Applying hostage negotiation techniques to business and life.
Never split the difference
Applying hostage negotiation techniques to business and life.
Never split the difference.
Negotiating is something that can be frustrating and resembles to me a lot like pool in the sense that everyone thinks they’re good at it or that it really can’t be that difficult. The reality can’t be further from the truth as I learned while reading Chis Voss’ book ‘’Never Split the Difference’’. He worked as a hostage negotiator for years and developed some of the most effective techniques and methods. The difference between hostage negotiations and other types is that when dealing with hostages there is no room to make compromise. It is possible to come to agreements with your spouse or friend when the stakes are low, for example you could agree that one will take out the trash and another will do the dishes, seems fair. On the other hand, compromises usually don’t work for example, when you want to put on brown shoes, but your spouse wants you to wear black and you compromise to wear both. Hostage negotiations are like the shoes in the sense that there cannot be any compromises, the negotiator needs to get everything and that’s why this line of work has been learning how to do this for at least the past 100 years.
In the past police used to deal with hostage situations by simply buying enough time in talks to plan some sort of use of force to try and save the hostages but after a few situations that cost the lives of hostages this method was proved ineffective. They found that the most success always came through calm negotiations and use of proven psychological techniques to coerce the terrorists into submission.
So how is it accomplished? Chris Voss lays down a long list of processes and gives many great case studies in his book about how they where used and what their limitations may be as well as what kinds of things should be avoided at all cost. I will summarize the key take-aways, but I don’t want to make this essay a summary of his book, rather discuss my own thought processes about applying these techniques in Proakatemia or business and life in general.
He starts by emphasizing the importance of composure, empathy and active listening. In these high stress situations, it is typically impossible to get anything of substance in conversation when there are a million things going on and stakes are high. He even references neuroscience and the proven difficulties that the brain has in processing more than 3 or 4 things at any given time. So slow down and calm down is always the priority. In business negotiations this may not be something that would take too much effort, but active listening is still extremely important. Active listening simply means showing a real interest in what the other is saying as negotiation should be a process of discovery rather than an exchange of opinionated demands.
Some of the better techniques for this are the use of a calm tone of speech, carefully selected words, mirroring (rephrasing key points back) and using silences and pauses often enough to allow the subject time to think. This is something that can be easily learned although it may take time once the concept is understood I think that it would be easy to start how it could have helped in conversation and how useful it might be.
Tactical empathy is also very important. There is a notable difference between empathy and sympathy. You don’t need to agree with someone or think that they are right about anything to have empathy for them. This empathy is a personal tool which helps put you in the right mind set to have effective conversations. It helps you think about what position they are in and how they might be feeling. If you think about it there really is no reason to be dismissive or otherwise arrogant to people you’re negotiating with, it only serves you on an emotional level and even then, it doesn’t help you accomplish anything.
Labeling your subjects points helps by acknowledging them and building an emotional rapport, using phrases like ‘’it seems like…’’ ‘’it sounds like…’’ and ‘’it looks like…’’ this can help in reinforcing or diffusing points by prolonging conversation and giving you and the subject more time to discuss issues in greater detail rather than forcing them to act on impulses. This can be tricky to learn especially considering that you need to be able to understand the current emotional state of the subject and know the direction it needs to be taken.
Some of the best take-aways from the book that I feel are most applicable to everyday negotiations are probably where Chris explains the most valuable things to keep in mind. It starts with giving the subject an imaginary deadline which helps in giving them a sense of urgency. Most people want to be in control and giving them the illusion of control is key and can be accomplished with what he referred to as ‘’calibrated questions’’. Calibrated questions are simply questions posed in a way to make them think that they are the ones steering the conversation. With a strong implication that you require their intelligence to solve the problem, these types of questions are designed to appeal to ego centric personalities and typically work very well in keeping the tone of the conversation calm and informative. This is essentially a form of Socratic dialogue, very much question based rather than assertive and can contribute greatly in bringing out ‘’black swans’’. Black swans are described in the book as game-changing facts that otherwise are suppressed and not suppose to come out in conversation. As previously mentioned, the goal in negotiation is to discover not to argue.
I found a lot of similarities as far as dialogue is concerned with a growing movement online known as ‘’street epistemology’’ which is based on a book by Peter Boghossian but put into practice and made famous by Anthony Magnabosco. In case anyone is interested in this field of study these are some notable names where more material can be found. These dialectic practices are very much based on the Socratic method, difficult to master but proven to be useful in many situations.
These types of books are invaluable, and I think among the more important because they give you an edge that others rarely have. The only issue I can see is that it can be very difficult to master or put into practice effectively. Even so, being knowledgeable about them may help in preventing others from using these tricks against you.
There is a pdf file available online as well as an appendix in the book that works essentially as a cheat sheet for negotiations and well worth a read, especially before going into negotiations. I looked through it after reading the book and felt that this cheat sheet alone combine with a brief summary of the book would be enough to put you in a much better position to negotiate.