Hollywood depictions of police or corporate negotiations generally star some big, swaggering action figure, who swaggers in, shoots from the hip, and makes demands. Chris Voss, former FBI international hostage negotiator, now in private practice, wants you to know: if you that, you’ll probably lose. But you’ll also lose if you follow negotiation tactics long taught at business schools. His time-tested approach, developed in the field, is more complex and subtle. It’s also more successful.
All negotiation, Voss holds, is about listening, acquiring information, and remaining receptive to the other side. It isn’t about being stronger than your opponent or holding their feet to the fire. Many issues claimed regarding negotiations nowadays, like “never apologize” and “deal from strength,” make bad policy, because they limit avaliable options and leave the other side feeling ignored. People enter negotiations hoping to be heard, respected, and helped. A negotiator’s goal is to listen.
Thus, Voss’s approach includes terms like “tactical empathy,” “accusation audit,” and “mirroring,” all of which stress listening to, and anticipating, your opponent’s needs. Voss emphasizes the value of asking questions—which should always be open-ended, since yes/no questions merely affirm what you already know. They also leave the answerer feeling defensive, which makes them less receptive to negotiation overall. Traditional, “rational” approaches back the other side into corners, leaving them feeling powerless and without autonomy.
Effective negotiators therefore open themselves to powerlessness, at least in the near term. In my favorite quote, Voss writes: “Creative solutions are almost always preceded by some degree of risk, annoyance, confusion, and conflict.” Yet permitting confusion and conflict to run their course forces opponents, whose demands often start very nebulous and wooly, to crystallize their thoughts into language, which makes action possible. Equally, if not more, important, it makes goals concrete, and therefore verifiable.
These techniques may appear counterintuitive, especially to audiences weaned on classical rhetoric or MBA-school negotiation tactics. As Voss writes, traditional approaches begin with assumptions of humans as essentially rational actors, which we now know to be true only under certain, controlled conditions. By permitting the challenger the illusion of control, by letting them voice their grievances, Voss’s technique lets emotions and irrationality run their course. Then reason can assert itself, and solutions can be tested.
Voss discusses this as the difference between your opposer saying “that’s right,” where they agree with your underlying point, versus “you’re right,” where they falsely agree, mainly to shut you up. Simply mirroring their statements can persuade hard-liners to buy into your solution. When people agree with your message, rather than with you as a person, they’re more inclined to consider your demands, and more inclined to agree when they feel they’ve been listened to.
This doesn’t mean simply giving them everything they demand. Asking what Voss calls strategic questions, generally open-ended and involving the words “what” and “how,” forces people who may be issuing unrealistic conditions, to recognize the reality of brass tacks. It forces them to translate ideas they may hold abstractly, in an airy-fairy sense, into words which become actionable. When ideas coalesce into language, demands often become more manageable. Listening to others turns ideas into action.
Good negotiators thus make the other person feel heard and respected, which encourages them to translate their thoughts into words. Negotiators voluntarily sacrifice the illusion of control, the language and trappings of aggression, to allow the opponent to realize better long-term solutions. This sounds impolitic in a world of brash authoritarian posturing and Breitbart-driven “don’t apologize/deal from strength” machismo, but generally work better in the long term. This should be what really drives successful argument.
Voss’ ideas flourish because they derive from experience. Having navigated both the law enforcement and big-business worlds, his principles have endured diverse, often savage tests, and proven themselves persistently effective. And they flourish because Voss writes well: this book unfolds with the tension of a novel, blending theoretical explanations with “mean streets” examples. Whether you’re rescuing a hostage, negotiating your salary, or keeping a discussion alive, this book offers tools for measurable, real-world success.