How Do You Succeed in a "Win-Win" Negotiation?

NOTE: The following is from an interview with a 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

Is It Possible to Win a Negotiation Without Taking Anyone Captive?

"Absolutely. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don't know you're in. People typically only believe they're in a negotiation when dollars are involved. And maybe sometimes they're smart enough to see if there's a commodity that you can count being exchanged. And of course, the commodity that we most commonly exchange is money.

In reality, every single negotiation involves another commodity that's far more important to us which is time—minutes, hours, our investment in time. So even if you're talking about dollars, the commodity of time is always there because there has to be a discussion about how the commodity of dollars is moved ... This is what I learned in hostage negotiation, a ransom demand is irrelevant. Trying to get the money is the challenge ... Price is only one term in any negotiation. In a job negotiation, your salary is only one term. And typically you could take almost any price, or any salary and make that a great deal or a lousy deal depending on the terms."

Isn't Getting the Money a Little More Straightforward in a Salary Negotiation as Opposed to a Hostage Negotiation.

"In a job negotiation, the implementation of that deal is your success that also causes the company to succeed. Most people just say, "Hey look, just pay me a high enough salary and I'll be a superstar." Or "I'm so good, as long as you pay me enough I'm going to be worth it." Two things: What if the position you're taking doesn't give you any sort of authority or influence? Something as small as the job title. You can't implement anything you want to do if you don't have the authority beyond soft power, based on your position to get people to listen to you. You can't be successful without that, and that's one of many terms."

What's Tactical Listening?

"You have to have an understanding of what you're listening for, and it's much more important to have thought that out in advance ... one of the key issues in this is listening for a future between you and the other party ... For a hostage negotiator, when I've got a guy barricaded in a bank or I've got fugitives barricaded in the 27th floor of a high rise apartment—which I've had—the first thing I want to say to him is: "I'm here to make sure you get out alive."

Aren't People Are Often Overly Focused On What to Say—the Script—and Not Listening?

"Yeah exactly, they're focused on what to say, and they're really focused on one objective. Everybody's very focused on getting a good salary, and so then the problem with those two things are the more focused you are, the more you have blinders on. We like to say that the key to flexibility is don't be so sure of what you want that you wouldn't take something better. If you're focused on the number, you do not see the other possibilities.

We'll get back to how you can push that number higher. One of the ways is to talk about other things. The more pleasant you are in an interaction ... there's some data out there that says that people are six times more likely to get what they want if they're likable. So you put yourself in a position to push very hard the more likable that you are. People most of the time think that to push very hard, "I gotta be tough." In reality, it's the opposite: The nicer you are, the harder you can push."

How Do You Put Those Two things Together, Being Nice and Pushing Hard?

"First thing is understanding that it works. Once you know that then it's easy to have confidence in the approach. If I say something to you with a smile, I know you're more likely to collaborate than if I'm really direct ... that's precisely what a hostage negotiator does. The more easy we are, the more reassuring we are, the harder we can push.

Pushing is reminding the other side of what you would like, and what's also very important are calibrated questions. Every question you ask anyone impacts them on two levels: an emotional and an intellectual level. We construct and calibrate every question to have an emotional impact; most people only think of the intellectual impact. We want to have an influence on what that emotional impact is.

For example, "Let's revisit your raise in 3 months," what you want to do is not let that go. Put them in a position that makes them sound like that's an unacceptable response. You ask this question and in this way: "How am I supposed to do that?" You have to use those exact words. There are two or three possible answers to that, and you want to be prepared for all three. One is "You're right, you can't." The very worst possible answer that everyone imagines is "Because you have to." How bad is that? The reality is that there's no downside to that answer, and that's maybe 20 percent of the time."

Why Isn't That Bad?

"First of all, you found out they're not going to budge, which makes you ten times smarter than you were 60 seconds ago. Part of the purpose of what we said is to diagnose whether there's any room in their position. That's critical to how you move forward. Is there any room and can I navigate it? So now you've just found out there's no room, which makes you smarter. And now you can make an informed decision, you know for sure there's only one or two choices—and that's walk away or agree."

What Happens When You Hear Something You Don't Want to Hear?

"Keep focusing on how the other side is reacting the less you react. It's like a magic trick of keeping your own emotions under control. By listening very intently to the other side and also maintaining a positive external demeanor, that moves you from the very emotional side of your brain into the very rational side. That automatically helps you stay calm."

What About the Classic Deflection Like, "It's Not a Good Time?" How Do You Respond to That?

"The first is the question. The second is to say the statement: "It seems like there's nothing you can do." People do not like to feel powerless, what it does is it makes the other side feel like they might be somewhat powerless. They're going to want to search for answers. And certainly, for someone higher than you in the hierarchy, the last thing they want to look to you, a subordinate, is to look powerless. It threatens their identity and authority. They're not going to be comfortable saying yes to that ... The key to any negotiation with the people you work for is deference; there's great power in deference. So you can make a statement if you're very deferential. All you're doing is making an observation about the environment; you're not accusing them directly of that. You're not making a judgment."

Is Research Important Before Entering a Negotiation?

"The important thing is context. The research is helpful, but it may or may not have any impact on your company's ability to pay you that. You have to understand market prices, but you also have to understand a market price does not impact a buyer's ability to pay. Your employer might not be able to pay the price you're looking for ... they actually want to see you not give in and be very pleasant at the same time because they know that's how you're going to deal with them in a continuing basis as you work with them. And they don't want a colleague who gives in, but they also don't want a colleague who's a jerk."

Should You Bring Competing Offers Into the Negotiation?

"You never want the other side to feel like you're taking them hostage. And so a lot of people have really ruined their opportunities by trying to create an auction, and the other side feels very manipulated by that, and that's very problematic. And especially if they don't have the ability to pay. They might not have the ability to give you the salary you're looking for. And so now you kind of take them hostage, and they're going to resent that as well. I don't counsel that. The thing that I most frequently coach current and former students ... we just don't talk about competing salaries because the other side is going to resent it. It's a lot more important to talk about the abilities that they have and the goals for the future that they have."