• Hilary Bryan

Negotiate, but forget getting to yes

Updated: Jul 28

I've always been fascinated by hostage situations, and thought we must have a lot to learn from hostage negotiators. Then, I've thought - how does what they do fit in with the Getting to Yes approach popularised by Fisher and Ury? Answer - it doesn't.


Remember Fisher and Ury's approach?

1. Separate the person from the problem: take the emotion out of the situation.

2. Distinguish between the the other party's interests over the positions they take.

3. Work co-operatively to generate win-win options.

4. Establish mutually agreed-upon standards for evaluating possible solutions.


How hard do you listen? Unsplash #vincentvanzalinge

It's all very logical (particularly 1.) but we're not. We're emotional, and negotiation is about influencing, and we influence a huge amount by emotion.

So what can we learn from what hostage negotiators do, if it's not 1-4 above? This is where Chris Voss comes in. He's been at the heart of FBI hostage negotiations for years. Here are some of his ideas we can use in our world.

  1. Recognise the power of your voice: talk like a late-night DJ - low and slow.

  2. Slow the whole negotiation down so you can build rapport with the other party.

  3. Listen intently to what the other party says and pick up their underlying messages.

  4. Play back their last words or their key words, ie mirror their language.

  5. Label and articulate the other party's emotions: you work these out by first-class listening.

  6. Recognise the power of the word: fair. It hits us emotionally. We don't like to think of ourselves as unfair.

  7. Use 'how' questions. Example: How would you expect us to do that in this timeframe? It puts the problem back to the other party.

  8. Aim to get to That's right, rather than Yes. And you get to That's right by mirroring and labelling.

Good stuff - the issue isn't understanding it - it's putting it into practice. If you want a quick understanding of Voss's ideas, check out this short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQJOylbLYJY or go the whole hog and read his book: Never split the difference: Negotiate as if your life depended on it. (Random House, 2016.)

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