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Negotiate Like Your Life Depends on It - Part 1

Updated: Oct 28



When it comes to negotiating and persuading someone you'll find that no matter what language you are speaking that this is a very difficult task. You can be a very smooth talker in many different types of situations, but when it's time to get down to business, can you close deals? After reading former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss' book Never Split the Difference for the second time I have become hyper aware of how others interact with each other. I've found that the skills he teaches in his book can be applied in many situations outside of negotiation as well.


I highly recommend that anyone read Never Split the Difference as it is filled with extremely valuable proven methods that will help you become a better negotiator. I aim to write a summary of the points that I think are most valuable and helpful in a way that will hopefully be most beneficial specifically to my students. This will be a multi-part series because I really want to break the material down into bite size pieces that are easily digestible. The book is short but very dense, and I think examples will be key to helping you absorb these methods.


Chapter 1: How to Become the Smartest Person in Any Room


When I'm asked how I've become a good conversationalist, I usually respond with something that seems very counterintuitive. To me, the key to being a great talker is being an even better listener. I've come to realize that many people really love to be heard. I'm all for that, and I love hearing people talk about things that they're passionate about and hearing them tell their story. So I do my best to listen to what they're saying and ask them questions that uncover more details, especially ones that I'm potentially able to connect with and can easily add personal details to.


When negotiating, or trying to get your way with someone, asking questions is key. Voss says to respond to people with "tactically calibrated" open ended questions. In general, these questions begin with "what" or "how" as they force the other person to explain something and prevents them from giving you a short, meaningless, fixed answer response such as "no" or "I'm not sure." In order to think of tactically calibrated open ended questions I like to think in reverse, starting with picturing the end goal and then working backward to find where I should start.


There are two benefits to gain from asking these types of questions. One, you are very likely to gain insight into how the other person is thinking about the situation. Asking a "what" or "how" question forces them to sort of "brain dump" on the spot and can often give you valuable information as to how you should navigate the conversation moving forward. I tend to have an overarching goal when approaching a situation and ask questions accordingly. I use each response very methodically in order to prepare my next question that in turn helps me get the information I'm looking for. I will give an example below...


Example of Forming Tactically Calibrated Questions

Scenario: A new student comes to me for the first time to see if I can help them. I have 1 hour to convince them that I can help them.

Goal: Come up with a plan for the student so that I can make them feel confident I am the right person to help them. I've never met this person before so I need to understand what is important to them.

Things to keep in mind: I need to keep in mind that they're not a native speaker so that their in English may be slightly misleading at times, at no fault of their own (that's why they've come to me). We all want things, but we usually need something different. This is often the case with anyone that you're talking to. It's up to you to use your own judgement and decide for yourself as to what the other person truly needs.


Me: So what brings you here to me and what are your goals in improving your English?

Student: I don't feel confident in speaking English at work. I want to improve my fluency, vocabulary, phrasing, and my accent.

Me: Okay, try to visualize yourself after some amount of time of us working together, let's say 6 months to a year. How would you define our time spent together as a success? What are you able do then that you're not able to do now?

Student: I'm able to confidently speak in meetings and give presentations, I'm able to remove filler words such as "umm, well, uhhh...", I'm able to express my ideas in multiple different ways to connect with different audiences, and I'm able to be clearly understood.


You can see in this example that I'm able to get the potential new student to spell out exactly what success looks/feels like to them and what they're hoping to be able to do. This allows me to see their big picture goals first, and then develop a plan on the spot to help them achieve their goals. This is how I personally think/visualize my goals best, so this is the strategy that I use. It's very important to understand your own method of thinking and adapt this method to your own thinking style. As you all know, I am a big time visionary/"head in the clouds" thinker and I am able to see the bigger picture very easily. I like to look at the desired result first in order to step back to the starting line and plan out a step by step process from there.


What could I have done differently that would have been less effective?

Let's look at it from another angle. I've been doing my best to implement Voss' strategies into my everyday speaking for over a year now, but I will do my best here to replay this example in a different way. This time I will try to ask questions in a less thoughtfully crafted way. The questions are aiming for the same results as before, but are worded in a way that doesn't force the potential new student to uncover the information that I really need to know.

Me: What do you hope to improve with your English?

Student: I hope to improve my vocabulary, grammar, phrasing and my accent.

Me: Do you feel confident when you're speaking English currently?

Student: No.

Me: Have you studied English for long?

Student: Yes.

Me: Are you speaking English much on a daily basis right now?

Student: No...


I could go on and on. With each question I have an underlying goal of uncovering a specific answer, but I'm not asking questions that make it easy for the student to tell me what I need to hear. To be honest, to give this poor example was extremely difficult for me because almost every question I form in my head now is either a "what" or a "how" style question and it almost seems silly to ask questions like I did in the example. However, I know that I used to ask questions like this, and I hear people (native speakers) asking questions like this on a daily basis. I think the main issue is that we struggle to calibrate our questions to force out the answers that we truly desire.


Thinking about what we want to know first and then forming a question in the form of "what" or "how" really helps us to develop questions that will lead our counter party to answer us in a way that demands the answer that we really want to know. I challenge you to begin forming the majority of your questions in the form of "what" or "how" questions and to really pay attention to how people respond to you. Practice doing this until you're able to ask questions in a way that really deliver you the answers that you're looking for.


The second benefit is that asking questions that force the other person to give longer responses helps you buy yourself extra time to prepare yourself for the final strike. In the meantime, your counter party feels the sense of control in the situation which makes them feel very comfortable, but this is just an illusion of control. As you are being very tactical with the questions that you ask, you are the one who is actually in control even though you're not the one talking. You're busy absorbing information that is helping you craft your master plan. When you have all the information that you need you will be able to say what you need to say to get what you want.


Humans Are Irrational Actors


It's extremely important to understand that no matter how confident someone sounds, at the end of the day they are another human being. By human nature we have trained ourselves to look and sound confident, even when we feel like our backs are against the wall. When we feel pressured in situations we often let our emotions guide our thinking.



Many of you probably remember me explaining this with the "thank goodness you don't think when you see my fist coming at your face and your initial reaction is to dodge the punch" example. Our less sophisticated ancestors have engrained this into our brains because it was the only way they could survive when faced with danger (fight or flight behavior). Our more recent, more sophisticated ancestors, have developed more complex ways to show strength through our facial expressions as well as our voice as language has developed. This makes it harder to discern when someone is BS'ing you, but not impossible.


In Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow (shoutout to Lucas for recommending this book to me) he explains our two different brains. I should point out that Voss also refers to Kahneman's book, but having read it myself I can relate to his references exceptionally well. Humans have a "system 1" brain which is very animal like and very emotional. This brain is engaged when we are dealing with things that don't require much thinking. Our "system 2" brains are our logical brains, are activated when we are faced with things that require logical thinking, and take roughly 5 seconds to engage.


While negotiating we often feel a sense of pressure and urgency. This tends to keep our animal brains engaged, or our "system 1" brains, which leads us to revealing more information than we realize. At the end of the day, we as humans seek to be understood. This is evident because we went from lone wolf nomads to building communities where people trust each other in order to survive. This is where empathy really comes into play in negotiating, and why empathy is one of the most powerful things you can use while negotiating.


Voss explains how tactical empathy involves understanding people's emotions better in order to take control and steer a negotiation. Paying careful attention to people's reactions and their emotions will help you understand how to gain empathy with your counter party. How to gain empathy with your counter party will be one of the main focuses of the following pieces.


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