How to Get What You Want: Tips from an FBI Negotiator

Scientifically-proven strategies to get other people to see your perspective and change their behavior.


Dealing with confronting situations is hard enough, but facing them with the skills to not only communicate, but get a favorable response — well, that’s another thing all together.

People train for years to develop the tactics, knowledge and practice to negotiate successfully, but there is a strategy you can start applying now that will work from anything from actually dealing with a hostage situation (hopefully you never have to!), to international business negotiations, asking for a raise, dealing with a conflict with a colleague, friend or loved one, or even negotiating with your partner to get the TV remote.

Tips from the FBI Play Book

His name is Chris Voss. Voss was in the FBI for 24 years and for part of that time, served as lead international kidnapping negotiator. He also taught international business negotiations at Harvard University before moving to teach at the MBA program at Georgetown University ‘s McDonough School of Business. He’s also the CEO of The Black Swan Group and has used his experience in high-stakes negotiations to develop techniques that apply to the business world.

Chris Voss, COURTESY: The Black Swan Group

I recently happened upon an exclusive interview of Voss by a blogger outlining The Behavioral Change Stairway Model. The method was developed by the FBI’s hostage negotiations unit, and shows the five steps to getting someone else to see your point of view and change what they are doing (hence the name stairway).

FBI Hostage Negotiations Model


The premise of this tactic is that it does what standard business negotiation tactics doesn’t — operates through the emotional level.

“Human beings are incapable of being rational... There’s a lot of scientific evidence now that demonstrates that without emotions you actually can’t make a decision, because you make your decisions based on what you care about. So instead of pretending emotions don’t exist in negotiations, hostage negotiators have actually designed an approach that takes emotions fully into account and uses them to influence situations, which is the reality of the way all negotiations go.” -Voss

Without further adieu, the following steps can be applied to any disagreement:

  1. Active Listening: Listen to the other person’s side and make them aware you’re listening.
  2. Empathy: Get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel.
  3. Rapport: Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. They start to trust you.
  4. Influence: Now that they trust you, you’ve earned the right to work on problem solving with them and recommend a course of action.
  5. Behavioral Change: They act. (And maybe come out with their hands up.)

Why is negotiation important? According to Voss, it’s not about manipulation. It’s not even about compromise, it’s about making sure solutions actually match problems and sometimes, compromise isn’t helpful for either side.

He says the strategy is meant to be a listening exercise. Instead of focusing on your argument, listen to what the other side is saying and feed it back to them. You try to discover what it is important to them and at the same time, you help them hear what they’re saying and if their own words even make sense to them as a solution.

“So you’re negotiating with a company, they have a compromised position, that’s what they want. So you’ve got to ask them open-ended questions to get them to see. You can say, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” Then, “How is what you are asking for going to get you that?”
“If you make them explain it to you, a lot of times both you and them are going to discover whether or not it makes any sense. You’ve got to use basic hostage negotiation skills to get them to hear it and sound it out, so that they begin to see that what they want might possibly be ridiculous.” — Voss

Where Most People Go Wrong

Beginning negotiators usually skip steps one through three and start at Influence instead, and expect the other person to just up and change their behavior. Saying “Here’s why I’m right and you’re wrong” might be effective if people were fundamentally rational.

But they’re not. Voss says this will never, ever work. He says you have to focus on step one to get anywhere— Active Listening:

  1. Listen to what they say. Don’t interrupt, disagree or “evaluate.”
  2. Nod your head, and make brief acknowledging comments like “yes” and “uh-huh.”
  3. Without being awkward, repeat back the gist of what they just said, from their frame of reference.
  4. Inquire. Ask questions that show you’ve been paying attention and that move the discussion forward.
“If your first objective in the negotiation, instead of making your argument, is to hear the other side out, that’s the only way you can quiet the voice in the other guy’s mind. But most people don’t do that. They don’t walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They walk into a negotiation wanting to make an argument. They don’t pay attention to emotions and they don’t listen.” — Voss

Techniques for Next Level Negotiations

So, you say you’ve got the listening part down. For most people, that is the most challenging part. But moving through the next four steps are not exactly a walk in the park. Here are some more specific examples and tips from the blog with Voss to really see the fruit of your negotiating labor:

  1. Ask open-ended questions — You don’t want yes or no answers, you want the other person to open up. EXAMPLE: You are trying to sell someone a new refrigerator and theirs is having problems. You would say, “That sounds really stressful. Tell me what happened.” Rather than asking, “What brand is the refrigerator?” “How long have you had it?” These one-word answers, gives the impression that you are more interested in the refrigerator than the person, and communicates a sense of urgency that will push the person away.
  2. Use effective pauses — Silence is powerful. Use pauses for emphasis, to encourage someone to keep talking or to defuse things when people get emotional. “Eventually, even the most emotionally overwrought subjects will find it difficult to sustain a one-sided argument, and they again will return to meaningful dialogue with negotiators. Thus, by remaining silent at the right times, negotiators actually can move the overall negotiation process forward.” — Gary Noesner, author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator.
  3. Minimal encouragers — Brief statements to let the person know you’re listening and to keep them talking. Simply saying things like, “okay,” “yes,” or “I see,” lets the other person know you are listening and keeps the attention on them, encouraging them to keep talking and slowly, giving up power to you.
  4. Use mirroring — Simply repeating the last word or two of what the person has just said shows you are again, listening and engaged. EXAMPLE: The person says, “I am so sick of being rushed.” Then you would say, “Feel rushed, huh?”
  5. Paraphrase — Repeating what the other person is saying back to them in your own words is a powerful way to show you really do understand and aren’t merely parroting.
  6. Label their emotions — Give their feelings a name. It shows you’re identifying with how they feel. Don’t comment on the validity of the feelings — they could be totally crazy — but show them you understand. DON’T SAY: “You don’t need to feel that way.” It is judgemental and minimizes the person’s feelings (Subtractive Empathy). DO SAY: “You sounds pretty frustrated with being rushed. It doesn’t seem right that because of other people’s lack of planning, you have to rush.” This recognizes the feelings without judging them. It identifies the hurt that underlies the anger the person feels, and adds the idea of justice to the message (Additive Empathy).

Negotiating isn’t some robotic and rational activity. Using the Behavioral Change Stairway Model and working with emotions, rather than pretending they aren’t there, can help both side of the negotiation table to reach the best solutions for the problems at hand. Despite it’s shiny reputation, compromise is sometimes detrimental. Using active listening and trying to actually understand the root cause of the problem and what is important to the other person, helps you to not only build a rapport, but allows the other party to actually hear themselves and their proposition — likely for the first time.

So go out there and give these strategies a try! Start small and think big. It may not get you that big raise you were hoping for right away, but it may just get you the TV remote.

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About the author

Jessica Zartler is a Multimedia Marketing Consultant & Content Strategist for Taskworld. Before working in Public Relations and Marketing, she was an award-winning television reporter and multimedia journalist for eight years. When she is not hunting for the best content on the web to share with TW users, blogging or producing videos, she is teaching yoga, cooking, playing drums and travelling.

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