Negotiate like an FBI expert

Learn how to apply hostage negotiation techniques to business scenarios.

How to spot a lie and resolve conflicts.

By Candice Chung

It was a job deemed too dangerous for the tactical police. A wild-eyed, heavily armed man was holding a woman captive. He had two weapons against her throat – a carving knife and a flick-knife. By the time the hostage negotiation team arrived, he was starting to use them to injure his victim.

Belinda Neil was the lead negotiator on the scene. A veteran hostage negotiator for the New South Wales Police, with counter-terrorist training, Neil understood one thing immediately: the situation was too volatile for the police to make an arrest. The only way to secure the victim’s release wasn’t by force but by following a single, FBI-tested strategy: “I needed to show I was listening to him – I needed to display empathy.”

The prevailing view for a long time was that emotion should be kept out of negotiations. The theory was that human beings are rational actors, so logic should lead us to the best outcome. 

Yet that doesn’t explain why so many deals fall apart when two bright minds come together in a room. Or why some business leaders may choose to save face instead of acting in their company’s best interest. 

Why do we resent some opponents, but respect others who disagree with us?

It turns out that emotions trump logic when it comes to the crunch. Veteran FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss arrived at that game-changing conclusion after 24 years of working in high-stakes, life-or-death situations.

“No matter how we dress up our negotiations in [theories], we are always an animal, always acting and reacting first and foremost from our deeply held but mostly invisible ... fears, needs, perceptions and desires,” Voss writes in his book Never Split the Difference. 

Now the CEO of Black Swan Group, a UK-based recruitment agency, Voss teaches clients how to apply his hostage negotiation techniques to business scenarios. 

Listening as a “martial art”

In her 2016 CPA Congress keynote address, Neil explained the importance of active listening in conflict resolution. “To listen actively is actually to be present. It demonstrates attention and concern. It makes the other person feel important – which is crucial.”

Once your counterpart feels they are being heard, then rapport can be established. 

“The way you do that is by listening, then paraphrasing what they’re saying, showing them they’ve been understood,” Voss explains. 

This is called active listening: a two-part technique designed to build rapport.

There’s a misconception that listening is a passive act, but Voss says that focused, intensive listening is more like a form of “martial art”. 

It involves a subtle back and forth where the listener slowly gains ground by studying the counterpart’s every move. At the same time, you are building trust by repeating key parts of the conversation and allowing the speaker to hear their own thoughts.

What does their “real yes” sound like?

If you would like to master the art of being a human lie detector, you should pay close attention to the small talk. The way someone responds to questions about seemingly trivial topics may reveal an important behavioural cue. 

“I’m looking for the moment when I know the other person is telling me the truth, and they’re really going to be telling me the truth when we talk about what they had for breakfast. Or where they grew up. Or things that have nothing to do with the deal because there’s no reason to not talk about them,” Voss says.

In essence, this is how a polygraph (lie detector) works. The questioner asks a series of simple questions at the start (What is your name? What is your mother’s maiden name?) and gains an understanding of what you look like when you’re telling the truth. This is then used to tell apart any subsequent lies. 

“You can lie 15 different ways, but each of those is still different from when you tell the truth,” Voss explains.

Getting a sense of a person’s honest responses will help you gauge what their “real yes” sounds like. 

“If I’m talking to you and whenever your answer has been a real yes, you say ‘Yeah, absolutely!’ But when I ask, ‘You guys can do this in three weeks, no problem?’ and your answer is, ‘Yeah …’ Well, I know it’s a completely different yes,” Voss says. 

Professional Development: Negotiating and influencing – 'Politics' are a reality in any organisation and, even if you dislike them, you can’t eliminate them. This course examines ways you can influence others to achieve the result you desire even if you don’t have ‘position power’ - via negotiation, personal authority and the use of political savvy.

Practise tactical empathy

It may seem counterintuitive to empathise with a hostage taker, or a difficult client, however a tactical application of empathy will help you build trust and formulate an emotionally intelligent strategy.

“The real operational definition of empathy is being able to see what the other side’s point of view is, and then being able to state it,” Voss says. 

Importantly, understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t mean you’re endorsing it. “There’s a very fine line but, by definition, empathy is neither agreement or disagreement, it’s simply an observation,” he explains.

“Leaders who have empathy are much stronger negotiators,” observes Hiam Sakakini, the former head of leadership development at Google Asia and the co-founder of ThinkChangeGrow. 

“They understand how a person likes to be communicated with, what their concerns and aspirations are, which makes it easier to gain input from them. Ultimately it’s about learning what goals or values are important to someone – and why – so you’ll be able to find the crucial intersection between your goal and theirs.”

How to break a deadlock

One way to proceed when you encounter a deadlock is by labelling your counterpart’s concerns or fears. Naming a dynamic helps defuse tension and subtly builds trust, says Voss. 

For instance, if a person is giving you the silent treatment when they should be answering you, a simple statement – such as “It sounds like you are reluctant to speak” – is disarming and puts the other person back into the driver’s seat.

You can start your statement one of four ways: it feels like, it sounds like, it looks like or it seems like. For example, “It seems like you are having a hard time trusting me” or “It sounds like you are concerned about ...” 

“Leaders who have empathy are much stronger negotiators.” Hiam Sakakini, ThinkChangeGrow

If the first attempt doesn’t jump-start the conversation, try again with a different iteration. These statements are a gentle, non-accusatory way of making an inquiry. What’s more, by not using the word “I” these labels trigger a different type of interaction in the brain.

“They cause the prefrontal cortex, which is known as the CEO of the brain, to basically make an inquiry with the rest of the brain,” Voss says. “This causes contemplation of the idea, and the observation of the conclusion then becomes the person’s conclusion, as opposed to being an accusation that’s being levelled at them.”

Get them to solve your problem

“One of the secrets to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control,” Voss says. But how do you stay assertive without making your counterpart feel like they are being pressured or manipulated? The secret, according to Voss, is asking carefully calibrated “how” or “what” questions. 

In other words, get the other person to solve your problem.

In the face of unreasonable requests – whether it’s a multimillion-dollar ransom, an impossible deadline or an unrealistic sales target – one of the most powerful ways to respond is with the following question: “How am I supposed to do that?” Then stop right there.

If respectfully said, in what Voss refers to as a “late-night FM DJ voice”, it’s an artful way of telling them “no” while also getting them to work out a solution – one they will likely accept because the idea came from them. 

“It’s a way to be very deferential,” Voss says. “When you ask people ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions, those words make people feel in control.”

Good negotiators don’t just get what they want; they make the other person feel as if they are happy with the result, too. That’s the power of active listening and tactical empathy. 

Former police negotiator Belinda Neil was one of the keynote speakers at CPA Congress 2016. Early-bird bookings are open for CPA Congress 2017 – featuring another line-up of great minds. Head to to find out more.

What sort of negotiator are you?

Chris VossFormer FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss describes three types.

An assertive negotiator is often blunt and difficult to deal with. They will take silence as a cue for them to talk more. To all intents and purposes, the best example of the assertive type is Donald Trump. Ironically, while they are difficult to work with, deep down inside they genuinely think of themselves as nice people.

An analytical negotiator usually seems distant, almost to the point of being cold and removed. The analyst likes silence in a negotiation and tends to leave it there because it gives them a chance to think.

An accommodator is relationship-oriented and is likely to naturally smile a lot. When there is silence, they assume the other side is angry. This is because they highly prize interaction and withholding it is seen as an act of hostility.

Negotiation cheat sheet

Belinda NeilTips from Belinda Neil, former police negotiator. 


Practise active listening. It’s not just hearing what someone has to say, but showing that you understand their argument by summarising and paraphrasing it.

Always keep your promise. If you promised to call at a certain time, ring your counterpart back, even if it’s to let them know you haven’t got an answer.

Take it one step at a time. You must build up trust and rapport before attempting to get to your bottom line.


Don’t say “I understand”. Unless you’ve been in the same situation, avoid using the phrase “I understand” as a way to express empathy, as it can trigger anger and frustration. For instance, it’s a bad idea to say “I understand how it feels” to a father whose son has been kidnapped.

Don’t react. Recognise the point at which you start to feel angry, stressed or tired. Acknowledge the feeling and take a breath before responding.

Don’t burn your bridges. Show respect. Chances are you will be dealing with the same people over and over again. If you deal with someone appropriately the first time, it will make your life easier the next time.

Read next: How to be a better workplace negotiator

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