3 Crucial Tools FBI Negotiators Use for Breakthrough Insights

I read a book called Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss, a former lead FBI hostage negotiator. He speaks about understanding people in high-stakes high-stress situations to collect hidden information, unknowns, to make a deal and make communication breakthroughs with people.

We can use these same tools to hunt for unknown information that holds us back from breakthrough ideas and team progress.

Cross-domain language give fresh perspective

Chris’ now works as a consultant and teaches at Harvard, while his insight on negotiations and conflict resolution are not entirely new, as he says “he just has better stories” and I’d add an unusual viewpoint.

Applying thinking across new domains (hostage negotiations to digital product) frames concepts and tools with a new language. A fresh perspective lets us leave behind the baggage of our existing way of operating, and learn something new.

We tend to drive our ideas through the same thinking ruts.

These are three concepts helped me get out of the thinking ruts when working with people.

3 tools to hunt for deeper understanding

1.) Be a mirror – Jedi mind trick

In a conversation when people are connecting they reflect one another – that’s the mirror. It’s a natural behavior phenomenon that has been researched by many people in many species (see sources below). The mirror is simple – people mirror each other naturally without thinking and without notice when they are connecting.

I learned a similar concept in middle school when I became a peer-mediator and discovered the power of paraphrasing. Later in the business world, I learned to call it “framing” – it sounds more serious. It’s gotten to me through some very challenging team conversations and company negotiations (another story). The FBI has the mirroring technique. Mirroring is a more tactical use of framing and paraphrasing.

As a communication tool “being a mirror” is when you say the last three words or keyword back to someone then wait. The trick is to wait through the silence for the other person to process. Almost always people can’t help but fill the silence with more information.

Chris jokingly calls the mirror technique “mirroring as magic or a Jedi mind trick because it gives you the ability to disagrees without being disagreeable.”

2.) Kill your assumptions with multiple hypotheses

When Chris is talking to a terrorist trying to get them to give up a hostage or understand what’s happening he shares that it’s essential to have multiple hypotheses.

Don’t commit to assumptions, have multiple hypotheses.

If you are working on a startup or a product, a multiple hypotheses mindset allows you to see what you don’t know. Listening is hard enough. When you’re entirely focused on one hypothesis, it narrows your view causing you to miss critical ideas that fit another set of assumptions.

“Great negotiators are able to question the assumptions that the rest of the involved players accept on faith or arrogance, and thus remain more emotionally open to all possibilities, and more intellectually agile to a fluid situation.”
– Chris Voss

3.) Slow down – be a people mover, not a problem solver.

Don’t be a problem solver sounds like heresy, but Chris shifts the perspective to focus on a person and understanding what drives them to action.

The suggestion is not to brick wall a group with some conversation system; instead, it’s waiting a few seconds between your responses and statements, so everyone has more time to hear and process.

Slowing down conversations brings calmness – go too fast, and people don’t feel heard.

In the end, if you focus on people, you’ll solve problems.

Identify Break Through – Listen First

Whatever tools you use to understand people, to get at what’s happening under the surface of an issue, the results rests on your ability to listen to other people.

The FBI has a team of 4+ people listening during any negotiations. It can seem like overkill having a team just for listening but as Chris says “…In these types of situations, nobody works alone… It’s really not that easy to listen well.”

Are you building a product and want to understand peoples problems so that your product can create value? Or do you want to get your development, design and business teams all on the same page?

You can get people to share and talk all you want but if you can’t listen it doesn’t matter.

The tools above will get you the information you need, just keep your ears open when the insights start to flow.

Adapting a quote from the book: 
Good leaders expect surprises.
Great leaders use their skills to reveal the surprises they are certain exist.

Sources & References:
Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash
American Phycological Associations: The mind mirror
Wikipedia: Mirror neuron
Scientific American: Whats so special about mirror neurons
Never Split the Difference

Also published on Medium.