiation, where we started brainstorming non-monetary terms, and they threw out the possibility of introductions to business people that would be enormously valuable for me. I didn’t even know they knew these people, but because we brainstormed, we started showing each other information that neither one of us had any reason to know the other side held. Those are always worth taking the time to try to find. They’re always worth the extra fifteen minutes to come up with something that could take the deal in a whole new trajectory.

Brett McKay: Right, and I guess the other challenge of that too is just being open to that, being aware that there could be something out there that … Those unknown unknowns, that what’s his … Rumsfeld said. Be aware that they’re there, and be ready to spot them when you do seem them.

Chris Voss: Right, and if you haven’t taken yourself hostage on yes either way, and we like to live by the phrase, “No deal is better than a bad deal. You can’t make me say yes, I’m not the hostage of yes in either direction.” If you can’t make me say yes, then that makes me … It’s easier for me to be fearless in looking for black swans. I’m not afraid. I’m not scared of what’s going to come up.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Chris, it sounds like negotiation is a skill that people can develop with practice. How can people who are listening to this podcast right now, how can they negotiate, or practice negotiation on a regular basis?

Chris Voss: Buy my book. Then, start to try these ideas in your everyday conversations. This is an aspect of emotional intelligence. Once we start working on emotional intelligence, the great thing about EQ is you can grow it, and you can grow it quickly. Your IQ is fixed. No matter how many times you sit down and take chess lessons, and work logic puzzles, and do … I don’t now, Jenga, work a Rubik’s Cube, you’ve got a limit on how smart you can get on IQ, it’s like your height. You drink all the milk in the world that you want, you’re only going to get to so tall.

EQ, on the other hand, is a grow-able thing up to and through our eighties. You take these skills like this that are counter-intuitive, and you start practicing them in your everyday conversations. You learn the tool that we refer to as a label, or you learn mirroring, and then when you talk to somebody about where you’re going to go to lunch, you mirror them a couple times to see what happens. The more that you practice in pre-season, the more you can perform in the Super Bowl. You can’t do negotiation skills … You can’t get good at negotiating by only using the skills in your big negotiations. You’ve got to use them in your everyday conversations, and you’ll be stunned at how quickly this stuff’ll come to you.

Brett McKay: Right, so yeah, talking to your kids, talking to your wife, talking to the boss, use those skills.

Chris Voss: Right, right, right. Exactly.

Brett McKay: Well, hey, Chris, this has been a great conversation. We literally scratched the surface. There’s so many other tactics and techniques that you go into detail in the book. Where can people find out more information about, “Never Split The Difference?”

Chris Voss: is the website, B-L-A-C-K-S-W-A-N-L-T-D, like limited, You can learn about the book. We’ve got a free complementary negotiation newsletter comes out twice a month, that’s got small little digestible ideas and different ways. We’ve got some pre-downloadable PDFs. Besides the book, we’ve got some other ways to get better at negotiation if you want to invest a little bit in your future and your success. We try to help people as much as we possibly can. Our website is the best first place to go.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Chris Voss, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Chris Voss: Thank you for having me on, this has been a real pleasure. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: My guest’s name was Chris Voss, he’s the author of the book, “Never Split The Difference.” He’s also the owner of the company Black Swan Group. You can find that information on Google, just search Black Swan Group, you can find out more information about Chris’s work. Also, check out the show notes at for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at, and if you enjoy the show and have got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time. This is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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