“We look at negotiation as a battle of reason and logic and think that somehow it’s rational,” says Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator and lead author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. “But we make our decisions over what we value, and we value what we care about, which is emotion-driven. Being willing to accept that decision-making hinges on what people care about… frames everything in a new perspective.”
What other secrets do master negotiators know? They offer the following tips, caveats and insights that you can use to make your next negotiation more successful and less intimidating.
Get over your shame. There’s nothing wrong with asking. Comedian Dan Nainan, who negotiates for “everything and anything,” says the biggest mistake is not asking. “It’s like inviting girls on dates. You ask 10 to get one yes.”
“Negotiating does not mean browbeating or grinding someone down,” Voss writes. “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.”
“All they can do is say no,” says Chanson Water USA co-founder and CEO Nedalee Thomas, who has negotiated for everything from a winter coat to orthodontic braces. “I learned this when I started asking celebrities to sign fabric for me so I could make quilts with their signatures. I was shocked by the number who said yes. It made me more willing to ask for anything.”
2. Empathy is vital—and humor helps.
When Voss approaches a salesperson or airline clerk in the hopes of negotiating something, he brings what he calls “tactical empathy” into the interaction. “Nine out of 10 people in front of you probably beat this person up,” he says. “You want them to have an interaction with someone they enjoy working with. I might say to them, ‘How many people yelled at you today?’ I’m putting myself in the position to deal with them in a way nobody else has that day. If someone has the opportunity to give you things if he feels like it, then I’m going to make him feel like it. It brightens my day and makes my day that much more interesting, and it also makes their day that much more interesting.”
Nainan uses humor and whatever connection he can find to smooth his negotiations. “I was checking into a flight to Dublin during the Olympics in England,” he says. “I started talking to the lady at the check-in desk. She was from Haiti, so I started speaking French. I was laughing and joking with her.”
Nainan ultimately schmoozed his way into an upgrade to first class. “If you can say a few words in their language, that breaks the ice big time,” he says.
3. But don’t rush it.
Going too fast is a common negotiating mistake, Voss says. “If you’re in too much of a hurry, people can feel as if they’re not being heard,” he writes in Never Split the Difference. “You risk undermining the rapport and trust you’ve built.”
For example, with salespeople Voss will introduce himself—“Hi, I’m Chris”—and ask the salesperson’s name. He’ll chat awhile and at some point might use one of his favorite techniques, asking, “So what’s the Chris discount?”
“The Chris discount [tactic] is huge. But you can’t go with the Chris discount early. That’s got to be late in the game.”
4. Talk to the right person.
Nainan was hitting a brick wall talking to the front-line employees of a dolphin tour operator, so he asked to talk to the manager and eventually received what he wanted. Nainan says, “You want to quickly identify the person who’s in charge. Front-line employees don’t have as much flexibility.”
5. Lower the price without dissing the product.
If you’re negotiating over a product or service, Thomas advises that, “you don’t need to put the product down or criticize it in any way. Clearly you want it.” Sure, you can point out if there’s a button1 missing or something, but do so respectfully and in a friendly way. Nainan negotiated $14,000 off his Tesla because it was a dealer demo with 1,000 miles on it.
Thomas has saved approximately $8,000 on medical procedures by being flexible with scheduling and simply asking, “Is this price firm? Is there any wiggle room?” Or she might say, “I saw an ad for this other dentist, and this is what they were offering, but I really like your treatment plan better.”
She explains that, “sometimes you can build your discount if you get them to a different place—for example: ‘Will you give me a discount for paying cash?’ ”
6. Consider the venue.
Lawyer Jessica Thorne, who specializes in family law and business litigation, frequently handles sensitive, intense negotiations. In these situations, she prefers having the two sides in separate rooms. “If you put two people in a room in an emotionally charged situation, a lot of times just hearing the other person’s voice is enough to make the negotiation go sour,” she says.
But be aware, too, that getting in the other party’s face will sometimes be vital for reinforcing how serious you are. After a contract negotiation had dragged on without resolution for eight months, Thomas got on an airplane and flew 12 hours to Taiwan for a one-day visit to hammer out an acceptable deal. “I’m sure I could have done a Skype call, but it takes a big commitment to spend the money and get on the plane and spend those hours. I wanted them to get the message that implies.”
“When we try to settle too early, when people aren’t emotionally ready to let something go, bad behavior can happen.”
7. Timing counts.
Thorne evaluates the appropriate moment to push. “When we try to settle too early, when people aren’t emotionally ready to let something go, bad behavior can happen,” she says. “When people aren’t ready to settle, they tend to be much more emotional. There’s a right time to do it.”
And, she says, “If they’re in a big hurry, oftentimes that means there’s something out there that they don’t want you to know.” This suggests that tapping the brakes to do more research would be wise. “I’m ethically responsible to try to make sure that all of that information comes out,” Thorne says. “It really does matter to both sides.”
On the other hand, don’t stall too long: “You don’t want to lose generosity and both parties’ willingness to settle.”
8. Listen, listen, listen.
Negotiation is not a battle but “a process of discovery,” Voss says, and for that, you must listen. “And not just listening and nodding your head. You have to actually have an understanding of what’s coming at you and how to appreciate the different elements.” Your goal is to determine what’s really important and what is at stake for the other side involved in the negotiation.
Pay attention to nonverbal communications, too. Jetly says he’s learned valuable lessons from his Labrador retriever puppy. For example, taking the pup on a 10-mile fundraising walk, “I had to look for nonverbal cues for when he was getting tired. This kind of thing builds a high level of empathy that you can apply to humans as well. Humans can learn from puppies to be compassionate.”
Related: How to Speak Well… and Listen Better
9. Modify your tone.
Your voice helps set the tone for the negotiation. Voss first recommends using a positive, playful voice—the voice of an “easygoing, good-natured person.” Even on the phone, a little smile can bring a positive lilt to your tone.
Thomas used that voice when trying to interest a family member in a business investment. “I was getting a lot of very firm no’s,” she says. “I went about this very playfully. I said, ‘I’m going to teach you what a filibuster is. I’m going to keep thinking of reasons that will benefit you until you say yes.’ He literally spit out his coffee laughing so hard. I just kept trying to come up with new angles when one wasn’t working, and I do think we’ll end up with a new business.”
When things get more serious or stressful, Voss brings out what he calls his “late-night FM disc jockey voice”: low, calm, downward inflected and slow, signaling that you’re in control. This is especially useful when you’re stating something that’s nonnegotiable. It says done deal.
The one tone to avoid as much as possible is the direct or assertive voice, which signals dominance and invites pushback, Voss says.
10. Forget even-Steven.
Thorne tries to steer her clients away from trying to split everything down the middle. “The most important piece is finding things that each party can let go of, that maybe don’t matter that much to the other side,” she says. Thorne compares it to sharing an orange: You can cut it in half, or you can segment it out.
Thorne frequently calls on this tactic while negotiating divorces. Emotions run high over custody arrangements, so both divorcing parents might argue for as much time with the children as possible. “It can really help to guide your client to see that there could be benefits to trying different things,” Thorne says. “What if one person works on the weekends and doesn’t really want weekends? If you listen and try to figure out the push point, often you can find something that’s important to dad and maybe not so important to mom, for example.”
11. Go for no.
Counterintuitively, Voss says you want to hear no as soon as possible. “Trying to get someone to say yes raises their defenses, even if it’s just as simple as ‘Have you got a few minutes to talk?’ ” he says. “Typically, that’s a prelude to being cornered.” The other person is going to stop and hesitate, worry about what he or she is getting into. “If you start with no, you let the other person feel that it’s OK to say no. It respects the other person’s autonomy and lets them relax,” Voss says.
A no response slows people down, relieving pressure and giving the other party a sense of power.
Voss tells of approaching Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, at a book signing. “Public forums are a horrible position for celebrities to be in. They couldn’t be more guarded,” he says. “I come up to Jack Welch—he doesn’t know who I am. And I say, ‘Is it a ridiculous idea to think you would be interested in coming to speak to a class I teach on negotiation at USC?’ He literally freezes and glares out into space. I think he’s gonna throw me out…. Then he says, ‘Here’s how to get in touch with my personal assistant. Tell her I told you to get in touch. Let’s see if we can set this up.’ ”
Posing his question in a way that allowed even an unspoken no—No, it’s not ridiculous—“stopped him in his tracks,” Voss says. That no eased the pressure on Welch and gave him pause, a moment to think rather than saying no in a knee-jerk response.
12. Name that emotion.
A good negotiator can harness emotions as a powerful tool, Voss says. By tuning in to the other person’s emotions and labeling them aloud (use phrases such as “It seems like… It sounds like… It looks like…”), you validate the emotions and display empathy. “[It’s] a shortcut to intimacy,” Voss writes. Labeling emotions can help you identify pressure points in the negotiation and can even defuse a tense situation—perhaps identifying someone as passionate rather than difficult.
Becoming adept at labeling is part of developing EQ, or emotional intelligence, and Voss says anyone can improve in this area. “You’re going to get only so tall, but your EQ is something you can continue to develop,” he says. Never Split the Difference discusses EQ-building techniques such as mirroring and paraphrasing (repeating back or rewording what the other person says as a way to display understanding); anchoring the other person’s emotions (starting in a way that gives them low expectations—“Do I have a lousy deal for you…”—so they are relieved to reach for a less-than-disastrous conclusion to the negotiation); and being cautious of the dangers inherent in the word fair—“I just want what’s fair” can trigger defensiveness in the other person.
“Splitting the difference, if it’s offered to you, is favorable with cutthroats who are trying to eat your lunch.”
13. Don’t split the difference.
“Splitting the difference, if it’s offered to you, is favorable with cutthroats who are trying to eat your lunch,” Voss says. “What they’ve done before you got to that point is set you up so splitting the difference is where they wanted you to be all along. They’re just trying to move the parameters to make it seem fair.”
A skilled, but cutthroat, negotiator will throw out an extreme number, Voss says, so that splitting the difference would bring you where they wanted you all along. “You leave money on the table by splitting the difference. Even if you’re not a cutthroat, it’s probably still a bad idea because you’re going to cost yourself money if you do it. I hate to say it’s a lazy move, but if you’re tired of the process and don’t want to work through it to the best solution, you might offer to split the difference.”
14. Don’t ask why.
Asking questions that begin with why is risky because it comes across as confrontational, Voss says. He recommends what he calls calibrating questions that start with what or how. For example, “What about this doesn’t work for you?” or “How can I make this better for us both?”
15. Ask this instead—repeatedly.
“How am I supposed to do that?”—with that meaning everything from waiving a late fee to paying a higher price or extending the warranty period.