Chris Voss, former hostage negotiator, CEO & author
Learn the art of influence from a former hostage negotiator who understands the principles of persuasion.
After talking a kidnapper out of committing nefarious acts in the Philippines, teaching entrepreneurs how to leverage successful outcomes in their business is a piece of cake for former hostage negotiator Chris Voss.
Surprisingly, certain tactics and principles used in the FBI work just as well for small business owners wanting to negotiate the cost of rent, deliberate with a vendor or clinch a contract in the eleventh hour.
The ability to negotiate is a necessary skill that goes with the territory of being an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come naturally for everyone, which is why some business owners seek out the negotiation training offered by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss.
In this conversation, Chris makes it clear that even though entrepreneurship is a far cry from the kidnappings and bank heists he’s managed during his decades long career with the FBI, business owners do in fact negotiate regularly. And while the outcomes may not be a matter of life and death, they could very well determine the fate in our pursuits for success.
Follow along as Chris shares the framework for a successful negotiation, including the commitment to a positive frame of mind and the ability to let go of potential outcomes in order for “something good” to happen. Hear, too, his misconception about setting goals and why he doesn’t like the word “compromise.”
This is part 1 of 2 from our conversation with Chris Voss. To be the first to be alerted when we drop the conclusion of this conversation, be sure to visit theentrepreneurs.studio and SUBSCRIBE for notifications and other exclusive content from The Entrepreneur's Studio
Chris Voss: I’m not a morning person. You seem to be a morning person, an early riser.
Chris Allen: I like mornings.
C. Allen: What’s the thing that appeals to mornings for you?
Chris Voss: Dawn of a new day. The possibilities. You have a whole day in front of you, your energy level is high. If you get a good night’s sleep, you’re recharged. Ideally, if there was anything stressing you out the night before, you let go or you processed it. I love the dawn of a new day.
C. Allen: Yeah, that’s good, man. Well, alright, there’s a lot to learn about you. One of the main reasons that I have the privilege of having you on the podcast is being able to learn from you. We have a thing: “Entrepreneurs respectfully serving entrepreneurs.” That’s kind of a— it’s our credo. And so after 25 years, we were like, “Man, we are a part of this community, but I don’t think people really know how a part of this community we are.” And I had that question for you. I was like, “How connected to the entrepreneur community — and maybe especially the small business entrepreneur community — how connected do you feel like you are?” Do you feel like that’s sort of appropriate, or is that your main audience? Who’s your main audience?
Chris Voss: I think people who are entrepreneurial are the main audience. Whether or not they’re necessarily in the entrepreneur community, they might be in a company… they’re probably not in a bureaucracy. And entrepreneurialism can thrive in a bureaucracy, because I was in a federal bureaucracy, but it’s not necessarily encouraged. Actually, yeah, it’s probably not encouraged at all. But there is entrepreneurism. When I was a hostage negotiator, one of the guys that I worked with said being an FBI agent was the ultimate entrepreneur’s job. I always wanted to be very entrepreneurial in my approach to anything that I did.
Chris Voss: I realize now, actually being an entrepreneur, that there’s a lot more to it than I had any idea. Sales and marketing, you really don’t know what that is when you’re working for the government, because if you’re not good at sales and marketing, you’ve got no revenue. And the revenue’s there, pretty much no matter what in the federal government or state and local government, so…
C. Allen: Yeah, this is true.
Chris Voss: You could think you’re in sales and marketing, but you’re not really. Paychecks don’t stop if you’re not good at it.
C. Allen: Yeah, yeah, this is true. Yeah, we talk about one of the main challenges in this debate about going through a hard time as an entrepreneur, which is often early, [where] you’ve got to figure out how to make payroll. You can’t lose your employees and you can’t lose your customers. It’s a fantastic balance that you have to maintain. And then you’re like, “Hey, I’m here to make money, too.” That’s one of the things we talk about a lot.
Chris Voss: Yeah, the idea of being an entrepreneur and becoming one are two different things.
An unexpected career path surrounded by industry greats
C. Allen: Yeah. Alright. How did a guy from Iowa become a hostage negotiator for the FBI?
Chris Voss: I did an interview with my hometown newspaper a couple years ago, and they said, “How [did] you become the lead hostage negotiator for the FBI in New York City?”
Chris Voss: And I thought, and I went, “You go up to I-80 and you make a right. You go about 2,000 miles….” Yeah, it’s just [one] left-field opportunity after another, [and I] just pursued it. All I wanted to be initially was a street cop in a big city. And then I ended up in Kansas City and one thing led to another. My first year in Kansas City, Missouri, was a phenomenal year. Had a great year. They put me in downtown, a lot of street life, a lot of street activity and I loved it.
Chris Voss: But the standard policy at the time was after you’d been in one of three of the inner city precincts for one year, then they were going to move you to one of the others. They moved me from the high-crime street crime area to a largely residential area, which is a different job built for a different cat. Somebody who’s more patient and methodical. And I didn’t try. I was bored. Because I’m not terribly patient and I’m not terribly methodical. I was getting a little bit bored and then my father wanted me... He finally accepted the fact that I was probably going to stay in law enforcement. He had just paid for a college degree and I went out and I got a job that didn’t require one. And if I’d have sent my kid to college and he turned around and got a job that didn’t need the degree, I’d want my money back.
C. Allen: You’d be miffed.
Chris Voss: Yeah. I’d be like, “Alright, you owe me $40,000. Pay it back.” But he realized that I was committed, so he had a buddy that was with the Secret Service and he wanted to get me in federal law enforcement. He assumed it was a step up. That’s not necessarily the case, but a lot of people have that perception. I met that guy from the Secret Service and he said, “I’ve traveled all over the world with the Secret Service.” I grew up in Iowa. I think I’d seen Canada from a distance, maybe once, and I thought, “Travel all over the world and somebody would pay me? Pay for that?” Yeah, I’m in. I’ll try that. The Secret Service wasn’t hiring, but the FBI was. I had seen an article about their first billion dollar budget. I knew enough about government budgets that it was probably all salaries, a hiring push. It turned out to be the first of a three-year hiring push. I got in the door with a bunch of other people, and then they sent me to New York City.
Chris Voss: I didn’t want to go, but the guy that recruited me was a really decent guy. And he said, “We’re sending a lot of people to New York City these days. Do not take this job if you cannot go to New York City. Just don’t do it.”
Chris Voss: And I’m like, “Alright, fair enough.” And I believe in sticking to my agreements. I got the transfer orders to New York, I did what I could to duck it within the rules, couldn’t duck it. Got sent there, had a great assignment and it was a phenomenal 14 years. Phenomenal. Worked with great people, made great cases. Won the Attorney General’s Award. My first office was [in] Pittsburgh, and in the entire history of the Pittsburgh office, as far as I know, nobody in the Pittsburgh office ever won the Attorney General’s Award. You could get the Director’s Award or the Attorney General’s Award. There were probably three FBI agents a year who got the Attorney General’s Award — three out of 10,000. It’s a long shot. Not only did I win the Attorney General’s Award in New York, but I was on a squad where nearly everybody had. I got there, the Terrorist Task Force, and I was surrounded by Michael Jordans.
C. Allen: The best.
Chris Voss: They had all had books and movies written about cases they made. Almost all of them had won the Attorney General’s Award. I was in awe of the accomplishments of these guys. And I guess now, even [as] I’m saying it out loud,they say you become the average of the five people around you… and it’s absolutely true. I was surrounded by superstars who just... that was all in a day’s work for them. I was elevated by it. I learned from them, work ethic. There is a cliche, “Work hard, play hard,” but that’s what these guys did. And they were known for showing up at bombing crime scenes at all hours of the night, no matter where they were. Those guys showed up and delivered and they were cool. They were great guys to be around.
C. Allen: That’s amazing. I love the “You’re like the five people that you spend the most time with” [bit]. You knew that at the time, that these were rockstars, and you got in a posture of... What was your posture? You wanted to learn from them, or was it, [you] wanted to be a part of the team? What was your posture being a part of that group?
Chris Voss: Yeah, I think it was mostly just wanting to learn from them. And by circumstance, I didn’t really think about being part of the team. I like working with guys who work, but the other thing that was great about those guys, like one guy in particular I sat close to — dude’s name was Larry Wack — and everybody was in awe of Larry’s ability to get bad guys to cooperate voluntarily. There was a real emphasis on great communication and voluntary collaboration with bad guys versus having a hammer on them. I can remember in one particular case in New York, the chief of detectives said, “Yeah, the only way you get people to cooperate and be witnesses, you got to have a hammer on them. You need a hammer.”
Chris Voss: And I was surrounded by guys who didn’t need hammers. And Larry in particular, he had several informants that everybody was like, “I have no idea how Larry got that guy to cooperate.” And Larry was just a low-key guy, friendly, he’d sit and talk to people. He never shouted. He never interrogated. If you didn’t want to talk, he sat there and kept his mouth shut. And Larry just got people to cooperate by being this great application of emotional intelligence. And I think I probably learned the most from just being around Larry.
C. Allen: Yeah. It’s interesting hearing that story, just the posture of wanting to learn from people, and then I have to say, it’s one of my favorite stories in the book — how you needed experience at the hotline. I thought that’d be a great one to just say, “Entrepreneurs are trying to gain some experience.” They have a passion, typically, and many of them don’t necessarily have all the experience, so I thought it would be really helpful to [ask] at the beginning or part of your origin story, how did you get your first experience as a negotiator?
Living and working by the motto “How hard could it be?”
Chris Voss: Never take advice from somebody you wouldn’t trade places with, or never take directions from somebody who hasn’t been where you’re going. And the world is full of advice, and even well-intentioned, well-meaning advice from people who love you, that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. And I think a lot of people get off track by taking advice from loved ones or people that they otherwise respect who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Chris Voss: I’ve taken some bad advice, because the people loved me, which meant the advice was either well-intentioned or I respected them, but they’d never been where I was going. I decided I was going to be a hostage negotiator. I thought, “How hard could it be?” Negotiators talk to terrorists, I talk to people every day. I could do that. How hard could it be? My son and I like to joke that one of the unofficial Voss family mottos is “How hard could it be?” Which is almost as disastrous as… they say a redneck’s famous last words are “Hey, watch this.”
C. Allen: How hard could it be?
Chris Voss: How hard could it be?
Chris Voss: [So] I talk to people every day. I talk all day. I could do that. I go to the head of the negotiation team in New York, a woman, and present myself.
C. Allen: [You’ve] decided.
Chris Voss: Yeah, I’ve decided. I’ve decided: “I’m gifting you with me.” And she just kind of looked up over her glasses like, “Yeah?”
Chris Voss: I go, “I’m Chris Voss.”
Chris Voss: She goes, “Yeah, I know who you are.” Because she was on the terrorist squad, close to me, and I go, “I want to be a hostage negotiator.”
Chris Voss: She’s like, “Yeah, OK. Got any experience as a hostage negotiator?”
Chris Voss: “Nope.”
Chris Voss: [She said,] “I know you were a cop. Were you a hostage negotiator there?”
Chris Voss: I go, “Nope.”
Chris Voss: She said, “You got any education in psychology?”
Chris Voss: “Nope.”
Chris Voss: “You got anything in your background at all? Any experience, any training at all?”
Chris Voss: And I’m like, “Nope, but how hard could it be? How hard could it be?”
Chris Voss: And she says, “No, you can’t be on the team.”
Chris Voss: And I’m like, “What?” And I [didn’t] stamp my feet and say, “Come on!” But I sure felt that way. But then I said, “Alright, look, there’s got to be something I could do. There’s got to be something.”
Chris Voss: She says, “There is. Go volunteer on a suicide hotline. And until you’ve done that, leave me alone.” And it just seemed to be obvious to me to do what she said. It’s actually similar to how I got into the Bureau in the first place. I asked and somebody told me and I did it, and they were shocked that I did it. And it always shocked me that people were shocked that I did it. And so back in those days, in the dark ages, horse and buggy, an investigative tool was a phone book. The first place you would go to — your Google, if you will — was a phone book.
Chris Voss: I went and got the phone book and I looked up suicide. I didn’t find anything, and then I thought, “Alright, similar names. Call for help maybe?” I looked up help. Help. And it was a help-line. It turned out to be suicide hotline, a crisis hotline that was billed as being founded by Norman Vincent Peale, [the author of] “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It was actually founded by his wife, Ruth Stafford Peale, who’s really responsible for the motivation and organization of Norman Vincent Peale. A lot of people used to say she’s the power behind the throne. Ruth told her husband that she wanted a suicide hotline and for him to get the funding together for it, but it was help-line. [So] I go and volunteer. I’m there for a couple months, I’m learning the skill — transformative — and I go back to the woman in charge of the team and say, “Just want you to know I’ve been on the hotline for five months.”
Chris Voss: She’s like, “You’re kidding me. Really?”
C. Allen: That was a get-rid-of-you mechanism.
Chris Voss: Yeah. But I was like, “No, you told me to do it, I did it.”
Chris Voss: She says, “I tell everybody to do that. Nobody does it. What hotline are you at?”
Chris Voss: “Helpline.”
Chris Voss: [She said,] “I volunteered on Helpline. Is Kim still there?”
Chris Voss: I’m like, “Yeah.” And so she... There were five other people in front of me in the line to get on the team. None of them were lifting a finger. She told them all to go volunteer on a suicide hotline. One guy had a degree in psychology. They had resumes, but they didn’t have initiative and none of them volunteered. I volunteered, she jumped me over everybody. I got the next slot.
C. Allen: Man, that’s unbelievable. The thing that’s interesting is that she didn’t give you any, “Hey, go here.” That was the thing I clearly missed, was that I thought she had like, “Hey, you’re going to need to go to this hotline.” You had to go find a hotline, and the one that you went to is the one she was familiar with.
Chris Voss: Yeah. And, in a way, there were two I could have gone to. One was a crisis line and the other was a suicide line. The difference is, a suicide hotline, if you call and you’re not suicidal, they refer you to the crisis line. Crisis line, you get more different types. Somebody could be grieving devastating personal loss, but [is] not suicidal. And actually, I probably learned the most about grieving and coping with all kinds of trauma that I never would’ve learned if I’d have been on a suicide line, because they wouldn’t have taken the grieving calls. You could be devastated in grief over the loss of your father, a parent, a child — just devastated [but] not suicidal.
Chris Voss: And that was probably the most satisfying type of person to deal with on a hotline, because you could typically do the most to help them. If somebody’s suicidal, there’s probably recurring issues that they’re dealing with. There’s a system that they’re caught up in, and getting people out of systems of their own design is very difficult, but a grief loss is probably a temporary affair. They’re not caught in a system, so you can really help them. Being an emotional paramedic on a battlefield of life, the grieving person is suffering from a probably one-time event versus a systematic stressor.
How a commitment to learning changed career trajectory
C. Allen: Well, one of the things that I think was interesting [along that] theme, it seems like you’ve learned a lot in your life. Has life tamed you?
Chris Voss: If I got any... Forgive me, but I want to hit that point that you... If I have any ability at all, it’s that I’m open to learning.
C. Allen: Has that always been there?
Chris Voss: I think so. I’m not sure that I was born with it, but my father was a real figure-it-out kind of guy. He’d give you a list of stuff to do and expect you to figure it out.
C. Allen: That’s awesome. It’s a value for you, right? You’re always learning.
Chris Voss: Thousand percent.
C. Allen: That’s incredible. I think one of the things that I thought was really interesting about the hotline was the call you thought you totally crushed, and I think it’s connected to that value of learning for you. But I thought that would be a good one to talk about. When you thought you’d totally destroyed it and you’re like, “I own this thing. How hard could it be?”
Chris Voss: Yeah, well, negotiation is a perishable skill. Emotional intelligence is a perishable commodity. If you don’t practice, Jim Camp wrote “Start With No” in 2002 and referred to a negotiation as a human performance event. He had spent time as a football coach, and so by definition, if it’s similar to a sporting event, you don’t practice, you get worse. Even if you’re doing it all the time. Tiger Woods didn’t win all those championships unless he got on the practice tees. He practiced constantly and that’s why he won. He didn’t rely on simply playing in tournaments to win. I didn’t realize that. You come out of the suicide hotline training, the crisis hotline training, sharp. I mean sharp. Any good training, you’re going to come out really sharp and you’re going to think it’s [like] riding a bike. Well, it’s not.
Chris Voss: Over the course of a year, I picked up a lot of bad habits because I wasn’t focusing on skill maintenance. I wasn’t focusing on my results, repetitions. I was just doing it. And so a year in, I come up for my annual review and this guy named Jim — great guy, great guy…very positive — would always joke around, because volunteer burnout is the first problem of a suicide hotline or crisis hotline. Funding is a close second, but volunteers get burned out fast. And Jim was a happy-go-lucky, friendly dude. I did a call that he monitored, and the person that called said, “Thank you so much. You helped me so much. That was so great.” And I’m walking back to the room where Jim was listening in, basically polishing my fingernails on my jacket.
C. Allen: Little extra swagger?
Chris Voss: Yeah. That was great. I rocked. I was so good, that guy congratulated me. And I sat down and Jim was like, “That was horrible. That was one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.” And I remember thinking, “You didn’t listen to my call.”
Chris Voss: I said to him, “Jim, I don’t know. I did such a great job, the guy congratulated me.”
Chris Voss: He goes, “Let’s start with that. That’s the first problem. They need to feel empowered. If he congratulated you, then as soon as you’re off the phone with him, he’s all alone again. You didn’t make him feel empowered at all. You took all the credit. He’s lost without you. You didn’t help him at all.” Because I’d given him advice, and advice never helps anybody unless what you’re talking about. And then it’s not advice, it’s guidance, and it still puts it back on you. But I’d given him advice. I’d gone, “Here’s your problem. This is what you need to do.”
Chris Voss: [And he was like,] “Oh, thank you so much.” It was horrible and didn’t help the guy at all. And that was more like, “Wow, I got to go back and re-study everything.” And I got fascinated by the process. I started doing extra reading. I went back to the executive director of the hotline. I’m like, “This is what I’m thinking about. This is what I’m trying to learn.”
Chris Voss: And she was like, “Wow, you’ve got to teach here.” Teaching something is one of the best ways for skill maintenance.
C. Allen: Got to have a command over it.
Chris Voss: Yeah, because people are going to brace you. That was when I started teaching.
C. Allen: That’s unbelievable. The thing that... or maybe it feels like a switch, where you go from confidence and swagger to basically somebody telling you where you missed and the receptivity that you had is like, “Alright, I missed it. I got to learn this thing.”
Chris Voss: Yeah.
C. Allen: It definitely is a remarkable trait, to be able to take feedback like that and be able to apply it quickly and go deeper to say, “What was I really missing?” And practice it.
Chris Voss: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s a hard thing, because you got to ask if somebody’s saying something to you, you got to say to yourself, “What if they’re right?” At least let me think about it. And Jim was a supervisor who was in charge of evaluation, so it would’ve been really tough for me to say, “Yeah, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
C. Allen: Yeah. Well, the thing that I thought was another interesting part of the book is how many times you encountered this Filipino dictator, right?
Chris Voss: Well, the bad guy.
C. Allen: Yeah.
Chris Voss: The Filipino terrorist.
C. Allen: Yeah. I was like, “OK, you go from this sort of…how hard can it be as a hostage negotiator?” You go get your experience, and then fast forward and you’re sitting here negotiating with a Filipino terrorist. What was the track that got you to that place?
Chris Voss: Well again, different stuff fell out of the sky. I got to the Crisis Negotiation Unit. I got promoted to full-time hostage negotiation. Every law enforcement agency has full-time and part-time people. Mostly part-time, there’s usually a few full-time guiding it. And I primarily got there because there was a senior FBI executive in New York City that didn’t like me. And in my view, every bad thing that’s happened to me has led to something better. I wanted to stay in New York and I wanted to work terrorism my whole life, and I saw myself as a terrorism guy, and this guy in charge of the terrorism in New York just did not like me and made it very clear to me that I was never going to advance while he was around.
Chris Voss: And so I applied, and I was 50-50 terrorism or hostage negotiation. Gary Noesner, who was in charge of the negotiation unit, wanted me. He’d been bugging me. Every now and then, he said, “What’s it going to take to get you down here?” I finally applied and I got down there, and early on there’s a training session that came up in the Philippines and I worked my way into it. They didn’t plan on sending me, but I worked my way into it. I had been in the Philippines when the first kidnapping happened, and they were like, “Chris just got back from the Philippines. He knows his way around. He’s worked terrorism, this is terrorism, we’re going to send him.” And it was not a particularly sympathetic victim. Kidnap victims rarely are. They’re usually somebody doing something stupid and they get themselves in a lot of trouble. They’re somewhere they should not have been. They should’ve known better.
Chris Voss: Or, for whatever reason, it’s not the classic child of a wealthy person who gets taken by circumstances. “Man on Fire” — Denzel Washington’s film — which I enjoyed a lot, [has an] innocent little girl of a rich guy, [and] that ain’t the case. It’s somebody who’s someplace they shouldn’t have been. First of all, I want to rescue a hostage. Secondly, it’s a mechanism to get at some really bad people, try to screw up their organization by giving them a process that they just don’t want any more of. Kidnap for ransom is about getting bait money to the bad guys. It’s the same reason you give bait money in a bank.
Chris Voss: If you said bank tellers are not allowed to give bank robbers any money at all, then bank tellers would be getting killed right and left. But the smart move is to give them a little bit of money. Save the bank teller’s life, the money’s the evidence, the bad guy leaves. That’s the best analogy for working a kidnapping. Now, the problem is this dude, Jeffrey…his family’s got no money. But even though they got no money, compared to [others in the] Philippines, a poor American is wealthy by Filipino standards. Developing world people living in abject poverty. If you’re making $10,000 a year in the US, you’re wealthy in the Philippines. You got running water in the US, you’re probably better off than a lot of people in the outer regions of the Philippines.
Chris Voss: Family’s got no money, but I figure worse comes to worst we can scare up some bait money someplace. Not government money, it’s got to be family-donated or friend-donated, and it’s always the family’s decision. Government does not decide whether or not a ransom’s going to be paid. It’s always a family decision. You can advise, because then you don’t want the family giving them every last dime, but we get there and I figure we’re going to handle this case and we aren’t going to offer him a dime. We just start wearing this guy down slowly with tactical empathy. It’s a calibrated application of emotional intelligence — know how it works, get a feel for the brain’s mechanism and wear them out and not make them mad. A hero of mine who’s a UN hostage negotiator once said, “The ability to exhaust the other side is a hallmark of a great negotiator.” In many cases, that’s the truth. We’re going to wear this guy out. And we wear him down and we wear him down and we wear him down, and finally the hostage walks away, which was —
C. Allen: No bait money?
Chris Voss: No bait money. Just—
C. Allen: Oh my gosh.
The black swan method: Letting go of an outcome so something good can happen
Chris Voss: Because what you do is you engage in a great process and you wait for the black swan. You wait for something good to fall out of the sky. You don’t know what it is and you have to be able to live with not knowing what it is. One of my favorite sources of information, Andrew Huberman — great neuroscientist — I’m listening to him and he says, “People think in terms of duration, path and outcome. DPO. Duration, path and outcome. Where am I going? How am I going to get there? How long is it going to take?” Well, to embrace the idea of a black swan, you gotta let go of where you’re going, and it’s really unsettling until you get used to it. People in the past have said, “Man, the black swan method, that’s kind of Tai Chi. That’s very Zen-like.”
Chris Voss: And I don’t see myself as a Zen dude, so I’d be like, “What are you talking about? Zen? I don’t know Zen from Jen. I don’t know.” But it’s letting go of the outcome so something good can happen. And that’s exactly what happened in this case. We got the upper hand by giving him the illusion of control, and then we waited for something good to happen. And literally, on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, the celebration of when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, they let their guard down enough that our hostage realized he could just walk away. And he walked away and he was out.
Chris Voss: And then the spectacular thing about the whole case was… I’m back in the Philippines about three weeks after another kidnapping, and I catch up with a negotiator I had coached previously — I was an international negotiation coach — and he said, “Hey, you are not going to believe who called me on the phone.” Because the guy I coached, he engaged in an undercover capacity, undercover phone, undercover name, but the bad guy knew he had to be talking to somebody from the government and he didn’t care. He calls him back, basically to pay his respects. He calls him on a phone and he says, “Have you been promoted yet? Because you are really good. I was going to kill the American and somehow you kept me from doing it. They should promote you.” And he hung up the phone. And it was complete respect, and the underlying message also was, “I would deal with you again.”
C. Allen: That’s shocking. Yeah, but to deal with you again, the guy ultimately... he was on the losing end of that.
Chris Voss: He lost everything.
C. Allen: Yeah, but [he] would deal with you again.
Chris Voss: And he was happy to deal with this guy again. He knew, from the government, that if they met face-to-face on a battlefield, they’d kill each other. But you can respect your enemies and you’re probably a higher level of human being if you can respect your enemies, and they respected each other.
A cold call on LinkedIn leads to 3,000,000 copies sold of a book featuring “field-tested approaches to high-stakes negotiations”
C. Allen: It’s unbelievable. I’ve wondered, you obviously have a body of work, but you’ve got a lot in you, right? You got a lot of information and you’ve spent a long time learning. And so I wanted to know how you got from beat cop to hostage negotiator winning awards to teacher to writing a book? How’d the book come about?
Chris Voss: In the earlier days, I never thought a book was that important. As soon as I got out of the FBI, I went back to school. The Rodney Dangerfield movie “Back To School” is probably so old, nobody knows what I’m talking about, but I felt like Rodney Dangerfield. But I was with a lot of other Rodney Dangerfields, and one guy in particular said, “You got to get a book out. You got to get a book out.”
Chris Voss: And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, when I’m ready.” I didn’t want to just put a book out. I wanted to make sure that it was substantive, it was complete and it was thorough, which is not really necessary. The more consultants I talked to, they’re like, “You got to get a book out. If you want to consult on anything, you want to coach, people are going to wonder why you don’t have a book out.” And it becomes your best business card, your best marketing, your best advertisement, period.
C. Allen: It’s an anchor for you.
Chris Voss: Yeah, but I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” And went back and I taught at Harvard, taught at law school in their negotiation course. I got a lot of encouragement from other people that had books, and my son, Brandon, was a part of the process the entire time. He was always a sounding board, a contributor to the ideas. He used to get himself out of trouble in high school using hostage negotiation techniques. I didn’t even know what was going on. He got himself out of a lot of trouble using hostage negotiation, which I only found out about five years after the fact, but this stuff works.
Chris Voss: We started working on the book, decided to put it out, and then some of the classic advice, some of the advice on writing a book is, go to a bookstore, find a book that you love, think about why you love it and write that book, or get that guy to help you write it. And I was always blown away by this book called “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi and his co-author, Tahl Raz. And I used to carry that book around to the different writers that we’d try to hire and I’d hand them the book and I’d say, “This is one of the most readable books I’ve ever read. It’s instructional and entertaining.” Most instructional books are not good reads, and “Never Eat Alone” was. And I’d hand the book to writers and say, “We’re going to write this book.”
Chris Voss: And they’d be like, “OK.” And then not write it. And finally I’d get so frustrated, I’m like, “Let me pitch Tahl Raz directly.” And that’s another thing, because there’s, I think, a saying attributed to Gretzky is, “A shot on goal is always a good shot.” I was never scared to talk to anybody. And so first of all, I wanted an introduction to Tahl. I talked to my agent and he said, “Well, yeah, I don’t know Tahl.” And I thought, “And? You’re an agent, you should be able to... this is your cold call.” And he’s like, “No, I don’t know him.” And then I went to the publisher and they said, “No, we don’t know Tahl either.” And finally I’m like, “This is annoying.”
Chris Voss: He was on LinkedIn. I sent him a message on LinkedIn, hit him up cold on LinkedIn. “Hey, hostage negotiator [here], want to write a book?” He emailed me back and said, “Let’s talk.” I met him in New York, a really interesting guy. Really interesting guy. And he said, “I think the book is a great idea. I love the concept, but I’m not sure how much of an advance you’re going to get. Here’s my fee, flat fee. You got to guarantee me X amount of money, because I’m getting that. I have a wife and I have kids and I have to look out for them, because somebody’s going to give me this amount of money for a book in this timeframe, and my wife’s going to kill me if I take your book with no guarantee.” And initially we couldn’t make the deal. I said, “OK, I respect that.” I could’ve guaranteed it. I had enough money saved. I wasn’t willing to gamble my savings, because everybody said, “Meh, the book’s not going to do that well.” How did they know, right?
C. Allen: Yeah. It’s done pretty well.
Chris Voss: Exactly. And we got a good deal from the publisher. We got a healthy advance. I went back to my agent and I said, “We could get Tahl now.” And we went back and we cut the deal with Tahl and he turned out to be a genius. He is a genius. Every single business book that he’s written, co-authored, co-written, is either a New York Times or Wall Street Journal bestseller. He is that good.
C. Allen: Super talented.
Chris Voss: And phenomenal. He’s the reason the book is as readable as it is. Fantastic. He interviewed me and my son, Brandon, gathered data from us, pulled it together. And Brandon is the unofficial co-author. I recognize him in the acknowledgements.
C. Allen: Yeah, you do.
Chris Voss: But Tahl is a genius writer.
C. Allen: And so the success of the book, when did it come out?
Chris Voss: 2016. May of 2016.
C. Allen: And to date, how many copies has it sold?
Chris Voss: Globally, we’re over 3 million.
C. Allen: Yeah, which is amazing.
Chris Voss: We’re over two million in the domestic US. It sells well all over the world. It’s used in those cultures. It sells well in China. We just re-upped in China, over 300,000 copies in China. I was in Dubai last November and ran into a female Chinese entrepreneur. She says, “Hey, I use your book every day.”
Chris Voss: And I said, “OK, just let me get this straight. You are Chinese?”
Chris Voss: “Yeah.”
Chris Voss: “You live in China?”
Chris Voss: “Yeah.”
Chris Voss: “Therefore, you’re using it [with] other Chinese [people]?”
Chris Voss: “Yeah.”
Chris Voss: “And it works great?”
Chris Voss: “Yeah.”
Chris Voss: I’m like, “Alright. I just wanted to be clear.”
C. Allen: That’s a case study right there. It’s definitely a people book. It’s not just a culture book.
Chris Voss: That’s exactly right.
C. Allen: It’s really impressive. I knew it was carefully crafted because I read a lot of books, listen to a lot of books.
Chris Voss: Let me tell you, and forgive me again—
C. Allen: No, it’s OK.
Chris Voss: Carefully crafted, let me tell you how wacky Tahl Raz is, because we’re working on another book now. Tahl’s not involved, because it’s sort of a supplemental book, but every other writer wants an outline and an order and lay out the game plan, execute the game plan. Tahl delivers the middle of the book first. The middle of the book. He first sends me chapters are four, five and six, and I’m like—
C. Allen: That’s what he’s labeled them?
Chris Voss: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I remember, I’m like, “What happened to chapters one, two, three?”
Chris Voss: He’s like, “I don’t write them first. I write the middle of the book.”
Chris Voss: I’m like, “OK, OK.” And then he wrote the last chapter next to last, and then he wrote the first chapter last. Just a complete artist.
C. Allen: And that’s his process?
Chris Voss: That’s his process. He’s brilliant technically and he’s an artist also. And the middle of the book first; I’m like, “OK.”
C. Allen: Yeah, it’s got a true arc to it. What I was saying was, the reason I could tell it was carefully crafted is there was this underlying, more information theme that I felt the whole time. One of the most impressive hooks about it is I had that feeling the whole time, and I was like, “He’s definitely got a consulting business, because people are going to want more.” That was the impression I had. I was like, “It’s so—”
Chris Voss: That’s cool. That’s really insightful. It’s absolutely there, and you’re the first person that’s pointed that out, so that’s cool.
The importance of understanding goals and using tactical empathy
C. Allen: Yeah. It sort of woos you. That was one of the things, I was like, “We have to sit down and talk with Chris Voss.” There’s so much applicability, just what you do with your consulting firm and stuff like that, I was just like, “Man, this book’s so well done.” Well, you’d mentioned black swans earlier, and I just want you to take a couple minutes and talk about that, because one of the things that I think is so interesting for somebody who has named their company that — who uses it as an anchor or a beacon, I guess — maybe some of the technique, what you’re about, and then you are self-admittedly impatient — or maybe not the most patient person — but it takes observation and patience to be able to let that black swan show up. I wanted you to say, “Here’s what the heck a black swan is. This is the way that I think about it.” [Give us] some of the deep dive on what in the world is a black swan.
Chris Voss: A black swan is something small that makes all the difference in the world. It’s going to be hidden and you’re never going to see it in advance. A lot of people have trouble with this emotionally, because once you get experience, you think, “I know what’s going on.” And I can explain to you intellectually, like, “Well, you’re never going to have all the information.” And so many people, emotionally, reject that. But there’s always something you don’t know. My military brothers would call it an asymmetric world. It’s an asymmetric world, period. Imperfect information. You always have imperfect... you never have perfect information.
Chris Voss: It’s impossible. Your information is always flawed, and if it’s always flawed, either by a bad piece of information or omitted information, and it’s usually omitted, then you cannot know the best outcome, because your information is flawed. It’s impossible to know the best outcome. Now, the hard thing to wrap your mind around is you’re hiding information. What are your deadlines? What’s your budget? How often does somebody say how much money they actually have? That’s hidden information. Or how inclined [are they] to make the deal or break the deal?
Chris Voss: Well, you always have that, which means the other side always has that, which then the hard thing to wrap your mind around is, “What’s in the overlap?” There are even better opportunities in the overlap. There are always black swans. There are always little things that could make all the difference in the world if you only knew what they were. And if you’re holding it back, you only hold back important information, so the other side is holding back important information also. If they felt like it, would they just give it to you anyway? If they felt like it, could they adjust the order that they’re helping you?
Chris Voss: You start thinking about it. What could they do if they felt like it? Those are the black swans and they’re always there. And simultaneously in your demeanor, what are the little things you could do that make all the difference in the world? What are the little things, the unexpected things that are game changers? And they’re always there. The idea is to engage in a process and realize that you got to let go of the outcome. And writing the book with Tahl, that was one of the big things. Because Brandon and I were completely used to letting go of the outcome.
C. Allen: Yeah, it was practice for you. You already knew.
Chris Voss: Yeah. Engage in a negotiation, see what happens. And Tahl was like, “We got to talk about goals.”
Chris Voss: And we’re like, “No, because goals are limiting things.” The more focused you are on the goal, the more tunnel vision you have, the less likely you are to see opportunity. And people say, “Well, you should be goal-oriented. Focus on the goal. Keep your eye on the prize.” Well, keeping your eye on the prize gives you tunnel vision, gives you blinders. And Tahl says, “You got to talk about goals.”
Chris Voss: And we’re like, “No, it’s not good.”
Chris Voss: He says, “No, you have to, because human beings are wired to have goals.”
Chris Voss: And so we said, “OK, we’ll talk about them, but then your goal is to exceed your goal.” Alright, this is… I’ve failed, unless I’ve cleared this optimal goal. OK, we’ll put it in that context. But this is before I’d run across Huberman — the duration, path, outcome thing. It was really the underlying theme of me working kidnappings. Duration, path and outcome. Bad guys got a duration, path and outcome. Take him out of it to get the upper hand, but take him out of it gently, because they’re going to feel disoriented. It’s OK if they’re disoriented, you just don’t want them angry. The whole idea of finding a black swan is going to be disorienting for the other side. The other side’s going to have a goal, too. That’s why you have to use tactical empathy, the calibrated application of emotional intelligence, because I’m going to make you feel uncertain. And if I don’t earn your trust, then that uncertainty is going to turn into anger. But if I’ve got your trust, you’re going to be comfortable with the uncertainty and you’re going to go with me, because you trust me.
C. Allen: That’s powerful. I think the [idea of] not being attached to the outcome is really powerful. I like the technique that you just said, which is, “Hey, we got to talk about goals.” And you knew Tahl, that’s something that he needed, and entrepreneurs need that.
Chris Voss: Right.
C. Allen: Many of them, not all of them, write business plans that have goals and outcomes.
Chris Voss: Right.
C. Allen: Right? And the way that you were able to still commit to say, “Hey, how do I...” For you, you still had no goal, you just knew it was above a threshold, but [you were] able to compromise and give him a goal, right?
Chris Voss: Well, I don’t like the word compromise — we didn’t compromise — but he made a point. And we didn’t have a better way to articulate it at the time. And there’s another guy that I’m working with these days too, Tucker Max. Tucker Max, interesting cat. He’s written a bunch of New York Times best-sellers and has a company now that helps people write books, Scribe Media. Tucker tells us this all the time. He says, “The expert’s curse is you’ve forgotten what it’s like not to know.” And so consequently, you want to explain things the way you currently think about them, which is really confusing for somebody who’s just starting. You’ve forgotten what it’s like not to know. And there are a number of books out there by experts right now that explain things the way they think about them now, and I read them and I’m just lost, because I don’t have your degree of understanding. I’m a beginner here.” And that was Tahl’s point.
Chris Voss: Beginners have to have an understanding of goals. When you become good at this, when you’re at the martial arts term, the Ri level, the Shu Ha Ri, beginning, intermediate, and expert, at the Ri level, you think in completely different terms than you did at the Shu level, the beginner’s level. And the Ri thinker has to understand, the master thinker has to understand, how to explain the fundamentals to the beginner. And Tahl was so smart, I didn’t understand these terms then, but he had a point.
C. Allen: Because it wasn’t for you guys, it was for them?
Chris Voss: It was for the reader.
C. Allen: Oh, wow. That’s powerful.
Chris Voss: And he said, “For a beginning reader, you have to address this issue.”
Chris Voss: And we said, “OK.”
C. Allen: That’s powerful. The best writers are putting the reader first. And if you knew your audience the way that both of you guys really did and do, you can tell it was masterfully done. Really well done.
Chris Voss: Tahl Raz, man. I’m telling you. Brilliant writer, and he’s the real deal.
Celebrate the value your support system adds to your entrepreneurial journey
C. Allen: One of the things that I do think is, an impression you’ve made on me, is your expressed appreciation for those close to you that have supported you and helped you.
Chris Voss: Oh wow, yeah. You want to go fast, go alone. You want to go far, go as a team. Got to have a team.
C. Allen: Yeah, just the way that you celebrated your son and included him, and you can tell that he adds a lot of value and you recognize and appreciate that often.
Chris Voss: He may be the most talented negotiator I’ve ever run across.
C. Allen: Wow. It’s incredible. Are these separate talents, or did he observe you?
Chris Voss: He started soaking it in. I’m not sure [how] to define exactly what it is... He’s got a superior intelligence in the assembly of concepts. And I can remember when he was about three, I had rented out some low income housing property. I owned it and I did a lot of the work there myself in my spare time. And I can remember I was putting his cabinet together and he was sitting there watching me, and he started to hand me the tools just before I needed them. I’m following the directions, I’m assembling this thing and he’s paying attention and he reached down and he grabbed the screwdriver just before I needed it, and handed it to me.
Chris Voss: And I’m like, “Wow. He’s got the ability to assemble ideas.” And then he was around this stuff and just started soaking it in before I had any idea that he was soaking it in. And I started hearing about it a little bit when he was in high school and he got himself out of the principal’s office a couple times using hostage negotiation techniques. Yeah, he had the ability to absorb the ideas and add to the thought significantly.
C. Allen: I like his— I think you said he is a superior intellect on the assembly of concepts.
Chris Voss: Something like that.
C. Allen: I call that a framework, and one of the things that you did really well in the book is that you’re like, “I want to be able to put together the system and to systematize what you’ve learned and how you’ve refined it.” Right?
Chris Voss: Yeah.
C. Allen: And I think that’s really helpful for people, especially entrepreneurs — and I think even [for] new entrepreneurs — is providing this system. And something that’s very present, I’m going to say, on a daily basis when you are an entrepreneur, is negotiating on some level.
Chris Voss: Yep.
What do entrepreneurs need to succeed in negotiation?
C. Allen: It is present every day. What’s three to five topics or part of your framework that you think are daily living for an entrepreneur in negotiating?
Chris Voss: Well, if you’re constantly trying to have a positive impact on people, then you’re always ready for a negotiation. Now, that’s really hard, because the circumstances can gang up on you. Between [being] tired, some bad luck… like the other day, an Uber driver, a Lyft driver, just drove away from me, because... I was wrong, but I’d had a long day, I was tired. I lost some property. I was mad at myself for losing a property. I’m in an airport, the airport signage was just completely screwed up. A lot of airports stack the deck against Lyft drivers and Uber drivers, and I got upset with this dude, because I got an amygdala and I was tired and I was frustrated and I was worn out and a couple things had gone [wrong] with me. I melt down on people like everybody else does.
Chris Voss: Consequently, I lost that negotiation. And from my perspective, I was completely in the right, and after the guy was gone, I realized that he was right also. I think the airport intentionally put up confusing signs, because they’ve got it in for the Lyft drivers. And actually there’s reasons for that. Taxes from taxis, the taxi business is an important business in any city, there’s a whole bunch of reasons for it, but I melted down on this dude. I’d gotten out of trying to have a positive impact on people. You’re 31% smarter in a positive frame of mind, which means when you’re in a negative frame of mind, by definition, you are dumber. And in a negative frame of mind, not only are you dumber, but you’re even more convinced that you’re right and you’re less likely to take in information. That’s exactly where I was.
Chris Voss: You’ve got to have mental hygiene, just like you need oral hygiene. You got to pay attention to it or you lapse into negativity. You asked me, how [can] entrepreneurs be better at negotiation? To start with, if you’re trying to have a positive impact on people, you are in a positive frame of mind. You are smarter. It’s a completely different frame, because you never know when you’re going to be in a negotiation. Anytime the words “I want” or “I need” are coming across your lips or in your mind, you’re in a negotiation. And that’s the distinction between sales and negotiation. Sales is trying to get the words I want or I need out of somebody else’s mouth. As soon as they’re saying, “I want or I need your product or your service,” you’ve just crossed the threshold from sales to negotiation.
Chris Voss: At that point, you’re in a negotiation. And you’re going to get a better deal if you start from the very beginning, trying to have a positive impact on them. They’re going to be more inclined to listen to you. They’re going to think more. They’re going to listen to your options more. They’re going to be more flexible with you. And you may be only negotiating over actions and time. You may not be negotiating over money. If you wait until you’re talking about money in a negotiation, the negotiation has been in play for a while and you are behind already if you only think you’re negotiating when you’re talking about money. Some entrepreneurs that we were coaching… Brandon was coaching several years ago, [to people who] were trying to sell a service to Walmart. They went to visit a Walmart facility to get a tour, and Brandon tried to convince them that they weren’t going for a tour, Walmart was going to be negotiating with them the whole time.
C. Allen: Yeah, they’re pretty good at it.
Chris Voss: And they’re like, “Nah, nah, we’re just going to go for a tour. We’re just going to look around.” And he went down, money was never mentioned, and then they came back and then they got a proposal from Walmart over price and they went, “Oh my God, that tour was a negotiation. We negotiated for three days and we didn’t even know it.” And they were like, “Wow, we should have listened to you.” The most dangerous negotiations are the one you don’t know you’re in. If you’re interacting with someone, and the words “I want” or “I need” are coming over somebody’s lips, it’s a negotiation. And to have the upper hand and to be smart and to be able to think through options and increase their flexibility, it all starts if you try and have a positive impact on them, because you’re going to be ahead of the game. And then practicing the little skills, over and over and over and over and over, so that in the moment it’ll come to you, because you got caught off guard.
Chris Voss: I never ask anybody a question for yes. I always say, “Do you disagree? Are you against this? Is this a bad idea? Have you given up on…? Is this a ridiculous idea?” Everything I pitch is a no-oriented question. And I do it with the TSA guy in the airport, with the Starbucks clerk. I’m constantly doing it. I did it a couple months ago, just keeping myself sharp on the no-oriented questions, and the phone rings and I’m in the middle of a negotiation that I’m not really prepared for, but I’m getting my results reps in, because I only ask people no-oriented questions. “Is it a stupid idea for me to ask you directions?”
C. Allen: Not, “Can I ask you for directions?”
Chris Voss: Right, right, right.
C. Allen: “Is it a stupid idea?”
Chris Voss: Alright, in an airport, the TSA guys. You’re looking for the best place to eat in an airport. TSA guys work there. They know the best place.
C. Allen: They do.
Chris Voss: They are not there to give directions. How do I get directions out of a TSA guy every time? Little empathy. Empathy is what’s the other side thinking. He’s thinking, “Hey bozo, I’m not here to give you directions.” I’ll walk up to a TSA guy and I say, “I’m sorry, I know it is not your job to give directions to bozos in airports.” And now they’re looking at me, because that’s an empathy statement. And I go, “Is it a ridiculous idea for me to ask you where the best place to eat in the airport is?”
Chris Voss: And they’re like, “No, no, no, it’s fine. It’s fine. Here’s where I like to go. This is the place I always eat at.”
Chris Voss: Otherwise, if you say, “Hey man, can you give me directions to a good place to eat in the airport?”
Chris Voss: A guy or gal’s probably going to go, “I don’t eat here.”
C. Allen: “I eat here everyday and I bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
Chris Voss: Yeah, exactly right.
C. Allen: Oh my gosh. Well, why don’t we take a quick break and then we can come back and dive into some of the techniques that you use in negotiations for entrepreneurs.