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The Two Most Important Words in Negotiation From a Former FBI Negotiator




Chris Voss has been a part of some tense negotiations. Unlike most negotiations however, when Chris was involved it was a matter of life and death. Currently the founder and CEO of The Black Swan Group, Chris spent 24 years in the FBI.

During his time there Chris acted as the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator working over 150 kidnappings worldwide in some of the less forgiving areas of the world such as the Middle East and Haiti.

Recently, Chris appeared on The Science of Success Podcast with Matt Bodnar and shared the two most important words in negotiation. “The two greatest questions begin with what or how. It begins by inviting the other side to talk, encouraging them even. Allowing them to tell you exactly what it is they want, then ask them how to get that done or “what about this works for you?”. Voss has seen the magic of this tactic, “people love to be asked how to do something…what and how are the most powerful words because they make the other side feel good.”

“Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.” – Dale Carnegie

Not only do these two words draw out more information and begin to expose the other actual desired outcome, but they also cause the other side to step back and examine the situation. “One of my favorite ways of saying no is by asking, “How am I supposed to do that?”” reveals Voss.

There’s two things about saying that. First of all, it’s those words but secondly and even more importantly is your tone of voice.” As with most statements it really depends on how you say it. People can either feel like you are asking for help or making an accusation.

The exact sames words but completely different meaning… with an accusation I’m signaling that I don’t like what you want and maybe even that I don’t like you, which is bad for the communication

Another benefit of open ended questions with “how” or “what” is that it can reveal holes in the other side’s tactics not only to you, but to them as well. By asking the right questions and allowing the other side to step back and reevaluate and articulate their ask. “Look, I can’t do that, and I need you to take a look at the whole context here and I need you to look at me when I say how am I supposed to do that?” demonstrates Voss.

Often times combining this question with the right tone of voice can throw the other side off guard. “It let’s you know that I want to cooperate with you but what you just put on the table just doesn’t work.” The last piece of the puzzle is once you’ve invited the other side to talk with an open ended “how” or “what” question, utilized proper tone of voice, you have to then listen. “You’ve got to show them that you are paying attention and that you just didn’t have a preset list of things that you want to say regardless of what their response is.”

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

So the next time you’re in an intense negotiation remember what Chris and the experts at the FBI do. Invite the other side to lay their cards down by asking open ended “how” or “what” questions and use proper tone of voice to convey your intended meaning. By starting off the negotiation utilizing this road tested FBI strategy you’ll find yourself holding all the cards while the other side scratches their head wondering where their strategy went wrong.

Here, you can listen to Chris’s full hour long interview.

What negotiation tactics do you use in your business? Leave your thoughts below!

Matt Bodnar, named a “Rising Restaurateur Star” by the National Restaurant Association and a “Strategy Pro” by Restaurant Hospitality Magazine, is a partner at an early stage investment firm Fresh Hospitality where he focuses on deal making and strategy. Bodnar is also the creator and host of "The Science of Success" a #1 New & Noteworthy podcast, with more than 1 Million+ downloads, focused on improving decision-making, understanding psychology, and sharing insights from experts. Bodnar previously worked as an import/export consultant in Nanjing, China and spent several years at Goldman Sachs before returning to his family roots in the hospitality space.

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Being a powerful communicator is important for several reasons, including building and maintaining relationships, achieving goals, resolving conflicts, improving productivity, leading and influencing others, advancing in your career, expressing yourself more confidently and authentically, and improving your mental and emotional well-being. Effective communication is an essential life skill that can benefit you in all aspects of your life.

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1.  Listen actively: Practice active listening by giving your full attention to the speaker and responding to what they are saying.


2. Use “I” statements: Speak from your own perspective and avoid placing blame or making accusations.


3. Avoid assumptions: Don’t make assumptions about what the other person is thinking or feeling.


4. Be clear: Express your thoughts and feelings clearly and concisely by getting to the point and avoid using jargon or overly complex language.


5. Show empathy: Show that you understand and care about the other person’s feelings.


6. Offer valuable insights: When speaking in a group, provide a valuable takeaway or actionable item that people can walk away with.


7. Be an active listener: Listen attentively and respond accordingly, incorporating your points into the conversation.


8. Choose the right time: Pick the most opportune time to speak to ensure that you have the group’s attention and can deliver your message without interruption.


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11. Avoid unnecessary comments: Avoid commenting on everything and only speak when you have something important to say.


12. Cut the fluff: Avoid being long-winded and get straight to the point.


13. Prepare ahead of time: Sort out your points and practice them before speaking in a group.


14. Smile and be positive: Smile and nod along as others speak, to build a positive relationship and be respected when it’s your turn to speak.


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20. Be aware of the tone of your voice: it should be calm and assertive, not aggressive or passive.


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