Ep. 80 – Negotiating Like an FBI Agent with Chris and Brandon Voss

By Noah Graff

Today’s podcast is part 1 of a two part interview with Chris and Brandon Voss, co-authors of the best selling book on business negotiation, Never Split the Difference, and executives at Black Swan Group, a company offering business negotiation training.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast.

Never Split the Difference teaches how to approach business negotiations using the same the techniques that Chris Voss learned from decades working as an FBI hostage negotiator. I can vouch for its effectiveness personally, having listened to the book from start to finish 3 years ago. I probably use its principles in our business every day.

Main Points

(3:45)  Chris and Brandon explain their company, Black Swan Group, which teaches business negotiation. They sum it up as the company that “makes sure you don’t leave money on the table.” They also say that it provides guidance for navigating difficult conversations.

(5:35)  Chris talks about working as an FBI hostage negotiator specializing in terrorism. He says that his son Brandon learned a lot about negotiation from a very young age by observing him. He says that Brandon used his skills of “disarming agitated adversaries” to deal with disciplinarians and Vice Principals in high school. After Chris retired from the FBI he taught negotiation in business classes at Harvard and Georgetown. A few years ago he and Brandon cowrote Never Split the Difference, which has become the best selling business negotiation book around the world.

(9:00) Chris says that the principles of hostage negotiation work for business negotiations across all cultures. He says that in every business deal something is under siege or threat.

(12:25) Brandon explains one of their most important negotiation strategies, mirroring and labeling. He explains that “labeling” refers to a verbal observation in which a person says, “it feels like,” “it sounds like,” “it seems like,” or “it looks like.” A “mirror” means repeating the last few words of the last sentence that someone has just said. These techniques help sound out your counterpart. They give a person new information about how the counterpart sees a situation, but the counterpart stays relaxed because you don’t have to ask questions. Questions can make people feel they are being interrogated.

(17:15) Noah brings up his own recent challenge using mirrors and labels to get a machinery rigger down in price.

(19:25) Brandon talks about a negotiation technique called an “accusations audit” (see video) that Noah could use to try to get a machinery rigger down in price. The negotiator mentions all of the difficult things his counterpart has had to do to accommodate him. This can neutralize his negative feelings before he has a chance to say them. In the case of Noah’s machinery rigger, he could say to him things like, “I know you have had to do a lot of work already for this job,” “I know you’re the only game in town,” “I know you’ve already tried to get the price down,” and “I bet your sick and tired of having this conversation with everyone you speak to.”

Click here to watch more videos from the interview.

(24:15) Chris explains price anchoring. He says that most academics say a person should start a negotiation by naming an extreme asking price. However, he discourages this strategy because it can scare customers away and cause one to lose potential deals. Also people don’t know what price their counterparts will start at—perhaps his price is better than they thought. Chris says the majority of the best negotiators get the counterpart to name a price first. When both people are trying to make each other name price first a person can use mirrors and labels to get important information about the price the counterpart has in mind.

Question: Do you usually like to name price first in a negotiation?

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2 thoughts on “Ep. 80 – Negotiating Like an FBI Agent with Chris and Brandon Voss

  1. Bill Badura

    This info is probably more useful to someone buying or selling a used machine or a business. I quote work daily, and am expected to name my price. Rarely do we get feedback as to how high or low we are. A purchase order shows up or it doesn’t.
    If a customer is so adversarial that they want that last dollar, with no regard for my profitability, they won’t be my customer for long. And hasn’t this “gotta have it all” attitude contributed to the p.p.e. and medical supply-chain problems we are seeing right now.

    1. Noah Graff

      Hi Bill. Thanks so much for commenting! I’ve thought a while about your response.

      I think the Voss’s would have a strategy for you to get your counterpart to at least guide you on price. I’m not sure what it is though. They have a lot of techniques to try to get a price range at least. That is sometimes the best you can do before you come in with a number.

      As far as “gotta have it all,” I think it’s a judgement call. In part two next week they talk about “playing the long game” in business rather than than being a bully who people never feel good about dealing with. Sometimes getting what you want does not mean getting every penny on a single deal. They would say that I’m pretty sure.

      You have some great points, and I’m so flattered that you wanted to comment! Please keep reading/listening.


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