To Be a Better Leader, Learn This FBI Hostage Negotiation Tactic

Before getting to yes, strive for “that’s right.”

As a strategic messaging and positioning consultant, I preside over lots of contentious meetings. They go with the territory: Sometimes it’s just really hard to get leaders of high-profile startups to agree on a single version of their strategic story.

A few months ago, I was trying to do exactly that while facilitating a meeting at a Series B startup backed by A-list investors (Andreessen Horowitz, GV and others) — and things were not going well. In particular, a salesperson named Troy (not his real name) would not buy into the strategic narrative framework that I had led his CEO and co-founders in crafting over the previous four weeks. Troy was an important member of the team, and the CEO wanted him excited about the shared strategic vision.

Just as I was losing hope of ever getting Troy on the same page as the rest of his team, the CEO stepped in and began asking Troy a series of questions. And in a shift that seemed almost magical, Troy came around. By the end of the meeting, Troy agreed to fully support the new messaging, and I could tell that he meant it.

Beyond impressed (more like in awe), I approached the CEO after the meeting.

“What did you just do?” I asked.

“It’s something I read about in a book by an FBI hostage negotiator,” the CEO said.

Needless to say, I asked the CEO to send me a link to the book.

The Role of Emotional Connection in Leading People to Embrace Your Ideas

The book, I learned, was called Never Split the Difference, and had, indeed, been written by a 24-year veteran of the FBI named Chris Voss, along with a co-author named Tahl Raz. (I have no relationship with either, and no stake in sales of their book.)

From 2000 to 2007, Voss served in the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit. During the last four of those years, he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator, running high-profile cases in global danger zones like Iraq, the Philippines, and Colombia.

Voss’s game-changing insight was that nearly every successful hostage release happens only after the chief negotiator establishes an emotional connection with the kidnapper. In spite of that truth, the FBI’s traditional negotiations tactics—and most of the ones taught in schools (Getting to Yes, most notably)—were focused on removing emotion from the equation to reach a win-win solution through logic and reason. As Voss writes in Never Split the Difference:

I mean, have you ever tried to devise a mutually beneficial win-win solution with a guy who thinks he’s the messiah?

Thankfully, Troy, the reluctant salesperson in our meeting, didn’t possess a sense of himself that was so grandiose. But he did exhibit a certain messianic zeal (which I share) about the importance of a well-crafted strategic messaging and positioning architecture. A few days earlier, Troy had sent an email to his CEO and leadership team with the subject “Problems with New Messaging”; it contained a detailed accounting of the deficiencies he saw in the version of the story that his leadership team and I had designed.

The Tactic that Moved Us Forward: Getting to ‘That’s Right’

Noting my utter inability to bring Troy into the fold, the CEO stepped in and took charge of the meeting. He said to Troy, “I have a call scheduled with a New York Times reporter tomorrow at noon, to brief her on on our company and strategy. What should I say when she asks, ‘What do you guys do?’”

Troy wasn’t quite prepared for this question, but he did his best to describe a version of the story that he wanted to tell.

What the CEO did next was the key. He said, “Now, I’m going to summarize what you told me, and I’d like you to let me know if anything is missing or incorrect. OK?”

This was the tactic the CEO had learned from Voss. In his book, Voss calls it “Getting to ‘That’s right.’”

When Voss analyzed the transcripts of his most unlikely hostage negotiation victories, he discovered that the turning point frequently occurred right after his team took the time to listen to the captor’s argument, summarized that argument back to the captor, and then got the captor to say, “That’s right.”

Those two words, Voss asserts, may not seem like a big deal when you hear them, but they mark a crucial turning point in any negotiation. That’s because they signal that your negotiating partner feels heard and acknowledged, which opens the door to previously impossible solutions:

It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. When your adversaries say, “That’s right,” they feel they have assessed what you’ve said and pronounced it as correct of their own free will. They embrace it. … Reaching “that’s right” in a negotiation creates breakthroughs.

As his leadership team and I watched, the CEO summarized what Troy had said. Most importantly, he did it with total openness and lack of judgment or anger, which is impossible unless you truly make yourself open to what the other person has to say. If the CEO had merely employed Voss’s technique as some kind of “persuasion trick” — without being truly interested and curious about Troy’s opinion — I believe he would have gotten nowhere.

When the CEO finished, Troy added a few points that he felt the CEO had missed. This happened three or four times.

Finally Troy said, “Yeah, that’s right.”

How Everything Changed After Troy’s “That’s Right,” and My 3 Big Takeaways

The really interesting thing was that, when the CEO finally arrived at the version of the story on which Troy signed off, it wasn’t that different from the one the team and I had originally drafted. There was one key addition — some (very good) detail around recent global trends that made the company’s solution more timely (an element of strategic messaging that I call “Why now?”).

Everyone agreed that Troy’s addition strengthened the narrative, so we incorporated it into the final version. That became the one the CEO told to the New York Times reporter. It’s also the story that powered the company’s funding announcement, their new website, and their new sales deck. The company’s VP of Product presented the new strategic story to the entire company and received rave reviews — including one from Troy.

In the end, the project left me with three big takeaways:

#1. Leadership is a negotiation that depends on emotional connection

By starting with the team’s draft version (his adversary’s position) and asking Troy to suggest changes, I left Troy feeling unheard. It didn’t matter that we weren’t that far apart; until Troy felt understood, there would be no forward movement.

Interestingly, I had never thought of leadership as a negotiation before, but in a very real sense, it is: team members want a story they can get excited about, and the leader wants everyone’s “that’s right.”

#2. “Active listening” is the key to establishing that emotional connection (and, therefore, to leadership)

A lot of business storytelling experts talk about the importance of listening as a leadership skill. While I always assumed listening was important, I realize that, until now, I basically considered it the art of sitting there while the other person talks, not saying anything, and doing one’s best to look interested.

Voss’s technique shows that to really reap the rewards of listening, you have to not only take in what the other person says, but also prove that you’ve accurately received the message. As Voss says:

This is listening as a martial art, balancing the subtle behaviors of emotional intelligence and the assertive skills of influence, to gain access to the mind of another person. Contrary to popular opinion, listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.

I now make active listening — that is, Voss’s summarizing and repeating back until you hear a “that’s right” — a core part of my business storytelling workshops for leaders, as well as a standard part of my strategic messaging and positioning facilitation.

#3. There’s still more I want to learn from Voss

I’m still wrapping my head around everything Voss has written, and I have a feeling it’s going to continue to affect my work, my approach to leadership, and my personal relationships in profound ways. I definitely recommend his book, but for a quick intro to Voss and his ideas, check out this Talk at Google, with interviewer Mairin Chesney:


About Andy Raskin:
I help leaders craft strategic stories—for better fundraising, sales, marketing, product, and recruiting. My clients include teams backed by Andreessen Horowitz, First Round Capital, GV, and other top venture firms. I’ve also led strategic storytelling workshops for leaders at Uber, General Assembly, HourlyNerd, Neustar, and Stanford. To learn more or get in touch, visit http://andyraskin.com.