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High-stakes negotiations are delicate processes that require both strong problem-solving skills and high emotional intelligence. Progressing from a first offer toward a negotiated agreement requires planning and the ability to adjust on the fly. One of the primary negotiation strategies used by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss centers around “black swans.” A black swan is a hidden piece of information that, when revealed at the bargaining table, can drastically alter the course of a business negotiation and push your counterparts toward a deal.



Who Is Chris Voss?

Chris Voss is a leading authority on the art, science, and practice of negotiation with 24 years of experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation—many of them spent as the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. In 2008, Chris transitioned to the private sector, founding the Black Swan Group. As CEO of the Black Swan Group, he trains business leaders, public servants, and other 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.

What Is a Black Swan in a Negotiation?

Black swans are pieces of innocuous information that, if revealed, can change the course of a negotiation. In many ways, negotiation is all about finding the black swans. To discover them, you must open your mind, maintain endless curiosity, and be on the lookout for surprises. Black swans are present in every sort of negotiation, from a high-stakes hostage negotiation between FBI agents and kidnappers to a local real estate deal between two small business owners. A black swan can be any piece of information directly or tangentially related to a negotiation that you think you can use to shift a negotiation in your favor.

How to Use Black Swans in a Negotiation

Negotiation experts use black swans at various stages of a negotiation to maneuver through sticking points and leverage better outcomes. Learning how to find and use black swans can improve your negotiation skills and take your technique to the next level. Here are some tips for finding and using black swans in a negotiation:

  • Do your research. It’s vital that you conduct thorough opposition research before you engage in any conflict resolution or negotiation session. Research can help you uncover a wide variety of black swans in your counterparts’ personal lives or business history. Understanding the backgrounds of the people you are negotiating with can also help you decide which negotiation techniques to use to match up against their expected negotiation style.
  • Map out an effective negotiation strategy. If you’re about to start a longer series of negotiations or business deals, it’s important to plan when you’re going to deploy the black swans you’ve found. Using a black swan at the right moment can give you a competitive edge and help you gain the upper hand at a critical point of a negotiation.
  • Look for black swans as you negotiate. Good negotiators are able to improvise and adjust their negotiation process as new developments occur. Though finding black swans before a negotiation or conflict management session is ideal, you will occasionally discover black swans during the negotiation itself. Ask calibrated questions that might lead your counterpart to reveal a black swan. Always be on the lookout for information that your opponent might be hiding in order to use it to your advantage.
  • Be aware of your own black swans. Just as you want to know about any information your counterpart might be hiding, you should also be aware of information that your counterpart might discover about you or your negotiation tactics. Perform an accusations audit to plot out the black swans your opponent might use against you. Doing so will enable you to better anticipate their negotiation strategy and give them the illusion of control.
  • Observe your counterpart’s body language and tone of voice. Part of the art of negotiation is being attuned to changes in your counterpart’s demeanor. This includes nonverbal cues like body language and vocal tone. A change in tone can indicate that someone is trying to hide information. If you detect a sudden change in body language or tone of voice around a specific subject matter, chances are there may be a related black swan that you might be able to find and exploit.
  • Keep a black swan in your back pocket. It’s always good to have a black swan that you save for a pivotal moment in a negotiation. This might be a piece of information that you think can either help bring a negotiation to a close or right the ship if you lose control of a negotiation. An essential part of a successful negotiation is adapting on the fly. It’s useful to keep a major black swan in your back pocket to deploy in whatever way is most advantageous as a negotiation unfolds.