I Was a Hostage Negotiator, and This Is What It Taught Me About Business

What are some of the most important things you've learned about human nature from negotiations? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Chris Voss, CEO of The Black Swan Group, Author of Never Split the Difference, on Quora:

This question might also encompass: "What from hostage negotiation informs how we interact with each other in our daily lives?"

First: Fear of loss is probably the single most powerful influencer in human nature. Almost all of the reasoning we construct in any given situation is built around how we are seeing (calculating) the losses on things that matter to us or things we want. Daniel Kahneman won the Noble Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 around this idea with "Prospect Theory". People feel losses more (at least twice more) than equivalent gains. Losing five dollars stings twice as much as gaining five dollars.

In hostage negotiations, we would always dig for the most recent loss. We knew a recent loss was the most likely trigger for a change in behavior. One of the big reasons I knew that hostage negotiation strategies would be an enormous booster for business and personal negotiations was when I ran across Professor Kahneman's theory. (Professor Kahneman also graciously and appropriately credits his longtime colleague Amos Tversky with the development of this theory.) Prospect Theory applies to all our thinking.

Second: The amount of influence you can develop with the tactical application of empathy is ridiculous! I learned how to use the tools of a hostage negotiation to reinforce the positives that will lead to a deal, but even more importantly, how to isolate the negatives and fears that will get in the way of a deal.

Since most people are afraid to apply empathy and wrongly see it as synonymous with sympathy (and misuse it), I know I can gain a huge edge with it. Then if I can use it to dissolve the fears of loss, versus only trying to reinforce positives, I really have an edge over my competitors.

The simple recognition of negatives, and not the denial of them, is the single best way to dissolve them. I've learned from all sorts of negotiations that unexpressed negative feelings never die, they fester. That's why they say "revenge is a dish best served cold" and also "do something right and three people know about it, do something wrong and twelve people know about it".

I never deny negatives. I find a way to call out the feelings they cause and it works wonders. After I deal with the negatives, only then do I look to reinforce the positives.

Third: People are sick of being lured into a trap with "yes". Saying "yes" makes people worry about what they've committed themselves to. This strategy is so overdone that people are sick of it. It's everywhere and since everyone uses it, getting out of it automatically gives you an edge. You can't distinguish yourself and be like everyone else simultaneously. Since most people are actually afraid to distinguish themselves, being willing to do this gives me even more of an advantage.

Triggering "no" in a way that benefits me - "Have you given up on this project?", "Do you want this effort to fail?", "Do you want to leave money on the table?" - works wonders. I've found it stunning what people are comfortable and willing to say "no" to.

Fourth: People are human before they are their culture. If I approach a person on things that they resonate with because they are human beings, I can get by quite well in nearly any culture. They will give me the opportunity to learn their subtitles and forgive me for my mistakes because I dealt with them in a way they resonated with as human beings. All people are driven by the same basic group of wants, from terrorists to shopkeepers. We are all people first. Even those that lack the ability to feel guilt or are able to care about others are still driven themselves by the same essential wants.

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