Can a Negotiation Become an Audition?

NOTE: The following is the conclusion from an interview with seasoned FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss. The question that most people ask themselves as they walk into a negotiation for salary for a job, a raise, or a fee as a consultant is likely some variant of "What am I going to say?" But according to Mr. Voss, that might be the least important thing to keep in mind when negotiating. Enjoy! As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at  

Negotiation or Audition?

"The most useful thing to keep in mind really is this is a bit of an audition for how you're going to interact with these people if you make the team. So they want someone who is pleasant and doesn't give in. That's what they're hoping for because at some point in time, you're going to be their champion, and they're going to want you to be able to stand up for them the same way that you stand up for yourself and maintain good relationships. Then, within that context, you've got a lot of latitude.

"Once you can do those two things, you've now got an awful lot of latitude to be able to pleasantly persist, if you will, because people are going to want to collaborate with you. They're going to want to find solutions, especially if you want to invest in their future as well. How do you turn this from being all about you to being about us? Because now they want to take a chance on you. They want to give you more latitude if it's about us. It becomes us when you start talking with them about 'how do we prosper together? How can I be involved in making sure this company prospers?"

What's a Good Way to Deal With the Tricky Question of "Anchoring?" 

"The first thing to do is say, very gently, "Are you making me an offer, or are you fishing for information?" That's the first response, and you have to wait to see how they respond from that point forward. Now, understand that in any negotiation, and this is a negotiation like any other, they've got a range of numbers in mind to begin with, and what they're trying to do is they're trying to collect information so that they properly categorize you, and then you land in that range. Now, the harder that you force to get to the top of that range, the less give there's going to be on other issues that might be more important, so it's generally not a good idea to get to the absolute top of that range."

"But the next thing to ask is, after you've asked a couple of times and you say to the other side, "Alright, I'm sure you have a range in mind." And people are a lot more comfortable responding with a range than responding with a given number. They're much more likely to respond. So what you've done is, you want to continue to be responsive to their question, but you're not putting yourself in a position where you're going to get cornered over a number. And this is not the same thing as stalling. This is responding to different things within what they've said as opposed to ducking the answer entirely. And then, what you should do is, if you know the market, if they're still pushing you, pushing you, pushing you, pushing you and they still haven't thrown a number out, what you need to do then is throw out a range yourself, and it's got to be a high range."

What's the Role of Empathy in Negotiations?

"I view it as being critical. It's critical to negotiations. Typically what people think is, "I either have to be assertive or I have to be empathetic." So what that means is, in order for me to try to push even harder for what I want, that means I have to be less understanding of their position, which, when you put it like that, it makes absolutely no sense ... That sounds like nonsense when you put it like that, but nobody realizes that's what they're saying. "I want to push harder for what I'm going to get, so I need to push harder instead of being understanding." And we've actually taken a bit of a spin on empathy, and we refer to it as a 'proactive empathy.' Because now that you begin to recognize that everything you say is going to have an emotional impact on the other side, and most of these impacts are imminently predictable, what you now do is you begin to navigate these emotions before they even occur, if that doesn't sound like too much mumbo-jumbo."

Is That Hard to Do?

"It takes some practice, and I think you had a question about preparation as well. And that's exactly the issue. Most people only prepare for the numbers, they don't prepare for the emotional dynamics that the negotiation is going to engage in. So this is just simply adding in your preparation, adding a little bit more preparation to understand the emotional dynamics. Like if I ask you for more money than you can pay, you're obviously going to become uncomfortable with that. You don't have to be a genius to know that. It's effectively a proactive application of emotional intelligence."

Research Has Shown That Women Negotiate Starting Offers At a Much Lower Rate Than Men

"In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recommends that women use "we" and communal language to negotiate in order to avoid social costs. It's a good approach in that what you're trying to do there is you're trying to create the collaborative relationship there. What I would do is take it a step farther. You know, the hostage negotiator, from the very beginning, "I want to talk about how I'm going to help you with your future. I'm here to make sure that you live." That's all about me salvaging your future. So let's take the Sheryl Sandberg and take it the next level up to the hostage negotiator approach. Sheryl Sandberg is about here and now. Let's be partners now. And a hostage negotiator is: Here's a vision of the future that we both exist in. So that's taking what she's talking about a step farther. How do you hire me in a way that your company flourishes because you hired me? And all of a sudden, the other side, the emotional impact there is, "Wow, you want me to flourish. You're not here just to make you well and happy, you want to make me wealthy too by our collaboration."

"How is you giving me what I want a path to what you want? Everybody's interactions is we all say to ourselves, what's in it for me? Why should I do this for this person? Well, it gets me what I want. And what's the thing that we can all agree to begin with. In business, we can all agree that we want to be wealthy. A hostage negotiator's agreement with the guy who's barricaded is, "I want you to live." So if my approach to you is, "I want you to be famous for hiring me. I want your promotions in many cases to come because I was so successful because you hired me, working for you. I propelled your career as a great hire." You want to say things that make the other side stop and think and then rethink their position. And they'll only rethink that position if it benefits them. So that's how you take, in an employment negotiation, you want them to rethink their position where they're thinking of you as being a critical component of their future success."

Is the Bottom Line to Keep Everybody Feeling Good?

"It is because the profitability of any agreement, the success of any agreement, comes from implementation. And you need happy partners because you need them to implement. So you only find out if you make your money after the agreement when you go to implement it. And if they're mad at me, if they're unhappy with me, then that implementation is horrible. Every chance they get to not do something, they're going to cut a corner, or they're going to deny me a benefit because they're going to be mad about how I got them into the agreement. They're going to remember how I got them into the agreement. I know they're going to remember how we got into it. I need them to remember it in a positive way."

Do You Focus On Fairness?

"That's really tricky. We call fairness the "F-word." Fairness is the "F-word." Well, and actually, if you start to listen for it, you'll find that fairness comes out on almost every single negotiation, and when it gets thrown out there, it's a word that punches people's buttons in one of the most subtle ways possible. And so people use it in one of two ways. If I'm a negotiator, I'll use it against you because I know that I can knock you back on your heels emotionally. If we're in a deal, and I want to be a cutthroat, I'm going to say, "Look, I've given you a fair offer." Now, for you to protest against that, what I've just done is accuse you of being unfair towards me. And that's why the cutthroats do it because nobody sees it. It is a stealth attack from a cutthroat negotiator."

"Knowing that it's there and knowing that it comes up in every negotiation, again we've got to be proactive about it. And so, instead of me saying, "What I offered you was fair." Before I get to the offer, I'll say, "I want to make sure you feel I've treated you fairly. And the minute you think I haven't, I want you to tell me." Not only do you give that out, you encourage them to take that out."

"I was coaching a client in an internal compensation negotiation recently, where he knew they were trying to give him less than what they owed him, and he needed to make his case as to why they were wrong. So what I told him to do was, I said at the very beginning, you tell them that if at moment you're being unfair with them, for them to stop you. And what he did was then he laid out his entire case without interruption when otherwise they would've been looking to interrupt him. And then because all his points were valid, then when he shut up. He went silent. He did what we call an 'effective pause.' Their reaction was, well, there wasn't anything that you said that was unfair. So it tends to keep people in sort of a rational frame of mind and make them more open to listening to you."

"That's the emotional calculation you're going for. Either the "F-word" is going to come out, after people are upset and they throw out the "F-word" you know that not only are you in trouble at the moment you've been in trouble for a while. Or you take a proactive approach and you diffuse it before the missile gets launched."

Chris Voss, now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, spent 24 years at the FBI. After retirement, Voss founded The Black Swan Group to bring negotiation know-how to the business world.