Never Split the Difference

by Chris Voss

Clock Icon 90 minute read


I was intimidated.

I’d spent more than two decades in the FBI, including fifteen years negotiating hostage situations from New York to the Philippines and the Middle East, and I was on top of my game. At any given time, there are ten thousand FBI agents in the Bureau, but only one lead international kidnapping negotiator. That was me.

But I’d never experienced a hostage situation so tense, so personal.

“We’ve got your son, Voss. Give us one million dollars or he dies.”

Pause. Blink. Mindfully urge the heart rate back to normal.

Sure, I’d been in these types of situations before. Tons of them. Money for lives. But not like this. Not with my son on the line. Not $1 million. And not against people with fancy degrees and a lifetime of negotiating expertise.

You see, the people across the table—my negotiating counterparts—were Harvard Law School negotiating professors.

I’d come up to Harvard to take a short executive negotiating course, to see if I could learn something from the business world’s approach. It was supposed to be quiet and calm, a little professional development for an FBI guy trying to widen his horizons.

But when Robert Mnookin, the director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project, learned I was on campus, he invited me to his office for a coffee. Just to chat, he said.

I was honored. And scared. Mnookin is an impressive guy whom I’d followed for years: not only is he a Harvard law professor, he’s also one of the big shots of the conflict resolution field and the author of Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight.1

To be honest, it felt unfair that Mnookin wanted me, a former Kansas City beat cop, to debate negotiation with him. But then it got worse. Just after Mnookin and I sat down, the door opened and another Harvard professor walked in. It was Gabriella Blum, a specialist in international negotiations, armed conflict, and counterterrorism, who’d spent eight years as a negotiator for the Israeli National Security Council and the Israel Defense Forces. The tough-as-nails IDF.

On cue, Mnookin’s secretary arrived and put a tape recorder on the table. Mnookin and Blum smiled at me.

I’d been tricked.

“We’ve got your son, Voss. Give us one million dollars or he dies,” Mnookin said, smiling. “I’m the kidnapper. What are you going to do?”

I experienced a flash of panic, but that was to be expected. It never changes: even after two decades negotiating for human lives you still feel fear. Even in a role-playing situation.

I calmed myself down. Sure, I was a street cop turned FBI agent playing against real heavyweights. And I wasn’t a genius. But I was in this room for a reason. Over the years I had picked up skills, tactics, and a whole approach to human interaction that had not just helped me save lives but, as I recognize now looking back, had also begun to transform my own life. My years of negotiating had infused everything from how I dealt with customer service reps to my parenting style.

“C’mon. Get me the money or I cut your son’s throat right now,” Mnookin said. Testy.

I gave him a long, slow stare. Then I smiled.

“How am I supposed to do that?”

Mnookin paused. His expression had a touch of amused pity in it, like a dog when the cat it’s been chasing turns around and tries to chase it back. It was as if we were playing different games, with different rules.

Mnookin regained his composure and eyed me with arched brows as if to remind me that we were still playing.

“So you’re okay with me killing your son, Mr. Voss?”

“I’m sorry, Robert, how do I know he’s even alive?” I said, using an apology and his first name, seeding more warmth into the interaction in order to complicate his gambit to bulldoze me. “I really am sorry, but how can I get you any money right now, much less one million dollars, if I don’t even know he’s alive?”

It was quite a sight to see such a brilliant man flustered by what must have seemed unsophisticated foolishness. On the contrary, though, my move was anything but foolish. I was employing what had become one of the FBI’s most potent negotiating tools: the open-ended question.

Today, after some years evolving these tactics for the private sector in my consultancy, The Black Swan Group, we call this tactic calibrated questions: queries that the other side can respond to but that have no fixed answers. It buys you time. It gives your counterpart the illusion of control—they are the one with the answers and power after all—and it does all that without giving them any idea of how constrained they are by it.

Mnookin, predictably, started fumbling because the frame of the conversation had shifted from how I’d respond to the threat of my son’s murder to how the professor would deal with the logistical issues involved in getting the money. How he would solve my problems. To every threat and demand he made, I continued to ask how I was supposed to pay him and how was I supposed to know that my son was alive.

After we’d been doing that for three minutes, Gabriella Blum interjected.

“Don’t let him do that to you,” she said to Mnookin.

“Well, you try,” he said, throwing up his hands.

Blum dove in. She was tougher from her years in the Middle East. But she was still doing the bulldozer angle, and all she got were my same questions.

Mnookin rejoined the session, but he got nowhere either. His face started to get red with frustration. I could tell the irritation was making it hard to think.

“Okay, okay, Bob. That’s all,” I said, putting him out of his misery.

He nodded. My son would live to see another day.

“Fine,” he said. “I suppose the FBI might have something to teach us.”

I had done more than just hold my own against two of Harvard’s distinguished leaders. I had taken on the best of the best and come out on top.

But was it just a fluke? For more than three decades, Harvard had been the world epicenter of negotiating theory and practice. All I knew about the techniques we used at the FBI was that they worked. In the twenty years I spent at the Bureau we’d designed a system that had successfully resolved almost every kidnapping we applied it to. But we didn’t have grand theories.

Our techniques were the products of experiential learning; they were developed by agents in the field, negotiating through crisis and sharing stories of what succeeded and what failed. It was an iterative process, not an intellectual one, as we refined the tools we used day after day. And it was urgent. Our tools had to work, because if they didn’t someone died.

But why did they work? That was the question that drew me to Harvard, to that office with Mnookin and Blum. I lacked confidence outside my narrow world. Most of all, I needed to articulate my knowledge and learn how to combine it with theirs—and they clearly had some—so I could understand, systematize, and expand it.

Yes, our techniques clearly worked with mercenaries, drug dealers, terrorists, and brutal killers. But, I wondered, what about with normal humans?

As I’d soon discover in the storied halls of Harvard, our techniques made great sense intellectually, and they worked everywhere.

It turned out that our approach to negotiation held the keys to unlock profitable human interactions in every domain and every interaction and every relationship in life.

This book is how it works.


To answer my questions, a year later, in 2006, I talked my way into Harvard Law School’s Winter Negotiation Course. The best and brightest compete to get into this class, and it was filled with brilliant Harvard students getting law and business degrees and hotshot students from other top Boston universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts. The Olympic trials for negotiating. And I was the only outsider.

The first day of the course, all 144 of us piled into a lecture hall for an introduction and then we split into four groups, each led by a negotiation instructor. After we’d had a chat with our instructor—mine was named Sheila Heen, and she’s a good buddy to this day—we were partnered off in pairs and sent into mock negotiations. Simple: one of us was selling a product, the other was the buyer, and each had clear limits on the price they could take.

My counterpart was a languid redhead named Andy (a pseudonym), one of those guys who wear their intellectual superiority like they wear their khakis: with relaxed confidence. He and I went into an empty classroom overlooking one of those English-style squares on Harvard’s campus, and we each used the tools we had. Andy would throw out an offer and give a rationally airtight explanation for why it was a good one—an inescapable logic trap—and I’d answer with some variation of “How am I supposed to do that?”

We did this a bunch of times until we got to a final figure. When we left, I was happy. I thought I’d done pretty well for a dumb guy.

After we all regrouped in the classroom, Sheila went around the students and asked what price each group had agreed on, and then wrote the result on the board.

Finally, it was my turn.

“Chris, how did you do with Andy?” she asked. “How much did you get?”

I’ll never forget Sheila’s expression when I told her what Andy had agreed to pay. Her whole face first went red, as if she couldn’t breathe, and then out popped a little strangled gasp like a baby bird’s hungry cry. Finally, she started to laugh.

Andy squirmed.

“You got literally every dime he had,” she said, “and in his brief he was supposed to hold a quarter of it back in reserve for future work.”

Andy sank deep in his chair.

The next day the same thing happened with another partner.

I mean, I absolutely destroyed the guy’s budget.

It didn’t make sense. A lucky one-off was one thing. But this was a pattern. With my old-school, experiential knowledge, I was killing guys who knew every cutting-edge trick you could find in a book.

The thing was, it was the cutting-edge techniques these guys were using that felt dated and old. I felt like I was Roger Federer and I had used a time machine to go back to the 1920s to play in a tennis tournament of distinguished gentlemen who wore white pantsuits and used wood rackets and had part-time training regimens. There I was with my titanium alloy racket and dedicated personal trainer and computer-strategized serve-and-volley plays. The guys I was playing were just as smart—actually, more so—and we were basically playing the same game with the same rules. But I had skills they didn’t.

“You’re getting famous for your special style, Chris,” Sheila said, after I announced my second day’s results.

I smiled like the Cheshire cat. Winning was fun.

“Chris, why don’t you tell everybody your approach,” Sheila said. “It seems like all you do to these Harvard Law School students is say ‘No’ and stare at them, and they fall apart. Is it really that easy?”

I knew what she meant: While I wasn’t actually saying “No,” the questions I kept asking sounded like it. They seemed to insinuate that the other side was being dishonest and unfair. And that was enough to make them falter and negotiate with themselves. Answering my calibrated questions demanded deep emotional strengths and tactical psychological insights that the toolbox they’d been given did not contain.

I shrugged.

“I’m just asking questions,” I said. “It’s a passive-aggressive approach. I just ask the same three or four open-ended questions over and over and over and over. They get worn out answering and give me everything I want.”

Andy jumped in his seat as if he’d been stung by a bee.

“Damn!” he said. “That’s what happened. I had no idea.”

By the time I’d finished my winter course at Harvard, I’d actually become friends with some of my fellow students. Even with Andy.

If my time at Harvard showed me anything, it was that we at the FBI had a lot to teach the world about negotiating.

In my short stay I realized that without a deep understanding of human psychology, without the acceptance that we are all crazy, irrational, impulsive, emotionally driven animals, all the raw intelligence and mathematical logic in the world is little help in the fraught, shifting interplay of two people negotiating.

Yes, perhaps we are the only animal that haggles—a monkey does not exchange a portion of his banana for another’s nuts—but no matter how we dress up our negotiations in mathematical theories, we are always an animal, always acting and reacting first and foremost from our deeply held but mostly invisible and inchoate fears, needs, perceptions, and desires.

That’s not how these folks at Harvard learned it, though. Their theories and techniques all had to do with intellectual power, logic, authoritative acronyms like BATNA and ZOPA, rational notions of value, and a moral concept of what was fair and what was not.

And built on top of this false edifice of rationality was, of course, process. They had a script to follow, a predetermined sequence of actions, offers, and counteroffers designed in a specific order to bring about a particular outcome. It was as if they were dealing with a robot, that if you did a, b, c, and d in a certain fixed order, you would get x. But in the real world negotiation is far too unpredictable and complex for that. You may have to do a then d, and then maybe q.

If I could dominate the country’s brightest students with just one of the many emotionally attuned negotiating techniques I had developed and used against terrorists and kidnappers, why not apply them to business? What was the difference between bank robbers who took hostages and CEOs who used hardball tactics to drive down the price of a billion-dollar acquisition?

After all, kidnappers are just businessmen trying to get the best price.


Hostage taking—and therefore hostage negotiating—has existed since the dawn of recorded time. The Old Testament spins plenty of tales of Israelites and their enemies taking each other’s citizens hostage as spoils of war. The Romans, for their part, used to force the princes of vassal states to send their sons to Rome for their education, to ensure the continued loyalty of the princes.

But until the Nixon administration, hostage negotiating as a process was limited to sending in troops and trying to shoot the hostages free. In law enforcement, our approach was pretty much to talk until we figured out how to take them out with a gun. Brute force.

Then a series of hostage disasters forced us to change.

In 1971, thirty-nine hostages were killed when the police tried to resolve the Attica prison riots in upstate New York with guns. Then at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by their Palestinian captors after a botched rescue attempt by the German police.

But the greatest inspiration for institutional change in American law enforcement came on an airport tarmac in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 4, 1971.

The United States was experiencing an epidemic of airline hijackings at the time; there were five in one three-day period in 1970. It was in that charged atmosphere that an unhinged man named George Giffe Jr. hijacked a chartered plane out of Nashville, Tennessee, planning to head to the Bahamas.

By the time the incident was over, Giffe had murdered two hostages—his estranged wife and the pilot—and killed himself to boot.

But this time the blame didn’t fall on the hijacker; instead, it fell squarely on the FBI. Two hostages had managed to convince Giffe to let them go on the tarmac in Jacksonville, where they’d stopped to refuel. But the agents had gotten impatient and shot out the engine. And that had pushed Giffe to the nuclear option.

In fact, the blame placed on the FBI was so strong that when the pilot’s wife and Giffe’s daughter filed a wrongful death suit alleging FBI negligence, the courts agreed.

In the landmark Downs v. United States decision of 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals wrote that “there was a better suited alternative to protecting the hostages’ well-being,” and said that the FBI had turned “what had been a successful ‘waiting game,’ during which two persons safely left the plane, into a ‘shooting match’ that left three persons dead.” The court concluded that “a reasonable attempt at negotiations must be made prior to a tactical intervention.”

The Downs hijacking case came to epitomize everything not to do in a crisis situation, and inspired the development of today’s theories, training, and techniques for hostage negotiations.

Soon after the Giffe tragedy, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) became the first police force in the country to put together a dedicated team of specialists to design a process and handle crisis negotiations. The FBI and others followed.

A new era of negotiation had begun.


In the early 1980s, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the hot spot in the negotiating world, as scholars from different disciplines began interacting and exploring exciting new concepts. The big leap forward came in 1979, when the Harvard Negotiation Project was founded with a mandate to improve the theory, teaching, and practice of negotiation so that people could more effectively handle everything from peace treaties to business mergers.

Two years later, Roger Fisher and William Ury—cofounders of the project—came out with Getting to Yes,2 a groundbreaking treatise on negotiation that totally changed the way practitioners thought about the field.

Fisher and Ury’s approach was basically to systematize problem solving so that negotiating parties could reach a mutually beneficial deal—the getting to “Yes” in the title. Their core assumption was that the emotional brain—that animalistic, unreliable, and irrational beast—could be overcome through a more rational, joint problem-solving mindset.

Their system was easy to follow and seductive, with four basic tenets. One, separate the person—the emotion—from the problem; two, don’t get wrapped up in the other side’s position (what they’re asking for) but instead focus on their interests (why they’re asking for it) so that you can find what they really want; three, work cooperatively to generate win-win options; and, four, establish mutually agreed-upon standards for evaluating those possible solutions.

It was a brilliant, rational, and profound synthesis of the most advanced game theory and legal thinking of the day. For years after that book came out, everybody—including the FBI and the NYPD—focused on a problem-solving approach to bargaining interactions. It just seemed so modern and smart.

Halfway across the United States, a pair of professors at the University of Chicago was looking at everything from economics to negotiation from a far different angle.

They were the economist Amos Tversky and the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Together, the two launched the field of behavioral economics—and Kahneman won a Nobel Prize—by showing that man is a very irrational beast.

Feeling, they discovered, is a form of thinking.

As you’ve seen, when business schools like Harvard’s began teaching negotiation in the 1980s, the process was presented as a straightforward economic analysis. It was a period when the world’s top academic economists declared that we were all “rational actors.” And so it went in negotiation classes: assuming the other side was acting rationally and selfishly in trying to maximize its position, the goal was to figure out how to respond in various scenarios to maximize one’s own value.

This mentality baffled Kahneman, who from years in psychology knew that, in his words, “[I]t is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable.”

Through decades of research with Tversky, Kahneman proved that humans all suffer from Cognitive Bias, that is, unconscious—and irrational—brain processes that literally distort the way we see the world. Kahneman and Tversky discovered more than 150 of them.

There’s the Framing Effect, which demonstrates that people respond differently to the same choice depending on how it is framed (people place greater value on moving from 90 percent to 100 percent—high probability to certainty—than from 45 percent to 55 percent, even though they’re both ten percentage points). Prospect Theory explains why we take unwarranted risks in the face of uncertain losses. And the most famous is Loss Aversion, which shows how people are statistically more likely to act to avert a loss than to achieve an equal gain.

Kahneman later codified his research in the 2011 bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow.3 Man, he wrote, has two systems of thought: System 1, our animal mind, is fast, instinctive, and emotional; System 2 is slow, deliberative, and logical. And System 1 is far more influential. In fact, it guides and steers our rational thoughts.

System 1’s inchoate beliefs, feelings, and impressions are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. They’re the spring that feeds the river. We react emotionally (System 1) to a suggestion or question. Then that System 1 reaction informs and in effect creates the System 2 answer.

Now think about that: under this model, if you know how to affect your counterpart’s System 1 thinking, his inarticulate feelings, by how you frame and deliver your questions and statements, then you can guide his System 2 rationality and therefore modify his responses. That’s what happened to Andy at Harvard: by asking, “How am I supposed to do that?” I influenced his System 1 emotional mind into accepting that his offer wasn’t good enough; his System 2 then rationalized the situation so that it made sense to give me a better offer.

If you believed Kahneman, conducting negotiations based on System 2 concepts without the tools to read, understand, and manipulate the System 1 emotional underpinning was like trying to make an omelet without first knowing how to crack an egg.


As the new hostage negotiating team at the FBI grew and gained more experience in problem-solving skills during the 1980s and ’90s, it became clear that our system was lacking a crucial ingredient.

At the time, we were deep into Getting to Yes. And as a negotiator, consultant, and teacher with decades of experience, I still agree with many of the powerful bargaining strategies in the book. When it was published, it provided groundbreaking ideas on cooperative problem solving and originated absolutely necessary concepts like entering negotiations with a BATNA: the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.

It was genius.

But after the fatally disastrous sieges of Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge farm in Idaho in 1992 and David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, there was no denying that most hostage negotiations were anything but rational problem-solving situations.

I mean, have you ever tried to devise a mutually beneficial win-win solution with a guy who thinks he’s the messiah?

It was becoming glaringly obvious that Getting to Yes didn’t work with kidnappers. No matter how many agents read the book with highlighters in hand, it failed to improve how we as hostage negotiators approached deal making.

There was clearly a breakdown between the book’s brilliant theory and everyday law enforcement experience. Why was it that everyone had read this bestselling business book and endorsed it as one of the greatest negotiation texts ever written, and yet so few could actually follow it successfully?

Were we morons?

After Ruby Ridge and Waco, a lot of people were asking that question. U.S. deputy attorney general Philip B. Heymann, to be specific, wanted to know why our hostage negotiation techniques were so bad. In October 1993, he issued a report titled “Lessons of Waco: Proposed Changes in Federal Law Enforcement,”4 which summarized an expert panel’s diagnosis of federal law enforcement’s inability to handle complex hostage situations.

As a result, in 1994 FBI director Louis Freeh announced the formation of the Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG), a blended division that would combine the Crises Negotiation, Crises Management, Behavioral Sciences, and Hostage Rescue teams and reinvent crisis negotiation.

The only issue was, what techniques were we going to use?

Around this time, two of the most decorated negotiators in FBI history, my colleague Fred Lanceley and my former boss Gary Noesner, were leading a hostage negotiation class in Oakland, California, when they asked their group of thirty-five experienced law enforcement officers a simple question: How many had dealt with a classic bargaining situation where problem solving was the best technique?

Not one hand went up.

Then they asked the complementary question: How many students had negotiated an incident in a dynamic, intense, uncertain environment where the hostage-taker was in emotional crisis and had no clear demands?

Every hand went up.

It was clear: if emotionally driven incidents, not rational bargaining interactions, constituted the bulk of what most police negotiators had to deal with, then our negotiating skills had to laser-focus on the animal, emotional, and irrational.

From that moment onward, our emphasis would have to be not on training in quid pro quo bargaining and problem solving, but on education in the psychological skills needed in crisis intervention situations. Emotions and emotional intelligence would have to be central to effective negotiation, not things to be overcome.

What were needed were simple psychological tactics and strategies that worked in the field to calm people down, establish rapport, gain trust, elicit the verbalization of needs, and persuade the other guy of our empathy. We needed something easy to teach, easy to learn, and easy to execute.

These were cops and agents, after all, and they weren’t interested in becoming academics or therapists. What they wanted was to change the behavior of the hostage-taker, whoever they were and whatever they wanted, to shift the emotional environment of the crisis just enough so that we could secure the safety of everyone involved.

In the early years, the FBI experimented with both new and old therapeutic techniques developed by the counseling profession. These counseling skills were aimed at developing positive relationships with people by demonstrating an understanding of what they’re going through and how they feel about it.

It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.

Psychotherapy research shows that when individuals feel listened to, they tend to listen to themselves more carefully and to openly evaluate and clarify their own thoughts and feelings. In addition, they tend to become less defensive and oppositional and more willing to listen to other points of view, which gets them to the calm and logical place where they can be good Getting to Yes problem solvers.

The whole concept, which you’ll learn as the centerpiece of this book, is called Tactical Empathy. This is listening as a martial art, balancing the subtle behaviors of emotional intelligence and the assertive skills of influence, to gain access to the mind of another person. Contrary to popular opinion, listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.

Once we started developing our new techniques, the negotiating world split into two currents: negotiation as learned at the country’s top school continued down the established road of rational problem solving, while, ironically, we meatheads at the FBI began to train our agents in an unproven system based on psychology, counseling, and crisis intervention. While the Ivy League taught math and economics, we became experts in empathy.

And our way worked.


While you might be curious how FBI negotiators get some of the world’s toughest bad guys to give up their hostages, you could be excused for wondering what hostage negotiation has to do with your life. Happily, very few people are ever forced to deal with Islamist terrorists who’ve kidnapped their loved ones.

But allow me to let you in on a secret: Life is negotiation.

The majority of the interactions we have at work and at home are negotiations that boil down to the expression of a simple, animalistic urge: I want.

“I want you to free the hostages,” is a very relevant one to this book, of course.

But so is:

“I want you to accept that $1 million contract.”

“I want to pay $20,000 for that car.”

“I want you to give me a 10 percent raise.”


“I want you to go to sleep at 9 p.m.”

Negotiation serves two distinct, vital life functions—information gathering and behavior influencing—and includes almost any interaction where each party wants something from the other side. Your career, your finances, your reputation, your love life, even the fate of your kids—at some point all of these hinge on your ability to negotiate.

Negotiation as you’ll learn it here is nothing more than communication with results. Getting what you want out of life is all about getting what you want from—and with—other people. Conflict between two parties is inevitable in all relationships. So it’s useful—crucial, even—to know how to engage in that conflict to get what you want without inflicting damage.

In this book, I draw on my more than two-decade career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to distill the principles and practices I deployed in the field into an exciting new approach designed to help you disarm, redirect, and dismantle your counterpart in virtually any negotiation. And to do so in a relationship-affirming way.

Yes, you’ll learn how we negotiated the safe release of countless hostages. But you’ll also learn how to use a deep understanding of human psychology to negotiate a lower car price, a bigger raise, and a child’s bedtime. This book will teach you to reclaim control of the conversations that inform your life and career.

The first step to achieving a mastery of daily negotiation is to get over your aversion to negotiating. You don’t need to like it; you just need to understand that’s how the world works. Negotiating does not mean browbeating or grinding someone down. It simply means playing the emotional game that human society is set up for. In this world, you get what you ask for; you just have to ask correctly. So claim your prerogative to ask for what you think is right.

What this book is really about, then, is getting you to accept negotiation and in doing so learn how to get what you want in a psychologically aware way. You’ll learn to use your emotions, instincts, and insights in any encounter to connect better with others, influence them, and achieve more.

Effective negotiation is applied people smarts, a psychological edge in every domain of life: how to size someone up, how to influence their sizing up of you, and how to use that knowledge to get what you want.

But beware: this is not another pop-psych book. It’s a deep and thoughtful (and most of all, practical) take on leading psychological theory that distills lessons from a twenty-four-year career in the FBI and ten years teaching and consulting in the best business schools and corporations in the world.

And it works for one simple reason: it was designed in and for the real world. It was not born in a classroom or a training hall, but built from years of experience that improved it until it reached near perfection.

Remember, a hostage negotiator plays a unique role: he has to win. Can he say to a bank robber, “Okay, you’ve taken four hostages. Let’s split the difference—give me two, and we’ll call it a day?”

No. A successful hostage negotiator has to get everything he asks for, without giving anything back of substance, and do so in a way that leaves the adversaries feeling as if they have a great relationship. His work is emotional intelligence on steroids. Those are the tools you’ll learn here.


Like a contractor building a house, this book is constructed from the ground up: first comes the big slabs of foundation, then the necessary load-bearing walls, the elegant but impermeable roof, and the lovely interior decorations.

Each chapter expands on the previous one. First you’ll learn the refined techniques of this approach to Active Listening and then you’ll move on to specific tools, turns of phrase, the ins and outs of the final act—haggling—and, finally, how to discover the rarity that can help you achieve true negotiating greatness: the Black Swan.

In Chapter 2, you’ll learn how to avoid the assumptions that blind neophyte negotiators and replace them with Active Listening techniques like Mirroring, Silences, and the Late-Night FM DJ Voice. You’ll discover how to slow things down and make your counterpart feel safe enough to reveal themselves; to discern between wants (aspirations) and needs (the bare minimum for a deal); and to laser-focus on what the other party has to say.

Chapter 3 will delve into Tactical Empathy. You’ll learn how to recognize your counterpart’s perspective and then gain trust and understanding through Labeling—that is, by repeating that perspective back to them. You’ll also learn how to defuse negative dynamics by bringing them into the open. Finally, I’ll explain how to disarm your counterpart’s complaints about you by speaking them aloud in an Accusation Audit.

Next, in Chapter 4, I’ll examine ways to make your counterpart feel understood and positively affirmed in a negotiation in order to create an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard. Here, you’ll learn why you should strive for “That’s right” instead of “Yes” at every stage of a negotiation, and how to identify, rearticulate, and emotionally affirm your counterpart’s worldview with Summaries and Paraphrasing.

Chapter 5 teaches the flip side of Getting to Yes. You’ll learn why it’s vitally important to get to “No” because “No” starts the negotiation. You’ll also discover how to step out of your ego and negotiate in your counterpart’s world, the only way to achieve an agreement the other side will implement. Finally, you’ll see how to engage your counterpart by acknowledging their right to choose, and you’ll learn an email technique that ensures that you’ll never be ignored again.

In Chapter 6, you’ll discover the art of bending reality. That is, I’ll explain a variety of tools for framing a negotiation in such a way that your counterpart will unconsciously accept the limits you place on the discussion. You’ll learn how to navigate deadlines to create urgency; employ the idea of fairness to nudge your counterpart; and anchor their emotions so that not accepting your offer feels like a loss.

After this, Chapter 7 is dedicated to that incredibly powerful tool I used at Harvard: Calibrated Questions, the queries that begin with “How?” or “What?” By eliminating “Yes” and “No” answers they force your counterpart to apply their mental energy to solving your problems.

In Chapter 8 I demonstrate how to employ these Calibrated Questions to guard against failures in the implementation phase. “Yes,” as I always say, is nothing without “How?” You’ll also discover the importance of nonverbal communication; how to use “How” questions to gently say “No”; how to get your counterparts to bid against themselves; and how to influence the deal killers when they’re not at the table.

At a certain point, every negotiation gets down to the brass tacks: that is, to old-school haggling. Chapter 9 offers a step-by-step process for effective bargaining, from how to prepare to how to dodge an aggressive counterpart and how to go on the offensive. You’ll learn the Ackerman system, the most effective process the FBI has for setting and making offers.

Finally, Chapter 10 explains how to find and use those most rare of negotiation animals: the Black Swan. In every negotiation there are between three and five pieces of information that, were they to be uncovered, would change everything. The concept is an absolute game-changer; so much so, I’ve named my company The Black Swan Group. In this chapter, you’ll learn how to recognize the markers that show the Black Swan’s hidden nest, as well as simple tools for employing Black Swans to gain leverage over your counterpart and achieve truly amazing deals.

Each chapter will start with a fast-paced story of a hostage negotiation, which will then be dissected with an eye to explaining what worked and what didn’t. After I explain the theory and the tools, you’ll read real-life case studies from me and others who’ve used these tools to prevail while negotiating a salary, purchasing a car, or working out nettlesome problems at home.

When you finish this book, I will have succeeded if you’ve applied these crucial techniques to improve your career and life. I’m sure you will. Just remember, to successfully negotiate it is critical to prepare. Which is why in the Appendix you’ll find an invaluable tool I use with all my students and clients called the Negotiation One Sheet: a concise primer of nearly all our tactics and strategies for you to think through and customize for whatever kind of deal you’re looking to close.

Most important to me is that you understand how urgent, essential, and even beautiful negotiation can be. When we embrace negotiating’s transformative possibilities, we learn how to get what we want and how to move others to a better place.

Negotiation is the heart of collaboration. It is what makes conflict potentially meaningful and productive for all parties. It can change your life, as it has changed mine.

I’ve always thought of myself as just a regular guy. Hardworking and willing to learn, yes, but not particularly talented. And I’ve always felt that life holds amazing possibilities. In my much younger days, I just didn’t know how to unlock those possibilities.

But with the skills I’ve learned, I’ve found myself doing extraordinary things and watching the people I’ve taught achieve truly life-changing results. When I use what I’ve learned over the last thirty years, I know I actually have the power to change the course of where my life is going, and to help others do that as well. Thirty years ago, while I felt like that could be done, I didn’t know how.

Now I do. Here’s how.


September 30, 1993

A brisk autumn morning, around eight thirty. Two masked bank robbers trigger an alarm as they storm into the Chase Manhattan Bank at Seventh Avenue and Carroll Street in Brooklyn. There are only two female tellers and a male security guard inside. The robbers crack the unarmed sixty-year-old security guard across the skull with a .357, drag him to the men’s room, and lock him inside. One of the tellers gets the same pistol-whipping treatment.

Then one of the robbers turns to the other teller, puts the barrel in her mouth, and pulls the trigger—click, goes the empty chamber.

“Next one is real,” says the robber. “Now open the vault.”

A bank robbery, with hostages. Happens all the time in the movies, but it had been almost twenty years since there’d been one of these standoffs in New York, the city with more hostage negotiation jobs than any other jurisdiction in the country.

And this happened to be my very first feet-to-the-fire, in-your-face hostage job.

I had been training for about a year and a half in hostage negotiations, but I hadn’t had a chance to use my new skills. For me, 1993 had already been a very busy and incredible ride. Working on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, I had been the co–case agent in an investigation that thwarted a plot to set off bombs in the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, the United Nations, and 26 Federal Plaza, the home of the FBI in New York City. We broke it up just as terrorists were mixing bombs in a safe house. The plotters were associated with an Egyptian cell that had ties to the “Blind Sheikh,” who later would be found guilty of masterminding the plot that we uncovered.

You might think a bank robbery would be small potatoes after we busted up a terrorist plot, but by then I had already come to realize that negotiation would be my lifelong passion. I was eager to put my new skills to the test. And besides, there was nothing small about this situation.

When we got the call, my colleague Charlie Beaudoin and I raced to the scene, bailed out of his black Crown Victoria, and made our way to the command post. The whole cavalry showed up for this one—NYPD, FBI, SWAT—all the muscle and savvy of law enforcement up against the knee-jerk desperation of a couple of bank robbers seemingly in over their heads.

New York police, behind a wall of blue and white trucks and patrol cars, had set up across the street inside another bank. SWAT team members, peering through rifle scopes from the roofs of nearby brownstone buildings, had their weapons trained on the bank’s front and rear doors.


Good negotiators, going in, know they have to be ready for possible surprises; great negotiators aim to use their skills to reveal the surprises they are certain exist.

Experience will have taught them that they are best served by holding multiple hypotheses—about the situation, about the counterpart’s wants, about a whole array of variables—in their mind at the same time. Present and alert in the moment, they use all the new information that comes their way to test and winnow true hypotheses from false ones.

In negotiation, each new psychological insight or additional piece of information revealed heralds a step forward and allows one to discard one hypothesis in favor of another. You should engage the process with a mindset of discovery. Your goal at the outset is to extract and observe as much information as possible. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons that really smart people often have trouble being negotiators—they’re so smart they think they don’t have anything to discover.

Too often people find it easier just to stick with what they believe. Using what they’ve heard or their own biases, they often make assumptions about others even before meeting them. They even ignore their own perceptions to make them conform to foregone conclusions. These assumptions muck up our perceptual windows onto the world, showing us an unchanging—often flawed—version of the situation.

Great negotiators are able to question the assumptions that the rest of the involved players accept on faith or in arrogance, and thus remain more emotionally open to all possibilities, and more intellectually agile to a fluid situation.

Unfortunately, back in 1993, I was far from great.

Everyone thought the crisis would be over quickly. The bank robbers had little choice but to surrender—or so we thought. We actually started the day with intelligence that the bank robbers wanted to surrender. Little did we know that was a ruse their ringleader planted to buy time. And throughout the day, he constantly referred to the influence the other four bank robbers exerted on him. I hadn’t yet learned to be aware of a counterpart’s overuse of personal pronouns—we/they or me/I. The less important he makes himself, the more important he probably is (and vice versa). We would later find out there was only one other bank robber, and he had been tricked into the robbery. Actually, three robbers, if you counted the getaway driver, who got away before we even entered the scene.

The “lead” hostage-taker was running his own “counterintelligence operation,” feeding us all kinds of misinformation. He wanted us to think he had a bunch of co-conspirators with him—from a number of different countries. He also wanted us to think that his partners were much more volatile and dangerous than he was.

Looking back, of course, his game plan was clear—he wanted to confuse us as much as he could until he could figure a way out. He would constantly tell us that he wasn’t in charge and that every decision was the responsibility of the other guys. He would indicate that he was scared—or, at least, a little tentative—when we asked him to pass along certain information. And yet he always spoke with a voice of complete calm and absolute confidence. It was a reminder to my colleagues and me that until you know what you’re dealing with, you don’t know what you’re dealing with.

Though the call had come in about 8:30 a.m., by the time we arrived across the street from the bank and made contact it was probably about 10:30 a.m. The word when we came on the scene was that this was going to be cookie-cutter, by the book, short and sweet. Our commanders thought we’d be in and out of there in ten minutes, because the bad guys supposedly wanted to give themselves up. This would later become a problem, when negotiations stalled and Command became embarrassed, because they’d made the mistake of sharing this early optimism with the press, based on all the early misinformation.

We arrived on the scene to take a surrender, but the situation went sideways almost immediately.

Everything we assumed we knew was wrong.


Our Negotiation Operation Center (NOC) was set up in an office in a bank immediately across a narrow street from the Chase branch. We were way too close to the hostage site, so right away we were at a disadvantage. We were less than thirty yards from the crisis point, where ideally you want to have a little more of a buffer than that. You want to put some distance between you and whatever worst-case scenario might be waiting at the other end of the deal.

When my partner and I arrived, I was immediately assigned to coach the police department negotiator on the phone. His name was Joe, and he was doing fine—but in these types of situations, nobody worked alone. We always worked in teams. The thinking behind this policy was that all these extra sets of ears would pick up extra information. In some standoffs, we had as many as five people on the line, analyzing the information as it came in, offering behind-the-scenes input and guidance to our man on the phone—and that’s how we were set up here. We had Joe taking the lead on the phone, and another three or four of us were listening in, passing notes back and forth, trying to make sense of a confusing situation. One of us was trying to gauge the mood of the bad guy taking the lead on the other end, and another was listening in for clues or “tells” that might give us a better read on what we were facing, and so on.

Students of mine balk at this notion, asking, “Seriously, do you really need a whole team to . . . hear someone out?” The fact that the FBI has come to that conclusion, I tell them, should be a wake-up call. It’s really not that easy to listen well.

We are easily distracted. We engage in selective listening, hearing only what we want to hear, our minds acting on a cognitive bias for consistency rather than truth. And that’s just the start.

Most people approach a negotiation so preoccupied by the arguments that support their position that they are unable to listen attentively. In one of the most cited research papers in psychology,1 George A. Miller persuasively put forth the idea that we can process only about seven pieces of information in our conscious mind at any given moment. In other words, we are easily overwhelmed.

For those people who view negotiation as a battle of arguments, it’s the voices in their own head that are overwhelming them. When they’re not talking, they’re thinking about their arguments, and when they are talking, they’re making their arguments. Often those on both sides of the table are doing the same thing, so you have what I call a state of schizophrenia: everyone just listening to the voice in their head (and not well, because they’re doing seven or eight other things at the same time). It may look like there are only two people in a conversation, but really it’s more like four people all talking at once.

There’s one powerful way to quiet the voice in your head and the voice in their head at the same time: treat two schizophrenics with just one pill. Instead of prioritizing your argument—in fact, instead of doing any thinking at all in the early goings about what you’re going to say—make your sole and all-encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say. In that mode of true active listening—aided by the tactics you’ll learn in the following chapters—you’ll disarm your counterpart. You’ll make them feel safe. The voice in their head will begin to quiet down.

The goal is to identify what your counterparts actually need (monetarily, emotionally, or otherwise) and get them feeling safe enough to talk and talk and talk some more about what they want. The latter will help you discover the former. Wants are easy to talk about, representing the aspiration of getting our way, and sustaining any illusion of control we have as we begin to negotiate; needs imply survival, the very minimum required to make us act, and so make us vulnerable. But neither wants nor needs are where we start; it begins with listening, making it about the other people, validating their emotions, and creating enough trust and safety for a real conversation to begin.

We were far from that goal with the lead hostage-taker on the call. He kept putting up these weird smoke screens. He wouldn’t give up his name, he tried to disguise his voice, he was always telling Joe he was being put on speaker so everyone around him in the bank could hear, and then he would abruptly announce that he was putting Joe on “hold” and hang up the phone. He was constantly asking about a van, saying he and his partners wanted us to arrange one for them so they could drive themselves and the hostages to the local precinct to surrender. That was where the surrender nonsense had come from—but, of course, this wasn’t a surrender plan so much as it was an escape plan. In the back of his mind, this guy thought he could somehow leave the bank without being taken into custody, and now that his getaway driver had fled the scene he needed access to a vehicle.

After it was all over, a couple of other details came clear. We weren’t the only ones who had been lied to. Apparently, this lead bank robber hadn’t told his partners they were going to rob a bank that morning. It turned out he was a cash courier who serviced the bank, and his partners were under the impression that they were going to burglarize the ATM. They didn’t sign up for taking hostages, so we learned that this guy’s co-conspirators were also hostages, in a way. They were caught up in a bad situation they didn’t see coming—and, in the end, it was this “disconnect” among the hostage-takers that helped us to drive a wedge between them and put an end to the stalemate.


The leader wanted to make us think he and his partners were taking good care of his hostages, but in reality the security guard was out of the picture and the second bank teller had run to the bank basement to hide. Whenever Joe said he wanted to talk to the hostages, the hostage-taker would stall, and make it seem like there was this frenzy of activity going on inside the bank, going to ridiculous lengths to tell us how much time and energy he and his cohorts were spending on taking good care of the hostages. Very often, the leader would use this as a reason to put Joe on hold, or to end a call. He’d say, “The girls need to go to the bathroom.” Or, “The girls want to call their families.” Or, “The girls want to get something to eat.”

Joe was doing a good job keeping this guy talking, but he was slightly limited by the negotiating approach that police departments were using at the time. The approach was half MSU—Making Shit Up—and half a sort of sales approach—basically trying to persuade, coerce, or manipulate in any way possible. The problem was, we were in too much of a hurry, driving too hard toward a quick solution; trying to be a problem solver, not a people mover.

Going too fast is one of the mistakes all negotiators are prone to making. If we’re too much in a hurry, people can feel as if they’re not being heard and we risk undermining the rapport and trust we’ve built. There’s plenty of research that now validates the passage of time as one of the most important tools for a negotiator. When you slow the process down, you also calm it down. After all, if someone is talking, they’re not shooting.

We caught a break when the robbers started to make noise about food. Joe was going back and forth with them for a while on what they were going to have and how we were going to get it to them. It became a negotiation in and of itself. We got it all set up, prepared to send the food in on a kind of robot device, because that’s what this guy was comfortable with, but then he did an about-face, said to forget about it. Said they’d found some food inside, so it was just one brick wall after another, one smoke screen after another. It would feel to us like we were making a little progress, then this guy would take an abrupt turn, or hang up on us, or change his mind.

Meanwhile, our investigators used the time to run the registration of every one of the dozens of vehicles found nearby on the street, and managed to speak to the owners of every one of them except one—a car belonging to someone named Chris Watts. This became our one and only lead, at the time, and as our endless back-and-forth continued on the phone we sent a group of investigators to the address on Chris Watts’s registration, where they found someone who knew Chris Watts and agreed to come down to the scene of the standoff to possibly identify him.

We still didn’t have a visual on the inside, so our eyewitness had to be more of an “earwitness”—and he was able to identify Chris Watts by his voice.

We now knew more about our adversary than he thought we knew, which put us at a momentary advantage. We were putting together all the puzzle pieces, but it didn’t get us any closer to our endgame, which was to determine for sure who was inside the building, to ensure the health and well-being of the hostages, and to get them all out safely—the good guys and the bad guys.


After five hours, we were stuck, so the lieutenant in charge asked me to take over. Joe was out; I was in. Basically, it was the only strategic play at our disposal that didn’t involve an escalation in force.

The man we now knew as Chris Watts had been in the habit of ending his calls abruptly, so my job was to find a way to keep him talking. I switched into my Late-Night, FM DJ Voice: deep, soft, slow, and reassuring. I had been instructed to confront Watts as soon as possible about his identity. I also came onto the phone with no warning, replacing Joe, against standard protocol. It was a shrewd move by the NYPD lieutenant to shake things up, but it easily could have backfired. This soothing voice was the key to easing the confrontation.

Chris Watts heard my voice on the line and cut me off immediately—said, “Hey, what happened to Joe?”

I said, “Joe’s gone. This is Chris. You’re talking to me now.”

I didn’t put it like a question. I made a downward-inflecting statement, in a downward-inflecting tone of voice. The best way to describe the late-night FM DJ’s voice is as the voice of calm and reason.

When deliberating on a negotiating strategy or approach, people tend to focus all their energies on what to say or do, but it’s how we are (our general demeanor and delivery) that is both the easiest thing to enact and the most immediately effective mode of influence. Our brains don’t just process and understand the actions and words of others but their feelings and intentions too, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions. On a mostly unconscious level, we can understand the minds of others not through any kind of thinking but through quite literally grasping what the other is feeling.

Think of it as a kind of involuntary neurological telepathy—each of us in every given moment signaling to the world around us whether we are ready to play or fight, laugh or cry.

When we radiate warmth and acceptance, conversations just seem to flow. When we enter a room with a level of comfort and enthusiasm, we attract people toward us. Smile at someone on the street, and as a reflex they’ll smile back. Understanding that reflex and putting it into practice is critical to the success of just about every negotiating skill there is to learn.

That’s why your most powerful tool in any verbal communication is your voice. You can use your voice to intentionally reach into someone’s brain and flip an emotional switch. Distrusting to trusting. Nervous to calm. In an instant, the switch will flip just like that with the right delivery.

There are essentially three voice tones available to negotiators: the late-night FM DJ voice, the positive/playful voice, and the direct or assertive voice. Forget the assertive voice for now; except in very rare circumstances, using it is like slapping yourself in the face while you’re trying to make progress. You’re signaling dominance onto your counterpart, who will either aggressively, or passive-aggressively, push back against attempts to be controlled.

Most of the time, you should be using the positive/playful voice. It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person. Your attitude is light and encouraging. The key here is to relax and smile while you’re talking. A smile, even while talking on the phone, has an impact tonally that the other person will pick up on.

The effect these voices have are cross-cultural and never lost in translation. On a vacation to Turkey with his girlfriend, one of our instructors at The Black Swan Group was befuddled—not to mention a little embarrassed—that his partner was repeatedly getting better deals in their backstreet haggling sessions at the spice markets in Istanbul. For the merchants in such markets throughout the Middle East, bargaining is an art form. Their emotional intelligence is finely honed, and they’ll use hospitality and friendliness in a powerful way to draw you in and create reciprocity that ends in an exchange of money. But it works both ways, as our instructor discovered while observing his girlfriend in action: she approached each encounter as a fun game, so that no matter how aggressively she pushed, her smile and playful demeanor primed her merchant friends to settle on a successful outcome.

When people are in a positive frame of mind, they think more quickly, and are more likely to collaborate and problem-solve (instead of fight and resist). It applies to the smile-er as much as to the smile-ee: a smile on your face, and in your voice, will increase your own mental agility.

Playful wasn’t the move with Chris Watts. The way the late-night FM DJ voice works is that, when you inflect your voice in a downward way, you put it out there that you’ve got it covered. Talking slowly and clearly you convey one idea: I’m in control. When you inflect in an upward way, you invite a response. Why? Because you’ve brought in a measure of uncertainty. You’ve made a statement sound like a question. You’ve left the door open for the other guy to take the lead, so I was careful here to be quiet, self-assured.

It’s the same voice I might use in a contract negotiation, when an item isn’t up for discussion. If I see a work-for-hire clause, for example, I might say, “We don’t do work-for-hire.” Just like that, plain, simple, and friendly. I don’t offer up an alternative, because it would beg further discussion, so I just make a straightforward declaration.

That’s how I played it here. I said, “Joe’s gone. You’re talking to me now.”

Done deal.

You can be very direct and to the point as long as you create safety by a tone of voice that says I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s figure things out.

The tide was turning. Chris Watts was rattled, but he had a few moves left in him. One of the bad guys went down to the basement and collected one of the female bank tellers. She’d disappeared into the bowels of the bank at some point, but Chris Watts and his accomplice hadn’t chased after her because they knew she wasn’t going anywhere. Now one of the bank robbers dragged her back upstairs and put her on the phone.

She said, “I’m okay.” That’s all.

I said, “Who is this?”

She said, “I’m okay.”

I wanted to keep her talking, so I asked her name—but then, just like that, she was gone.

This was a brilliant move on Chris Watts’s part. It was a threat, teasing us with the woman’s voice, but subtly and indirectly. It was a way for the bad guy to let us know he was calling the shots on his end of the phone without directly escalating the situation. He’d given us a “proof of life,” confirming that he did indeed have hostages with him who were in decent enough shape to talk on the phone, but stopped short of allowing us to gather any useful information.

He’d managed to take back a measure of control.


Chris Watts came back on the phone trying to act like nothing had happened. He was a little rattled, that’s for sure, but now he was talking.

“We’ve identified every car on the street and talked to all the owners except one,” I said to Watts. “We’ve got a van out here, a blue and gray van. We’ve been able to get a handle on the owners of all of the vehicles except this one in particular. Do you know anything about it?”

“The other vehicle’s not out there because you guys chased my driver away . . .” he blurted.

“We chased your driver away?” I mirrored.

“Well, when he seen the police he cut.”

“We don’t know anything about this guy; is he the one who was driving the van?” I asked.

The mirroring continued between me and Watts, and he made a series of damaging admissions. He started vomiting information, as we now refer to it in my consulting business. He talked about an accomplice we had no knowledge of at the time. That exchange helped us nail the driver of the getaway car.

Mirroring, also called isopraxism, is essentially imitation. It’s another neurobehavior humans (and other animals) display in which we copy each other to comfort each other. It can be done with speech patterns, body language, vocabulary, tempo, and tone of voice. It’s generally an unconscious behavior—we are rarely aware of it when it’s happening—but it’s a sign that people are bonding, in sync, and establishing the kind of rapport that leads to trust.

It’s a phenomenon (and now technique) that follows a very basic but profound biological principle: We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. Mirroring, then, when practiced consciously, is the art of insinuating similarity. “Trust me,” a mirror signals to another’s unconscious, “You and I—we’re alike.”

Once you’re attuned to the dynamic, you’ll see it everywhere: couples walking on the street with their steps in perfect synchrony; friends in conversation at a park, both nodding their heads and crossing the legs at about the same time. These people are, in a word, connected.

While mirroring is most often associated with forms of nonverbal communication, especially body language, as negotiators a “mirror” focuses on the words and nothing else. Not the body language. Not the accent. Not the tone or delivery. Just the words.

It’s almost laughably simple: for the FBI, a “mirror” is when you repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. Of the entirety of the FBI’s hostage negotiation skill set, mirroring is the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick. Simple, and yet uncannily effective.

By repeating back what people say, you trigger this mirroring instinct and your counterpart will inevitably elaborate on what was just said and sustain the process of connecting. Psychologist Richard Wiseman created a study using waiters to identify what was the more effective method of creating a connection with strangers: mirroring or positive reinforcement.

One group of waiters, using positive reinforcement, lavished praise and encouragement on patrons using words such as “great,” “no problem,” and “sure” in response to each order. The other group of waiters mirrored their customers simply by repeating their orders back to them. The results were stunning: the average tip of the waiters who mirrored was 70 percent more than of those who used positive reinforcement.

I decided it was time to hit him with his name—to let him know we were on to him. I said, “There’s a vehicle out here, and it’s registered to a Chris Watts.”

He said, “Okay.” Not letting anything on.

I said, “Is he there? Is this you? Are you Chris Watts?”

It was a stupid question, on my part. A mistake. For a mirror to be effective, you’ve got to let it sit there and do its work. It needs a bit of silence. I stepped all over my mirror. As soon as I said it, I wanted to take it back.

“Are you Chris Watts?”

What the hell could this guy say to that? Of course, he replied, “No.”

I’d made a bone-headed move and given Chris Watts a way to dodge this confrontation, but he was nevertheless rattled. Up until this moment, he’d thought he was anonymous. Whatever fantasy he had running through his head, there was a way out for him, a do-over button. Now he knew different. I composed myself, slowed it down a little, and this time shut my mouth after the mirror—I said, “No? You said ‘okay.’”

Now I had him, I thought. His voice went way up. He ended up blurting a few things out, vomiting more information, and became so flustered he stopped talking to me. Suddenly his accomplice, who we later learned was Bobby Goodwin, came onto the phone.

We hadn’t heard from this second hostage-taker, until now. We’d known all along that Chris Watts wasn’t acting alone, but we hadn’t gotten a good read on how many people he had working with him on this, and now here was his unwitting accomplice, thinking our original police department negotiator was still handling our end. We knew this because he kept calling me “Joe,” which told us he’d been in the loop early on, and somewhat less involved as the stalemate dragged on.

At the very least, the disconnect told me these guys weren’t exactly on the same page—but I didn’t jump to correct him.

Another thing: it sounded like this second guy was speaking through a towel, or a sweatshirt—like he was biting on some kind of fabric, even. Going to all these lengths to mask his voice, which meant he was clearly scared. He was nervous, jumpy as hell, anxious over how this standoff was going down.

I tried to set him at ease—still with the downward-inflecting DJ voice. I said, “Nobody’s going anywhere.” I said, “Nobody’s gonna get hurt.”

After about a minute and a half, the jumpiness seemed to disappear. The muffled voice, too. His voice came through much more clearly as he said, “I trust you, Joe.”

The more I kept this second guy on the phone, the more it became clear he was someplace he did not want to be. Bobby wanted out—and, of course, he wanted out without getting hurt. He was already in deep, but he didn’t want it to get any deeper. He didn’t start out that day planning to rob a bank, but it took hearing my calm voice on the other end of the phone for him to start to see a way out. The seventh-largest standing army in the world was at the ready outside the bank doors—that’s the size and scope of the NYPD, in full force, and their guns were fixed on him and his partner. Obviously, Bobby was desperate to step out those doors unharmed.

I didn’t know where Bobby was, inside the bank. To this day, I don’t know if he managed to step away from his partner, or if he was talking to me in plain sight of Chris Watts. I only know that I had his full attention, and that he was looking for a way to end the standoff—or, at least, to end his role in it.

I learned later that in between phone calls Chris Watts was busy squirreling cash inside the bank walls. He was also burning piles of cash, in full view of the two female hostages. On the face of it, this was bizarre behavior, but to a guy like Chris Watts there was a certain logic to it. Apparently, he’d gotten it in his head that he could burn, say, $50,000, and if $300,000 was reported missing bank officials wouldn’t think to go looking for the other $250,000. It was an interesting deception—not exactly clever, but interesting. It showed a weird attention to detail. In his own mind at least, if Chris Watts managed to escape this box he’d made for himself, he could lie low for a while and come back at some future date for the money he’d stashed away—money that would no longer be on the bank’s ledgers.

What I liked about this second guy, Bobby, was that he didn’t try to play any games with me on the phone. He was a straight shooter, so I was able to respond as a straight shooter in kind. The same way I’d get back whatever I put out, he was getting back whatever he was putting out, so I was with him on this. Experience told me all I had to do was keep him talking and he’d come around. We’d find a way to get him out of that bank—with or without Chris Watts.

Someone on my team handed me a note: “Ask him if he wants to come out.”

I said, “Do you want to come out first?”

I paused, remaining silent.

“I don’t know how I’d do it,” Bobby said finally.

“What’s stopping you from doing it right now?” I asked.

“How do I do that?” he asked again.

“Tell you what. Meet me out front right now.”

This was a breakthrough moment for us—but we still had to get Bobby out of there, and find a way to let him know that I’d be waiting for him on the other side of the door. I’d given him my word that I would be the one to take his surrender, and that he wouldn’t get hurt, and now we had to make that happen—and very often it’s this implementation phase that can be the most difficult.

Our team scrambled to put a plan in place to bring this about. I started putting on bulletproof gear. We surveyed the scene, figuring I could position myself behind one of the big trucks we’d parked out in front of the bank, to give me a measure of cover, just in case.

Then we ran into one of those maddening situations where one hand didn’t know what the other was doing. It turned out the bank door had been barricaded from the outside early on in the standoff—a precaution to ensure that none of the bank robbers could flee the scene. We all knew this, of course, on some level, but when the time came for Bobby to give himself up and walk out the door, it’s like our brains went into sleep mode. No one on the SWAT team thought to remind anyone on the negotiating team of this one significant detail, so for a couple long beats Bobby couldn’t get out, and I got a sick feeling in my stomach that whatever progress we’d just made with this guy would be for nothing.

So there we were, scrambling to recover. Soon, two SWAT guys moved forward toward the entrance, with ballistic shields, guns drawn, to take the locks and the barricade off the door—and at this point they still didn’t know what they were facing on the other side. It was a super-tense moment. There could have been a dozen guns on these two SWAT guys, but there was nothing for them to do but make their slow approach. Those guys were rock solid. They unlocked the door, backed away, and finally we were good to go.

Bobby came out—his hands in the air. I’d walked him through a specific set of instructions on what to do when he came out the door, what to expect. A couple of SWAT guys patted him down. Bobby turned and looked and said, “Where’s Chris? Take me to Chris.”

Finally, they brought him around to me, and we were able to debrief him inside our makeshift command post. This was the first we learned that there was only one other hostage-taker inside—and this naturally set the commander off. I didn’t learn this until later, but I could see why he would have been angry and embarrassed at this latest turn. All along, he’d been telling the media there were a bunch of bad guys inside—an international assemblage of bad guys, remember? But now that it turned out it was essentially a two-man operation, and one of the bad guys had wanted no part of it, the commander looked like he didn’t have a handle on the situation.

But like I said, we didn’t know about the commander’s reaction just yet. All we knew was that we’d just gotten all this new intel, which told us we were closer to achieving our desired outcome than we had just thought. This was a positive development, something to celebrate. With what we now knew, it was going to be a whole lot easier to negotiate our way through the rest of it, and yet this commander was angry. He didn’t like that he’d been played, so he turned to one of the guys from NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU) and commanded them to get a camera inside the bank, a mic . . . something.

Now that I was huddled with Bobby, the commander swapped me out in favor of another primary negotiator on the phone. The new negotiator played it the same way I had, a couple of hours earlier—said, “This is Dominick. You’re talking to me now.”

Dominick Misino was a great hostage negotiator—in my view, one of the world’s great closers, which was the term often used for the guy brought in to bang out the last details and secure the deal. He didn’t get rattled and he was good at what he did.

Matter-of-fact. Street smart.

Dominick plowed ahead. And then, an amazing thing happened—a nearly disastrous amazing thing. As Chris Watts was talking to Dominick, he heard an electric tool of some kind burrowing its way through the wall behind him. It was one of our TARU guys, trying to get a bug planted inside—in precisely the wrong spot, at precisely the wrong time. Chris Watts was already rattled enough as it was, his partner giving himself up like that and leaving him to play out the siege on his own. And now, to hear our guys drilling through the wall, it just about set him off.

He responded like a pit bull backed into a corner. He called Dominick a liar. Dominick was unflappable. He kept his cool as Chris Watts raged on the other end of the phone, and eventually Dominick’s cool, calm demeanor brought the guy from a boil to a simmer.

In retrospect, it was a fool move to try to get a bug inside the bank at this late stage—born out of frustration and panic. We’d gotten one of the hostage-takers out of the bank, but now we’d given back a measure of control. Startling the one remaining hostage-taker, who may or may not have been a loose cannon, was absolutely not a good idea.

As Dominick went to work smoothing over the situation, Chris Watts switched things up on us. He said, “What if I let a hostage go?”

This came as if from nowhere. Dominick hadn’t even thought to ask, but Chris Watts just offered up one of the tellers like it was no big deal—and to him, at this late stage in the standoff, I guess it wasn’t. From his view, such a conciliatory move might buy him enough time to figure out a way to escape.

Dominick remained calm, but seized on the opportunity. He said he wanted to talk to the hostage first, to make sure everything went okay, so Chris Watts tapped one of the women and put her on the phone. The woman had been paying attention, knew there’d been some sort of snafu when Bobby wanted to give himself up, so even though she was still completely terrified she had the presence of mind to ask about the door. I remember thinking this showed a lot of brass—to be terrified, held against your will, roughed up a bit, and to still have your wits about you.

She said, “Are you sure you have a key to the front door?”

Dominick said, “The front door’s open.”

And it was.

Ultimately, what happened was one of the women came out, unharmed, and an hour or so later the other woman followed, also unharmed.

We were working on getting the bank guard out, but we couldn’t be sure from the accounts of these bank tellers what kind of shape this guy might be in. We didn’t even know if he was still alive. They hadn’t seen him since first thing that morning. He could have had a heart attack and died—there was just no way to know.

But Chris Watts had one last trick up his sleeve. He pulled a fast one on us and out of the blue, offered to come out. Maybe he thought he could catch us off guard one last time. What was strange about his sudden appearance was that he seemed to be looking about, surveying the scene, like he still thought he’d somehow elude capture. Right up until the moment the cops put the handcuffs on him, his gaze was darting back and forth, scanning for some kind of opportunity. The bright lights were on this guy, he was basically surrounded, but somewhere in the back of his scheming, racing mind he still thought he had a chance.

It was a long, long day, but it went down in the books as a success. Nobody was hurt. The bad guys were in custody. And I emerged from the experience humbled by how much more there was to learn, but at the same time, awakened to and inspired by the elemental power of emotion, dialogue, and the FBI’s evolving toolbox of applied psychological tactics to influence and persuade just about anyone in any situation.

In the decades since my initiation into the world of high-stakes negotiations, I’ve been struck again and again by how valuable these seemingly simple approaches can be. The ability to get inside the head—and eventually under the skin—of your counterpart depends on these techniques and a willingness to change your approach, based on new evidence, along the way. As I’ve worked with executives and students to develop these skills, I always try to reinforce the message that being right isn’t the key to a successful negotiation—having the right mindset is.


I only half-jokingly refer to mirroring as magic or a Jedi mind trick because it gives you the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.

To consider just how useful that can be, think of the average workplace: invariably there is still someone in a position of authority who arrived at that position through aggressive assertiveness, sometimes outright intimidation, with “old school” top-down, command-and-control assumptions that the boss is always right. And let’s not delude ourselves: whatever the enlightened rules of the “new school,” in every environment (work or otherwise) you will always have to deal with forceful type A people who prefer consent to collaboration.

If you take a pit bull approach with another pit bull, you generally end up with a messy scene and lots of bruised feelings and resentment. Luckily, there’s another way without all the mess.

It’s just four simple steps:

1. Use the late-night FM DJ voice.

2. Start with “I’m sorry . . .”

3. Mirror.

4. Silence. At least four seconds, to let the mirror work its magic on your counterpart.

5. Repeat.

One of my students experienced the effectiveness of this simple process at her workplace, where her impulsive boss was known for his “drive-bys”: an infuriating practice by which the boss would suddenly swing by one’s office or cubicle unannounced with an “urgent,” poorly thought out assignment that created a lot of unnecessary work. Past attempts at any kind of debate created immediate pushback. “There’s a better way” was always interpreted by this boss as “the lazy way.”

Such a drive-by occurred toward the end of a long consulting engagement, one that had generated literally thousands of documents. The boss, still skeptical of anything “digital,” wanted the security of paper copies.

Popping his head into her office, the boss said, “Let’s make two copies of all the paperwork.”

“I’m sorry, two copies?” she mirrored in response, remembering not only the DJ voice, but to deliver the mirror in an inquisitive tone. The intention behind most mirrors should be “Please, help me understand.” Every time you mirror someone, they will reword what they’ve said. They will never say it exactly the same way they said it the first time. Ask someone, “What do you mean by that?” and you’re likely to incite irritation or defensiveness. A mirror, however, will get you the clarity you want while signaling respect and concern for what the other person is saying.

“Yes,” her boss responded, “one for us and one for the customer.”

“I’m sorry, so you are saying that the client is asking for a copy and we need a copy for internal use?”

“Actually, I’ll check with the client—they haven’t asked for anything. But I definitely want a copy. That’s just how I do business.”

“Absolutely,” she responded. “Thanks for checking with the customer. Where would you like to store the in-house copy? There’s no more space in the file room here.”

“It’s fine. You can store it anywhere,” he said, slightly perturbed now.

“Anywhere?” she mirrored again, with calm concern. When another person’s tone of voice or body language is inconsistent with his words, a good mirror can be particularly useful.

In this case, it caused her boss to take a nice, long pause—something he did not often do. My student sat silent. “As a matter of fact, you can put them in my office,” he said, with more composure than he’d had the whole conversation. “I’ll get the new assistant to print it for me after the project is done. For now, just create two digital backups.”

A day later her boss emailed and wrote simply, “The two digital backups will be fine.”

Not long after, I received an ecstatic email from this student: “I was shocked! I love mirrors! A week of work avoided!”

Mirroring will make you feel awkward as heck when you first try it. That’s the only hard part about it; the technique takes a little practice. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’ll become a conversational Swiss Army knife valuable in just about every professional and social setting.


The language of negotiation is primarily a language of conversation and rapport: a way of quickly establishing relationships and getting people to talk and think together. Which is why when you think of the greatest negotiators of all time, I’ve got a surprise for you—think Oprah Winfrey.

Her daily television show was a case study of a master practitioner at work: on a stage face-to-face with someone she has never met, in front of a crowded studio of hundreds, with millions more watching from home, and a task to persuade that person in front of her, sometimes against his or her own best interests, to talk and talk and keep talking, ultimately sharing with the world deep, dark secrets that they had held hostage in their own minds for a lifetime.

Look closely at such an interaction after reading this chapter and suddenly you’ll see a refined set of powerful skills: a conscious smile to ease the tension, use of subtle verbal and nonverbal language to signal empathy (and thus security), a certain downward inflection in the voice, embrace of specific kinds of questions and avoidance of others—a whole array of previously hidden skills that will prove invaluable to you, once you’ve learned to use them.

Here are some of the key lessons from this chapter to remember:

■A good negotiator prepares, going in, to be ready for possible surprises; a great negotiator aims to use her skills to reveal the surprises she is certain to find.

■Don’t commit to assumptions; instead, view them as hypotheses and use the negotiation to test them rigorously.

■People who view negotiation as a battle of arguments become overwhelmed by the voices in their head. Negotiation is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery. The goal is to uncover as much information as possible.

■To quiet the voices in your head, make your sole and all-encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say.

■Slow. It. Down. Going too fast is one of the mistakes all negotiators are prone to making. If we’re too much in a hurry, people can feel as if they’re not being heard. You risk undermining the rapport and trust you’ve built.

■Put a smile on your face. When people are in a positive frame of mind, they think more quickly, and are more likely to collaborate and problem-solve (instead of fight and resist). Positivity creates mental agility in both you and your counterpart.

There are three voice tones available to negotiators:

1. The late-night FM DJ voice: Use selectively to make a point. Inflect your voice downward, keeping it calm and slow. When done properly, you create an aura of authority and trustworthiness without triggering defensiveness.

2. The positive/playful voice: Should be your default voice. It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person. Your attitude is light and encouraging. The key here is to relax and smile while you’re talking.

3. The direct or assertive voice: Used rarely. Will cause problems and create pushback.

■Mirrors work magic. Repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar. Mirroring is the art of insinuating similarity, which facilitates bonding. Use mirrors to encourage the other side to empathize and bond with you, keep people talking, buy your side time to regroup, and encourage your counterparts to reveal their strategy.


It was 1998 and I was standing in a narrow hallway outside an apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of a high-rise in Harlem. I was the head of the New York City FBI Crisis Negotiation Team, and that day I was the primary negotiator.

The investigative squad had reported that at least three heavily armed fugitives were holed up inside. Several days earlier the fugitives had used automatic weapons in a shoot-out with a rival gang, so the New York City FBI SWAT team was arrayed behind me, and our snipers were on nearby rooftops with rifles trained on the apartment windows.

In tense situations like this, the traditional negotiating advice is to keep a poker face. Don’t get emotional. Until recently, most academics and researchers completely ignored the role of emotion in negotiation. Emotions were just an obstacle to a good outcome, they said. “Separate the people from the problem” was the common refrain.

But think about that: How can you separate people from the problem when their emotions are the problem? Especially when they are scared people with guns. Emotions are one of the main things that derail communication. Once people get upset at one another, rational thinking goes out the window.

That’s why, instead of denying or ignoring emotions, good negotiators identify and influence them. They are able to precisely label emotions, those of others and especially their own. And once they label the emotions they talk about them without getting wound up. For them, emotion is a tool.

Emotions aren’t the obstacles, they are the means.

The relationship between an emotionally intelligent negotiator and their counterpart is essentially therapeutic. It duplicates that of a psychotherapist with a patient. The psychotherapist pokes and prods to understand his patient’s problems, and then turns the responses back onto the patient to get him to go deeper and change his behavior. That’s exactly what good negotiators do.

Getting to this level of emotional intelligence demands opening up your senses, talking less, and listening more. You can learn almost everything you need—and a lot more than other people would like you to know—simply by watching and listening, keeping your eyes peeled and your ears open, and your mouth shut.

Think about the therapist’s couch as you read the following sections. You’ll see how a soothing voice, close listening, and a calm repetition of the words of your “patient” can get you a lot further than a cold, rational argument.

It may sound touchy-feely, but if you can perceive the emotions of others, you have a chance to turn them to your advantage. The more you know about someone, the more power you have.


We had one big problem that day in Harlem: no telephone number to call into the apartment. So for six straight hours, relieved periodically by two FBI agents who were learning crisis negotiation, I spoke through the apartment door.

I used my late-night FM DJ voice.

I didn’t give orders in my DJ voice, or ask what the fugitives wanted. Instead, I imagined myself in their place.

“It looks like you don’t want to come out,” I said repeatedly. “It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing. It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.”

For six hours, we got no response. The FBI coaches loved my DJ voice. But was it working?

And then, when we were almost completely convinced that no one was inside, a sniper on an adjacent building radioed that he saw one of the curtains in the apartment move.

The front door of the apartment slowly opened. A woman emerged with her hands in front of her.

I continued talking. All three fugitives came out. None of them said a word until we had them in handcuffs.

Then I asked them the question that was most nagging me: Why did they come out after six hours of radio silence? Why did they finally give in?

All three gave me the same answer.

“We didn’t want to get caught or get shot, but you calmed us down,” they said. “We finally believed you wouldn’t go away, so we just came out.”

There is nothing more frustrating or disruptive to any negotiation than to get the feeling you are talking to someone who isn’t listening. Playing dumb is a valid negotiating technique, and “I don’t understand” is a legitimate response. But ignoring the other party’s position only builds up frustration and makes them less likely to do what you want.

The opposite of that is tactical empathy.

In my negotiating course, I tell my students that empathy is “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.” That’s an academic way of saying that empathy is paying attention to another human being, asking what they are feeling, and making a commitment to understanding their world.

Notice I didn’t say anything about agreeing with the other person’s values and beliefs or giving out hugs. That’s sympathy. What I’m talking about is trying to understand a situation from another person’s perspective.

One step beyond that is tactical empathy.

Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow. It’s bringing our attention to both the emotional obstacles and the potential pathways to getting an agreement done.

It’s emotional intelligence on steroids.

As a cop in Kansas City, I was curious about how a select handful of veteran cops managed to talk angry, violent people out of fights or to get them to put down their knives and guns.

When I asked how they did that, I rarely got more than a shrug. They couldn’t articulate what they did. But now I know the answer is tactical empathy. They were able to think from another person’s point of view while they were talking with that person and quickly assess what was driving them.

Most of us enter verbal combat unlikely to persuade anyone of anything because we only know and care about our own goals and perspective. But the best officers are tuned in to the other party—their audience. They know that if they empathize, they can mold their audience by how they approach and talk to them.

That’s why, if a corrections officer approaches an inmate expecting him to resist, he often will. But if he approaches exuding calm, the inmate will be much more likely to be peaceful. It seems like wizardry, but it’s not. It’s just that when the officer has his audience clearly in mind, he can become who he needs to be to handle the situation.

Empathy is a classic “soft” communication skill, but it has a physical basis. When we closely observe a person’s face, gestures, and tone of voice, our brain begins to align with theirs in a process called neural resonance, and that lets us know more fully what they think and feel.

In an fMRI brain-scan experiment,1 researchers at Princeton University found that neural resonance disappears when people communicate poorly. The researchers could predict how well people were communicating by observing how much their brains were aligned. And they discovered that people who paid the most attention—good listeners—could actually anticipate what the speaker was about to say before he said it.

If you want to increase your neural resonance skills, take a moment right now and practice. Turn your attention to someone who’s talking near you, or watch a person being interviewed on TV. As they talk, imagine that you are that person. Visualize yourself in the position they describe and put in as much detail as you can, as if you were actually there.

But be warned, a lot of classic deal makers will think your approach is softheaded and weak.

Just ask former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

A few years ago during a speech at Georgetown University, Clinton advocated, “showing respect, even for one’s enemies. Trying to understand and, insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.”

You can predict what happened next. A gaggle of pundits and politicians pounced on her. They called her statement inane and naïve, and even a sign she had embraced the Muslim Brotherhood. Some said that she had blown her chances at a presidential run.

The problem with all of that hot air is that she was right.

Politics aside, empathy is not about being nice or agreeing with the other side. It’s about understanding them. Empathy helps us learn the position the enemy is in, why their actions make sense (to them), and what might move them.

As negotiators we use empathy because it works. Empathy is why the three fugitives came out after six hours of my late-night DJ voice. It’s what helped me succeed at what Sun Tzu called “the supreme art of war”: to subdue the enemy without fighting.


Let’s go back to the Harlem doorway for a minute.

We didn’t have a lot to go on, but if you’ve got three fugitives trapped in an apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of a building in Harlem, they don’t have to say a word for you to know that they’re worried about two things: getting killed, and going to jail.

So for six straight hours in that sweltering apartment building hallway, the two FBI negotiating students and I took turns speaking. We rotated in order to avoid verbal stumbles and other errors caused by tiredness. And we stayed relentlessly on message, all three of us saying the same thing.

Now, pay close attention to exactly what we said: “It looks like you don’t want to come out. It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing. It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.”

We employed our tactical empathy by recognizing and then verbalizing the predictable emotions of the situation. We didn’t just put ourselves in the fugitives’ shoes. We spotted their feelings, turned them into words, and then very calmly and respectfully repeated their emotions back to them.

In a negotiation, that’s called labeling.

Labeling is a way of validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it. Give someone’s emotion a name and you show you identify with how that person feels. It gets you close to someone without asking about external factors you know nothing about (“How’s your family?”). Think of labeling as a shortcut to intimacy, a time-saving emotional hack.

Labeling has a special advantage when your counterpart is tense. Exposing negative thoughts to daylight—“It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail”—makes them seem less frightening.

In one brain imaging study,2 psychology professor Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that when people are shown photos of faces expressing strong emotion, the brain shows greater activity in the amygdala, the part that generates fear. But when they are asked to label the emotion, the activity moves to the areas that govern rational thinking. In other words, labeling an emotion—applying rational words to a fear—disrupts its raw intensity.

Labeling is a simple, versatile skill that lets you reinforce a good aspect of the negotiation, or diffuse a negative one. But it has very specific rules about form and delivery. That makes it less like chatting than like a formal art such as Chinese calligraphy.

For most people, it’s one of the most awkward negotiating tools to use. Before they try it the first time, my students almost always tell me they expect their counterpart to jump up and shout, “Don’t you dare tell me how I feel!”

Let me let you in on a secret: people never even notice.

The first step to labeling is detecting the other person’s emotional state. Outside that door in Harlem we couldn’t even see the fugitives, but most of the time you’ll have a wealth of information from the other person’s words, tone, and body language. We call that trinity “words, music, and dance.”

The trick to spotting feelings is to pay close attention to changes people undergo when they respond to external events. Most often, those events are your words.

If you say, “How is the family?” and the corners of the other party’s mouth turn down even when they say it’s great, you might detect that all is not well; if their voice goes flat when a colleague is mentioned, there could be a problem between the two; and if your landlord unconsciously fidgets his feet when you mention the neighbors, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t think much of them (we’ll dig deeper into how to spot and use these cues in Chapter 9).

Picking up on these tiny pieces of information is how psychics work. They size up their client’s body language and ask him a few innocent questions. When they “tell” his future a few minutes later, they’re really just saying what he wants to hear based on small details they’ve spotted. More than a few psychics would make good negotiators for that very reason.

Once you’ve spotted an emotion you want to highlight, the next step is to label it aloud. Labels can be phrased as statements or questions. The only difference is whether you end the sentence with a downward or upward inflection. But no matter how they end, labels almost always begin with roughly the same words:

It seems like . . .

It sounds like . . .

It looks like . . .

Notice we said “It sounds like . . .” and not “I’m hearing that . . .” That’s because the word “I” gets people’s guard up. When you say “I,” it says you’re more interested in yourself than the other person, and it makes you take personal responsibility for the words that follow—and the offense they might cause.

But when you phrase a label as a neutral statement of understanding, it encourages your counterpart to be responsive. They’ll usually give a longer answer than just “yes” or “no.” And if they disagree with the label, that’s okay. You can always step back and say, “I didn’t say that was what it was. I just said it seems like that.”

The last rule of labeling is silence. Once you’ve thrown out a label, be quiet and listen. We all have a tendency to expand on what we’ve said, to finish, “It seems like you like the way that shirt looks,” with a specific question like “Where did you get it?” But a label’s power is that it invites the other person to reveal himself.

If you’ll trust me for a second, take a break now and try it out: Strike up a conversation and put a label on one of the other person’s emotions—it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to the mailman or your ten-year-old daughter—and then go silent. Let the label do its work.


Labeling is a tactic, not a strategy, in the same way a spoon is a great tool for stirring soup but it’s not a recipe. How you use labeling will go a long way in determining your success. Deployed well, it’s how we as negotiators identify and then slowly alter the inner voices of our counterpart’s consciousness to something more collaborative and trusting.

First, let’s talk a little human psychology. In basic terms, people’s emotions have two levels: the “presenting” behavior is the part above the surface you can see and hear; beneath, the “underlying” feeling is what motivates the behavior.

Imagine a grandfather who’s grumbly at a family holiday dinner: the presenting behavior is that he’s cranky, but the underlying emotion is a sad sense of loneliness from his family never seeing him.

What good negotiators do when labeling is address those underlying emotions. Labeling negatives diffuses them (or defuses them, in extreme cases); labeling positives reinforces them.

We’ll come back to the cranky grandfather in a moment. First, though, I want to talk a little bit about anger.

As an emotion, anger is rarely productive—in you or the person you’re negotiating with. It releases stress hormones and neurochemicals that disrupt your ability to properly evaluate and respond to situations. And it blinds you to the fact that you’re angry in the first place, which gives you a false sense of confidence.

That’s not to say that negative feelings should be ignored. That can be just as damaging. Instead, they should be teased out. Labeling is a helpful tactic in de-escalating angry confrontations, because it makes the person acknowledge their feelings rather than continuing to act out.

Early on in my hostage negotiation career, I learned how important it was to go directly at negative dynamics in a fearless but deferential manner.

It was to fix a situation I’d created myself. I’d angered the top FBI official in Canada when I entered the country without first alerting him (so he could notify the Department of State), a procedure known as “country clearance.”

I knew I needed to call and assuage him to straighten out the situation, or I risked being expelled. Top guys like to feel on top. They don’t want to be disrespected. All the more so when the office they run isn’t a sexy assignment.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I said when he answered the phone.

There was a long pause at the other end of the line.

“Who is this?” he said.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I repeated. “It’s Chris Voss.”

Again there was a long silence.

“Does your boss know you’re here?”

I said he did, and crossed my fingers. At this point, the FBI official would have been completely within his rights to tell me to leave Canada immediately. But by mentioning the negative dynamic, I knew I’d diffused it as much as I could. I had a chance.

“All right, you’ve got country clearance,” he finally said. “I’ll take care of the paperwork.”

Try this the next time you have to apologize for a bone-headed mistake. Go right at it. The fastest and most efficient means of establishing a quick working relationship is to acknowledge the negative and diffuse it. Whenever I was dealing with the family of a hostage, I started out by saying I knew they were scared. And when I make a mistake—something that happens a lot—I always acknowledge the other person’s anger. I’ve found the phrase “Look, I’m an asshole” to be an amazingly effective way to make problems go away.

That approach has never failed me.

Let’s go back to the cranky grandfather.

He’s grumpy because he never sees the family and he feels left out. So he’s speaking up in his own dysfunctional way to get attention.

How do you fix that?

Instead of addressing his grumpy behavior, you acknowledge his sadness in a nonjudgmental way. You head him off before he can really get started.

“We don’t see each other all that often,” you could say. “It seems like you feel like we don’t pay any attention to you and you only see us once a year, so why should you make time for us?”

Notice how that acknowledges the situation and labels his sadness? Here you can pause briefly, letting him recognize and appreciate your attempts to understand what he’s feeling, and then turn the situation around by offering a positive solution.

“For us this is a real treat. We want to hear what you have to talk about. We want to value this time with you because we feel left out of your life.”

Research shows that the best way to deal with negativity is to observe it, without reaction and without judgment. Then consciously label each negative feeling and replace it with positive, compassionate, and solution-based thoughts.

One of my Georgetown University students, a guy named TJ, who worked as an assistant controller at the Washington Redskins, put that lesson to work while he was taking my negotiations class.

The economy was in the toilet at the time, and Redskins season ticket holders were leaving in droves to avoid the cost. Worse, the team had been terrible the year before, and off-field player problems were alienating the fans.

The team’s CFO was getting more worried—and cranky—by the day, and two weeks before the season was to start he walked by TJ’s desk and slammed down a folder full of paper.

“Better yesterday than today,” he said and walked away.

Inside was a list of forty season ticket holders who hadn’t paid their bills, a USB drive with a spreadsheet about each one’s situation, and a script to use when calling them.

TJ saw right away that the script was a disaster. It began by saying that his colleagues had been trying to call for months, and the account had been escalated to him. “I wanted to inform you,” it read, “that in order to receive your tickets for the upcoming season opener against the New York Giants, you will need to pay your outstanding balance in full prior to September 10.”

It was the stupidly aggressive, impersonal, tone-deaf style of communication that is the default for most business. It was all “me, me, me” from TJ, with no acknowledgment of the ticket holder’s situation. No empathy. No connection. Just give me the money.

Maybe I don’t need to say it, but the script didn’t work. TJ left messages; no one called back.

A few weeks into the class, TJ rewrote the script. These weren’t massive changes, and he didn’t offer the fans any discounts. What he did was add subtle tweaks to make the call about the fans, their situation, and their love of the team.

Now the team was “YOUR Washington Redskins” and the purpose of the call was to ensure that the team’s most valuable fans—the delinquent customers—would be there at the season opener. “The home-field advantage created by you each and every Sunday at FedEx Field does not go unnoticed,” TJ wrote. He then told them, “In these difficult times, we understand our fans have been hit hard and we are here to work with you,” and asked the ticket holders to call back to talk through their “unique situation.”

Though superficially simple, the changes TJ made in the script had a deep emotional resonance with the delinquent ticket holders. It mentioned their debt to the team but also acknowledged the team’s debt to them, and by labeling the tough economic times, and the stress they were causing, it diffused the biggest negative dynamic—their delinquency—and turned the issue into something solvable.

The simple changes masked a complex understanding of empathy on TJ’s side. With the new script, TJ was able to set up payment plans with all the ticket holders before the Giants game. And the CFO’s next visit? Well, it was far less terse.


Remember the amygdala, the part of the brain that generates fear in reaction to threats? Well, the faster we can interrupt the amygdala’s reaction to real or imaginary threats, the faster we can clear the road of obstacles, and the quicker we can generate feelings of safety, well-being, and trust.

We do that by labeling the fears. These labels are so powerful because they bathe the fears in sunlight, bleaching them of their power and showing our counterpart that we understand.

Think back to that Harlem landing: I didn’t say, “It seems like you want us to let you go.” We could all agree on that. But that wouldn’t have diffused the real fear in the apartment, or shown that I empathized with the grim complexity of their situation. That’s why I went right at the amygdala and said, “It seems like you don’t want to go back to jail.”

Once they’ve been labeled and brought into the open, the negative reactions in your counterpart’s amygdala will begin to soften. I promise it will shock you how suddenly his language turns from worry to optimism. Empathy is a powerful mood enhancer.

The road is not always cleared so easily, so don’t be demoralized if this process seems to go slowly. The Harlem high-rise negotiation took six hours. Many of us wear fears upon fears, like layers against the cold, so getting to safety takes time.

That was the experience of another one of my students, a fund-raiser for the Girl Scouts, who backed into naming her counterpart’s fears almost accidentally.

We’re not talking about someone who sold Girl Scout cookies: my student was an experienced fund-raiser who regularly got donors to pony up $1,000 to $25,000 a check. Over the years, she’d developed a very successful system to get her “clients,” usually wealthy women, to open their checkbook.

She’d invite a potential donor to her office, serve a few Girl Scouts cookies, walk her through an album of heartwarming snapshots and handwritten letters from projects that matched the woman’s profile, and then collect a check when the donor’s eyes lit up. It was almost easy.

One day, though, she met the immovable donor. Once the woman sat down in her office, my student began to throw out the projects her research had said would fit. But the woman shook her head at one project after another.

My student found herself growing perplexed at the difficult donor who had no interest in donating. But she held her emotion in check and reached back to a lesson from my recent class on labeling. “I’m sensing some hesitation with these projects,” she said in what she hoped was a level voice.

As if she’d been uncorked, the woman exclaimed: “I want my gift to directly support programming for Girl Scouts and not anything else.”

This helped focus the conversation, but as my student put forth project after project that seemed to fulfill the donor’s criteria, all she got was still rejection.

Sensing the potential donor’s growing frustration, and wanting to end on a positive note so that they might be able to meet again, my student used another label. “It seems that you are really passionate about this gift and want to find the right project reflecting the opportunities and life-changing experiences the Girl Scouts gave you.”

And with that, this “difficult” woman signed a check without even picking a specific project. “You understand me,” she said as she got up to leave. “I trust you’ll find the right project.”

Fear of her money being misappropriated was the presenting dynamic that the first label uncovered. But the second label uncovered the underlying dynamic—her very presence in the office was driven by very specific memories of being a little Girl Scout and how it changed her life.

The obstacle here wasn’t finding the right match for the woman. It wasn’t that she was this highly finicky, hard-to-please donor. The real obstacle was that this woman needed to feel that she was understood, that the person handling her money knew why she was in that office and understood the memories that were driving her actions.

That’s why labels are so powerful and so potentially transformative to the state of any conversation. By digging beneath what seems like a mountain of quibbles, details, and logistics, labels help to uncover and identify the primary emotion driving almost all of your counterpart’s behavior, the emotion that, once acknowledged, seems to miraculously solve everything else.


On the first day of negotiating class each semester, I march the group through an introductory exercise called “sixty seconds or she dies.” I play a hostage-taker and a student has to convince me to release my hostage within a minute. It’s an icebreaker that shows me the level of my students, and it reveals to them how much they need to learn. (Here’s a little secret: the hostage never gets out.)

Sometimes students jump right in, but finding takers is usually hard because it means coming to the front of the class and competing with the guy who holds all the cards. If I just ask for a volunteer, my students sit on their hands and look away. You’ve been there. You can almost feel your back muscles tense as you think, Oh please, don’t call on me.

So I don’t ask. Instead, I say, “In case you’re worried about volunteering to role-play with me in front of the class, I want to tell you in advance . . . it’s going to be horrible.”

After the laughter dies down, I then say, “And those of you who do volunteer will probably get more out of this than anyone else.”

I always end up with more volunteers than I need.

Now, look at what I did: I prefaced the conversation by labeling my audience’s fears; how much worse can something be than “horrible”? I defuse them and wait, letting it sink in and thereby making the unreasonable seem less forbidding.

All of us have intuitively done something close to this thousands of times. You’ll start a criticism of a friend by saying, “I don’t want this to sound harsh . . .” hoping that whatever comes next will be softened. Or you’ll say, “I don’t want to seem like an asshole . . .” hoping your counterpart will tell you a few sentences later that you’re not that bad. The small but critical mistake this commits is denying the negative. That actually gives it credence.

In court, defense lawyers do this properly by mentioning everything their client is accused of, and all the weaknesses of their case, in the opening statement. They call this technique “taking the sting out.”

What I want to do here is turn this into a process that, applied systematically, you can use to disarm your counterpart while negotiating everything from your son’s bedtime to large business contracts.

The first step of doing so is listing every terrible thing your counterpart could say about you, in what I call an accusation audit.

This idea of an accusation audit is really, really hard for people to get their minds around. The first time I tell my students about it, they say, “Oh my God. We can’t do that.” It seems both artificial and self-loathing. It seems like it would make things worse. But then I remind them that it’s exactly what I did the first day of class when I labeled their fears of the hostage game in advance. And they all admit that none of them knew.

As an example, I’m going to use the experience of one of my students, Anna, because I couldn’t be more proud at how she turned what she learned in my class into $1 million.

At the time, Anna was representing a major government contractor. Her firm had won a competition for a sizable government deal by partnering with a smaller company, let’s call it ABC Corp., whose CEO had a close relationship with the government client representative.

Problems started right after they won the contract, though. Because ABC’s relationship had been instrumental in winning the deal, ABC felt that it was owed a piece of the pie whether it fulfilled its part of the contract or not.

And so, while the contract paid them for the work of nine people, they continually cut back support. As Anna’s company had to perform ABC’s work, the relationship between ABC and Anna’s company fragmented into vituperative emails and bitter complaining. Facing an already low profit margin, Anna’s company was forced into tough negotiations to get ABC to take a cut to 5.5 people. The negotiations left a bitter aftertaste on both sides. The vituperative emails stopped, but then again all emails stopped. And no communication is always a bad sign.

A few months after those painful talks, the client demanded a major rethink on the project and Anna’s firm was faced with losing serious money if it didn’t get ABC to agree to further cuts. Because ABC wasn’t living up to its side of the bargain, Anna’s firm would have had strong contractual grounds to cut out ABC altogether. But that would have damaged Anna’s firm’s reputation with a very important customer, and could have led to litigation from ABC.

Faced with this scenario, Anna set up a meeting with ABC where she and her partners planned to inform ABC that its pay was being cut to three people. It was a touchy situation, as ABC was already unhappy about the first cut. Even though she was normally an aggressive and confident negotiator, worries about the negotiations ruined Anna’s sleep for weeks. She needed to extract concessions while improving the relationship at the same time. No easy task, right?

To prepare, the first thing Anna did was sit down with her negotiating partner, Mark, and list every negative charge that ABC could level at them. The relationship had gone sour long before, so the list was huge. But the biggest possible accusations were easy to spot:

“You are the typical prime contractor trying to force out the small guy.”

“You promised us we would have all this work and you reneged on your promise.”

“You could have told us about this issue weeks ago to help us prepare.”

Anna and Mark then took turns role-playing the two sides, with one playing ABC and the other disarming these accusations with anticipatory labels. “You’re going to think we are a big, bad prime contractor when we are done,” Anna practiced saying slowly and naturally. “It seems you feel this work was promised to you from the beginning,” Mark said. They trained in front of an observer, honing their pacing; deciding at what point they would label each fear; and planning when to include meaningful pauses. It was theater.

When the day of the meeting arrived, Anna opened by acknowledging ABC’s biggest gripes. “We understand that we brought you on board with the shared goal of having you lead this work,” she said. “You may feel like we have treated you unfairly, and that we changed the deal significantly since then. We acknowledge that you believe you were promised this work.”

This received an emphatic nod from the ABC representatives, so Anna continued by outlining the situation in a way that encouraged the ABC reps to see the firms as teammates, peppering her statements with open-ended questions that showed she was listening: “What else is there you feel is important to add to this?”

By labeling the fears and asking for input, Anna was able to elicit an important fact about ABC’s fears, namely that ABC was expecting this to be a high-profit contract because it thought Anna’s firm was doing quite well from the deal.

This provided an entry point for Mark, who explained that the client’s new demands had turned his firm’s profits into losses, meaning that he and Anna needed to cut ABC’s pay further, to three people. Angela, one of ABC’s representatives, gasped.

“It sounds like you think we are the big, bad prime contractor trying to push out the small business,” Anna said, heading off the accusation before it could be made.

“No, no, we don’t think that,” Angela said, conditioned by the acknowledgment to look for common ground.

With the negatives labeled and the worst accusations laid bare, Anna and Mark were able to turn the conversation to the contract. Watch what they do closely, as it’s brilliant: they acknowledge ABC’s situation while simultaneously shifting the onus of offering a solution to the smaller company.

“It sounds like you have a great handle on how the government contract should work,” Anna said, labeling Angela’s expertise.

“Yes—but I know that’s not how it always goes,” Angela answered, proud to have her experience acknowledged.

Anna then asked Angela how she would amend the contract so that everyone made some money, which pushed Angela to admit that she saw no way to do so without cutting ABC’s worker count.

Several weeks later, the contract was tweaked to cut ABC’s payout, which brought Anna’s company $1 million that put the contract into the black. But it was Angela’s reaction at the end of the meeting that most surprised Anna. After Anna had acknowledged that she had given Angela some bad news and that she understood how angry she must feel, Angela said:

“This is not a good situation but we appreciate the fact that you are acknowledging what happened, and we don’t feel like you are mistreating us. And you are not the ‘Big Bad Prime.’”

Anna’s reaction to how this turned out? “Holy crap, this stuff actually works!”

She’s right. As you just saw, the beauty of going right after negativity is that it brings us to a safe zone of empathy. Every one of us has an inherent, human need to be understood, to connect with the person across the table. That explains why, after Anna labeled Angela’s fears, Angela’s first instinct was to add nuance and detail to those fears. And that detail gave Anna the power to accomplish what she wanted from the negotiation.


Up to this point, we’ve been building each skill as if they were musical instruments: first, try the saxophone mirror; now here’s the bass label; and finally, why don’t you blow a note on the French horn of tactical silence. But in a real negotiation the band all plays together. So you’ve got to learn how to conduct.

Keeping all the instruments playing is really awkward for most people. It seems to go by in such a rush. So what I’m going to do here is play a song at slow speed so you can hear each instrument note by note. I promise you’ll quickly see how the skills you have been building play off one another, rising, riffing, falling, and pausing in perfect harmony.

Here is the situation (the song, if you will): My student Ryan B. was flying from Baltimore to Austin to sign a large computer-consulting contract. For six months, the client representative had gone back and forth on whether he wanted the services, but a major system collapse put the representative in a tight spot with his CEO. To shift the blame, he called Ryan with his CEO on the line and very aggressively demanded to know why it was taking Ryan so long to come ink the contract. If Ryan was not there by Friday morning, he said, the deal was off.

Ryan bought a ticket for the next morning, Thursday, but a freak lightning storm whipped up in Baltimore, closing the airport for five hours. It became painfully clear that Ryan wasn’t going to make his original connection to Austin from Dallas. Worse, when he called American Airlines just before departing, he found that his connection had been automatically rebooked to 3 p.m. the next day, putting the contract in jeopardy.

When Ryan finally got to Dallas at 8 p.m., he ran to the gate where the day’s final American Airlines flight to Austin was less than thirty minutes from takeoff. His goal was to get on that flight or, at worst, get an earlier flight the next day.

In front of him at the gate, a very aggressive couple was yelling at the gate agent, who was barely looking at them as she tapped on the computer in front of her; she was clearly making every effort not to scream back. After she’d said, “There’s nothing I can do,” five times, the angry couple finally gave up and left.

To start, watch how Ryan turns that heated exchange to his advantage. Following on the heels of an argument is a great position for a negotiator, because your counterpart is desperate for an empathetic connection. Smile, and you’re already an improvement.

“Hi, Wendy, I’m Ryan. It seems like they were pretty upset.”

This labels the negative and establishes a rapport based on empathy. This in turn encourages Wendy to elaborate on her situation, words Ryan then mirrors to invite her to go further.

“Yeah. They missed their connection. We’ve had a fair amount of delays because of the weather.”

“The weather?”

After Wendy explains how the delays in the Northeast had rippled through the system, Ryan again labels the negative and then mirrors her answer to encourage her to delve further.

“It seems like it’s been a hectic day.”

“There’ve been a lot of ‘irate consumers,’ you know? I mean, I get it, even though I don’t like to be yelled at. A lot of people are trying to get to Austin for the big game.”

“The big game?”

“UT is playing Ole Miss football and every flight into Austin has been booked solid.”

“Booked solid?”

Now let’s pause. Up to this point, Ryan has been using labels and mirrors to build a relationship with Wendy. To her it must seem like idle chatter, though, because he hasn’t asked for anything. Unlike the angry couple, Ryan is acknowledging her situation. His words ping-pong between “What’s that?” and “I hear you,” both of which invite her to elaborate.

Now that the empathy has been built, she lets slip a piece of information he can use.

“Yeah, all through the weekend. Though who knows how many people will make the flights. The weather’s probably going to reroute a lot of people through a lot of different places.”

Here’s where Ryan finally swoops in with an ask. But notice how he acts: not assertive or coldly logical, but with empathy and labeling that acknowledges her situation and tacitly puts them in the same boat.

“Well, it seems like you’ve been handling the rough day pretty well,” he says. “I was also affected by the weather delays and missed my connecting flight. It seems like this flight is likely booked solid, but with what you said, maybe someone affected by the weather might miss this connection. Is there any possibility a seat will be open?”

Listen to that riff: Label, tactical empathy, label. And only then a request.

At this point, Wendy says nothing and begins typing on her computer. Ryan, who’s eager not to talk himself out of a possible deal, engages in some silence. After thirty seconds, Wendy prints a boarding pass and hands it to Ryan, explaining that there were a few seats that were supposed to be filled by people who would now arrive much later than the flight’s departure. To make Ryan’s success even better, she puts him in Economy Plus seating.

All that in under two minutes!

The next time you find yourself following an angry customer at a corner store or airplane line, take a moment and practice labels and mirrors on the service person. I promise they won’t scream, “Don’t try to control me!” and burst into flames—and you might walk away with a little more than you expected.


As you try to insert the tools of tactical empathy into your daily life, I encourage you to think of them as extensions of natural human interactions and not artificial conversational tics.

In any interaction, it pleases us to feel that the other side is listening and acknowledging our situation. Whether you are negotiating a business deal or simply chatting to the person at the supermarket butcher counter, creating an empathetic relationship and encouraging your counterpart to expand on their situation is the basis of healthy human interaction.

These tools, then, are nothing less than emotional best practices that help you cure the pervasive ineptitude that marks our most critical conversations in life. They will help you connect and create more meaningful and warm relationships. That they might help you extract what you want is a bonus; human connection is the first goal.

With that in mind, I encourage you to take the risk of sprinkling these in every conversation you have. I promise you that they will feel awkward and artificial at first, but keep at it. Learning to walk felt awfully strange, too.

As you internalize these techniques, turning the artifice of tactical empathy into a habit and then into an integral part of your personality, keep in mind these lessons from the chapter you’ve just read:

■Imagine yourself in your counterpart’s situation. The beauty of empathy is that it doesn’t demand that you agree with the other person’s ideas (you may well find them crazy). But by acknowledging the other person’s situation, you immediately convey that you are listening. And once they know that you are listening, they may tell you something that you can use.

■The reasons why a counterpart will not make an agreement with you are often more powerful than why they will make a deal, so focus first on clearing the barriers to agreement. Denying barriers or negative influences gives them credence; get them into the open.

■Pause. After you label a barrier or mirror a statement, let it sink in. Don’t worry, the other party will fill the silence.

■ Label your counterpart’s fears to diffuse their power. We all want to talk about the happy stuff, but remember, the faster you interrupt action in your counterpart’s amygdala, the part of the brain that generates fear, the faster you can generate feelings of safety, well-being, and trust.

■List the worst things that the other party could say about you and say them before the other person can. Performing an accusation audit in advance prepares you to head off negative dynamics before they take root. And because these accusations often sound exaggerated when said aloud, speaking them will encourage the other person to claim that quite the opposite is true.

■Remember you’re dealing with a person who wants to be appreciated and understood. So use labels to reinforce and encourage positive perceptions and dynamics.

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