How To Win Arguments Like an FBI Hostage Negotiator

And while you’re at it get a free room upgrade at a hotel.

A man looking at his phone smiling and a woman glaring at him
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss knows what it’s like to work under pressure. When an American has been kidnapped overseas and you’ve got the terrorist on the other end of the line, how do you keep your cool? As Chris lays out in his book Never Split the Difference, you don’t have to be aggressive to get what you want. Empathy, in fact, can be a kind of secret superpower. On a recent episode of How To!, Chris reveals the tactics that will help you succeed in your everyday confrontations—whether negotiating the rent with your landlord, arguing with your spouse, or scoring free upgrades when you travel. No matter how conflict-averse you are, these tips will help you speak your mind without burning any bridges. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles Duhigg: How did you become an FBI hostage negotiator?

Chris Voss: One left turn after another. Everybody finds a way into stuff sort of by accident. From my mid-teens, I wanted to be a cop. I never even thought about being an FBI agent. I was a cop for three years. Classic cop mentality is solve the problem now and go to the next person who needs your help, which unfortunately is a very direct, aggressive approach. You think you’re being direct and honest, but the other side sees you as combative and aggressive, which is one of the problems with law enforcement today. I ended up riding with a guy—a detective—who, you know, just his tone of voice worked magic. I saw this guy solve problems and make people think about things in a different way. That just blew me away—tone of voice. How stupid is that? How could that make such a difference?

One thing accumulated after another over the years, and I eventually got trained as a hostage negotiator with the FBI. I had a chance then to also be exposed to some great interviewers. These were the guys who got people to cooperate without a hammer because they wanted to cooperate. I saw those guys work their magic, establishing connections with people. And then I wanted to learn more about how those guys did that, because they made cases that nobody else could make.

Can you give me an example of a case where you used this “magic”?

[During one bank robbery in Brooklyn in 1993,] we had a van that we hadn’t found the owner of—one of the bank robbers. [Someone found that suspect and put him on the phone with me] and I said, “You know, we’ve got a van out here. We’ve been able to identify all of the owners of the vans except this one.” And he said, “We only have one van.” I didn’t know what to say, so my training is to repeat the last couple words when I’m flummoxed. I said, “You have only one van.” He goes, “Well, we got more than one van.” I said, “More than one van?” He said, “Well, you chased my driver away.” I said, “We chased your driver away?” And he said, “Yeah, he saw the police. He cut and ran.”

Now, what he just did was tell us that there was a third accomplice, who was the getaway driver. And we had no clue that there was a third accomplice. This was a guy who was watching everything he said, but [my mirroring what he said back to him] caused him to connect thoughts, keep talking, and then share information that he had no intention of sharing with us. It caused us to catch up to the third bank robber, get a conviction, and then ultimately convict all three bank robbers, based on the things that were said on the phone, on a line that he knew was being recorded.

That’s interesting. This isn’t the kind of approach I would have expected from someone negotiating with bank robbers and terrorists. 

Everybody assumes that to be assertive, you’ve got to be rough about it. You’ve got to be attacking. You’ve got to call the other person names. But there’s nothing wrong with being conflict-avoidant. You know, I’ll evoke a couple of poster children for negotiation styles. Donald Trump is the poster child for negotiations that are attacking, calling people names, beating the other side into submission. Well, let’s contrast it with Oprah Winfrey. Now, people don’t see Oprah as assertive. Who is notable for having gotten into an argument with Oprah?

I can’t think of anyone. It’s like asking who’s been in a fight with Bambi. It doesn’t happen.

But how many Hollywood celebrities has Oprah had a tiff with? I’m here to tell you, I know of quite a few. Why don’t they spill out into the open? Because she is emotionally intelligent. She’s relationship-focused and assertion-focused. Empathy has become synonymous with sympathy, and it was never meant that way. Empathy is being able to fully articulate a complete demonstration of understanding. When you can do that you go from being Donald Trump to being Oprah Winfrey. It’s astonishing what you can get people to agree to collaborate with you on once they know that you know where they’re coming from.

We feel like if we demonstrate understanding we are exposed. And we’re scared to death of that. You’re doing that because you’re a human being and you have something in the middle of your brain called the amygdala. Many people [think of it as] my caveman brain. The amygdala is wired to be 75 percent negative. So your survival mode is wired to always overreact negatively to everything you’re faced with until you learn the difference between survival and success. We’re not wired for success as human beings, we’re wired to survive and that’s why, having not gone down this path before, your initial instinct—your caveman wiring—is “I’m exposed. I’m going to have to give in.” But tactical empathy—expressing the situation from [the other person’s] side—does more for you than it does for them. And, it takes away the stress [of negotiations].

How do we do that? How do we get to that place where we can just say what’s on the other person’s mind, particularly if we’re all riled up?

Practice, practice, practice. It’s always small-stakes practice, and we got people around us all the time. You know, your Lyft driver, anybody you’re on the phone with—we got no skin in the game because you’re not going to deploy a new technique like this in something as important as an interaction with the landlord if you haven’t tried it out on the people in your everyday life, just to see what the reaction is.

Now, if you fully empathize, demonstrate understanding with somebody, and they still come back at you hard, you just found out that this person is never going to make a favorable deal with you. It happens all the time. How do we kick this back into gear? The secret to gaining the upper hand in negotiations is giving the other side the illusion of control. The first thing you want to do is say, “How do you want to proceed?” Are they on the verge of offering me something? I’ve got to give them a chance to do that without making them feel backed into a corner somewhere, so my first move is going to be a “how” question.

Let’s say they have no answer. My next move after that is a “no”-oriented question. “Is it ridiculous for me to offer something that would work for me?” They’re going to say “no.” But people feel safe and protected when they say “no.” The last person that talked you into something that you regretted, they got you to say “yes” a whole bunch of times. What did that do to you? It made you leery of anybody trying to get you to say “yes.” [Saying “no” makes someone feel like they’re in control, but] I’m continuing to shave the odds in my favor. These are my last ditch efforts at making a collaborative deal.

What’s a time you used this tactic in everyday life?

Every time we check into a hotel, we get stuff for free. Here’s how we do it. I walk up and I say, “I’m getting ready to make your day ridiculously painful.” And then I watch the front desk react, because if they work in a hotel, they don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You could have a goat in the bag. You could do a ritual sacrifice up in a room. They’ve seen everything. So then I say, “I’m getting ready to sound like a self-centered, self-involved hotel guest that wants something for nothing.” By calling out the negatives, by calling out the potential elephants in a room, I’m getting rid of them one at a time.

Evoking the negative and letting people resolve it in their minds before they move forward—that has a higher success rate than dangling the positive. Because everybody dangles a positive, it’s a lure. You don’t get rid of the elephant in a room by ignoring it, but if you say, look, “There’s an elephant. Here’s the elephant. Look at it. Look at it right there.”

Now they’re looking at me in a completely different way—in a way that automatically inoculates me. Their reaction is “this guy understands the kind of nonsense I’m trying to deal with.” And then the last thing I say is, “How much trouble do I get you in for trying to get an upgrade to a suite for free?” We get suites every time.

To hear Chris coach a timid bomb disposal technician to speak up for himself, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.