4 things salespeople can learn from a former FBI hostage negotiator

Chris Voss by Bret Simmons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator. You’ve probably seen the ads for his Masterclass pop up in your Facebook feed, or come across his book, Never Split the Difference, which sold enough copies to prove that there’s plenty of interest in the art of negotiation among the general (and business) public. 

We came across an article in Forbes that covered some of the tips Voss had for sales reps. And although hostage negotiations might seem like a far cry from what salespeople have to deal with on any given day (threats of violence notwithstanding), Voss does give some valuable tips that can come in handy the next time you find yourself feeling unsure of what steps to take. 

Here are four tips from Voss: 

Embracing the Power of "No"

Contrary to popular belief, the word "yes" isn't always the most favorable outcome in a negotiation. Voss's experiences suggest a counterintuitive approach: aim for a "no." This strategy, rooted in hostage negotiation tactics, involves framing questions that elicit a "no," which provides a sense of control and safety to the other party. For instance, you can say "Is now a bad time to talk?" instead of "Can you talk for a few minutes?" Is this a bad piece of advice? No, we didn’t think so. 

Rethinking Questioning Techniques

The word "why" often triggers defensive responses, making it an ineffective tool in negotiations. Instead, replacing "why" with "what" or "how" can yield better outcomes. This shift in questioning avoids accusatory tones and encourages a more open dialogue. For example, "What made you choose that software?" sounds less threatening than “Why did you choose that software?” It’s a subtle shift, but it can make a difference.  

Personalizing the Approach

In both hostage and business negotiations, understanding the individual is key. Techniques that work universally are important, but true mastery lies in tailoring the approach based on individual attributes like age, gender, or professional background. In sales, this personalization comes in the form of doing proper research and understanding your customer’s problem, their company’s goals, and even your customer’s personal goals (impressing a boss, saving the company money, feeling like they ‘won’ the negotiation, etc.) This personalized approach requires careful listening and adapting in real-time, and isn’t a silver bullet, unless you put in the effort. 

Simplifying Communication

Email has become a primary mode of communication in negotiations. Voss stresses the importance of simplicity in email correspondence. Overly complex emails can overwhelm and confuse the recipient. Drawing a parallel with texting by keeping emails concise and focused on one or two key points can enhance clarity and effectiveness in negotiations. Just remember the acronym, KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid (we don’t actually think you’re stupid). 

In case you don’t want to scroll back up, here’s a summary of Voss’s advice: 

  • Embrace the power of "no" by framing questions that elicit “no” responses 
  • Replace “why” with “what” or “how” to create more open dialogue 
  • Personalize your approach by researching, and adjusting based on new information
  • Simplify your communication over email (emphasize the top one or two key points)  

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