Life Lessons to Help Entrepreneurs, Business Owners & Creators

Jonathan Chew
Jun 26, 2017 · 9 min read

A few nights ago, I attended a talk given by Christopher Voss, former international FBI hostage negotiator for 24 years, in which he described several of his kidnapping stories and how his entire mission in life was to help people and save lives.

Needless to say, he was the real deal. This guy is what all the characters in the movies are based on.

He talked about some of the principles of being a good negotiator in any field, whether in business or in your own personal life.

To top that all off, he wrote a book about it called Never Split the Difference which can be summed up by the following:

Life is a series of negotiations you should be prepared for: buying a car, negotiating a salary, buying a home, renegotiating rent, deliberating with your partner. Taking emotional intelligence and intuition to the next level, Never Split the Difference gives you the competitive edge in any discussion.

In fact he was saying that the Director of Product Growth at Slack, Merci Grace, gave it to ALL her girlfriends, husbands and boyfriends because it helped not only in her professional life, but in her relationship with her fiancé and family.

Right off the bat, he had an air about him that just showed his gravitas and how he could keep his cool during intense high-stakes situations.

Emotional Intelligence

He said that negotiating was basically just understanding people and that after you do it for a while, people start to behave in very predictable ways. He said he’s made a lot of mistakes over his career where he’s mis-judged people, but now it’s almost second nature to him.

He said that he’s more scared of seeing blood by going to a Doctor’s office than talking a terrorist with 4 bombs down from killing kidnapped hostages. In fact, he would almost prefer it. Simply because he knows it. He knows exactly what to do. And how to talk him down.

Everyone’s got different stuff that stresses them out.

Understanding how people work is just the beginning. He went on to say that IQ was a fixed mental capacity. You can play chess all day and your IQ won’t magically go up. However, on the other hand, EQ was almost an unlimited capacity that you could improve if you just work at it.

The easiest way to improve your EQ is to just start acknowledging people, it takes just 15 seconds.

What makes a Good Negotiator

1. Listen Between The Lines

Let the other guy talk first.

There’s so much you can learn if you simply shut up and listen. They reveal so much if you don’t go first. The first 90 seconds of them speaking is solid gold because it makes them feel like they own the process.

2. Don’t Negotiate Alone

It’s important to bring a partner who can listen along with you. Sometimes he brings his son (who is apparently also an excellent negotiator) who helps “listen between the lines” while he concentrates on calming the person down and validating and acknowledging the terrorist’s needs.

Always bounce your ideas off other smart people.

3. Figure Out What the Other Side’s Religion is

Try to figure out what their belief system is because that’s what gives them their meaning. Daniel Pink calls it purpose. Something bigger than they are that they believe in. It doesn’t have to even be their “religion” per se but whatever gives them (as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has coined) their “flow” because that’s what motivates them.

Think of the worst thing that can happen before it gets there.

…A Story About a Bomb…

There was a challenging situation where a guy had drove a tractor in the middle of Washington DC and claimed that he had 4 bombs. They needed to get him out because he was going to get himself killed as he was prone to fits of anger and if he went too far, they had been given the order to shoot and kill on-site. Voss said that you always want to bring extra people with you to help “listen between the lines” and they noticed that this guy mentioned he was in the 82nd airborn.

One of the policies of the 82nd airborn was that if you parachuted behind enemy lines, you could withdraw after 72 hours and not lose honor.

Now they also noticed that he kept making Bible references which gave a hint that he had a Christian background. So, they were looking for something to say to try to get him to change his timeline since if he stayed in there much longer, he probably was going to get himself killed. In order to get him out sooner, one of the team members on the negotiation team said to tell him that they’ll give him what he wanted on the “dawn of the 3rd day” which if you look at the difference between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is actually only 2 calendar days.

So he ended up agreeing and they got him out sooner with no incident and no bombs than he had originally agreed because they spoke to his religion and his model of the world.

4. Maintain a Tactical Empathy Balance

We’re mostly driven by stuff we’re trying to avoid. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about how we think and how there are profound cognitive biases that influence our decision making on a moment to moment basis. The things that cause us to do what we do can be summed up by Sigmund Freud when he said that we’re only motivated by two things; the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure.

Negative drives us much more than the positive.

Everybody’s got something that they’ve sacrificed their entire lives to pursue. You just have to listen long enough to hear what their story is.

5. There’s Always Time… it’s a Commodity

There’s not always money on the table, but there’s always time. In the world of negotiations, if the person is making unreasonable demands in terms of price or product, you always have the option of TIME. And that’s what gets played with most often because the hostage person either limits your time in order to gain the leverage or advantage, or the negotiator has to stall for more time in order to get the right resources in place to make something happen.

The more you’ll focus on salary the less successful you’ll be.

Salary only pays the bill, it doesn’t build your career. Interestingly he touched on how if people concentrate on money instead of focusing on where their time goes and what they’re doing with their time, then they’ll ultimately be less successful in both their personal and professional lives, let alone a high-stakes negotiation.

6. We’re More Worried About Being Heard Than Hearing

Oftentimes, people will talk more because they’re concerned about the other person not hearing what they’re saying, so they talk more and more. Because they’re worried that they other person won’t “hear” their specific thoughts and needs. People have a tendency though to talk too much and stop “hearing” or listening to what the other person has to say.

That’s the balance you have to remember when negotiating is to remember to hear the other party and not be so worried about being heard.

7. Empathy is NOT Sympathy

Chris Voss believes that Empathy is insanely powerful that it’s something we should all concentrate on giving to others. It’s important to note that sympathy is feeling sorrow or compassion for what another person is going through, but empathy is “how the other person feels” from their point of view and acknowledging it.

He made it a point to also say “Empathy is NOT Flattery.”

There’s a fantastic article written by Adam Grant called “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence” that references the good and bad about being able to read people through EQ. Empathy has immense power.

Use your powers for good not evil. The best people that use empathy actually are sociopaths not because they’re nice but because they know it works. If you can wrap your mind around empathy, then you probably have a future in the negotiation business.

8. Don’t Lie — It’s a BAD Idea

Christopher Voss has made it a personal policy to never lie during a negotiation situation because you want to build trust. That rapport that you build is so important that the trust is often tested with little questions by the terrorists to see if you’ll stay true to your word. If they even get a hint of your dishonesty or your deception, then things could go very south.

Here’s a Mock Situation — What would you DO?

How would you handle this situation?

You are the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator and you’re in Washington DC. You get a call that a 12 yr old boy has been kidnapped in Haiti.

It’s your job to handle this fast. You have to make contact to control this dynamic by phone right away before you jump on the plane and get this under control before it gets out of hand.

You have got the father’s phone number. You’ve been notified by the State Department and they’ve given you the father’s name. The father’s been told that the FBI’s gonna help him. You call on the phone to help and the first thing he says to you is:

You’re in Washington DC? How are YOU going to help me?

The challenge here is to figure out what you’re going to say because he just challenged you on the phone.

The moderator reached out to the audience and collected 5 responses which all ranged from first establishing credibility to throwing the challenge back to the father on why he thinks he shouldn’t trust him.

Mr. Voss listened intently and of course validated and acknowledged everyone’s thoughts and gave his reply:

I knew I probably had less than 3 seconds before he hung up the phone. So I said, “Look, here’s the deal, Haitian kidnappers are not killing kidnappers… and Haitian kidnappers LOVE partying on Saturday night. So if you follow my guidance, we’ll have your son out by late Friday/early Saturday morning.” The father paused and said, “Tell me what you want me to do.” And we had his son out Saturday morning.

During the entire course of that kidnapping, he never asked me how long I’d been a FBI agent, how long I’d been a hostage negotiator, how many kidnappers I’d done, how many times I’d been to Haiti, how many languages I’d spoke.

People you interact with will act with in roughly the same way. Your resume correlates LOOSELY with whether or not you know what to do. And as soon as you show someone you have a good view of the landscape, they’ll never ask you whether you’re the right guy for the job. You don’t have to do any of the explaining or the logic, as soon as you show someone that you understand the challenges, in their mind, their desire to cooperate with you ends in responses, “Tell me more…” or “Tell me what you want me to do…” or “You understand…” and They’ll usually think along the lines of:

If you understand what I’m faced with, then the chances you understand what I need to do are really high.

Everyone has a similar motivational button on them someplace no matter what industry and whatever they do. Everyone has dynamics. All negotiations that you’re in now and all challenges that you face, all you have to do is say with confidence, “Here’s what you’re up against.” And trust will most likely ensue. People want to be led.

There are two issues to every deal. One of those issues is time and time pressures they’re under . The other issue is control. You want to always give them the illusion that they’re in control and that they’re getting everything they can get.

Price will never make a deal successful. It’s the terms that will make it positive or negative.

Call to Action

All of us have to negotiate almost every day of our lives. Whether its for a salary raise or even getting the best deal on getting a new car. The skills of negotiation are perishable so you need to practice them and practice getting insights from others.

The tips and techniques that I learned from Chris Voss that night applied to my mindfulness, physical and mental health, productivity and even my relationships. It’s incredible how crucial a role our skills in the art of negotiation can play. It was an enlightening evening.

What ways can you start being more mindful and practice more empathy?

Use the ways I gave you to increase your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and share deeper connections and rapport with everyone around you!

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Jonathan Chew

Written by

Disney Imagineer. Startup enthusiast. Sci-Fi/Self-Help novelist on a mission to build a Positopian world. Follow me @JonathanGChew or go to:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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