Chris Voss may be the best negotiator in the world.
Voss spent more than two decades in the FBI, during which he worked on more than 150 international hostage cases. Eventually, he was chosen among thousands of agents to serve as the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator–a position he held for four years.
Voss fine-tuned his negotiation methods over the years, allowing him to save hundreds of lives. Now, he teaches those methods to others through his training company, Black Swan.
I recently had the chance to interview Voss in connection with my new book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence—and I was fascinated at what he had to say.
For example, Voss recalled one day in 1998, standing in a narrow hallway outside an apartment in Harlem in New York City. Three heavily armed fugitives were reportedly inside, the same fugitives who had engaged in a shootout with rival gang members some days before. A SWAT team stood at attention just a few steps behind Voss. Voss’s job: Convince the fugitives to give up without a fight.
With no telephone number to call, Voss was forced to speak through the apartment door. He did so for six hours, with no response. He began to question if anyone was even inside.
Suddenly, the door opened. A woman walked out, followed by all three fugitives.
Not a single shot fired. No loss of life. Not even a harsh word. How did he do it?
Using what he describes as his “late-night FM DJ voice,” Voss repeated variations of the following: “It looks like you don’t want to come out. It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing. It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.”
Afterwards, Voss was curious as to what specifically convinced the fugitives to emerge.
“We didn’t want to get caught or get shot, but you calmed us down,” they said. “We finally believed you wouldn’t go away, so we just came out.”
This story perfectly illustrates the value of emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions.
“It’s not me bringing emotion in; it’s already there,” Voss told me. “It’s the elephant in the room. There’s this monstrous creature in the middle of every communication: It’s what we want, and it’s based on what we care about. Each one of us, we make every single decision based on what we care about, and that makes decision-making, by definition, an emotional process.”
Reasoning with empathy
Whether it’s interviewing for a job, looking for a discount, or asking someone out on a date, all of us try to influence at one point or another.
But how can you persuade others to hear you out, and going further, to give you a chance?
Voss likens the process of influence to a stairway.
“The tendency is to go directly at what you want,” he explained. “But, in this case, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. It involves taking steps, and each step becomes the foundation for the next. It’s about building rapport–and that requires empathy. And one step leads to another, which then puts you in a position to influence others.”
The key is developing and demonstrating empathy–the ability to understand another person’s feelings, motivations, and intentions. Many think they’re pretty empathetic, but when they encounter someone who has a different set of beliefs or values, that empathy goes out the window. (Want proof? Just look at American politics.)
But it’s important to remember: Empathy doesn’t equal agreement.
Voss gets this. In his former position, he was tasked with developing empathy for kidnappers and terrorists. He had to empathize with them–to understand where they were coming from, their current state of mind along with their reasons and motivations–if he had any chance of persuading them to give up their victims. Of course, he never endorsed the actions of those lawbreakers, but he worked hard to hear them out and develop understanding.
Then, they would return the favor.
Hopefully, you’ll never be forced into a hostage situation, but every day you’re faced with countless opportunities to persuade, influence, and negotiate. You can apply the same principle in these scenarios, no matter how far the distance between you and the other party.
To convince someone to think differently, you must first understand how the person thinks. Get to know their pain points so you can help solve them. Learn their communication style, along with their personal drivers and motivations. This will allow you to speak in a way they understand. Even more important, this will help you reach them emotionally–which may in turn motivate them to act.
Or, as Voss puts it:
“It allows you to change people’s minds.”
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.