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7 Negotiation Principles From Former Hostage Negotiator Chris Voss

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

Principled negotiation doesn’t mean doggedly arguing for things you see as being in your self-interest. On the contrary, the art of negotiation rests on finding common ground with others, making concessions, and demonstrating emotional intelligence and tactical empathy. These and other basic principles are key to turning negotiations into win-win situations.



Chris Voss Teaches The Art of NegotiationChris Voss Teaches The Art of Negotiation

Former FBI lead hostage negotiator Chris Voss teaches you communication skills and strategies to help you get more of what you want every day.

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Who Is Chris Voss?

Christopher Voss is a leading authority on the art, science, and practice of negotiation. During his 24 years of service with the Federal Bureau of Investigation—many of them spent as the bureau’s lead international kidnapping negotiator—Chris engaged with some of the world’s most dangerous criminals in some of the most high-pressure situations imaginable. As founder and head of the Black Swan Group, he draws from his wealth of knowledge and experience to train businesses and individuals to become highly effective negotiators in their own right.

Chris has also taken his knowledge into the classroom as an adjunct professor of business negotiations at both the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He has lectured on business negotiation at Harvard University, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Through his work in both government and the private sector, Chris has mastered a wide array of effective negotiation strategies and negotiation skills that promote conflict resolution, fruitful business negotiations, and general problem-solving within personal relationships.

Why Are Negotiation Skills Important?

Mastering a proven set of negotiation techniques can yield dividends over the course of your life. In fact, strong negotiating skills can be among the most valuable assets a person can have. Throughout your life, the negotiation process may come into play for the following activities: buying and selling merchandise, overseeing real estate transactions, salary negotiation (from setting a starting salary to angling for a higher salary), assessing the market value of a good or service, and problem-solving in interpersonal dynamics, including conflict resolution.

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Chris Voss’s 7 Principles of Negotiation

Here are some successful negotiation tactics that Chris has used throughout his career in both the public and private sectors. Use these techniques to become a better negotiator and to find success in all types of negotiations:

  1. Begin with an accusations audit. In preparing for a negotiation, you’ll be well served to perform an accusations audit, during which you’ll create a comprehensive list of all the negative assumptions, thoughts, and feelings you think the other side may be harboring against you. Try to embody their point of view as part of your negotiation training. In doing this, you might be able to anticipate a negotiating tactic (such as a poor first offer) and achieve better outcomes for yourself.
  2. Use active listening to understand what motivates the other side. Understanding their goals, motivations, wants, and fears will help you navigate the negotiation effectively. An authentic connection with your negotiating partner will help lead to an optimal outcome for both parties.
  3. Approach the other side with empathy. Know that the other side has a rationale, motivations, and some strong feelings for wanting what they want—even though their goals may be diametrically opposed to yours. In short, use curiosity, deference, empathy, influence, positivity, and rapport to craft the best deal possible.
  4. Monitor your counterpart’s speaking patterns. We all have one way of telling the truth. If you can identify how your counterpart looks and sounds when they are being honest with you, you’ll be able to detect any deviations from that pattern that may signal a lie. One thing to watch out for is the “Pinocchio effect.” People who are being dishonest tend to use more words and effort than necessary to communicate their point. Use your listening skills to keep an ear out for such verbosity and gain an upper hand.
  5. Observe your counterpart’s body language. In interpersonal communications, 7 percent of a person’s effort is conveyed via spoken words, 38 percent by tone of voice, and 55 percent through body language. All of which is to say, your tone of voice is more important than what you’re actually saying. If your counterpart’s tone of voice and body language indicate that they are about to lose their bearings, speak calmly and plainly to soothe them and slow the pace of the negotiation. You should always seek a course of action that encourages the other side to let their guard down.
  6. Steer the other side away from dishonesty. If you sense your counterpart is being deceitful, rather than directly challenging them, ask a question using inquisitive inflection: “It seems like I’ve missed something here?” A lie indicates that the other side is afraid to tell you the truth—they perceive you as a threat. You can use this to your advantage. Make clear eye contact, ask open-ended questions, and keep your cool. These negotiating tactics enhance your bargaining power.
  7. Aim for a win-win situation. Dealmakers who have a win-lose mindset tend to alienate partners and kill the chance for repeat business. But dealmakers who push for win-win outcomes—where both sides get something they want—can open a lot of doors down the road. There will always be trade-offs and perks you wish you could have gained but did not, but at the end of the day, it’s more important that each party feel good about the negotiation they just went through.

Negotiations exist in all aspects of our lives. They certainly exist in the business world, where negotiating parties each monitor their own bottom line and exchange a volley of offers and counteroffers in the process of “getting to yes.” Whether you’re a hiring manager or a real estate agent, you’ll never be far from your next business negotiation. The same sort of give-and-take arrangement exists in interpersonal relationships, including those with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Everyday negotiations still involve pursuing mutual gains that everyone is happy with, and doing so can facilitate the dispute resolution process and foster long term relationships that provide a lifetime of cooperation.


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