FBI Negotiator Chris Voss on How to Stay Calm in a Crisis

By Gabrielle Bienasz for Inc

Chris Voss is Exclusively Represented by CAL Entertainment

Chris Voss handled hostage negotiation for the FBI for 15 years. Here are his tips for finding common ground.

Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss’s first piece of advice for negotiating during the Covid-19 crisis is to acknowledge it for what it is: “a s–t show.” Disarming people’s fears by naming them is one of many strategies the seasoned mediator and entrepreneur teaches in his MasterClass (where his video on tactical empathy was the most popular video on the site in March) and via his negotiation consulting company, Black Swan.

Whether you’re managing various stakeholders in your business, your kids (with whom you are now spending every moment), or all of the above, you’re likely pretty “tightly wound” right now, says Voss in his live-streamed MasterClass. Below are four of his FBI-grade tips for diffusing the tensions likely to flare-up in this new reality.

The “Accusations Audit”

Uncertainty brings about fears, and when people are fearful, they can respond negatively. “There’s nothing that works faster and more effectively at driving the stake to the heart of somebody’s fear than just recognizing it,” Voss says. He calls this the “accusations audit,” where you (with a deferential tone) list the fears someone likely has about the situation, and about you. “It’s ridiculous how fast it accelerates communication,” Voss says, noting that because our brains often fixate on negative thoughts, bringing fears into the open allows for a more productive conversation.

Building Relationships

Many jobs rely on travel and in-person meetings to build relationships and make deals. Now that you’re limited to your laptop for human connection, you’re going to need to work harder on how you communicate. The goal, says Voss, is to constantly seek to understand the other side, and demonstrate that you understand before attempting to get what you want.

This works with methods like labeling and mirroring.

“There are some real bad habits out there, and one of those bad habits is, [the idea that] you gotta get your point across,” he says. “Hear the other side out first.”

Once you do start a conversation, Voss says that good first impressions aren’t everything. Rather, the data show the most memorable moments are the peak of the tension and the end of the experience. So, while beginning your conversation with positivity is good manners, according to Voss, ending it the same way is what will really count.

Answering With Questions

Rather than explaining yourself, Voss advises framing your position like a question that starts with “how,” and “what,” not “why,” since “why” puts people on the defensive. He gave a parenting example: A 13-year-old boy asks his mom for an iPad. Using Voss’ techniques, she answers: “How am I supposed to afford that?” The son sees her position, and offers to pay for half of the iPad.

Voss says you can also use this to discuss the severity of the Covid-19 crisis with people in your life. You might want to bury them with statistics and evidence. The better approach, according to Voss, is to ask, “How long are you willing to be sick?,” or “Even if you’re not going to get sick, how many people are you willing to infect?” Questions like this, he says, are designed to change the way people think about situations.

The Late-Night Radio Voice

This is a Voss mainstay, but it’s particularly relevant in these trying times. Using a slower voice to address people can help calm them down. Then, combine that with a downward inflection. While Voss says the majority of your communication in a negotiation should have an upward, questioning inflection, you can use your slower, downward inflecting voice in moments when you need to communicate certainty on a point without attacking the other person.

Helping people relax and let their guard down is vital, because they then might reveal what Voss named his company after: the Black Swan. Voss’s theory is that every negotiation has at least three hidden pieces of information that are game-changing to the conversation. “You know they’re important,” he says, “because they’re being kept from you.” If you can build trust with someone, they are more likely to reveal those game-changers.

While this is a difficult time for everyone, Voss sees a bright side to it all: he thinks people will emerge having learned important lessons. Because of the challenges of adapting to digital-only communication, he says, people will learn how to interact with each other more effectively and use negotiation to find common ground.