How To Win Arguments Like a Hostage Negotiator

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S1: So there’s a joke that when you sit down in front of a bomb, you’re either right or it’s not your problem anymore. So what does that mean? So if you’re right, then everything works out and nobody gets killed. And if you’re wrong, then you’re so close to when it blows up that you don’t really have to worry about.

S2: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Duhigg. Each week on the show, we talk to a listener who’s struggling with something, who has a problem that’s bothering them, and we try to find them some advice.


S3: Yeah. So I recently stumbled across your podcasts and then I was like, man, I. I think I have an issue that I’d like to talk about. This is Shane from Virginia. Basically, I think it boils down to what I would call the appropriate level of assertiveness. And I find that I don’t have like a good reaction for for confrontation in social settings. And I think that it would be nice to kind of figure that out.

S4: What’s what’s a situation where you you wish you had calibrated your assertiveness a little bit differently.

S1: So I got four kids actually have a fifth on the way. And we’ve we’ve had our struggles with finding a good daycare. And a couple of years back, we had someone that was recommended to us and she seemed like a good fit. But we often found that she’d come over and we’d say, you know, help yourself to anything that you need. And in her mind, she would then proceed to bring over her kids and clean out our groceries. Most of it was gone. And instead of, like, confronting her and making a scene, we just sort of went with it. And then as soon as we had a replacement, we just stopped talking to her ever again.


S4: She doesn’t like confrontation and in fact, he tends to avoid it. But at the same time, it bugs him when he feels like people are walking all over him.

S1: I have a few times, you know, attempted of being more assertive. And what it seems like happens is the fallout from the other person. It makes me feel like a jerk. Like I’m like, OK, maybe there was more going on that I wasn’t aware of. So I need to be more understanding and and I sort of have that battle in my head and then I always regret it afterwards.

S4: And why do you regret it? Like, what bugs you about that?


S1: Well, I either overpay for something or I just feel like I got taken advantage of.

S4: The thing is, Shayne’s not like a meek or timid person. He’s spent most of his life in the military, sometimes in war zones, and his job is intense. He disables bombs like that guy in the movie The Hurt Locker. Everybody get like.

S5: You realize every time you suit up. It’s life or death.

S4: I imagine you have to be pretty assertive if if you’re if you’re defusing a bomb, you can’t be second guessing yourself at some point you got to commit and clipped the wire, right.

S1: Well, so our schoolhouse motto is initial success or total failure. And so that means you get it right every time or it’s a complete bust.


S4: So it’s not like Shane can’t handle fear or anxiety or pressure, but when it comes to his day to day life, it gets hard for him to muster that assertiveness. His empathy often gets the best of him, and that makes it hard to demand what he deserves or to or to play hardball in negotiations.


S1: And I think that all that kind of mixes into this cocktail of doubt, like I’m just constantly being taken advantage of and I got to stop the cycle.

S4: And that’s why we brought in this week’s expert, a former hostage negotiator named Chris Voss. So, Chris, let me ask you, you know, you’ve you’ve spent your entire career trying to figure out how to get inside people’s heads. What’s your initial impressions of where you think Shane is?


S6: Well, not just my impressions of where Shane is, but the nature of your questions as well. You know, you keep asking him, why doesn’t he hit back? And he never asked him once about, well, why don’t you try to understand first? So typically what everybody sees is either we’re understanding or we’re either asserting for ourselves. We can’t do both. In the nature of your questions along the way was, you know, why don’t you stand up for yourself more? Why didn’t you say this? Why didn’t you say that? I think you could have done better.

S7: Chris Voss, as you can hear, has no problem being assertive or telling me that I’m doing my job all wrong. And that confidence served him really well when he was an FBI negotiator, persuading terrorists to listen to him.


S2: On today’s show, Chris will share some of his secrets and tell Shane how he can turn his empathy from a stumbling block into a kind of superpower. He has techniques that all of us can use to stand up for ourselves and get what we want.

S8: So stay with us or else Chris Voss will find you.

S4: Long before Chris Voss was with the FBI or before he started his own consulting firm to help clients in high stakes transactions, he was just this beat cop who is riding around in his patrol car.


S6: That was a classic, you know, cop mentality is solve the problem and move on. Somebody else needs your help. Solve this 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. The other side sees you as combative and aggressive, which is one of the problems with law enforcement today.


S4: But then he started working with a new partner, someone who had a different approach.

S6: And I ended up riding with a guy, this detective, who, you know, just with his tone of voice work, magic. I mean, just and I and I saw this guy with a tone of voice solve problems and make people think about things in a different way. That just blew me away, you know, tone of voice. How stupid is that? How could that make such a difference?

S4: Chris eventually joined the FBI and he was brought into this unit that is specialized in negotiating with criminals who had taken hostages, the guys who got people to cooperate without a hammer because they wanted to cooperate.


S6: And I saw those guys working magic, establishing connections with people. And then I wanted to learn more about how those guys did that, because those guys made cases that nobody else could make.

S7: He went on to use these tactics on kidnappers and terrorists, all kinds of bad people. You remember there was this one particularly tense negotiation, a phone call which involved some bank robbers and a getaway van.

S9: I said, you know, we we 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 don’t know what to say, I mean, like what? So my training is to repeat the last couple of words when I’m flummoxed because I don’t know what else to say.

S4: There’s a name for this. It’s the mirroring technique.

S9: So you only get one. Vandi goes, Yeah, well, we got more than one van. I said it more than one man. He said, well, you chased my driver away. Said, We chased your driver away. He said, Yeah, well, you saw the police, you cut and run. 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. Now, this was a guy who was watching everything he said in the mirror, caused him to connect thoughts and to keep talking and then to 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 of the bank robbers based on the things that were said on the phone, on a line that he knew was being recorded.


S2: This is how negotiations often occur, says Chris, you don’t know exactly what’s going on all the time, but as long as you have a plan in mind, you can figure out how to muddle through until you learn what you need to know.

S6: Now, from Shane’s perspective, he thinks he that he can be understanding or he can assert his conflict avoidant. There’s nothing wrong with that. 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. You know, I’ll I’ll evoke a couple of poster children for negotiation styles.

S4: Donald Trump, the president of the United States, calls the shots.


S9: He’s the poster child for negotiations and it’s attacking, calling people names.

S2: Well, I have the ultimate authority.

S6: The president beating the other side into submission. That’s what assertion is. Well, it’s contrasted with Oprah Winfrey. I know you all are feeling it to America. People are so rude these days, aren’t they? Now, people don’t see Oprah as assertive. I would ask you globally who is notable for having got into an argument with Oprah? I can’t think of anyone.

S4: It’s like asking like like who’s who’s been in a fight with Bambi, like it doesn’t happen.

S6: And 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 emotional intelligence. She’s relationship focused and assertion focused. Empathy has become synonymous with sympathy. And it is not it was never meant that way, ever. Empathy is understanding. It’s been able to fully articulate a complete demonstration of understanding. When you can cross that, you go from being Donald Trump to being Oprah Winfrey. It’s astonishing what you can get people to collaborate with you on once they know that you know where they’re coming from.

S2: So empathy can be a powerful negotiating tool, but you need to have a plan for how you use it to help you. Take, for instance, this one experience she had where his empathy initially put him at a disadvantage. It was a couple of years ago when his family decided to break a lease so they could move to a bigger house.

S1: And my landlord was very like accusatory, like, how could you do this to me? I thought you were going to rent through February. You know, I have a kid and and we had felt really bad. And and she said, you know, per the terms of the lease, I’m going to need you to pay through the end of November and I’m going to keep one hundred percent of your deposit. She acted like we were putting her in a bad spot and that it was going to be a long time to rent. And so we kind of let it go. We didn’t make a big deal. We agreed to this arrangement that was, you know, we thought was helping her out. And then I went back there. It was like four days after we moved out, I went back there to just pick up some tools. I left in the yard and somebody else was already living there. And I talked to them about it. And they have been lined up for like almost as soon as we gave notice. So, you know, I was mad. And so I went back to my landlord and I was like, listen, you made this impression that I was taking advantage of you and come to find out you’ve taken advantage of us when you called her up and you sort of unloaded on her that way, what did she say in response? So she reiterated her initial stance like, I’m on the hook for these properties if they don’t get credit it. And like, any time that I tried to say, OK, you have a renter now you can give us our money back, she just kept reiterating like I have a family to provide for. And I think that she was probably just, you know, playing on my guilt for feeling bad about breaking the lease. And it basically worked like we could have gone to court over it. And I just felt like, you know, just paying the money and walking away was a better option.


S7: Sheen’s empathy didn’t help him in that situation. In fact, it hurt him, but that doesn’t mean he should extinguish that empathy. It just means he needs to learn to use it differently. And that’s actually our first rule. Recognize that emotional intelligence, things like empathy, can actually be really powerful tools when you’re negotiating, because when you voice your empathy, when you show someone that you understand their problems, you disarm them and you make them more willing to cooperate. Basically, you achieve the trust you need to have a productive conversation in. One of the best ways to show empathy, says Chris, is to start a sentence with the words you believe or you feel and then say what you think the other person is thinking or feeling and then just shut up. Avoid the temptation to say more and force them to fill the silence. All right.

S6: So what was your landlord’s perspective on the whole thing?

S1: Start out with you feel you feel like we’re leaving you in a bad spot because it’s not a good rental season and nobody’s really moving. And you’re afraid to mark the apartment’s going to be vacant for a month or two before you can get a renter. Perfect.

S6: Now, if you would have said that, what your fear of the position that it would leave you in.

S1: Exposed to be on the hook for this amount that I, you know, I felt was unjustly owed.

S6: Right. And that’s until we learn how this works. That’s what we feel. The real dilemma is we feel like if we demonstrate understanding were exposed.

S7: Chris says this feeling is totally natural. All of us have a part of our brain called the amygdala, which exists to alert us to vulnerabilities and to make us cautious. But sometimes it can lead us astray.


S6: The amygdala is wired to be seventy five 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. And 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, which is actually your caveman wiring, is like, I’m exposed, I’m going to have to give it.

S1: What I often do is I wargame the whole conversation in my head before I even open my mouth. And I’ve got this, like, weird strategy, like, OK, they say this, I’ll say this, blah, blah, blah. And that just knocks all that off the table and it’ll just take a beat and annunciate to them clearly that you understand what their motivation is and then shut up and and even just rethinking some of my problems and stating them like that, it takes away the whole stress of like negotiating and coming up with rebuttals.

S6: You said it takes away the stress, tactical empathy. We call this tactical empathy does more for you than it does for them, and it does a lot for them.

S4: So, Chris, how do we do that? How do we get to that place where we can just say what’s in the other person’s head, particularly if we’re all riled up? How do I get to a place where I can say, here’s what it seems like is going on for you and then not say anything else? How do I train myself to do that?

S6: I’m a test your age because I’m old. And I could answer this question. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?


S4: It’s not the right on forty second. It’s practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. You go. Exactly.

S6: A lot of people like I ask somebody that the other day and they’re like, what are you to I got to Google that to figure that out. You know, it’s always small stakes practice. You know, and we got people around us all the time, you know, you lift driver, anybody, you get on the phone with them and really we got no skin in the game because you you’re not going to deploy a new technique in something as important as an interaction with a landlord if you haven’t tried it out on the people in your everyday life, just to see what the reaction is.

S4: Let’s say I’ve been practicing. Let’s say let’s say I’ve been practicing with my wife. My kids have been practicing with the the grocery, you know, checkout person. I’ve I’ve gotten good at saying what’s going on in their head and then just shutting up. And 50 percent of the time that’s going to work. But what about the other 50 percent? Let’s say I do that with a landlord. My landlord says, thank you so much. You’re exactly right. And that’s why I want you to pay all the money that I think you owe me and a little bit more.

S6: What do I do next now, if you fully empathize, demonstrate understanding with somebody and they still come back at you hard, you now just found out that this person is never going to make a favorable deal with me.

S10: Happens all the time. So more than likely, you finish, you get it. That’s right. And they don’t say another word. Now, how do we keep this back into gear? The secret to gaining the upper hand in negotiations, given the other side, the illusion of control. The first thing you want to do is say, how do you want to proceed, having given them the illusion of control? I now need to know, are they on the verge of offering me something that I like?


S6: I got to give him a chance to do that without making him feel backed into a corner. So I’m going to my first move is going to be a how question. They got 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? What’s the answer to that? They’re going to say no, but again, people feel safe and protected when they say no. I’m continuing to shave the odds in my favor. These are my last ditch efforts at making a collaborative deal.

S4: So I, I want them to say no, because that’s the way I always come into this is I think like I want them to be agreeable. I want to find something we can agree on some common ground. Right. But you’re saying no, don’t go for the question that gets a yes.

S6: Go for the question that gets to know the last person that talked you into something that you regretted. They got you to say yes a whole bunch of times. What does that do to you made you leery of anybody trying to get you to say yes.

S4: So I want to ask a question that they’re going to say no to. And is that because it makes them feel like they’re in control? Absolutely.

S7: So this is our next rule. Give the other party the illusion of control by asking how do you want to proceed and then ask them a question that they can say no to. No one likes feeling coerced into saying yes. So give the other person a chance to tell.

S2: You know, when we come back, Chris will share a few more tactics with us, including his amazing method to get a free upgrade every time he checks into a hotel.


S8: Stay with us.

S2: If you like this episode, you should check out another one called How to Convince People to Give You Money, which features expert tips from a kind of unlikely source con artists. You can find it in all of our episodes by subscribing for free to our podcast feed.

S7: We’re back with Shane and our expert, Chris Voss, author of the book Never Split the Difference Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It.

S10: I got to tell you something.

S6: Every time we check into a hotel, we get stuff for free and time. And, you know, and and this is this is our practice is how we deal with our hotel. I walk up and I say, I’m getting ready to make your day ridiculously painful. And then I watch him just fall, because if they worked in a hotel, they got no idea. You know, you know, you got you got eight heads in a duffel bag. They don’t know what are you doing? You know, you got you’ve got a goat in the bag. You’re going to do a ritual sacrifice up in a room. They’ve seen everything. Right. So then I say I’m getting ready to sound like a self-centered, self-involved hotel guest. They want something for nothing. And now now they’re like, because I’m stripping away by calling out the negatives, by calling out the potential elephants in the room, I’m getting rid of them one at a time. Now they’re looking at me in a completely different way that automatically inoculates me from that perception, their their reaction to that is for this guy understands the kind of nonsense I’m trying to deal with. And 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.


S11: We get Swede’s every time this is what about how about a downtown view, I can move you into a downtown. Now he’s killing himself. Wow.

S1: Shane, let me ask you, have have you ever tried anything like that so my my now wife, we met at a karaoke night and, you know, I had a little bit of liquid courage and we had been hanging out and I said, so how how cliche would it be if I kissed you right now instead of answering? She kissed me.

S6: And it was like totally worked. Look at you, man. Look at you. You get this in. You saw you know, you get to know how to use your powers for for for more good.

S4: Shane, when you think about the conversation with the landlord. And, you know, Chris had talked about giving giving the other person the illusion of control, asking a how question, putting them in a position where they can say no, what question do you think you could have asked your landlord after you had made this expression of empathy that would have put them in a position where.

S6: Where they have the illusion of control and are more willing to work with you, you know, I was thinking and and maybe this gives them too much control, but I was thinking, you know, how do we come to a solution here that we can both be happy with? I like that a lot. I here’s how I change the tail end of that. How do we come to a solution here that we both don’t end up hating each other after this is all over?

S4: That’s interesting. What’s the difference there? Like, why why that why that ending?


S6: Well, when you say that we can both be happy with, my reaction is like you’re only interested in your happiness. You could care less if you’re happy about me. So the prospect of hating someone over a bad deal has happened enough to people, and that was my hotel clerk question, how do I get an upgrade out of you without making everybody else your manager? You consider the negative and chose a path to avoid the negative. That’s interesting, so it’s the evoking the negative and letting people resolve it in their minds before they move forward has a higher success rate than dangling the positive. Because everybody dangles a positive, it’s a lower.

S2: And this is our next rule, acknowledge the negative mention, highlight the negative consequences that everyone wants to avoid. In other words, you should go ahead and state the obvious. We both want to avoid bad feelings. So rather than pretending that they don’t exist, let’s acknowledge that things could get bad. And then we agree. No one wants that.

S9: You don’t get rid of the elephant in a room by ignoring it, but if you say, look, there’s an elephant in the room, here’s the elephant. Look at it, look at it right there.

S11: People’s reactions to it are like, oh, yeah, but that’s not that big a deal.

S6: And that’s what, you know, bring people’s attention to the negatives fearlessly instead of denying that they’re there. I don’t want you to think I’m going to be a jerk. You say I’m probably going to look like a jerk. That two mm shit is massive in its impact to your advantage. Now you’re getting smarter. You’re gaining more of a feel for it, and you’re beginning to understand, like, you know, if I smile at him and say three things in a row with a big smile on my face, I will watch them change every time my smile impacts. That’s pretty cool. Now, now you got more data to recalibrate your approach.


S4: OK, so let’s say let’s say we’re in this situation. We’ve gone in we’ve we followed your playbook. What usually happens next? Like like what’s happening in the negotiation at that point and what’s our next move?

S6: Yeah, well, I mean, I’ve already asked for permission if I’ve demonstrated empathy again, nothing. Let’s say I’ve asked illusion of control. How could I get nothing I asked to know into question. I got nothing. There’s nothing left. That’s it. Yeah, you know, you you you walk, you make the deal, you you you have the snipers shoot them, you know, you know, you’re not going to make every deal.

S7: Which brings us to our final rule. In order to get what you want, you might have to experiment and try tactics that are outside of your comfort zone. And and that might feel awkward, particularly at first. But if you practice it, say, in low stakes situations and you try different approaches, it’ll over time become more and more natural. It’s the same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

S6: I mean, how did you learn to be a bomb tech? Did you go out and start wiring up C4 right away? Well, you’re right.

S1: We we spent a lot of time putting fake blasting caps and a fake C4 before, you know, we went out and did a small stakes practice.

S6: Right. I mean, I’d be scared. And personally, I having dealt with bomb techs when I was an FBI agent. I think you guys are crazy. I like that you guys want to play with explosives because I want to get as far away from them as I can. And you guys go take care of it for me. You got you guys are courageous guys, but you got there one step at a time. You try. There is no good and bad. There’s trained. Then as untrained, you went and found ways to do small stakes practice. You got the movements down same way you get your tone of voice down, the same way you get your practice in describing the other person’s perspective to them. And how long did it take you to become certified as a contact? Over a year of just straight training. So where would you be a year from now if you got in small stakes practice?


S1: I think that it would be a total change in my demeanor when I approach a conversation.

S9: We should last you for the rest of your life. It’s a cool thing, isn’t it? Absolutely.

S12: Thank you to Shane for sharing your story with us and to Chris Voss for his fantastic advice, if you like what he had to say, you would definitely love his book. Never split the difference. Do you have a problem that needs solving? If you do, you should negotiate with us by sending us a note and how to it’s dotcom or you can use the hardball tactics and leave a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you’re successful, we’ll have you on the show. How TOS executive producer is Derek John. Rachel Allen is our production assistant and Mayor Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Janice Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of audio special. Thanks to Rosemarie Bellson. I’m Charles Duhigg.

S7: Thanks for listening.