Negotiation Tactics: A Q&A with Christopher Voss

How to get what you want when the going gets tough.

By Kathryn Tyler Oct 1, 2015
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HR Magazine October 2015When you’re the lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI, you had better know how to strike a deal. Christopher Voss was in that position for four of his 24 years with the bureau—from 2003 to 2007—and now he teaches the art of negotiation to others. Contrary to what many believe, Voss contends that business leaders will get to “yes” faster by being attentive and collaborative instead of brash and confrontational.

Voss is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the University of Southern California, and he owns the consulting company The Black Swan Group Ltd. He is the author of the upcoming book Killer Deals (HarperCollins, April 2016).

What’s the No. 1 rule in negotiations?

There are two. First, have a likeable, positive approach. People are six times more likely to make a deal with someone they like. The toughest negotiation occurs when someone refuses to talk. Second, confirm perceptions by asking questions and feeding the answers back so the other side can correct you. For instance, your opening question might be, “What is the biggest challenge you face?” As you listen, you may hear a hesitation. Then you can say, kindly, “It seems you hesitated when you were discussing X.” Your approach and tone of voice are critical. And keep a smile on your face.

Why should negotiators let the other side go first?

Everyone arrives at the table dying to have their say, but they aren’t listening. You are wasting your time if you go first. In addition, there will be mistakes or omissions in your data—there’s no such thing as perfect information—and you have to decide what you want to say based on what you know. Before you commit to a position, you need to extract as much information as you can from the other side. When we’re focused on a solution, we can wear blinders. The other person may offer treasure we ignore. Never be so certain of what you want that you wouldn’t take something better.

What behavioral cues should negotiators scrutinize?

Look for subtle changes. A former general manager of the L.A. Dodgers told me that in a two-hour negotiation, there will be 90 seconds of solid gold, and that is the key to the whole deal. Listen for a softening in the other side’s tone of voice or the types of demands they are making. When you hear those changes, gently explore them. Body language can be a great indicator, too, but it’s harder to evaluate. Is he sitting with his arms crossed because he’s feeling combative or because the room is cold? Often, it’s easier to pick up on cues from tone of voice than body language.

How can business leaders keep their emotions in check during tense negotiations?

Keep one ear on your own tone of voice. If you can control that, you can regulate your emotions. If your voice betrays anger or fear, consciously bring it back in line. Recognize, too, that you have to negotiate with the people on your own side. We tend to be more unreasonably demanding of people on our team than those on the other side of the table. Don’t apply a harsh double standard.

Are women worse negotiators than men?

No, they are actually better. At the business schools where I teach, women pick up things faster than men do. I have heard people say women are not good at closing the deal. But I’ve seen both men and women who fail to project a willingness to walk away. It’s critical not only to be willing to walk but also to do so gracefully so that you don’t burn bridges. It’s an art to gently say no. A good phrase is, “That doesn’t work for me.” If you’re not willing to say no, you’ve taken yourself hostage.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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