Debunking Negotiation Myths with Chris Voss, a former FBI lead hostage negotiator
Communication Interview Nordic Business Forum 2024

Debunking 5+1 Negotiation Myths with Chris Voss

Everyone has an idea of what they think negotiation should look like. Chris Voss begs to differ.

Negotiation is a crucial skill in business, often shrouded in myths and misconceptions. Drawing on an insightful interview with Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator and author, we wanted to clarify and debunk common myths about negotiation. In the process, we’ve uncovered actionable knowledge and tips for enhancing your negotiation skills.

  • Myth 1: Split the difference
  • Myth 2: Aggressiveness Leads to Success
  • Myth 3: Negotiation Is All About Persuasion
  • Myth 4: Standard Tactics Work in Every Situation
  • Myth 5: Good Negotiators Are Born, Not Made

Myth 1: Split the difference

This is right in the title of Chris’s bestselling book Never Split the Difference. It means that the parties in a negotiation aim to find a middle ground between the offers or goals they came in with. People often think it’s the way to go, but is that truly the case?

“Some people believe that a great negotiation is when both sides are a little unhappy.”

Mutual Gain vs. Mutual Loss

By splitting the difference, both parties gain some but ultimately always lose some. The old idea that a successful negotiation leaves both parties a bit unhappy is a myth that needs dismantling. Chris argues that negotiation should not be about finding a middle ground where each side loses something; rather, it should be about discovering a solution that all parties feel good about.

If you split the difference, neither party can walk out of a negotiation with something better than they imagined. If you split the difference, you have yet to learn what kind of alternatives you missed out on.

Action Tip: Seek the Third Option

Instead of settling for less, negotiators should aim to explore alternative solutions that might provide even greater benefits than what either party originally anticipated. This requires patience, creativity, and a willingness to dig deeper into the needs and wants of all involved.

Negotiators often come to the table holding back information. However, this just prevents you from uncovering the best outcome because you won’t end up discussing the most important issues. Next time you negotiate, be honest and open and seek to find a new solution that benefits everyone involved.

“Never be so sure of what you want that you wouldn’t take something better.”

Myth 2: Aggressiveness Leads to Success

Many believe that the more aggressive or dominant party in a negotiation tends to come out on top. Even if that is the case for one particular negotiation, how do you think it will affect future negotiations?

The Pitfalls of Aggression

You probably guessed it; it’s a bad idea for the longevity and prosperity of long-term business relationships. While being aggressive might feel satisfying in the short term, it often leads to long-term disadvantages, such as damaging relationships and reputational harm. Chris points out that aggressive negotiators tend to be avoided in future dealings, which can severely limit opportunities and success.

Aggressive negotiators are also very costly. Dealing with them is often difficult, annoying, and frustrating, and takes much longer. In Chris’s experience, it can take two to five times longer to discuss with aggressive negotiators.

Action Tip: Be “Long-Term Greedy”

Chris advises us to be “long-term greedy” instead of “short-term greedy.” This means that we should prioritize lasting relationships over immediate gains. Chris even said, “When you’re short-term greedy, you’re destined for bankruptcy.” In future negotiations, it’s better to listen and understand the other party and aim to de-escalate discussions if they start to get heated.

Myth 3: Negotiation Is All About Persuasion

Good persuasion skills will make you a master negotiator—right? Well, not quite. While it can be a good skill to possess to support your negotiations, the act of persuasion is unlikely to create the desired effects. Chris argues that by persuading someone, you merely exert a short-term influence, which can turn against you.

“It’s about understanding the difference between influence and persuasion.”

The Role of Tactical Empathy®

While persuasion is a component of negotiation, Chris calls for Tactical Empathy®. This approach involves understanding the emotions and viewpoints of the other party and responding in a way that addresses their underlying concerns, leading to enduring influence rather than persuasion.

By persuading someone, you might make them agree to something against their best interest. After they leave the conversation, they will start realizing the negative aspects of what they agreed to and having second thoughts. This lessens their trust toward you and creates a “high maintenance” relationship, as you need to constantly re-persuade them.

Action Tip: Practice Emotional Intelligence

Improve your negotiation skills by incorporating emotional intelligence into your practices. This can include discussing potential negative perceptions openly (thus disarming them) and using positive, self-effacing humor to create a more collaborative atmosphere.

Chris gives an example of acknowledging negative perceptions by stating, “You’re probably gonna think I’m greedy.” This way, you don’t deny the perceptions that the other party might have of you and will come off as honest and straightforward.

Myth 4: Standard Tactics Work in Every Situation

It’s a common misbelief that you can simply learn a certain set of negotiation tactics and apply them in every negotiation successfully. Chris points out that each negotiation is different, and those differences need to be taken into account in how you approach negotiations.

Tailoring Your Approach

Just like a tailor who uses a needle, thread, scissors, and a measuring tape with each client despite their differences, a negotiator uses the same tools in each negotiation but tailors them for each client. Chris suggests that there are different skills that you can learn and then tailor how you apply them to meet the requirements of each negotiation.
He advocates for adapting strategies to fit the specific context and individuals involved. This tailored approach helps ensure that the strategies are effective and that the other party feels understood.

“All people want to know is that you understood them.”

Action Tip: Adapt and Empathize

To improve your negotiations, focus on truly understanding the needs and motivations of the other party. Use active listening to ensure you comprehend their position and adapt your strategy to align with their expectations and cultural context. Chris says that this does not only apply in negotiations but all human interactions.

Myth 5: Good Negotiators Are Born, Not Made

Many think that good negotiators are simply born that way—perhaps a silver tongue has more to do with genetics than experience. Yet again, Chris has an opposing view. In general, he thinks that almost everything is learned.

Anyone Can Learn to Negotiate

Like any other skill, negotiation can be learned and refined through practice and education. Chris argues that by being coachable and hardworking anyone can become an excellent negotiator. He even says that you only need to be one of those things to be able to develop your skills, but you do need at least one.

Action Tip: Develop Key Skills

Invest time in developing essential negotiation skills such as active listening and understanding tonality in communication. Chris advises us to truly listen rather than wait for our turn to speak. He suggests not only thinking about what was said but also thinking together with the person you’re discussing with. He also raises the point of using voice tonality to better convey your ideas and make an impression. Chris likes to watch comedians, for example, who masterfully use tonality to make even the dullest jokes extremely funny. The delivery is often more important than the actual words.

Bonus Myth: You Should Always Go First

One myth Chris wants to address is the belief that those who go first in a negotiation are more likely to succeed. By going first, you supposedly set the tone and direction of the negotiation, giving you an advantage from the beginning. “I don’t like that at all,” were Chris’s exact words.

Everyone Wants to Be Heard

If you go first in a negotiation and aim to set the baseline for it, you have to assume that you have perfect information on the “zone of possible agreement.” This refers to the spectrum of possible outcomes of the negotiation from both sides. In reality, it is impossible to have that information when you’re just starting a negotiation.

“We have this intense desire to go first because we want to be heard.”

Action Tip: Let Them Go First

When you realize that the other side wants to get heard just as badly as you do, you might see that letting them go first can be extremely beneficial. By letting them go first, you’ll gather a lot of useful information and they’ll feel better about it. In a moment, you’ll be smarter about what the other party is looking for and you make sure you won’t miss any critical information.

If you wish to learn more, you can view the full interview on our YouTube channel. You can also join us at Nordic Business Forum 2024 in Helsinki on 25-26 September to see Chris live with other expert speakers!

Learn more about negotiation from Chris Voss at Nordic Business Forum 2024



What is new

Blog Nordic Business Forum 2024

Unlock a World of Knowledge with the NBF Online Ticket

Nordic Business Forum 2024 will be the largest business and leadership event in Europe, but we understand that not everyone has the opportunity to join us in Helsinki. That’s where the online ticket comes in—offering a front-row seat to the […]

Blog Interview Leadership Nordic Business Forum 2024

Advancing Executive Leadership with Sanna Suvanto-Harsaae

Sanna Suvanto-Harsaae has been honored as Finland’s most influential woman in business for seven consecutive years. Currently, Sanna chairs the boards of Finnair, Orthex, Posti Group, and BoConcept, guiding these organizations towards sustained success and innovation. Her vast experience in […]