4 FBI Negotiation Tricks that Will Make You a Better Leader

In early 2016, Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, released a book titled Never Split the Difference in which he discusses how techniques used during intense, life-threatening negotiations can drastically improve your professional and personal life.

Since the book’s release, Chris has become a common interviewee and resource for podcasts, webinars, and blogs (like this one) regarding business negotiations and effective leadership techniques.

Many articles have created a summary of his techniques listed in the book, which is all fine and well. But, as I learned more about the principles and techniques that Chris writes about, it became evident that what was needed was not a summary of his wisdom, but an explanation.

So, here are Chris’s primary techniques for effective negotiation and why they are psychologically sound for improving your skills as an entrepreneur and leader.

#1 Develop a Rapport

Before anything can happen, people need to feel as though they can trust you. That is why Chris has found that building a rapport is a requirement for a successful encounter.

Research completed at the University of Balearic Islands in Spain found that creating a direct connection of trust improved cooperation by nearly 60% compared to the general level of trust we all have in humanity. Yes, that even takes into account the pessimists who do not trust anyone.

So, how does Chris get this rapport started? It is simple and easy to do. In fact, his technique is a mainstay in any therapist’s toolbox.


Chris talks about a concept called “mirroring,” where you listen to everything the person is saying and then repeat the last few words of their last sentence.

I remember a therapy professor I had in grad school telling us a story of a marriage session during which the couple came in swinging, completely catching him off guard.

“I can’t believe what you said to us last week! You made me feel sick for days!” The wife yelled.

Stunned, my professor struggled for words. So, to buy time and reconnect with the obviously furious couple, he simply mirrored the wife.

“You felt sick for days.”

That’s all he said; that’s all he had to say.

She thought for a moment then explained how she was feeling, what she was thinking, and how the whole experience of the previous week had affected her. All the while, my professor listened and mirrored.

So why does this technique work so well?

First, mirroring indicates to the other person that you are actually listening to them. Repeating their words shows that you are paying attention and want to hear them out.

Second, you actually do have to listen. Mirroring not only helps the other person feel heard, but it also helps you stay present with the conversation and pick up on information that would otherwise have been missed.

And, like my professor, if you feel lost, mirroring can help you buy time to get the information you need.

As a leader within your business, being able to de-escalate situations and connect with peers and clients is vital to your success. Seriously.

#2 Acknowledge and Clarify

The next area of importance that Chris brings up includes two skills which require the same principle. I took the liberty of putting them under one category.

The principle here is making sure that you connect directly with the person. Let me show you what I mean.

“That’s right”

Chris says he found most of his success in this skill. The “that’s right” technique is basically mirroring, but taken up a few pegs.

All you do is listen closely to what the other person is saying and repeat it in your own words. “What I’m hearing you say is…, is that right?”

The amazing thing is that, when authentically putting it into these words, the other person responds with either, “that’s right,” or, “no” and then corrects you, waiting for you to try again.

It is really similar (actually, practically identical) to the theories developed by psychologist and communication specialist Marshall Rosenberg. He explains how to get a person to say “that’s right” and why it works in his book, Nonviolent Communication.

This skill is pretty remarkable. If done correctly, you are able to connect on a deeper level with the other person and allow for some amazing communication to happen.

In a business setting, being able to clear out the noise caused by emotions and stress will not only save time, but, in the long run, it will also build deeper and more meaningful relationships.

Come on, if you cannot communicate, how are you going to get anything done?

Label Feelings

The second skill is mostly for your benefit. The other person gets to feel all warm and fuzzy because you “understand” them, but it is mostly to help you become more aware and mindful of how our feelings and emotions impact our thoughts.

When labeling the other person’s feelings, Chris states that you should simply try to put a name to the feeling the other person is experiencing. This gives you the chance to practice your vocabulary of emotions and connect with the other person again on a deeper level.

Let me give you an example. You are working with a client who had a problem with your service or product. They start yelling at you and making dramatic, sweeping statements: “Your company is a waste of my time! I can’t believe I was suckered into working with you!” Really toxic stuff.

Instead of jumping to the defensive, a better approach would be to put a name to the emotion your client is experiencing: “It sounds like you’re really feeling betrayed by our service right now.” This is where they would either say, “that’s right,” or, “no” and wait for you to try again.

This is a great skill to cool down a situation and get to the actual issue. It also shows the other person that you care enough to try and understand where they are coming from and gives you the opportunity to separate the toxic sludge being thrown at you from the objective issue that your client is bringing to the table.

You do not have to be spot on the first time. Just take an educated guess and try again if you missed the mark.

#3 Leave It Open

Once you have developed a rapport and have connected with the other person, you can start to do some really fantastic work. While many leaders try to white-knuckle it and force their will upon their subordinates, there are two more subtle tricks that Chris believes will help you be more productive.

Open-Ended Questions

In an interview with TIME magazine, Chris talked about the importance of asking open-ended questions which can often lead to more information being gained. In the interview, he said, “A good open-ended question would be ‘Sounds like a tough deal. Tell me how it all happened.’ It is non-judgmental, shows interest, and is likely to lead to more information about the man’s situation.”

This is another technique that therapists use constantly because one gains so much information by using it. The truth is that, when we are not given parameters (for example in closed-ended yes-or-no questions), we feel more free to roam and practically word vomit our thoughts and feelings on a matter.  Which would you rather do in a conversation: Ask a quick question and then listen or pull teeth?

Shut Up

To really take full advantage of open-ended questions, you often just need to shut your mouth.

I did not mention this before, but one of the wonders of open-ended questions is that if it is done in conjunction with you keeping quiet, the other person often gets uncomfortable and just keeps talking.

See, silence is uncomfortable. And, when there is silence, people feel the need to fill it. Gary Noesner backs me up here when he said:

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.

#4 Show Respect, Get Respect

Finally, the most important aspect of this whole experience is to learn to come to each encounter with the respect that is due the other person. Honestly, the major gaff executives and entrepreneurs repeat is to not respect their clients, peers, staff or even supervisors.

Remember the golden rule: Everyone should treat others in the way they want to be treated. That starts with respect.

What have you done during negotiations that have worked? Leave a comment below with your questions, feedback, and experiences!

Featured image credit : Katy Levinson, Flickr. No changes made.

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