Everyday Communication Skills Learned From Hostage Negotiation

“What was the difference between bank robbers who took hostages, and CEOs who used hardball tactics to drive down the price of a billion dollar acquisitions? After all, kidnappers are just businessman trying to get the best price.”

This is a quote from the opening chapter of Chris Voss’s book, “Never Split the Difference” and sets the tone for everything I am about to tell you.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It : Chris  Voss with Tahl Raz | News | Open Sourced Workplace

I first learned about Voss from a YouTube ad I got for his MasterClass. (It’s a great ad. The music. The drama. His voice. Check it out here.) With a career of over 20 years with the FBI as a hostage negotiator, he immediately caught my attention. I wasn’t eagerly awaiting the five second countdown to skip the ad like usual. His class looked very intriguing but I wasn’t about to fork out $200 for a MasterClass subscription, so I did the next best thing: I looked up his book. Borrowed the audio edition for free on Libby. Listened at 2x speed. Took six pages of notes I now need to somehow condense into a single blog post. We’ll see how it goes…

First, I’ll provide a quick background on the field of negotiation and the shift from joint problem solving to empathetic listening. After the disastrous airline hijack of 1971 in which the FBI was blamed for wrongful death and damages and went to court in the Downs vs United States trial, substantial changes were made to how the Bureau handled hostage situations. The problem solving method of coming to a mutually beneficial decision didn’t work with hostages because the kidnappers were emotionally driven and unlikely to listen to reason.

The solution? S l o w i n g i t d o w n.

In his book, Voss discusses a few negotiation methods used to calm, disarm, and build rapport with the “counterpart,” be it a kidnapper, boss, colleague, or family member. It is important to recognize that the counterpart is not an enemy, but someone to be understood and to influence.

Late Night DJ - Beech Mountain Resort
  1. Employing the Late Night FM DJ Voice

Negotiation is less about what you say and more about how you say it. According to the 7-38-55 rule, 7% of meaning is communicated verbally, 38% is communicated through tone of voice, and 55% is communicated through body language and facial expressions. That’s crazy to me! The late night FM DJ voice is characterized by its deep, reassuring, downward inflection. A downward inflection is direct and in control, whereas an upward inflection shows a measure of uncertainty, making a statement sound more like a question.

2. Mirroring

Mirroring Can Be an Important Part of Developing Business ...

As humans, we are drawn towards what is familiar. This is the art of mirroring: making a person feel more comfortable by imitating their words and/or actions. In a negotiation, this means repeating words back to the counterpart. This is done with rising intonation in the form of a question, asking for for clarification or elaboration, making them feel heard and understood. Typically only the last three words.

For example:

“I need you to assemble the notebooks.”


“Yeah, three ring binders.”

In this example, which I pulled from a YouTube video of his, both parties had a different interpretation of the word “notebooks” but with simple mirroring, they were on the same page. (pun intended)

3. Labeling

Beginner's Guide to Private Labeling and White Labeling

Labeling is a form of tactical empathy. It validates someone’s emotions by bringing them out into the open. This is done with phrases such as “it seems like… it sounds like… it looks like…” Even if you are wrong in labeling their emotions, they will correct you and let you know what they are feeling. Another type of labeling is known as an “accusation audit” and may sound counter intuitive, but it lists any apprehensions or accusations the other person may make against you. This is phrases like ““you are going to think…” or “you may feel…” Labeling is highly effective because it diffuses negatives while reinforcing positives.

Next, it is important to take control of conversation, understanding the psychology of behavioral change and the steps it takes to get there.

Use these 4 questions to help you think through ethics issues ...

4. Calibrated Questions

Why questions are accusative, but how and what questions are open ended, able to frame conversation and lead it in a particular direction. How and why questions are not answered with a yes or no, they require the other person to think through their answers. This also stalls for time if necessary.

For example:

“What is the objective here?”

“How can we solve this problem?”

“What can I do to make this better for you?”

“How would you like me to proceed?”

5. The Power of No

The Most Powerful Word Period – #201 | Rider Voice Over - Trailer ...

Most people in a negotiation underestimate the power of no. No is not to be feared, but should be sought out. Voss explains the purpose of no in the chapter “Beware ‘Yes’ – Master ‘No.'” In his words, “No is a reaffirmation of autonomy. The sooner you say no, the sooner you are willing to see options and opportunities.” More often than not, you must get to no before you can get to yes. Instead of asking “Is now a good time to talk?” ask “Is now a bad time to talk?” When someone says, “no,” they feel safe and in control.

Yes, on the other hand, is more ambiguous. There are many different types of yes. The three types Voss discusses in his book are the counterfeit yes, the confirmation yes, and the commitment yes. The counterfeit yes is where the counterpart would like to say no but uses yes as an escape route or to keep conversation going and get more information. Confirmation yes is a reflexive response to yes or no questions with no commitment to take action. Finally, the commitment yes is the one you wait for, the one which is a true agreement with acknowledgement of action.

6. Leverage

Change Management Tug-o-War | Windward Consulting Group

Leverage does not equal power and threat is rarely the answer to gaining influence. Leverage is, by its most basic definition, described as “the ability to inflict loss and withhold gain.” In a negotiation, leverage is a powerful tool because it allows you to take advantage of what it is your counterpart wishes to gain and what they fear losing. Leverage can come in many forms, including time, necessity, and competition. According to Voss, ““Deadlines are often arbitrary, almost always flexible, and hardly ever trigger the consequences we are told or think they will.” It’s the perception of a deadline that can be used towards to your advantage, putting pressure on your counterpart to make a hasty decision.

In economics, the concept of loss aversion is the tendency for people to take greater risks in avoiding loss than achieving equivalent gain. This can be applied to a negotiation. To gain leverage, you must convince the counterpart that they have something to lose in rejecting your deal.

Who has leverage in a kidnapping? Most think the kidnapper, but the victim’s family actually has more leverage because they have something the kidnapper wants and they are the only source with which they can get it. The kidnapper can’t walk away from the negotiation and is forced to make a deal.

Lastly, I want to leave you with the reminder that conflict is not something to be avoided. If done right, negotiation can strengthen relationships through conflict, instead of tearing them down. To quote Voss, “Negotiation is the heart of collaboration, it is what makes conflict potentially meaningful and productive for all parties.”

additional resources

Detective Reviews Hostage Negotiation Scenes, from ‘Captain Phillips’ to ‘Inside Man’ | Vanity Fair https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6N-unlYGLXs

find your negotiation style:


check out the YouTube channel for Voss’s business: The Black Swan Group (how cool of a name is that?!) https://www.youtube.com/user/NegotiationCEO

Give Voss a follow on Instagram @thefbinegotiator

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