How to Chris Voss like a pro — 1

Learning how to actually negotiate like your life depends on it

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Is it unreasonable to suggest that, “I can make you an offer you can’t refuse?”

First let me say that although I wrote a lot of good blog posts in the past, I hit a dry spell and I realized if I wanted to keep writing I needed to start writing a few bad blog posts until I got my magic back. This gives me freedom to write without having to make things perfect.

How I became obsessed with learning “how to negotiate”

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If you never learn how to negotiate you only know how to argue. No wonder people think I’m a jerk.

I recently became obsessed with Chris Voss after Youtube suggested that I watch a Talks at Google interview with him. After watching that video I bought the ebook and the audio book. I listened to it twice and bought the paperback. I became convinced that the material in his book would allow me to talk to people without pissing them off. There should be like 20+ people writing in the comment section of this post saying something like:

In most settings I am usually fairly agreeable. As soon as someone insists on imposing a requirement upon me I think is unfair or irrational I immediately become an incredibly stubborn personality. People will quickly find I hate to compromise any of my core beliefs. Once I I’m right I feel like compromising is to accept unfair treatment. I often feel as if I’m forced to defend my position and arguing is the only means I have to point out that I’m unwilling to tolerate being treated unfairly.

Lately in a business context or on the phone with customer service I’ve been transforming from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde more often when hitting an impasse. Here are a few times this month where I lost my temper when it was unnecessary:

  1. Junior developer tells me that two developers his senior wrote and verified code that he thinks is “not going to work.” I question him by saying that what he really mean is, “this code is not optimal and could be made better.” When I corrected him and pointed out that the code would work (just not optimally) he wanted to justify his position. Our initial discussion becomes an argument leading to unnecessary backlash.
  2. The last apartment managers used an autopay system that worked great. The new apartment managers use a new autopay system requiring that I re-register. I go to schedule a new payment but I can’t schedule a recurring payment on the 1st of the month. I send a screenshot to customer service and ask them to put in a software support ticket to fix it. Customer service responds by saying, “I don’t see what the problem is.” After trying to explain why autopay is useless if it can only pay my rent late they still won’t put in a support ticket to fix it. This results in a shouting match.
  3. I tried to buy todd tabs online and after they charged my credit card I was told by email, “.” I respond to their email pointing out that todd tabs are not a registered medical device. They don’t need a license to sell it, and I don’t need to pay a doctor $100 dollars to purchase it. Since they are the only manufacturer of this device (monopoly power) I told them that requiring me to pay a $100 fee for a doctors appointment for a non-medical device was unjustified. Imposing this fee (via their doctor cartel) was from my perspective an anti-trust violation. I told them I’d be happy to file a complaint with the FTC and the states attorney general and they could settle the matter with the investigators or they could just sell me the product. Eventually we worked something out but not without me needing to threaten them.

In every one of these cases if I was able to exercise a bit of tactical empathy I could have negotiated a better solution. Arguing with people and threatening them rarely feels like it was the right thing to do in retrospect. But, in the heat of the moment, I often feel like people are backing me into a corner and forcing me to defend my position. I realize now just how little I have learned when it comes to negotiating with people. So when people won’t agree with me I just end up arguing with them. I really have to wonder why didn’t I try and solve this personality flaw sooner, maybe I’m just getting more irate as I grow older.

I’ve got to learn the techniques in this book but how?

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Somehow I don’t think watching “The Negotiator” is going to teach me how to be less combative towards others

Chris mentions in the book that when he wanted to be a hostage negotiator he was told that he first needed to volunteer at a suicide hotline. I thought that would be a good place to start. It turns out that in the DFW area volunteering for a suicide hotline is a lot more difficult than it sounds. There is only one hotline in DFW and they take applications only once per year in September and the training was for several weeks.

It turns out that Chris does offer training for using the techniques in his book. A training seminar with the Black Swan Group however was likely to be more expensive than what I could afford. Hard to know for sure since no prices are posted. Knowing how good at negotiation these guys were, I kept thinking that within minutes of getting on a phone call I’d be giving them my credit card number. I was imagining how I’d end up feeling six months from now when I was still trying to pay down a bill for thousands of dollars. Paying for that type of training is probably not really something I should be doing right now. I needed another way of learning these techniques but how?

smart people don’t make good negotiators

I’ve heard Chris say this in a few different contexts and Chris also adopts the label of a “dumb guy” in his book. What I’ve come to realize is that you don’t need to be as shrewd as Samuel L. Jackson or as clever as Kevin Spacey to employ effective negotiation tactics. You just need to memorize and to rehearse the specific tactics Chris presents the same way that you would memorize lines in a script and practice delivering them in character. 70% of Negotiation seems to be made up of the following foundational techniques:

  1. Learning how to listen which would include:
    * reading a persons body language
    * non-verbal communication
    * tone of voice
    * what they are not saying
  2. Route memorization of with emphasis on tone, delivery, timing and pacing in terms of where the lines are expected to show up in your dialogue with someone. These lines are they are memorized. This is the and the of the content that gets memorized.
  3. Learning specific methods “language techniques” which are no different than learning a martial art move or form. This is less memorization than it is understanding a formal methodology for organizing the memorized content. Knowing in which contextual circumstances to use which memorized content. This is the , , , and of the content that gets memorized.
  4. Some improvisation to combine listening with the memorized language techniques to touch specific areas of the targets limbic system. Specifically employed in tactics such as:
    * mirroring
    * summaries to get a “that’s right”
    * labeling
    * tactical empathy
    * Start with no — using “no” to allow them to feel in control
    * Saying no by apologizing — tactical usage of apologies

20% of negotiation does require some critical thinking skills because it requires you to have a fine read on the motivations of your counterpart. Knowing their motivations can actually allow you to drastically change the terms of an agreement. You’ve got to know how to ask questions which can uncover these motivations. Then you have to know how to use the knowledge of your counterparts motivations to close a deal with them. Ideally this knowledge should allow you to craft a deal with terms more favorable for you. This is where I would put the following tactics:

  1. Calibrated questions
  2. Accusation audits and neutralizing the negative
  3. Yes is nothing without how

Why “smart people” fail as negotiators

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One of the snappier comebacks in the series that makes him such a personable character

Smart people fail to ask questions which would allow them to uncover their counterparts motivations. They assume they know what those motivations are by deducing them based on their past knowledge and experience. This experience seemingly allows them to “cut to the chase” but in doing so they never build any rapport or trust with their counterparts. This is why they fail at being good negotiators.

Negotiation is a process of discovering a counterparts motivations. It is not about making a shrewd offer even if you had perfect knowledge about your counterpart and could predict their every move. This requires a negotiator to get their counterpart to reveal their motivations through dialogue. Sometimes a negotiator may be required to help a counterpart realize that their actions are motivated by factors which run counter to their long term or big picture goals. Without dialogue a counterpart can never be guided to realize how an agreement can help them reach the goals that are really important to them.

If we fail to build trust through this type of dialogue then there is no human basis on which the other party wants to enter into an agreement with us. Sherlock Holmes likely would make a terrible negotiator not because he is too smart but because he has no genuine interest in getting to know the other party. Even if he mechanically executed the techniques he would fail to build the rapport required to make the other party feel as if they’ve been heard.

Unless you truly want to discover what it is that is motivating someone why should anyone want tell you what is driving them? No one (even Sherlock Holmes) should truly know what is motivating another person to enter into an agreement without hearing them say it in their own words. If you don’t need to hear them explain what it is they want, how are they supposed to trust you will provide them with a deal that will satisfy those needs?

Smart people can still be good negotiators

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I have come to learn o master the ways of negotiation

Putting aside the fact that learning how to listen to build relationships is far more important than natural shrewdness, what does Chris mean when he says that, “smart people don’t make good negotiators?” Some of the above items do require a great deal of creativity and intelligence. Skills such as improvisation and discerning your counterparts motivations require more than merely following some methods in his bookHoweverthat creativity is only valuable when employed within the prescribed forms the student must first learn. Basically what Chris is saying is that if you think you are too smart to learn the FBI’s techniques then you are really stupid.

This is no different than a 60 year old martial arts master telling his young 20 something student, “if you think you are stronger than I, I welcome you to try and defeat a weak old man such as myself.” If you’ve ever seen Kill Bill you know how this scene turns out in every kung fu movie. Moral of the story is that negotiation, just like any skill, must be learned with the prescribed form. Natural talent for communication will not win you any points if you cannot effectively master and execute the form as it is taught.

After reading Chris’s book twice this feels exactly like what learning a martial art felt like. You just need to watch how the master delivers a karate chop and repeat the move over and over until the master approves of your form and you feel that your form is effective. The real tests comes when you find out if you can actually incapacitate your opponent.

Now lets practice!

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This is the best blog post where someone produced a cheat sheet that allows you to see all the different skills this book can teach you. I am very impressed with the effort Yan-David Erlich put in to help you learn the material in the book. Chris Voss has a number of good blog posts but also more importantly he has a ton of videos on youtube. In each video he will give you a few of these magic lines you are to memorize delivered with the right tone, pacing, attitude and discussion about the context where the line is delivered.


I was thinking it might be nice to go through these videos on 2x speed to find the key sections where Chris delivers a specific line that needs to be memorized, repeated and practiced. Here is one possible example:

Labeling — it sounds like:
it sounds like your relationship with your brother-in-law is more important than selling your house

Other than cataloging the 20 to 50 hours of recorded audio that is out there it would be good to practice on google hangouts or by phone with someone else. This would require having specific exercises already prepared ahead of time so that the time could be used productively. I don’t have these but they may be out there somewhere.

It might seem awkward, mechanical, clunky to get on a hangouts with someone and just repeat “it sounds like …” but the very first time you swing your hand in the air in a karate chop motion you think to yourself, “I look so stupid doing this.”


I’m not sure how I’m going to learn this material but I’m open to ideas. Although I live in Dallas I’m halfway willing to relocate if the opportunity to learn negotiation presented itself. It would probably have to be a really good opportunity for me to leave here for more than a month or two.

Written by

Incentives architect for TandaPay

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