How to Negotiate Like Your Life Depends On It 

How do you approach a high stakes negotiation? If it’s armed with facts, figures and a suitcase of credentials then you’re not alone. Yet, according to the FBI’s lead kidnap negotiator Chris Voss, this is the least likely way to get the outcome you want.

Chris spent decades as the FBI’s lead kidnap negotiator, working to secure the safe release of kidnap victims across the globe. He believes this is a trap we all fall into – the myth that everyone is rational. To use his words: “Have you ever tried using logic with someone that thinks they’re the Messiah?”

I caught up with Chris to talk about his unique take on navigating high stakes conversations. In one hour he busted pretty much every myth I know when it comes to negotiation. Here are five of my favourites to help you start negotiating like your life depends on it:

Forget about credentials 

Those first moments of connection are critical, so don’t waste time listing your credentials. If someone has given you their time, chances are they already assume you’re qualified. Instead, first try to find and acknowledge the emotional driver that brought them to the table.

Chris advocates starting any high stakes conversation with what he calls a ‘cold read’. This is where you begin by making educated guesses to get the other party talking. If you get them right, you’ve made a connection. If you get them wrong, at least it starts a dialogue. Remember, the person who talks the most loses – so do what you can to get them talking quickly.

Drop the yes addiction

While most of us are striving to hear the word ‘yes’ – apparently this is the last thing we should want to hear. The word yes is most frequently used as a false agreement, usually to extract more information. Instead, he explains, we should be aiming to hear the words “That’s right”.

Those are the words we use when we feel completely understood. Feeling understood creates empathy – and where there’s empathy, there can be collaboration. When you create a situation where the other person feels compelled to say “That’s right”, they experience what his team called an epiphany moment – which releases dopamine and serotonin into the brain.

(Remember – empathy is not agreement. Empathy is simply understanding and articulating where someone else is coming from. Chris was very clear that he has no opinions or values in common with a member of ISIS – yet he can still empathise with their position. Empathy is a limitless skill.)

Avoid win/wins

A compromise in a hostage negotiation is that two people come out alive and two people don’t – very far from a good outcome. Apparently striving for a win/win is one of the greatest fictions of negotiation. Meeting in the middle essentially means no one wins – or that the other side is a poor judge of distance.

Chris explained we should instead expand the parameters of the discussion. Look for overlaps in your interests that may not at first seem obvious. Asking the question ‘How am I supposed to do that?’ is the fastest way to get all the cards on the table. Creating a situation where the other person feels invited to get creative in order to help solve your problem.

Focus on the negative

Have a phone call coming up where you’ve got one chance to get it right? The first task is to make sure your mind and emotions are calm and in order. In high stakes negotiations this is called ‘getting in ‘state’. Allowing you to focus and effectively deal with any curveballs the other side may throw.

One hack to help prepare yourself is to write down every potential negative outcome. Chris would use this tool to make sure he was never caught off guard. If you still find yourself thrown, the next stage is to get curious. The only way to deal with a curveball is to understand where it came from – using questions such as “Sounds like you’ve got good reason for saying that, can you tell me more?”

Never speak first

Studies show that 70-75% of the time you’ll be better off if you let the other party speak first. Those would be fantastic odds in any casino. Yet most of us do the opposite. We jump in early in order to avoid losing the perceived advantage, or to offset any potential attack.

This is an ingrained response driven more by fear than by the facts of what actually works. Chris’ experiences in FBI taught him that the advantage was more often than not in waiting – learning as much as he could and shaping his responses. That means always letting the other side go first.

Negotiation isn’t easy – mainly because it can often involve confrontation – which let’s face it most of us like to avoid. Yet we know being able to calmly and effectively navigate a high stakes conversation is possibly the most important skill we will ever master. As any gambler will tell you, the higher the stakes of the game, the more you need to focus on improving the odds. 

Julie Masters is a globally recognised expert in influence, authority and thought leadership. She is the CEO and Founder of Influence Nation and Founder of ODE Management – responsible for launching and managing the careers of some of the worlds most respected thought leaders. Julie is also the host of the soon to be launched weekly podcast Inside Influence. An exploration of what it takes to find and own your voice – and then use it to drive a conversation, an idea, an industry or a Nation. To subscribe check out iTunes, Spotify or juliemasters.com.

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