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  • Writer's pictureJames Purvis

10 Powerful Negotiation Tactics I learned from a Famous FBI Hostage Negotiator

As I mentioned in my recent article, 5 Things Top Performing Reps are Doing During the Mass Shutdown, something all sales reps should be doing even more of during this difficult time is self-educating. Whether that's sales training, reading books, blogs, or listening to podcasts - this is an opportunity to better yourself and come out the other side of the pandemic better than ever.

To demonstrate practicing what I preach, I took an online class called "The Art of Negotiation" from a famous negotiator named Chris Voss. If you don't know who Chris Voss is, he was the lead kidnapping and hostage negotiator for the FBI for over 24 years and wrote the New York Times Best Seller, Never Split the Difference: Negotiate Like Your Life Depended on It.

In this Masterclass, there are 10 powerful negotiation tactics that I wanted to share with you that can help you negotiate 10x better than ever before.

The first tactic Chris teaches is tactical empathy.

1. Tactical Empathy

Everything in life is a negotiation. You are in negotiations all day every day and you don't even know it. If you are trying to get anyone to say "yes" at any time - you are in a negotiation. If you use the words "I want" or "I need" you are in a negotiation. My 3 year old daughter is in a negotiation with my wife and I at least 20 times a day.

As Chris Voss will tell you, "Great negotiation is about great collaboration." The person across the table is not an adversary or your enemy. You are working with them to solve a problem together.

Tactical empathy is seeking to find out what the other's point of view is and become genuinely interested in what's driving them (goals, motivations, wants, fears, etc). You will want to understand what their rules are and respect them (it doesn't mean you have to agree with it). Tactical empathy allows you to influence your counterparts emotions for the ultimate purpose of building trust-based influence and securing the deal.

"The adversary is not the the person across the table; the adversary is the situation." - Chris Voss

2. Mirroring

Mirroring is all about engaging and getting the other side involved. This technique will get your counterpart talking and ultimately present you with your deal and make them feel that it was their idea. Chris refers to negotiation as, "the art of letting the other side have your way" which is what mirroring is all about.

So, how do you mirror? It's really simple. It's using 1-3 words; typically the last 1-3 words the other person was saying, and repeating it back to them in the form of a question. The outcome is that it shows the other person that you have been listening, are interested, and it helps them add more information. Your counterpart will love when you mirror because it shows that they have been heard and it builds rapport.

Example of Mirroring:

  • Counterpart: "You're price is too high!"

  • You: "Our price is too high?"- w/ inflection at the end

  • Counterpart: "Yea we have a limited budget here!"

  • You: "A limited budget?"

  • Counterpart: "We have other things we are trying to accomplish here!"

  • You: "Other things you're trying to accomplish?"

  • Outcome: Your counterpart will continue to go on and keep giving you context and feel you are working with them throughout the negotiation.

Tip: It's critical that you shut up after a mirror - this let's everything sink in and gets them thinking and adds effect. This is called "dynamic silence."

"To try and take emotions out of a negotiation is a fool's errand." - Chris Voss

3. Labeling

Voss feels that labeling might be the most useful tool in the bag for successful negotiation. Labels are verbal observations that acknowledge the other side's feelings and positions. They are powerful at reinforcing positive feelings and deactivating negative ones.

They are broken down in two steps:

  • Step 1 - Be aware of the emotion the other is portraying

  • Step 2 - Label it


  • "It seems like..."

  • "It feels like..."

  • "It sounds like..."

Labeling can deactivate a negative emotion by responding with something like; "It seems like you are upset about this?"

Tip: Don't say, "What I'm hearing..." or "I think..." These message conveys you are more interested in your perspective and not theirs.

It usually takes several labeling attempts to diffuse a negative emotion. A lack of response on a label can be a good thing and show you are on the right track.

Tip: Use mirroring to help dive yourself into labels.

Example dialogue:

  • You: "It sounds like this deal is making you upset" (Label)

  • Counterpart: "Well, it's not making me upset, we have had trouble w/ implementations because we have had troubles with this in the past."

  • You: "Troubles in the past?" (Mirroring)

  • Counterpart: "Yea, it was the vendor we actually have now before you came in. Worried we will have problems. I know you are different but it's early in our relationship."

  • You: "Early in the relationship?" (Mirroring)

"Your inner voice becomes your outer voice" - Chris Voss

4. Mastering Delivery

The way you employ your voice is a very important skill in negotiation and inflections is where the art is.

3 Main Tones of Voice:

  1. The Assertive Voice is the worst one to use. Anger is always bad for relationships and negotiations. It's counterproductive and feels like a punch in the nose.

  2. A Playful Voice however, promotes collaboration and should be your "go-to" voice and be used 80% of the time. It's your "smiling" voice.

  3. The "Late Night DJ" Voice is a downward, slow, soothing tone. Use this when there is something that is immovable and can't be changed. Should be used rarely (10-20% of the time). The late night FM DJ voice calms the other side down. You can't say "Calm down!" Hit them with late night DJ voice instead and smile. This is used only in certain situations - typically when someone is anxious.

In addition to the three tones of voice, make sure to use these two inflections:

  1. Inquisitive - speaking with an upward inflection as if you were asking a question. Conveys genuine curiosity and interest. This is your default inflection to use.

  2. Declarative - speaking with a downward inflection as if you were stating a fact.

Tip: Keep things simple and don't add too much. Shorten things down, especially in digital communications. Always end with positivity. Make words end softly.

The "7/38/55 Rule" & Body Language

7/38/55 Rule - came from a study in the 1970's referring to how much people like the 3 components of communication: 1. content (7%), 2. tonality (38%), and 3. body language (55%). The tone of voice is 5 times more important than what was actually said.

The person not being talked to will give a lot of information back to you via their body language. If you are asking a question to the main point of contact, the people next to that person can give you great feedback without saying anything at all via their body language.

"Questions are often not the best way to gather information." - Chris Voss

6. Creating the Illusion of Control

The secret of getting the upper hand is creating the illusion that the other side has control. A great way to do this is by asking calibrated questions.

Calibrated Questions

These are "How" and "What" questions. These are great questions to ask because people love to be asked how to do something and what to do. Calibrated questions often sound like this:

  • "How am I supposed to do that?"

  • "What's going to happen if I do that?"

Ask questions to force empathy. Force the other side to have empathy with you. By asking, "How am I supposed to do that?" This shapes what the other person is thinking and creates slow in depth thinking. Mix it up by asking the same question in a different way to get more answers back such as, "What's gonna happen if I do that?" These are calibrated questions.

Tip: Asking 3 different ways will make them answer 3 different ways making them think it thru.

Contrary to popular belief, "Why" questions make people feel accused - it creates a universal defensive reaction. For example, which sounds better to you?

  1. "Why did you do that?"

  2. "What are you trying to accomplish by doing that?"

The second example removes the sting of accusation.

Examples of calibrated questions to get "buy-in":

  • "How does this fit?"

  • "How do we know your team is on board?"

  • "What makes you ask?"

Bonus: Ask Legitimate Questions

  • "How are we going to move forward if we make this deal?"

  • "How do I know you are not just looking for free consulting?

  • "How have you made this deal in the past?"

  • "How have you worked with people like me in the past?"

7. Accusations Audit

Take a step back by taking an inventory / audit of all the possible negatives, names, accusations, slanderous things the other side might be thinking of you. This helps you dig out all the negatives that may have come from past experiences and help you prepare for future negotiations. The goal of using this technique is to have the other side tell you, "Hold on, you are being hard on yourself."

Examples of Accusations Audits:

  • "It probably feels like we are not be honest with you."

  • "It seems like you are not getting all the information you want."

  • "It probably feels like we are holding back on you."

  • "It probably seems like I'm like everybody else in this line of work."

"Unexpressed negative emotions never die. They fester like an infection." - Chris Voss

8. The Value of No

Something to understand in negotiating is that "No" can actually be a great thing.

First, let's address the 3 kinds of "Yes" answers:

  1. Confirmation yes = "ok", yea" (used to affirm commitment)

  2. Commitment yes = "I agree." or "I'm good with that" (used to agree)

  3. Counterfeit yes = "Yes" when they feel trapped. (Used by someone when they don't trust you or wants you to go away)

A "No" however, is worth 5 yes's. The reason is, people feel safe and protected when they say no. A good way to start "no" questions:

  • "Is it ridiculous...?"

  • "Would it be horrible...?"

  • "Is it a bad idea...?"

  • "Have you given up on...?"

Examples of changing from a "yes" question to a "no question":

  • Instead of, "Is that a good idea?" Say, "Is that a ridiculous idea?"

  • Instead of, "Can you agree to do it this way?" Say, "Do you think it's unreasonable if we can both agree to take things in this direction?"

  • "Have you given up on this project?"

  • "Is it ridiculous for you to come speak at our upcoming user conference?"

  • "Would it be horrible if we asked you to introduce us to your boss?"

Transition from the "No" to a "How." Yes is nothing without a "How." A confirmation yes without a how will die out. For example, your counter to the "No" would be, "How should we proceed?" or "How would you like to proceed?"

"No is not failure." - Chris Voss

9. Bending Reality - "Fear of Loss"

Neuroscience teaches us that fear is a dominant factor in decision-making which makes "fear of loss" that much more powerful of a tool in negotiation. Loss aversion allows you to bend reality so it's key to find out what the other side is in fear of losing. "Fear of loss is what keeps people up at night."

Questions to find answers to:

  • What are they going to lose if they don't make the deal?

  • What are they going to lose if they make the deal?

Example: Two Choices

  1. "Our solution will make your company 23% more money"

  2. "If you don't choose our solution and stick with what you are doing, it will cost you 23% every single day."

The second one is much more compelling because is uses loss aversion.


Appeal to their sense of fairness. Chris calls this the "F bomb." Fairness is what makes or breaks deals.

With this in mind, try starting all your negotiation by saying...

"It's my intention to treat you fairly. If at any point I've been unfair, let me know and we will go back and address it."


Deadlines are meaningless. Very rarely are they a hard deadline. Shift thinking towards how can we make progress towards the goal. You can do this thru labeling and calibrated questioning.

Respond to deadlines by labeling:

  • "It seems like you are under a lot of pressure here."

  • "It seems like you are trying to get a lot done by a certain time."

Respond to deadlines by using calibrated questions (What / How):

  • "What happens if we don't make that deadline?"

  • "How do we get back on track if we fall behind schedule?"

Make the last impression the lasting impression by being positive and state why you are there:

  • "I'm here because I want to make a deal."

  • "We are here because we want to have a great long-term partnership. How should we proceed?"

"Fear of loss completely distorts your counterpart's perception so much that it effectively bends their reality."

10. Bargaining

Chris will tell you that you should try to avoid bargaining at all costs but sometimes it's unavoidable.

The Ackerman System (for buyers):

  1. Pick your target price.

  2. Go in at 65% of target price.

  3. Assuming no deal, raise your price by 20%

  4. Assuming no deal, raise your price by 10%

  5. If still no deal, raise your price by 5%.

  6. Final offer should be a very specific "odd" number and include non-monetary compensation to show them you're committing all you available resources.

Tip: A good tactic to use if you have to bargain is to pivot to non-monetary terms.

For example. As a sales rep, when they ask you for your price, respond with: "I will be happy to give you a price. Let's set that aside for a second. Let's talk about what it looks like to make a great deal."

  • "What does a good deal look like for you?"

  • "What else do you have to have in order for you to have a good deal?"

Use this as a brainstorming and find other things besides just price that you can work with. Anchor emotions not dollars. If there is a high price, make sure to give warnings. If you are buying something for a low price, warn them about your low offer.

"Move from leverage thinking to influence thinking and you're a much smarter negotiator." - Chris Voss

Final Tip: Black Swans

As Chris often talks about, "In any given negotiation, both sides are hiding information." Know this going in. Chris calls this a "black swan." A black swan is a piece of innocuous (not harmful or offensive) information that if revealed, can change the course of the entire negotiation. In many ways, Chris feels that negotiation is all about finding the black swans. To discover them, you must open up your mind, maintain an endless curiosity, and be on the lookout for surprises.

If you can really get to what's driving someone, you can change their outlook...and their decision making." - Chris Voss


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