The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 47

Chris Voss

Never Split the Difference

Have you given up trying to be a more effective negotiator? Chris Voss, former FBI lead hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, has redefined the rules of negotiation for leaders in all levels of business. According to Chris, negotiations are more emotional than rational and need to be approached with “tactical empathy.” Discover the new playbook for deal-making: how you can “clear out the negatives”, why you should get someone to say ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’, and how to phrase questions that will increase your success. You’ll also get to hear about some of Chris’s amazing hostage-negotiation stories from his time with the FBI.



Website: Black Swan Group
Book: Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It
Bio: Chris Voss is the Founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group Ltd and author of Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. He has used his many years of experience in international crisis and high-stakes negotiations to develop a unique program and team that applies these globally proven techniques to the business world.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With me today is Chris Voss. He wrote the book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Chris is a former FBI top hostage negotiator. He used the tools that he describes in this book in many of his negotiations and one of the things that makes this book so charming and entertaining is it is filled with stories of his negotiations, some which went well, some which went less well, but all of which teach us lessons about how to negotiate under serious pressure.

He is the founder and principal of the Black Swan Group, which is a consulting firm that provides training and advises Fortune 500 companies through complex negotiations. He teaches at the University of Southern California’s and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He’s here with us today to share some of his thoughts and answer some of my questions about the application of this to those of us who are in leadership roles in organizations and have to negotiate every day. Chris, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Chris: Thank you, Peter, it’s an absolute pleasure to be on here. If I could add a little thing too, because the book’s not just stories of hostage negotiations, but all that stuff is applied in business negotiation too, so it’s easy to make the kind of actions.

Peter: That’s great. I’m going to ask you about that a little bit too, because I think some of the similarities and some of the differences are interesting to explore. Let’s start with where you begin the book, which is you your critical view of traditional negotiation practice and how negotiation is taught typically. Can you explain that a little bit?

Chris: Unfortunately, negotiation is taught as if it’s this rational process. The most famous negotiating book so far Getting to Yes, everybody knows that book, it’s predicated on we’ll make a wise agreement or if you just tell the other side why you want what you want and you find out why they want what they want, you could make a deal. This seems very rational, but I haven’t heard anybody say, “Wow, I read Getting to Yes and made a great deal!” They’ll say, “This makes sense, but I’m not sure how to do it.” I think the issue has always been like it or not, people are driven by what they care about and we negotiate based on what we care about, which makes this an emotional process. Why not accept that and navigate with emotional intelligence?

Peter: It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of science that seems to be moving in this direction. You talked about system one and system two thinking. I think about Dan Ariely who wrote Predictably Irrational. The whole world of economics is enriched by behavioral economics, with this idea that certainly for those of us who operate in a non-spread sheet real world, the truth is that people act out of all sorts of incentives and all sorts of reasons that maybe we don’t even realize we’re acting from and yet they seem to drive our behavior.

What you’re doing is you’re applying this now to negotiation and you’re saying that people act irrationally in negotiations and that in order to be an effective negotiator, you have to understand and be able to operate in a world in which people are acting not necessarily even in their own best interests.

Chris: Right. You make a great point talking about Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, because just because somebody’s irrational doesn’t mean they’re unpredictable. Everybody has patterns. Let’s accept the fact that people worry about loss and let that change how we talk about things. That gives us tremendous advantages. Let’s accept the fact that why somebody won’t do something is more important than why they would do it, because lost thing’s twice as much as an equivalent gained. We can’t change the science of that. Danny Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning prospect theory says, “Lost thing’s twice as much as an equivalent gained.” Actually, in an interview that he gave, “That’s not true, it’s actually more like 7 times as much, it’s just so we figured we kept down on the arguments by saying it was only twice as much.”

In leadership, which is a negotiation, if you come to accept that how the other person perceives loss and if I can influence that will give me 7 times the power, then now this predictable irrationality then begins to be something, a tool that we could use.

Peter: Let’s start to apply that to negotiation, which is what you do in your book. If we accept the premise that people aren’t acting rationally all the time, but they do act predictably, how should that inform how we approach a negotiation?

Chris: Then we go from empathy to tactical empathy. To talk about it like a mercenary, this is the weapon I had used of emotional intelligence. If I know for sure that you can’t listen to anything positive I have to say, well there are negative voices in your head, the voice in your head that says, “I can’t trust this guy, this guy is another salesman. This guys is a boss, this guy doesn’t care about me.” People that I’m supervising, if I say to them, “Look, I’m sure it seems like I don’t care about you.” If I understand emotional intelligence, I know that by simply saying that, I’ve dialed that voice down, I haven’t emphasized it. There’s actually data now that shows that identifying negatives like that as opposed to denying them immediately dials it down.

Peter: How is that different than regular empathy?

Chris: I think regular empathy is unguided. I learned enough about in the hostage negotiation that I know specifically now what I’m looking for. I tell people I understand … wait for something that sounds positive. Reinforce that, strengthens it. Wait for something that sounds negative, observe it, weakens it. We’ve got to the point where let us know how they feel, let them know you know how they feel, a very broad and general terms, we’ve learned specifically how we can tip the scales one way or the other and what exactly to look for. When you know exactly what you’re looking for, now it’s a much more tactical approach and that’s why we call it tactical empathy.

Peter: You’re saying specifically look for things they may be feeling that’s negative about you and call those out and say, “You must be thinking … ” or, “You’re maybe thinking … ”

Chris: Exactly and calling it out in a soft way, where it doesn’t back them into a corner. One of the people I was coaching the other day was trying to get an introduction to a CEO and the CEO’s assistant said, “I’ll write this up and we’ll get back to you.” He immediately said, “It feels like you’ve blown us off.” That shocked the other person into the reality, the situation took that away and they ended up getting the introduction that they wanted to instead of, “I don’t want you to think I’m accusing you of blowing us off.” That’s a denial and a denial is a bad thing. The simple observation of the negative clears the fog, it clears the brush. It separates the wheat from the chaff, it’s very powerful.

Peter: You make this distinction between a problem solver and a people mover. Does that sound familiar to you? I wrote this in my notes about this distinction between someone who comes in to solve a problem and someone who’s coming in to move people. Can you talk about that distinction?

Chris: Right. I talk about also in terms of separate the person from the problem and then we’ll solve the problem. What do you do if the person is the problem? You’re never going to separate the person from the problem, because they’re linked emotionally to it. If you’re thinking yourself in terms of a problem solver, then you’re as effective as a husband who’s always telling a wife how to solve her problems and she’s sick to death of listening to what he has to say, because what she needs is for him to understand her.

This is not just the gender thing, this is a human-based thing. That’s why we can always see somebody with the solutions to other people’s problems, because we’re not emotionally involved and we’re frustrated that they can’t take our answers, because we see it so clearly. You become a people mover when you recognize that people are driven by emotions. Stop pretending that that’s a fiction. Once you accept that reality, you become an incredibly powerful people mover and the problems have the tendency to solve themselves.

Peter: Once you realize that people are driven by emotions and with tactical empathy you’re able to identify specifically their emotions about you that may be negative, that you can call to the surface so that you take them out from under the table and you expose them in a way that neuters them, to some degree, and that reduces their negative impact, what do you do then?

Chris: You want to make sure you clear the brush. Interestingly enough, we like to overdo it. I like to go after the negatives and tell the other side, “Hold on, hold on, you’re being too hard on yourself. Tell me what you really want.” There’s the moment. That’s when you’ve cleared out the negative enough where they’re willing to listen. In many cases, more often than not, an extremely high percentage … Life is Los Vegas, life is not Ivory tower. You want to use approaches that work more often than not. Once you get over 50% of the time in Vegas, you walk away a billionaire. That’s why the casinos have so much money.

More often than not, get rid of the negatives and the positives will take over and make the deal for you. Whether it’s simply a deal of leadership and cooperation. A hospital chain that we’ve talked to recently. We’re telling them about this approach and we refer to is as an accusation aide. Their senior executive went, “Omg, our CEO just did this. We went through a merger where it looked like that top management was not paying attention to what we needed to have and he made it a point where he’s scheduled a meeting where they required everyone in the company to show up to explain the position and he started out by saying, “I’m sure it looks like we’re not paying attention to you at all. I’m sure it seems like the top levels of this company does not care what happens at the bottom of us.” The senior executive said, “We found ourselves being completely disarmed by this. We appreciated the recognition and we all bought in once he showed us that he understood where we were coming from.” He didn’t agree with anything that we wanted, but he got almost completely lined up behind him by simply demonstrating that he understood where they were coming from without agreeing with him and by getting rid of the negatives.

Peter: You also talk a lot about trying to solicit a no, not a yes. With the Getting to Yes the whole idea that we all hear where someone calls you at the phone at 7:00 and it’s dinner time, you don’t feel like talking and they say, “Do you believe in truth in justice?” Because they’re just trying to get you to say the word yes and to build it. You say the opposite, you say … Actually you want to get people to say, “No.” Talk about that.

Chris: It’s shocking what people are willing to say no to and there’s always the same emotional response when someone says no. They centered themselves, they feel protected when they say no and having felt protected now they’re suddenly more open to listen. We went from saying, no as an obstacle to once we understood what happens in the brain when somebody says no. We just flip all the times we’re trying to get a yes and get the same response with a no.

It started with one of my students that I coached who was a political fundraiser doing his political fundraising and changing it from, “Would you like to take the White House back in November?” To, “Have you given up on taking the White House back in November?” Bang! Suddenly now they’ve got people’s attention. Instead of saying, “Would you like to make more money?” The question is, “Are you happy with the amount of money that you’re leaving on the table?” “Do you like walking away from more opportunity?”

We send the one line email that we send that gets an immediate response every single time, “Have you given up on this project?” One single line and people are jolted in a way that hit … because then it also triggers the fear of loss again. The answer no protects them, which means they haven’t let themselves in for anything. When you feel completely protected, you’re willing to listen. It’s crazy, it’s ridiculous.

Peter: That’s the email that you send when a client hasn’t gotten back to you on something, that’s the email that’ll you send?

Chris: Yeah. Anywhere from 2 days, to 2 weeks, to 2 months, we get … I think we’ve got a 1000% response rate when we say, “Have you given up on this project?” There’s a secondary issue of how you follow that up. Interestingly enough, there’s the ridiculous cultural stereotypes, one of which is you can’t get an Asian or an Arab to say no. We get those people say no all the time. It’s not the word, it’s what they’re saying no to. The longest time that it ever took for me to get a response to, “Have you given up on this project?” Was sent to a colleague of mine who’s a native of the United Arab Emirates and it took him 9 hours to respond, because it was a 9 hour time difference and it was overnight and as soon as he saw it in the morning he responded with a no.

Peter: I have to say, I find that to be true also in my life when my kids ask me for something and I have an immediate no and then they keep going, I feel actually a little protected, I’ve already said no, so I can listen to them and then sometimes I do change my mind, which, by the way, I don’t is very effective parenting, but it does allude to the success of that process.

Chris: Yeah, because when they say, “Dad, can I … ” before they finished you said, “No.” Afterwards, you’re willing to listen because you’ve just protected yourself.

Peter: Right, right. It’s very interesting. You talk about as you’ve mentioned at the beginning of this interview and you’ve mentioned in your book too that there’s a lot of similarity between negotiation and business negotiation and hostage negotiation. One thing that occurred to me as I was reading some of these stories is one of the big differences is that in a hostage negotiation there are no competitors.

For example, you as the head of FBI negotiation are negotiating with someone who’s kidnapped someone or someone who’s just robbed a bank and is holed up somewhere. In a business setting, if someone’s negotiating with you as a consultant, they could be also talking to Harvard business, the Harvard negotiation project and they could be talking to 5 other consultants who want to sell them a negotiation training, which changes the dynamic of the negotiation, I would imagine. I’m wondering how you negotiate in a dynamic differently when there’s competitors versus in a hostage situation where you’re the only one they’re negotiating with?

Chris: It’s interesting, when you’re talking about factors that exist away from the table that I decide whether or not I’m going to let those factors take me hostage. It’s are there competitors? Do I have options? Do they have options? I get used to negotiating comfortably where I didn’t let any of those external factors get in my way and I found that I made better deals. These self-inflicted perceptions are us taking ourselves hostage. “Oh my god, I’ve got to cut the price because their competitors are going to cut the price.” “Oh my god, I’ve got to give in because the competitors are going to give in.”

Reality is as soon as you stop taking that, you gain a competitive advantage, because now you’re not driven by things that are at the table, you’re driven by the interaction itself and that’s where the real deal is made. Yeah, I see that as noise, that it’s my job as a negotiator to not let get into my head.

Peter: I think it’s a great way that you described it in terms of options, because I guess different people have options. You knocked down BATNA a little bit, this idea of the best alternative to negotiate an agreement. In some ways, that’s just another option. That’s just the question of saying, “What is their option that would lead them to stop negotiating with you?”
Do you have a good story? I want you to share at least one story, because there’s so many great stories in this book, where you are faced with innocence negotiating with someone who had options. Everybody has some options, they could always just shoot themselves, on a slightly dire and morose perspective. They have a gun and they’re holed up somewhere. An example, maybe, of a negotiation where you’ve managed through that options piece?

Chris: There was a great time and I’ve used this kidnapping in the Philippines is one of the examples when I teach in business school. Because a kidnapper really has no options. He’s only got one buyer. Interestingly enough, in a buyer’s market, who’s got the leverage? The buyer, the family, but nobody ever perceives it this way. This kidnapper was a businessman, as they all are, and so he wanted to start the negotiation by giving himself options. He actually sent the family an email saying, “If you don’t want to ransom your son out, I have no problem with that, I’ll sell his organs in Saudi Arabia.”

Peter: You just took my morose and you went one step deeper.

Chris: As a businessman, he’s trying to create options for himself, so that he’s not taking hostage by the process. Of course, from the other side, the family was understandably horrified. We didn’t know one way or another at the time whether or not he had the capability of doing that. We didn’t know anything about this guy at the time. As it turned out, he was the only lone serial killer, lone kidnapper that I’d ever heard of in any situation, let alone having dealt with. We simply used difference as a weapon. I [want you differential 00:19:24] in any negotiation, it gives you a lot of latitude, what you can get away with saying and then we used tactical empathy.

Peter: Bring us through it, how did you use difference?

Chris: The first answer is you innocently answer, “How do we know if we pay that you let him go?” How that’s posed is critical, because difference is much more created in the tone of voice which gives you the ability to say nearly anything. They have no idea that how question is one of the most powerful things you could do to a problem creating counterpart. The purpose of a how question is to place the burden for a solution back on your counterpart.

I avoid the word adversary, because I don’t like thinking … That plants negative things in my brain. The more negative things that are planted in my brain with the process, the slower my brain works. I intentionally reword things to keep myself on a positive frame of mind. There’s actually very solid psychological data out there that indicates that our brain works about 31% more effectively if we’re in a good mood. I want to be in a good mood for very mercenary reasons, I know that it in fact makes me smarter. That’s why I’m careful with the words I use in my head.

In a very differential approach, we burden this guy with the problem. “How do we know that if we pay you you’re going to let him go?” Which then immediately triggers visions in his mind of getting paid. Once you understand what the other side lusts for it’s a Pavlovian response on their side. They drool like Pavlov’s dog and they drop their guard. That’s where we want them, because at point in time we can now maneuver them.

Peter: What happened? How did he respond when you said, “How am I to know that you’re actually going to return the hostage when we pay you?”

Chris: Then the negotiation shifted a different direction, which was different, but not negative. Which you have to always be prepared for. You want to shift the ground that’s unexpected to positive. Then what he wanted to say was, “Well, I’ll take good care of him until we can come to a settlement and here’s what I want in order to take good care of him.” It shifted from a large ransom discussion to effectively [inaudible 00:21:47], which now we now change the ground of the negotiation in a very differential way.

Then we began to talk about, “How long can we pay you before we run out of money?” Now we’ve burdened him with a different problem. Very natural and predictable problems in a very differential fashion using the how word. In any negotiation, when your counterpart is creating the problems, how is a great way to gain the upper hand, now that the other side is understanding that they’ve given away the upper hand they actually feel very much in control. People love to be asked how? They feel involved and they feel a collaboration with you and you begin to vest them in the process.

Ultimately what ended up happening was the negotiator that I was coaching and if nothing else, I coached negotiations, that’s all I’ve ever done around the world. Our negotiator got so good at the questions, he said on his own, “When we run out of money, what’s going to happen?” We didn’t realize at the time that we were, in fact, dealing with a killer. We assumed that he was, but we didn’t know it. His answer was, “Well, everything will be all right.” What he’s just done without realizing it was promising us that he would never hurt our victim. As soon as I heard that, I knew we had him.

Peter: How could you trust that he would do that? He’s a killer.

Chris: It’s a great question. The answer to that is everybody, every human being on the planet, no matter whether they’re a killer or a sociopath, a presidential candidate, everybody tells the truth the same way. We lie dozens and dozens of ways, but we all have one way that we tell the truth. One of the purposes of engaging in a conversation with any counterpart is to try to draw a beat on how they tell the truth, because they’ll the truth one way, they’ll lie anywhere from 5 to 15 ways. It’s just too much data to keep track of on everybody’s different tells, but if I know what you look like when you’re telling the truth and then I ask you the hard question, “What’s going to happen when we run out of money?” If you deviate away from the way that you told the truth, I know you’re lying, it doesn’t matter how you deviate. If I know what your truth looks like and you give me that, I know I’m rock solid.

Peter: You ask them some questions that you know the answers to so that you can assess their truth tell and then you’re able to compare what they’re saying to that so that you know whether they’re telling the truth?

Chris: Exactly. That’s exactly the way a polygraph works and that’s why I don’t even need to put the guy on the box, because I ask a series of … They call them control questions. What did you have for breakfast? What did you do last night? What’s your father’s middle name? Ask enough questions to draw a bill on what they look like when they’re telling the truth and that’s why there’s so many different dials and things on you, because you could lie in 50 different ways. That’s why they put so many dials on you on the polygraph, but you tell the truth one way.

Peter: One last question about the how. When you ask how … You talk about this in the book a bunch too, asking how am I supposed to do that? They say, “Give me money,” and you say, “How am I supposed to do that?” What prevents the hostage taker from saying, “That’s your problem. If you want your son back, you’re going to find a way to give me the money.”

Chris: That’s actually where you want to go. Negotiation is about finding how much latitude and how much is still on the table. You want to find out what you’ve left on the table. In any given term, whether it’s a hostage negotiation or it’s a real estate deal, when they say, “Because you have to,” what you’ve just done is push them as far as you can on that term without having them storm away from the table, because the real act of saying, “Because you have to,” by definition they’re still engaged, they haven’t walked away, they haven’t done anything negative. That’s where you want them to be and that’s the only way to get the feedback that you’ve pushed this particular term as far as you can, which is what every negotiator wants.

Peter: Got it.

Chris: Generally you have to ask that question no less than 2 times, sometimes 3 or 4 times and every single time you ask it, the first couple of times they give in, which is what we want. We want to know how far we can push and that’s how you do it.

Peter: You’re talking to a potential client and they say, “Chris, I really like what you’re offering and it’s really smart and I think it’s useful, we just don’t have the money.”

Chris: My answer is, “It sounds like it’s not worth that much to you.”

Peter: They say, “No, it’s worth a lot, we just don’t have the money.”

Chris: “Well, then it must not be worth that much to you within the grand scheme there are other things that are a lot more important to you. I wish I could help you. When you decide that it is a value to you, then please, let me know, because I’d love to work with you.”

Peter: Great, great. Excellent. Christ Voss. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast, the book is Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Again, it’s a fascinating, interesting read and incredibly useful at the same time. It does what so many different disciplines are doing now, which is saying, “Let’s move away from this rational, purely scientific way things should work and let’s look at the way they actually do work in the real world,” and you certainly bring that real world experience to your writing and your thinking and your teaching. Chris, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Chris: I really enjoyed it, Peter. Thank you.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please, subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Training as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.