Negotiations and bargaining explained by an FBI hostage negotiator – unsurprisingly a book where the show-off anecdotes are gripping. But beneath the standard self-help structure (bits of information sandwiched by ~~boasts~~ stories), there’s a solid core: A general theory of negotiations, explained with plenty of examples. Bonus points for the clear chapter summaries.
The upshot is that neither trying to avoid conflict nor adversarial bare-knuckles approaches are ideal for most negotiations. Instead, focusing on (“tactical”) empathy and open-ended questions is the approach that will help you find good solutions without always resorting to boring lose-lose compromises. Money quote: No deal is better than a bad deal – if you can’t say No, you’ve taken yourself hostage.
Detailed notes below:
Listening is the most important thing you can do. “Tactical empathy” means listening past your preconceived notions of what the other person wants and thinks. You make this easier on yourself if you have multiple hypotheses in mind instead of just one, and then make the other person your entire focus.
Listening intently and well makes others feel safe enough to talk about what they want. That’s important because negotiations are not a battle, they are a process of discovery. If you instead rush things, you build pressure. What you say and do is not as important as how you are, what vibe you project. You want to be relaxed, friendly, slightly playful most of the time, in a way that is true to yourself. When you are like this, you can be very direct and still keep the safe atmosphere. Because everybody wants to feel safe (you get this by listening, understanding, labeling) and in control (you get this by asking them open questions and getting them to say No early).
“The relationship between an emotionally intelligent negotiator and their counterpart is essentially therapeutic.” Once you have understood what the other person really wants, you can reword/mirror/label what they are saying. You validate their experience by acknowledging it. And thereby you interrupt raw emotional intensity.
Mirror what others say, repeating their words or intentions. Mirrors are usually there to convey “please help me understand”. When you mirror what others say, they’ll either feel understood or explain in detail by rephrasing their statement. Feels awkward, but is good.
Label their feelings: Throw out an accurate label, then shut up, wait, listen. No follow-up questions. “It sounds like you enjoy x.” without tacking on “Where did you get it?”. Always go for “It seems”, not “I am hearing that” – this is not about you.
Special form of labeling: The accusation audit. Label their fears in advance. Imagine what they could accuse you of, and put it on the table. “This may sound like I’m a cut-throat asshole with no regard for future business.”, for example.
- It seems like ___ is valuable to you.
- It seems like you don’t like ___.
- It seems like you value ____.
- It seems like ___ makes it easier.
- It seems like you’re reluctant to ___.
- It seems like ____ is important.
- It seems you feel like my company is in a unique position to ____.
- It seems like you are worried that ____.
Agreement and disagreement: “That’s right” and “No”
Get people to say “That’s right”, both by labeling and by summaries. Do not get people to say “You’re right”. One shows a relieved or pleased acknowledgement, the other that you’re not listening.
And also: try to get an honest “No” early – that’s where the actual negotiation begins. People need to be able to say no. They will fight you if it seems like you want to constrain their power to decline. Once they have said no to something, they feel they have agency and control, they are more secure. Also, you won’t feel like a sleazy salesperson who always tries to elicit a “Yes”. If you find no better way, mislabel an emotion or desire. Or just ask: “What would you say no to”.
Special case: “Have you given up on this project?” is a one-sentence email to get a reply when the other party is not talking to you.
Calibrated open-ended questions
Questions make the other party feel in control and get them to solve your problems. Plus, since the answer is theirs, they will support it implicitly. Where yes/no questions are a conversational dead end and trigger expectations of reciprocity, open questions (carefully chosen to nudge in a helpful direction or to uncover new facts) keep conversations alive. Always sound nice, like you’re asking for help, without a hint of anger or resentment.
“How” and “What”. Only use “Why” if you want to spark opposition (because it inevitably sounds like an accusation). Don’t tell people what you want, ask them how to achieve x.
How does this affect the rest of your team? How on board are the people not on this call? What do your colleagues see as their main challenges in this area? What are we up against here? What is the biggest challenge you face? How does making a deal with us affect things? What happens if you do nothing? What does doing nothing cost you? How does making this deal resonate with what your company prides itself on?
- How am I supposed to do that?: One of the best examples. Produces empathy, plus the solution will be their idea.
- What do you hope to achieve? / What’s the objective? / What are we trying to accomplish here?
- What about this doesn’t work for you?
- How does this look?
- What caused you to do this? (Instead of: “Why did you do this.” Yes, it’s silly. Yes, it works.)
- What is the biggest challenge you face?
- What about this is important to you?
- How can I help to make this better for us?
- How would you like me to proceed?
- What is it that brought us into this situation?
- How can we solve this problem?
- “How will we know we’re on track?” and “How will we address things if we find we’re off track?” When they answer, you summarize their answers until you get a “That’s right.”
- “How does this affect the rest of your team?” or “How on board are the people not on this call?” or “What do your colleagues see as their main challenges in this area?” (whenever some interested parties are not at the table)
- How do we make sure that we deliver the right material to the right people? How do we ensure the managers of those we’re training are fully on board?
Rejecting an offer
Reject an offer with three Nos:
- The first step in the “No” series is the old standby: “How am I supposed to do that?” You have to deliver it in a deferential way, so it becomes a request for help.
- After that, some version of “Your offer is very generous, I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me”. Apologies are good.
- Then you can use something like “I’m sorry but I’m afraid I just can’t do that.” Can add variations like “This is really embarrassing, but I can’t afford that. It’s a fair price!”
Types of negotiators
Of course everybody is a mix etc etc. Details.
Accommodators focus on building relationships. They’re happy while they’re communicating and love the win-win. Want to remain friends even when the deal falls through. Can easily fall into the trap of building great rapport without accomplishing anything. They perceive silence as danger. Dealing with them, be sociable and friendly, use calibrated questions to nudge them to focus on translating talk into action. Be wary that they don’t promise something they can’t deliver. Uncovering their objections can be difficult. If you’re an accommodator: stick to being likable, but don’t sacrifice your objections – others welcome them. Be wary of excess chitchat – the other types don’t like it as much, and other accommodators are prone to be distracted by it.
Assertive negotiators believe time is money, focus on getting things done, are fiery and love winning, often at the expense of others. Direct and candid to the point of aggression, and unworried about future interactions. They value respect, and want to be heard – they can’t listen until they know they’ve been heard. They’re too self-important to have a feeling for reciprocity. Silence as a chance to speak more. Dealing with them, focus on getting a “that’s right”. Use labels and mirrors a lot. If you’re assertive, soften your tone and use calibrated questions instead of abrasive statements.
Analysts work on data, are methodical and diligent, hate surprises and don’t want to be rushed. They can come off as distant and cold, and are hypersensitive to reciprocity. They are skeptical and see silence as a chance to think. Don’t ask them too many questions to start. Use data to drive your reason, don’t ad-lib, and give them a chance to think before responding. Use labels. If you’re an analyst: smile when you speak.
The Ackerman model of haggling that doesn’t end up with the usual “end up in the middle” outcome:
- Set your target price
- Set your first offer at 65%
- Calculate three raises: 85, 95 and 100%, and never use round numbers for the final amount.
- Use empathy and the three increasing Nos to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer. Be very sparing about your increases.
- On the last offer, add a nonmonetary item (even one they don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.
Black Swans and leverage
Black Swans are unknown unknowns that would entirely change the situation if they became known. Each party has, as a rule, at least three of those. They don’t have to be dramatic. “Your counterpart always has pieces of information whose value they do not understand.” Black Swans are leverage multipliers. You need to get literally at the table, or at least on the phone to discover them. Pay attention before talks start, after they end and in breaks.
When you think the other person is crazy, that’s when you’re close to finding one. People are never crazy, they are ill-informed (you can fix that), constrained or obey interests you don’t know (both of these are black swans).
Prepare a negotiation “one sheet” with five sections.
- The goal. Think about best and worst case scenarios, but only put down a specific goal, to prime yourself and to avoid anchoring yourself. Discuss with a colleague if you can, to avoid “wimping out”.
- Summary. All known facts that have led up to the negotiation. Why are you there, what do you want? Why are they there, what do they want? If you say these out loud, you have to get a “that’s right” from your counterpart.
- Labels. Prepare three to five labels for an accusation audit, anticipating how your counterpart feels about Section 2. Make a concise list of accusations they might make. Then turn each accusation into up to five labels. Examples: See above.
- Calibrated questions. Prepare five questions to reveal value to you and your counterpart and identify and overcome deal killers. Be relentlessly curious. Examples: see above. Be ready to follow up the answers with mirrors or labels. Maaaybe work on hypotheses.
- Noncash offers. Have a list of noncash items that your counterpart has, that you would have. Have a list of noncash items that you have that you could offer.
Other techniques, misc tips
- Don’t be driven by a desire for compromise or a fear of conflict. Be driven by your goal. No deal is better than a bad deal: be clear on what that means. Prefer creative solutions to lame compromise. (“wimp-win”)
- Honest anger can be valuable: embrace it to push back. Don’t overdo it, and never fake it. Expressions of anger increase a negotiator’s advantage and final take. Channel it and always target the deal, not the negotiator.
- When setting boundaries, take special care to be empathetic and not abrasive.
- Deadlines are good, but nearly never mean what’s on the tin. Don’t hide a deadline, hiding it means you’re negotiating with yourself (and will always lose).
- Fairness: understand that it is a big human drive. If the other person feels treated unfairly, stop everything, apologise, figure things out. Get them to declare what they feel is fair, in any case. Label something as fair to get them to accept it. Be very wary when somebody uses fairness on you. Get a reputation for fairness.
- Loss aversion is huge. Once they are talking, they are interested, so you have a tiny bit of positive leverage. Always be aware who feels they have more to lose if negotiations were to stop.
- Let the other side anchor monetary negotiations, but be very prepared to psychically withstand the first offer. When they want you to go first, establish a range with your target as lowest bound. Instead of naming your range, you can name other known ranges, “At top places like X, people in this job get between Y and Z”.
- Nonmonetary terms are important: add in things that cost you little but help them, or ask for things that cost them little but help you. Be pleasantly persistent on these items – if they can’t provide them, they might even offer more money on their own.
- Don’t use round numbers, as they feel more open to negotiations. (This is the closest the book comes to cheap tricks.)
- If you can (particularly in employment): define success criteria and make them invested in your success. Eg treat your boss as a mentor and make clear that your success will reflect on them. “What does it take to be successful here” and “How will I see that I’m on the right track” are good directions. Request advice to make them see you as their mentee.
- Humanize yourself. Use your name to introduce yourself.