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Do you really know how to negotiate?

Negotiation as collaboration

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Few of us will ever have to convince terrorists to free hostages. But we could all learn a lot from someone who has.

Chris Voss, former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and author of Never Split the Difference, leads a new online Masterclass on the art of negotiation. To promote the class, Voss has been doing a lot of publicity, including a recent hour-long interview with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman available on their popular Armchair Expert podcast.

Insider information about international crime fighting is fascinating and well worth a listen, but Voss’s insights are actually more than merely entertaining. 

For starters, a lot of people completely misunderstand what it even means to negotiate.

Picture a classic battle of wills — the demanding, threatening, posturing, and equivocating until one side “breaks” and concessions are won. That image makes for great movie scenes, but it isn’t effective in real life. Regardless of circumstance, such dramatic “hardball” behavior actually tends to escalate disputes and drive parties away from acceptable resolution.

And while we rarely think about it in such terms, the art of negotiation isn’t confined to affairs of state or high-stakes business deals. You engage in scores of negotiations during the course of any given day and there is absolutely no good reason to make them fraught with angst. 

They may not be life-or-death interactions, but problemsolving at work, agreeing on a restaurant for date night, grappling with your teenager about homework, or requesting an upgrade on a crowded flight are all acts of negotiation. If you approach any of these situations raging like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, it’s doubtful the results will be satisfactory for anyone involved.

The world-class professional practitioner Voss teaches that negotiation should be viewed as a collaborative, not combative, and should be rooted in empathy.

Voss’s tips for negotiating include the following:

  • The best mindset for entering negotiation is to view the situation as your adversary, and the person you are negotiating with as your counterpart. You are working together to address the situation and arrive at a beneficial outcome.
  • To do this, you must consider the point-of-view of your negotiating partner. Mentally put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Genuinely try to understand their perspective (wants, fears, limitations, goals) to more effectively communicate your own and encourage them see the situation from your vantage. You should also try to anticipate any negative impressions or preconceived notions they may have about you so that you’re prepared to diffuse them.
  • Ask calibrated questions (beginning with “how” or “what”) to encourage collaboration and empathy in your negotiating partner. You want them working with you to solve a problem, not against you to “win” a battle.
  • Practice labeling. Consciously rephrasing your counterpart’s words and position (“It seems like…”) shows that you are engaged in listening to and trying to understand them, which builds rapport and trust.
  • Be open minded. Your goal shouldn’t be simply to get what you think you want; you should seek to illicit information. Ask questions. You may not even know what’s on the table. If you start at with an ultimatum, you may be abandoning solutions that are far more attractive to you than your initial goal. 

The value in Voss’s advice on negotiation extends beyond learning better techniques to ask for a raise or request a discount. His approach prompts the kind of self-reflection and curiosity that improves all forms of human interaction.

Even when it doesn’t concern matters of life and death, how you communicate crucially determines the effectiveness of what you communicate — and how it is received.

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