TLDR: Chris Voss teaches business leaders to tap into the power of “tactical empathy” to resolve negotiations with respect, while staying cool under pressure. He also uses “no-oriented questions” so people feel more at ease as negotiations progress.

So What? It’s possible to negotiate with your boss, business rivals, or even in personal relationships without appearing adversarial or “splitting the difference.” Read on to learn more from this consummate communicator.


As a former hostage negotiator with the FBI, Chris Voss knows how important it is to communicate correctly, especially in drastic situations. He knows firsthand how poor communication can lead to excess harm, not only in hostage situations but in people’s daily lives.

Voss also knows negotiation techniques can find solutions even in what seem like impossible situations. Here are some of the techniques Voss uses with his Black Swan Group to help individuals and companies negotiate successfully in their everyday lives.

Never Split the Difference

Voss wrote a famous book and gave a TED Talk (both called Never Split the Difference). Most people think of negotiating as making a compromise where each side gets some of what they want, but Voss thinks about it in a completely different way.

“You can’t split the difference with someone who’s got hostages,” he said. Instead, he teaches people to use what he calls “tactical empathy” to discover what the other person wants and needs. Tactical empathy, Voss said in his TED Talk, is taking an inventory of the person we’re facing (the positive and the negative) and telling it back to them calmly.

Voss explains emotions are intertwined in all our decisions. We must discover what’s driving other people emotionally to discover what will help them make agreements with you. You don’t have to like the other person when you put tactical empathy into practice; you just have to observe and understand what makes them tick.

Ask No-Oriented Questions

In a negotiation, “no” is a person’s default answer. “Saying ‘no’ makes people feel protected and in control,” Voss says. “The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control.”

Voss advises asking those you’re negotiating with questions like, “Are you against ___________? Have you given up on ____________?” Starting out by asking “Is this a bad time to talk?” allows people to say no right up front, which will make them more open to what you have to say.

This is a powerful tool in sales and business deals, but it also works in personal relationships when you can’t get past a point of contention.

Go Silent

After you ask a question or make an observation, Voss suggests going silent and waiting respectfully for your opponent to respond. People naturally feel pressure to fill silences, but if you can resist that pressure, it gives the other person a chance to do exactly what you want them to.

Using pauses is a way to force the conversation to a resolution. It’s also respectful and conveys you want to hear what others have to say.

Be Gradual with Your “No”

One of Voss’s tips when negotiating is to let out your “no” a little bit at a time. One question you can ask that does this is, “How am I supposed to do that?” This question forces the other person to look at your situation and see why what they’re proposing may be unworkable.

In rare cases, Voss says someone will state, “I don’t care how you do it” or “That’s your problem.” Voss points out you may not want to do business with someone if they don’t have any empathy for you in return and refuse to consider things from your point of view. In this way, the question still works because it exposes a potential partner as potentially unreasonable.

Press the Issue Respectfully

During a negotiation, it’s necessary to press an issue to bring things to a resolution or close a deal. Voss teaches people how to press the issue in a respectful way that won’t make someone feel pressured.

One way to press an issue with respect is to aim to get a “That’s right!” out of someone by summarizing their position back to them including their obstacles and difficulties. When you can get them to agree about their reasons for not wanting to say “yes,” it will move things along towards agreement. If they won’t give you a “that’s right,” the next step is to say, “It sounds like I’ve left something out.” Then pause and wait for them to tell you what that is.

Get Behind the Question

When someone asks you a question, it’s good to find out what might be behind it. Voss recommends asking, “What makes you ask?” in a very polite tone to get more into their mindset.

If they balk at answering that question, you can follow up with, “I want to make sure I answer what you’re really asking.”

A similar question would be, “It seems like you have a good reason for asking that.” Then, quietly wait for their response. This way, you can get insight into people’s reasoning and situations in a polite and respectful way that’s not invasive.

Show Respect

As the last few techniques suggest, Voss recommends showing respect to those with whom you’re trying to negotiate. Respect is important because it tells others you have integrity and are someone it would be good to make a deal with.

If you think about it, people really don’t have much incentive to partner with you if you’re rude to them or show you don’t value them. On the other hand, if people fail to respond to you with equal respect, it reveals their characters so you can consider whether you really want to make deals with them.

Most people will respond to respect and empathy with the same, however, and the negotiation can proceed civilly to its logical conclusion.

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