5 Steps To Negotiating Like An FBI Agent

Chris Voss was the head of international hostage negotiation for the FBI. His convincing tips on bargaining can help you get what you want.

5 Steps To Negotiating Like An FBI Agent

If you’ve ever spent time with human beings, you probably know that it’s impossible to change their minds. So what if someone’s life is on the line?


Then you call in somebody like Chris Voss, who was once the FBI’s chief international kidnapping negotiator, working on about 150 cases worldwide over his 24-year career–and who is now a part of the Black Swan Group, his business consultancy.

“The idea of a durable agreement is the same in kidnapping as [it is] in business,” he told Forbes, “only it’s a life-and-death issue.”

But even if we’re not working with mortally high stakes, having an understanding of how to talk a maniac out of a kidnapping can help us talk our bosses out of making less mortal, but perhaps equally maniacal, decisions.

And if you’re going to negotiate well, you need to understand just how these human beings function–which is to say that if you’re going to have a fruitful negotiation, it won’t be by having the most subtle argument–it comes from emotional awareness.

“Instead of pretending emotions don’t exist in negotiations,” Voss tells Eric Barker of Barking Up The Wrong Tree, “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.”

How the FBI negotiates

They call it the Behavioral Change Stairway Model, which comes in the form of the following five steps:

  1. Listen actively: Listen to them–and make sure they know you’re listening.
  2. Empathize: Understand where they’re coming from.
  3. Establish rapport: When they return the feeling of empathy–and trust–your way.
  4. Influence: With trust established, you can work on solving the problem together.
  5. Change behavior: They act–positively.

Looks easy enough, right? Not quite. As Voss tells Barker, most people skip straight to that fourth step, where you think you’re solving the problem together, but really you’re just bossing them around (which backfires).

Where most people go wrong is in that very first step, Voss explains:

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.

So if we’re going to negotiate well, we need to shut our mouths.

Finally learning to listen

So whether we’re banking on getting our proposals heard or trying to get someone to not rob a bank, the primary skill for negotiation is active listening–which, funnily enough, is necessary to nailing a job interview or arguing like a philosopher.

In other words, listening skills are nonnegotiable.

Hat tip: [i]Barking Up The Wrong Tree[/i]


[Image: Flickr user Krystian Olszanski]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.