Negotiating Business the FBI Way


The most dangerous negotiation is one you don’t know you’re in.

By Derek Slater

It’s an understatement to say that Chris Voss has been in some high-stakes negotiations. Voss, founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group, was formerly the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

Now he shows executives how to handle the intricacies and pressures of international business negotiations.

In this edited discussion with Connected Futures, Voss says that fundamental business deals are strikingly similar to any interpersonal negotiation.

Connected Futures: What are the common negotiating mistakes that executives make?

Voss: Everybody is so sure that their success is how all success is made. They have a tendency to ignore the data showing the percentages of their success. Being successful in something early on makes you want to recreate that event.

Connected Futures: Why is that a problem?

Voss: The most dangerous negotiation is one you don't know you're in.

People view negotiations as only happening when there's money at stake. The reality is the commodity that's involved in every negotiation is time. We negotiate over our time constantly. Money is just a substitute for time. I'll give you a few dollars for your time. You're going to give me what you can create in that time.

We're constantly in negotiations over time. Until executives understand that, they're probably not handling negotiations effectively. They're probably losing.

Connected Futures: In this digital era, two companies may be competing in one market and partnering in another market. The boundaries get blurry. How does that affect business negotiations?

Voss: We're hearing a lot from companies that 50 percent of the deals that they don't consummate are killed internally, not because the external negotiation deal went badly. It’s because someone sniped it internally because they thought it was in their own best interest as an individual. Regardless of what mattered to the company.

Government bureaucracies are driven by personal passions. Corporate bureaucracy is the same way.

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Connected Futures: How do you solve for that?

Voss: You delay to save time.

We get into these problems when we're under tremendous time pressure. So for the best outcome you have everybody negotiate in a way where they feel a little less time pressure.

When we’re in a rush, we get into a conversation where we push, push, push for a yes, and we get it, but it was a counterfeit yes. Or we push, push, push for somebody to agree with us, and instead of saying, "That's right," they say, "You're right."

Then we go back to our office and find ourselves in a gerbil wheel of conversations. We thought we solved the problem, but we find ourselves back in the same position the very next day, wondering, "What happened? Because I thought I worked this out yesterday. Because they said yes."

Connected Futures: What’s the significance of someone saying “you’re right”?

Voss: You've got to articulate the situation through the facts as they see them and how they feel about them. You're only going to get the breakthrough moment after you've really articulated it emotionally from their perspective.

For example, playing football, you are under stress. You're being attacked from all sides. People are screaming at you and trying to tear your head off. Business is the same way.

The same strategy was applied by a woman I was coaching in negotiation. She was a pharmaceutical salesperson trying to sell to doctors. One doctor’s, his pattern was to dismiss the person who was selling the hottest new drug—which was probably their highest profit drug. He didn't trust them. He felt that the other person was being driven by greed and not his best interests.

So she said to him, "You're not just going to take the hottest new drug from some pharmaceutical salesperson because they are greedy and they're just after a big profit on their new product." That's when he turned around and looked at her and he said, "That's right," as if he'd never heard it before. The epiphany moment.

Don't be afraid to articulate how the other side sees things just because you don’t agree or you don’t think it’s in your best interest. You're articulating something that the other side feels is utterly true. Something crazy happens in the brain when someone reaches a "that's right" epiphany moment. It opens up the world to them, and they feel very bonded to you.

Connected Futures: That example was a person with sales experience. What other backgrounds or experiences can help develop negotiation skills?

Voss: There's a lot of overlap between sales, and marketing, and counseling. But anybody who realizes that emotional intelligence is the central component to make something work—they become enormously powerful in influencing other people.

It's an essential component of leadership. I've got a buddy who's now the head of the US arm of a major international bank. His background is sales. He's got great emotional intelligence, and people who work for him stay with him for longer periods of time than similar executives in the industry and at other banks. His retention rate is higher even though he doesn't pay the highest salaries.

They're not sticking with him because he's paying them to stay there, they're sticking with him because they love working with him.

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Connected Futures: How does negotiating work in an international business setting?

Voss: The biggest complication is if you think your approach is right. Whatever that approach is, the first thing the people in that culture are going to try to show you is, "That ain't us, and we're not going to cooperate."

When I'm negotiating in the Middle East, and I want to have a cultural awareness. If I want to know what's going to be effective in Iraq, the last person I want to ask is an Iraqi. I want to ask an American who's successfully navigated interactions with the Iraqis.

Connected Futures: Why is that?

Voss: I think outsiders are less involved emotionally in the nuances of a culture. An outsider that doesn't care why things are; he just wants to see what works.