FBI negotiator Christopher Voss teaches negotiating skills to business leaders

Seven Lessons in the Art of Business Negotiation — From a Former FBI Hostage Negotiator

Threshold Ventures
4 min readMar 10, 2023

by Carol Wentworth

On any given day, there are an average of four Americans held somewhere in the world by kidnappers or terrorists. The job of hostage negotiation to win their freedom falls to the expert negotiators at the FBI — professionals with the ability to navigate through complex and potentially hostile situations.

Christopher Voss, the FBI’s chief international kidnapping negotiator from 2003 to 2007 and the author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, knows these high-stakes negotiations very well. Following his 24-year stint with the FBI, Voss founded Black Swan Group, which teaches negotiating skills to business leaders. Much of what Voss and his hostage negotiator colleagues learned at the FBI applies to everyday situations encountered by founders and business leaders — like hiring or seeking partnerships.

“I thought I was going to get the keys to a magic kingdom of new psychological techniques,” Voss said of his early days in hostage negotiation training. “In fact, the trainers told us that knowing the amount the kidnappers wanted, an educated guess about how long the situation could last, and the amount they might settle for, constituted a market, plain and simple — and that what we were going to learn was simply how to bargain with people.”

“Bargaining” may sound like a simplification of what Voss and his colleagues teach — after all, their negotiations involve saving lives. But there are many commonalities in the bargaining that goes on when founding and growing a company.

We invited Voss to share his knowledge and insights with our portfolio company founders. Here are seven takeaways that all business leaders can use to achieve better outcomes.

1. Collaboration to Gain Cooperation

We all know the value of relationships in business and in life. Voss stresses the importance of seeing negotiations as a component of working relationships rather than conflicts. “You’re trying to get someone to do something at work, so what do you do?“ he asked. “The best way to get cooperation is collaboration. A good negotiator is the ultimate collaborator.”

2. Employing Empathy

Empathy is such an important factor for successful negotiating that Black Swan Group has trademarked the term “Tactical Empathy™,” said Voss. “It’s important to remember that empathy is not sympathizing, agreeing with, or even liking the other side. It’s simply the demonstration of an understanding of the views and experience of another person.” When used to gain trust in a negotiation, empathy can become very tactical — and very useful.

3. Brain Chemistry is Your Friend

To understand the successful use of Tactical Empathy™ more deeply, Voss points to oxytocin, a natural hormone associated with bonding. “Oxytocin is very powerful stuff — almost like a dopamine-type hit to the brain,” Voss said. If you can encourage a release of oxytocin in your negotiating counterpart, a bond will be created, and you’ll make significant progress towards a fruitful collaboration.

4. “That’s Right” Versus “You’re Right”

How do you foster the creation of these bonds during a negotiating session — that is, unlock oxytocin in the person with whom you’re negotiating? For Voss, the key is the words you use.

“There’s a big difference between ‘that’s right’ and ‘you’re right,’” he said. “‘You’re right’ is what people say when they are about to bail or when they want to end the conversation. It’s the exact opposite of a bond.” On the other hand, saying “that’s right” is an expression made about unity, which creates shared trust.

5. Get to “Yes” by Way of “No”

Sometimes we have to enter a negotiation at a disadvantage, like limited time or an asymmetrical power balance. To illustrate, Voss tells the story of trying to get Jack Welch, the famous CEO and author, to speak at one of the classes Voss taught at the University of Southern California (USC). Voss had no relationship at all with Welch, but he attended a Welch book signing event with a plan.

“Jack Welch is a very busy man, and I’d only have 30 seconds at most to pitch him on the idea,” Voss related. “Rather than a straightforward ask, I posed the question to him so that he could say ‘no,’ as in, ‘Would it be an outrageous idea to ask you to come speak to my students at USC?’”

After a long pause (and an annoyed look), Welch responded with a “no,” followed by contact info for his agent. The takeaway is that Voss was able to keep the conversation going, as opposed to getting shut down at the start.

6. Research is Great, but…

Preparation is important to do when starting a negotiation, but Voss cautions against relying on it too heavily. “Sometimes all the research you can do ahead of time gets thrown out immediately if you encounter something unexpected,” he said. “What you learn in the first few minutes of a face-to-face encounter is almost always worth more. In fact, being corrected by your counterpart is a great form of research because it’s a primary source, and it helps bring the counterpart over to your side.”

7. Salary Negotiations

This is probably the one subject Voss gets asked about more than anything else. “People want to know if they should go first,” Voss said. “My answer is, generally speaking, no.”

There are a couple of good reasons for staying quiet. “Someone who wants a raise from $85K to $110K might be happy with a ‘yes’ to their request right out of the gate,” Voss said. “But chances are, they could have had more.” Conversely, opening with a number that is overly high could stop negotiations, with no offer made at all. “Not only does this shut down the deal at hand, but it generally undermines the possibility of one in the future,” said Voss.