10 Surprising (& Specific) Ways To Get Your Way In A Negotiation

It's easy to tell people to ask for more: Demand what you deserve. Push until the other person gives you what you are due.

And there is wisdom in some of that — you rarely get what you don't ask for. But in practical terms, it's incredibly difficult to do. I don't see myself as a natural negotiator or someone who can comfortably push others until they bend. In my mind, a great negotiator is something of a bully. A strong person who intimidates and shoves their way into a "yes" is the person who excels in these scenarios. Since I'm not that person, I assume I'm at a natural disadvantage.

So, when I heard about Chris Voss, the former lead hostage negotiator for the FBI, who had a method that challenged all of my stereotypes about what "good negotiation" looked like, I suspected there might be a different path forward for me. Voss' book, Never Split The Difference, is a manual for getting your way through empathy rather than aggression.

I invited Voss to R29 to speak to the team about his negotiation tactics, and he shared that in the seminars he teaches, women almost always take to his method faster and better than men do. His theory about why: "Women are socialized — quote socialized — to be a little more emotional-intelligence aware, and also to lean a little more towards sympathy. And it’s a shorter step to empathy from sympathy if you’ve already got a little bit of a grounding in emotional intelligence than if you haven’t."

There are some generalizations underlying that idea, but it certainly ran true to my own experience. So, I asked Voss to break down the 10 easiest way for anyone to put his method to work. Some of what he suggests seems counterintuitive — and some of it, like the mirror technique, is surprisingly difficult to get right at first — but having seen it all in action now, I'm eager to master this method. It's likely not a fit for every personality, but it appeals to mine. And even if the whole method doesn't work for you, his controversial approach to saying sorry and his idea about seeking out a "no" rather than a "yes" are universally interesting — and certainly worth considering.

Calm Your Mind

The first issue to address is that pre-negotiation rising heart rate coupled with gut-twisting fear. To conquer it, Voss says, "Simply say to yourself as the negative possibilities crash through your mind: 'That’s a possibility.' It’s a simple recognition that causes the brain to interact with itself in a way that puts you back in control."

Voss tells a story of coaching a man in the Philippines through a negotiation with a kidnapper, to save his brother's life — a high-stress situation if ever there were one. He says, this man "knew his brother might not come out alive and it could well be beyond his control. He simply recognized that was a possibility — and he performed like a star. He saved his brother’s life. Not knowing at the time how he had been able to perform so well under pressure, I asked him about it later. He told me, 'I just said to myself, That’s a possibility, when I got scared that my brother might not come back to us. It calmed me down.'”
Check Your Listening Skills

Voss emphasizes that you can't empathize with another person unless you really listen. How do you know you're doing it properly? The other person will tell you. Listen closely while they are speaking and then, repeat back to them what you hear.

Do this "until they say 'that’s right' — which is different from 'you're right,'" says Voss.

He explains: "'That’s right' is what someone says when they feel completely understood. 'You’re right' is what we say to people we still like to get them to stop talking and go away. 'That’s right' is their confirmation they feel empathy from you."
Handle The “Yes” Trap

This one was a surprise to me. But Voss suggests that the "yes trap" is a well-known and over-used negotiation tactic — which can be easily avoided (and shouldn't be used by a sophisticated negotiator who has empathy in their back pocket).

He says, "We all know 'yes' is used to trap us; it’s every salesman’s routine. Get someone to say three little 'yeses' (confirmation yes), then spring the trap with the big one (commitment yes). It’s also referred to as the 'yes momentum,' 'momentum selling,' and 'mere agreement.'"

The logic behind it: "Our pursuer is convinced if they can just get us saying 'yes' we will be hypnotized, trapped, or tied down, and will give them what they want. It’s one of the reasons that there are actually three kinds of 'yeses': commitment, confirmation, and counterfeit. 'Counterfeit yes' is the most frequent imposter of 'commitment yes.' It's a false agreement and not worth pursuing."

So, if someone tries it on you? Voss says, "Respond with, 'If the answer is yes, where is this going?' And as always, a polite, gentle tone of voice is how you deliver your words to your listener."

With that approach, you've broken the other person's momentum and forced them to explain their end goal.
Understand The Value Of “No”

So, if it's not always advised to try and pull a "yes" out of the person on the other end of the negotiation, is getting a "no" really preferable? If you use it properly, then yes.

Voss says, "'No' is protection. 'Yes' is commitment. 'No' instantly makes people feel safe while 'yes' creates hesitation. It makes people worry about what they might be committing themselves to." Meaning, if you open your conversation with a question that allows the other person to say "no," they are suddenly a bit more comfortable, and more willing to speak with you — and to hear you. A few examples that have worked for Voss:

“Have you given up on this project?” is the one-line email that is solid gold if someone is waffling or stringing you along. (Make sure you’re ready for a quick answer though!)

“Is it ridiculous for you to come speak at the negotiation course I teach at USC?” got Jack Welch to stop dead in his tracks and give Voss his personal assistant’s contact information so they could try to make their calendars sync up.

“Would it be horrible if we sat in this section?” is the question Voss asked a waitress when members of his group were trying to get into a roped-off section of a restaurant. They'd just come out of a conference and only wanted a Happy Hour drink and all the seating was gone. She said: “Not as long as you’re out of here by 6.”

“Is it a bad idea….?" was used by a negotiator to reword an option a counterpart had been resisting. “No it wouldn’t be” was the answer – and the deal was made.
Put An End To Yelling & Shouting

According to Voss, "Anger is a power tool. It’s often a tool of manipulation and dominance. It’s meant to make you listen. But what happens when the user feels it’s backfiring? They stop to rethink." How do you do that? By showing them that their tactic is having the opposite effect of what they desire — something like, "I can't hear you when you are yelling."

Voss says, "This works with interrupters as well. 'I can’t hear you when you’re interrupting me' is equally effective."

He says these work because "these are forms of an 'I' message – the principal tool for setting boundaries against bad behavior. Therapists, psychologists and hostage negotiators all use 'I' messages in various form to limit unproductive and manipulative verbal conduct."

But this only works when you're leaned in, listening, and speaking in a calm, even tone. Voss says, "Calm is contagious. It displays poise and confidence."
Turn The Mirror On Bluffers

Full disclosure: This trick was the toughest one for me to understand — and to use effectively without doubting myself. It's a way to uncover a bluff without causing the other person to lose face, and it's called the mirror technique.

Voss says, "A mirror is repeating the last one to three words the counterpart has just said. Repeat word-for-word as a question. This means your voice needs to inflect up as if you’re asking a question. This is not mirroring the counterpart’s demeanor or tone of voice. It is repeating the exact one to three selected words, with a genuine questioning tone of voice, word-for-word. Then go silent. (Definitely don’t ask 'Have I got that right?')"

For me, it was hard not to feel like I was making a dig at the other person, questioning their intelligence, or just coming off as dense when I tried this. But that wasn't the feedback I got. People gave me a more detailed, interested answer every time.

Voss says, "The Jedi mind trick here is that people will reword what they’ve just said. You’ve just encouraged them to go on and you’ve done it in a way that begins to subtly shift their approach (favorably) to you. Their rewording and delivery will give you what you need to know: When they are just bluffing, they will soften their stance with both rewording and lengthening (the Pinocchio Effect). If it’s not a bluff, they’ll be concise."
Don't Be Afraid Of "Sorry"

This one is a bit surprising. We are perpetually telling women to apologize less. That saying “I’m sorry" all the time makes us look weak. And it's hard to imagine that showing weakness in negotiation gets one very far.

And yet, Voss says the following phrase is the ideal way to shut another person down and maintain a positive experience and relationship: "I'm sorry. That doesn’t work for me. I want us to succeed.”

He says, "Its strategic intention is to soften the delivery of bad news, or to be nurturing. It's just a matter of timing. The most effective way to use it is at the beginning of a statement."

Highly effective: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I want us to succeed.”

Less effective: “That doesn’t work for me. I want us to succeed. I'm sorry.”

Voss says, "The best way to deliver bad news is to give the receiver a slight moment to brace themselves and then deliver it. Then, make a statement that shows a continuing regard for the relationship yet doesn’t commit you to anything other than being willing to work collaboratively."
Embrace—& Appreciate—The Gray Area

Voss says, "We love 'yes' so much and fear 'no' so much that we are often a hostage to both. The real negotiation is in the space between 'yes' and 'no.' And it’s not antagonistic to explore it.

"The way to do that is to respectfully clarify and ask for context using a tactic called a label. A label begins with the words 'It seems like…,' 'It sounds like…,' 'It looks like…,' or 'It feels like….' There is an intentional simplicity to the word choice. The label is designed to be an observation, not an accusation. It’s also designed to provoke a thoughtful response from your counterpart."

However, the trick here is to not fall into therapist or coach talk, which I'm definitely guilty of every time I try this. Voss cautions against inserting "I" into the equation here (e.g. "What I'm hearing is..."). He suggests that that approach makes the conversation about you, and removes empathy from the equation. You want your labels to be about the other person — to give them room to clarify and to give you more information.
Know How Far To Push

Voss is a huge fan of the phrase “How am I supposed to do that?”

He says, "This phrase, said gently and respectfully, may be one of the single most effective ways to find out how far to push. The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control. This is one of the key phrases that does that.

"It works for two reasons: For one, people love to be asked almost any 'how' questions. It gives them the opportunity to impart their 'wisdom.' Secondly, the design of this phrase actually makes them take a good look at your situation to see your challenges. It’s a form of inducing empathy into the situation to your advantage."

He also suggests that this is the moment another person will offer you an alternative — they will see how hard it is to give them what they might be asking for, and if they can, they'll paint you another way.

If not, he says, "they will respond with something close to 'If you want an agreement, you’ll do it.' If they haven’t said this yet, continue to reintroduce this phrase until they do. Then, you’ve actually reached your goal because you’ve pushed as far as possible and you’re still talking. No one has gotten mad and stormed off."
Try The “Oprah” Rule

This one might have been the most important realization for me. Voss says, "People don’t tend to remember things as they happened. Rather, they remember the most intense moment and how it ended. This means that the last impression is the lasting one. It's even more important than a first impression."

He tells a story about Cindy Mori, Oprah Winfrey’s booking producer of over 17 years: "She says a cardinal rule of the show was to always make sure every guest left feeling happy, valued, and respected. When people take parting shots, or have to have the last word (negative) after someone else has had their last word (negative), it seeds the next conversation with negativity.

"As a hostage negotiator, I’d been involved with several major sieges where we completely turned a negative dynamic around by making sure we ended each conversation on a positive note. For great long-term relationships, like Oprah's (and Cindy Mori's), end positively." After all, the person you're asking for a favor or more money today isn't likely to go away tomorrow. You'll need them to continue to value and respect you in the future, so make sure even the toughest negotiations end on a high note.
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