Tricks for building instant relationships from the FBI's top negotiator

For 24 years, it was Chris Voss’s job to build instant relationships with people who were violent, afraid, and desperate to end negotiations without compromise. As the FBI’s lead hostage negotiator, he had to build emotional bridges with bank robbers and terrorists with nothing but a telephone call and his wits. At a weekend retreat at Summit Powder Mountain this August, Voss taught attendees how to build trust and rapport even in the most hostile of circumstances.

His techniques for relationship building boils down to making others feel like they are in control of the conversation. Voss’s Black Swan consulting group teaches clients to have conversations through paraphrasing, explicitly labeling negative possibilities and listening without an immediate goal in mind.

1. Instead of questions, paraphrase.

Towards the end of Voss’s talk, Summit attendees were taught to gather information from a neighboring audience member with statements that began one of three phrases:

“It feels like…” “It seems like…” “It sounds like…”

That is, if someone tells you they love cooking, Voss says that instead of asking “why do you like to cook”, say “it feels like cooking is really meaningful for you."

These statements elicit people’s desire to explain their passions without feeling like they have to defend their interests. In only a few moments, Voss was able to uncover one Summit attendee’s passion for cooking and the fond memories of his family.

Paraphrasing statements put the other person in control because they are not being forcefully steered by questions. As a result, they feel like they are being heard and are put at ease to let their guard down.

2. Listen without a goal

“To be goal oriented is to have tunnel vision,” explained Voss. He insisted that speaking to others with an immediate goal in mind not only makes a conversation feel transactional, but it cuts off unknown possibilities.

The more open ended exploration we do in conversation, the more we learn about all the possible partnerships and opportunities that were unknown at the start.

Don’t avoid the negative

Voss advises clients to be upfront about the negative reasons someone may not want to build a relationship. “Labeling negatives dissolves it,” he explains.

People may be afraid of disloyalty, incompetence or coercion in a business relationship. Acknowledging this fear makes them feel more in control and it validates their instincts. They’ll be more likely to have an open and honest conversation once the fear is dissolved.

For those who want to learn more, check out Voss’s book Never Split The Difference.

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