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This time, I talk with Chris Voss, the Founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group Ltd and author of Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Chris has used his many years of experience in international crisis and high-stakes negotiations to develop a unique program and team that applies these globally proven techniques to the business world. In our conversation, we dig a little deeper into the techniques he developed from these high-stress situations and how he is helping companies apply them to their sales and customer service practices. Our talk shows the ways in which Chris is a remarkable person who will give you insights and ideas that can help you become better at whatever you do.

Innovating Life Podcast #10 Interview with Chris Voss

by Jon Sabes | Podcasts

Opening Music Credits of my podcast go to Rival Sons! I love this rock band so much, they are best hard hitting rock n roll band I have come across in a long time.  I hope they are cool with me borrowing a few bars from Electric Man to introduce the cast – we are all creatures of energy.  It is how we organize and focus the energy (commonly known as and referred to electricity) that makes us who we are!

Listen along and learn from Chris Voss, visit him at The Black Swan Group – sign up for his newsletter The Negotiation Edge – you can get it just by texting fbiempathy to #22828 – and for sure Read/Listen the book Never Split the Difference!!

We talk about a lot of things including how Chris worked with John O’Neill at the FBI.  O’Neill ran the FBI New York Office where Chris was stationed.  And if you are studying Voss and want to hear an amazing FM DJ Voice check out: Frontline – and the episode on John P. O’Neill. The O’ Neill story is about an amazing American Hero who probably could have stopped 9/11 all together – but politics and bureaucracy shut him down – and he ended up dying on that fateful day.  It’s an ironic twist on an incredible story of on our war against terrorism.

Jon Sabes: Ok, welcome to another episode of Innovating Life with Jon Sabes, our podcast. On this episode we talk to Chris Voss, CEO founder for Black Swan Group, and author of Never Split the Difference. In this podcast, Chris talks about his practice of the art of negotiation. He’s a fascinating guy. He’s worked all over the world with some of the most inhospitable situations with real life crises, so tune in, and I hope you enjoy the podcast with Chris. How’s my FM DJ voice, by the way?

Chris Voss: (laughs) Not too bad.

Jon Sabes: Thank you for taking the time to participate on the Innovating Life podcast. My name’s Jon Sabes. I’m the CEO and founder of a company out here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We came across your book, Never Split the Difference. It’s a really fascinating book, and thank you for writing it.

Chris Voss: I’m glad you guys like it. You’re welcome. I think it’s helping a lot of people, and I’m really happy about that.

Jon Sabes: So making the transition from FBI negotiator, hostage negotiator, and now into the entrepreneurial field of business consulting, how’s that been going for you? What’s that experience been like, and how long has that been happening? Can you maybe give us some observations on that?

Chris Voss: You know, it’s been a lot of fun. So the crazy thing about it is that every time I doubted that maybe there was something from hostage negotiation that didn’t apply to business negotiation, I found out I was wrong. (laughs) I mean one way or another, it all does. It seems insane to think that kidnappers and hostage takers, and the way to be effective with them, and the way they would react, would be the same as day-to-day life, but I guess if you start scratching beneath the surface, and you realize that you’re just dealing with human beings in different circumstances, and the commonalities, people shouldn’t be that different. So, it’s not. One of my favorite jokes, you think a bank robbery with hostages is bad, well you should go to one of my Monday morning staff meetings. (laughs)

Jon Sabes: (laughs) Yeah, so it sounds like what has surprised you the most is the similarity amongst interactions with people.

Chris Voss: You just don’t get away from the dynamics. You know, one of the crazy things, we just assume that the stuff we’re trained in hostage negotiation, which was to defuse negative emotions and look for the loss, and that would be the fastest and quickest way to unravel things. You know, somebody’s taking hostages some place. There’s a pretty good chance he’s experienced a significant loss in that last twenty-four to forty-eight hours. So it’s like, ok, we’ll do that. You hear negative emotions. You reflect them back. It’ll calm him down really fast. You get to the heart really fast. So after that, I find out about this thing called prospect theory. There’s a Nobel prize winning economic theory. It says that everything we do is overly dominated by our fear of loss. Just as an example of that, I came across a recent study where they said, they surveyed some people. They said, here’s your favorite bottle of wine. How much would you pay for this bottle of wine if you saw it at the liquor store? Ok, so now here’s that exact same bottle of wine, it’s your favorite bottle of wine, you got it at home. How much would somebody have to pay you for it so that you would sell? So your favorite bottle at the liquor store, happiest, best bottle you could ever want. $173 is the average price. If you own it and you’re selling it, the average price is $1,900. Just based on whether or not you’re gaining or losing the exact same object. That’s insane, but that’s exactly what we were taught in hostage negotiation. That people have vastly different points of view on stuff based on what the loss is.

Jon Sabes: Yeah, I found the concept of loss aversion that you spoke quite a bit about in the book to be one of the more fascinating concepts as well, and a challenge to use to your advantage as well. And again, I think you do a great job of talking about owned biases that we all bring into any negotiation or conversation. So my own loss aversion, and how I deal with that, and the self-discipline I need to impose to effectively use the techniques that you talk about, and that to me seems one of the bigger challenges that I face, and probably others that are studying your work.

Chris Voss: Yeah, it is a big challenge, and mostly because we’re just not used to doing it. We just haven’t had the mental exercise. There’s a phrase that says, the synapses that fire together, wire together. It’s just a matter of practice, which at the very beginning, is always difficult. You know, the learning curve’s always steepest at the beginning. It’s just we don’t know it’s going to smooth out once we hit the peak, which is not that far, but we assume that it’s all going to be steep.

Jon Sabes: Do you have any tips for people trying to employ this on a more regular basis? Anything you go to as a technique that we can reach towards?

Chris Voss: You know, again, since it’s a matter of practice, and a practice spans like any given skill. I heard a Blue Angel recently talk about it takes about 63 – 67 repetitions to wire the skill into your brain. So if you just want to get there, say I’m going to try this 67 times. You’re going to get it sooner than that. And I want to learn mirroring, which is repeating the last three words of what somebody just said, but it feels so awkward. Just do it over lunch. Do it at the water cooler. Pick a specific point in time, space in time when you have conversations that don’t matter, and for 15 minutes, try it six times, and then maybe do it once a day for a week. You’re going to find yourself getting through that 67 repetitions, that conscious confidence, so much more quickly if you just set aside time in slight chunks when you’ve got no skin in the game conversations. You’ll be stunned at how quickly it’ll come to you.

Jon Sabes: So focusing on a specific practice, mirroring, using that in everyday conversations, and employing that consciously, will develop that habit.

Chris Voss: Yeah, and even if, because a lot of your everyday conversations just matter to you, matter to you anyway, so you’re supposed to be relaxed. And at lunch, anyway, say, so at lunch none of this matters, I want to have just good interactions. I’m not trying to get anything, let me just do it at lunch. Do it in the conversations where you don’t feel like you have anything at stake. Just like any athlete who’s got to practice in the preseason to get to the big game, let’s figure out when the preseason conversations are, and try it there.

Jon Sabes: So amongst your group team members, does everyone feel as though you’re mirroring each other? And kind of, how are those conversations going? That’s something that’s happened around here as well, which is, is he using the mind jedi techniques on me right now? What’s he trying to get out of me, we’re having fun with it.

Chris Voss: Yeah, well, that kind of plays to what the other person’s motivation is. That’s why Adam Grant wrote an article called “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence”. Because if you get good at this, this is ridiculously effective. I mean it’s insanely effective. So we drop our guard at my company because we’re just really trying to listen to each other. We accept that we’re all on the same team. And I find my director of operations labeling me, which is designed to make me think. I’m like, I got to dial in here. He wants me to think about something. What is it he’s trying to get me to think about. My director of marketing, what is she trying to get me to think about. So it’s whether or not you’re comfortable dropping your guard around somebody, you know, what are their motivations.

Jon Sabes: I love everything that you’ve said. I can’t recall a book, well, I can recall one book I’ve gotten as much out of your book as this particular instructive manual on how to, and your advice too, employed across your entire life. I think that’s a big takeaway as well from your work.

Chris Voss: Thank you. Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.

Jon Sabes: When you look for I’ll call source documentation, beyond the specifics of the art of negotiation, what have you looked to? What books– you’ve mentioned several writings. Where do you find your core philosophies that have driven you to where you’ve gotten to in life?

Chris Voss: Well, it’s a combination of a couple things. I’m trying to read as much as possible these days, which is hard because we’re all busy. But I’m also trying to read, I’m doing sort of the Elon Musk technique, which is reading a couple books simultaneously, looking for common principles. So I’m reading a book, U2 by U2, you know, the rock band U2. But at the same time as well I’m reading Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans, or Eric Barker’s book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree. All phenomenal books. I’m trying to compare ideas. And those are three books that I happen to be into an awful lot right now, because I’m just looking for good, usable ideas.

Jon Sabes: Great, I love Tim’s book, and certainly been subscribing to his podcast. It’s certainly an inspiration for me and my career as well. Well, here’s one question I wanted to ask you, do you have a favorite FM DJ voice, either historically speaking or current?

Chris Voss: Well, I’ll drop into it occasionally when I need somebody to calm down, which is a lot of the case in our personal interactions to each other when we start getting mad at each other. You know, the master’s voice is a late night FM DJ’s voice. You smile at the same time, boy if you could integrate those two together. You need somebody, if you really like listening to them, some of the greatest newscasters have the ability to give you this warm regard, and calming at the same time. I strive for that. Every now and then when I run into someone that people just like just being around them. You can tell that everyone just likes to be in your presence. They’re going to have that kind of voice.

Jon Sabes: Yeah, I hear you. I love the quote in the FM DJ voice. The one that comes to my mind when I heard that the most kind of on point is Frontline. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that news program.

Chris Voss: I am, yes.

Jon Sabes: Yeah, the narrator, or the host, he does a terrific job, and I just love that tone. It’s just like you’re saying, in a newscasting type of environment. And also the aspect of slowing it down.

Chris Voss: Right, right, yeah. To sort of slow the negative down, which gives the opportunity for the positive to take off a little bit.

Jon Sabes: Mm-hmm. Can I ask you a question just about your career just on Frontline, The Man Who Knew, John O’Neill. Did you have a chance to work with John?

Chris Voss: I knew John O’Neill very well. Yes, I worked with him.

Jon Sabes: I was really interested again in that aspect of your career and the work that you had done, and I figured as much because that’s a striking episode of Frontline where they tell the John O’Neill story.

Chris Voss: Yeah, John was extraordinary. He was an extraordinary guy. He came to New York. I was in New York, and we had just started working the TWA Flight 800, plane that blew up on a fuel tank spark, not an act of terrorism, a complete mechanical failure. We were in the midst of this massive operation. I really admired John a lot because when we got to New York, he said, being in the FBI and not working in the New York office was kind of like being in the army and never seeing combat. New York has always been where it was happening. Another leader in charge of the New York office at the same time once said, we’re in the Super Bowl every day, so it was a great place to work, and I was privileged to work with John.

Jon Sabes: Yeah, he seemed like an amazing guy. If you think about guys who slowed down and are thoughtful, he seemed to be that kind of guy. He had that calming effect, but yet was quite purposeful in what he was trying to accomplish, and confident, and I was excited to ask you if you knew him. I’d always just admired the man and anyone who touched him, and was able to work with him, must have been a fascinating aspect of your career.

Chris Voss: Yeah, John was extraordinary.

Jon Sabes: Coming back then to your own career, what were you doing before you got to the FBI, and how did you end up– I love the story on how you get into hostage negotiation, so that’s great, but even the steps that take you through, is there again a common denominator that you find in terms of how you’re perceiving the opportunity and then achieving, again, that’s a big piece of what we try to think about around this office.

Chris Voss: Yeah, you know, I was a street cop. I was a street cop in Kansas City, Missouri. I think the most common denominator, I’m open to learning, and I was smart enough to take advice. It seems obvious to some people, but if you’re going to ask advice, you should either ask somebody who’s good at it or somebody’s who’s in charge of it. And the stunning thing is then you should actually do what they say, and so many people will seek advice, and keep asking until somebody tells them something they wanted to hear anyway, which was their plan all along. We used to call it in the FBI new way of shopping for opinions, you know they’d shop around until they found an opinion that they liked before they’d do anything. You shouldn’t shop. It should be pretty obvious who you should ask, and then you should do it. And if I look back over my career, it was a critical piece as to how I became an FBI agent, and, you know, each time I needed help, the funny thing about asking the right person is you immediately recruit an unofficial mentor. You know, they’re going to watch to see if you follow their advice, and if you’re following their advice, they now feel vested in your success, and they’ll do what they can to run interference for you, which is what you want a mentor to do. There are several key points in my career where, you know, I asked, I listened, and I followed. And I look back on it, and those people really looked out for me just because I asked the right person, and I followed their advice.

Jon Sabes: Case in point the Norman Vincent Peale suicide hotline in order to get into the FBI’s negotiation school or division.

Chris Voss: Yeah, yeah, and when I went back to Amy to include that in the book because I wanted to put Amy’s name in the book. I like giving credit wherever I can, she said, I had to have told a thousand people to do that over the course of my career. Two people did it, and you were one of them.

Jon Sabes: (laughs) That’s great.

Chris Voss: Think about the competitive advantage you give yourself by just following advice. If those are anywhere near the numbers, the number of people not following advice, you don’t have to work that hard to give yourself an easy advantage.

Jon Sabes: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I love it, and how unconventional, but that unconventional path led to the convention of achievement.

Chris Voss: Yeah, yeah, it was cool. I really enjoyed the time on the hotline. It really taught me how to listen.

Jon Sabes: I’m inspired to try and work that into my life at some point. I thought that was really interesting and inspiring to do as a way to give back and help others in need, while at the same time, learning how to accept people as they are. I forget the exact condition that you quote, and then work with them to get them to a better place. I was really fascinated by that.

Chris Voss: Yeah, you know, it’s really cool. If you go there primarily just to learn how to do it, if that’s your overriding motivation, then the satisfaction you get from helping people is even more incredible. If it’s not your primary motivation. And I went to the hotline for very mercenary reasons. I wanted to learn the skill. I wanted to get some place. And because satisfaction was not my primary motivation, I found it to be interesting how enormously satisfying it was.

Jon Sabes: Yeah, I hear you. We’ve got an aspect of that in our business where it feels as though we have a satisfying aspect of it that makes it even that much more pleasurable to deliver the benefit to our consumer who we’re helping. That’s wonderful. What’s next for The Black Swan Group? I mean, you’re out, you’re consulting. What do you think about next in terms of your achievement? I noticed you’re getting involved with some artificial intelligence and other things. What’s on the horizon for your practice?

Chris Voss: Yeah, we’re just trying to add people who we are working with. We’re looking for more partners, people who want to teach this, want to learn this, who want to help us take a deep dive into their area, into their niche. You know, at the moment we’re working on a lot of real estate stuff. We’re applying it to real estate, also customer service. We got an inquiry recently from a company, an industry leader in customer service, and they want to help us dive in there. We got that partnership with Node, who is an artificial intelligence internet marketing company. That phrase is it’s not just how many people you want to know, but who should know you. So we’re doing a lot of fun stuff, and we’re looking to partner up and just sort of scale out, and help as many people as we can.

Jon Sabes: And if someone’s interested in inquiring on those services they should just reach out to The Black Swan Group, and I’m sure they’ll find you.

Chris Voss: Yeah, a couple ways to keep up with what we’re doing. Email info@blackswanltd.com. I got a couple people that are staying on top of that, and the website is blackswanltd.com. And to really keep up on a regular basis, we’ve got a weekly negotiation newsletter we put out called The Edge. Is it alright if I go ahead and tell people how they can subscribe to that?

Jon Sabes: Absolutely, yeah.

Chris Voss: You know, text messaging is one of the easiest ways. If you don’t find it on the website, you send a text to FBIempathy, all one word. You know, don’t let your autocorrect put a space in there.

Jon Sabes: FBI–

Chris Voss: FBIempathy, all one word. Yeah, FBIempathy. Upper, lower case, doesn’t matter. And send it to 22828. And the number again is 22828. And you get a dialogue box that’ll sign you right up to the newsletter that keeps you up on all the training initiatives we’re doing, where we’re going to be doing open enrollment training, and there’s a short little concise article that comes out in each piece, easy to digest and integrate into your day.

Jon Sabes: Well, I know I’ve subscribed, and a few others in my shop have as well, and we love it. And when we’re ready, when we’re ready, we’re going to reach out to The Black Swan Group, and we’re going to say, ok, ok, Chris and team, please come and evaluate how it is we’re going on our scripting because we’re studying your work, we’re working really hard to implement it, and at that point, we want to come talk to you, and then get a fair evaluation because we’ve already seen in the short time between what we were doing prior to studying your work, and now implementing those changes, we’ve seen radical improvement in the receptivity of our customers, our prospects by using the techniques that you’re out there teaching. So, for the those listening, the science of Voss works, but we’re really looking forward to engaging with you at a deeper level in your team.

Chris Voss: Awesome, that is really cool. Yeah, we’d love to talk to you about that, and see what your numbers are, because that translates into revenue, right, really translates into prosperity for your business and the people you do business with.

Jon Sabes: Yeah, we do a lot of phone work, so when you’re doing work over the phone, it resonated really well. You have very little leverage, right, from a call center perspective or outbound prospecting, so how do you use those techniques to gain some leverage, and use your jedi mind tricks, and get in there, and convert that prospect into a lead, and an opportunity, and a customer.

Chris Voss: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and a long term customer too.

Jon Sabes: Long term. I’m going to thank you for your time, Chris. We want to continue to promote you, and the great work you’re doing, and we’re going to circle back with you on a corporate level here soon as I mentioned, and we’ll interact more. Thank you for doing all the work, and helping us entrepreneurs out here understand the personal dynamics that are going into the conversations that we’re having. It’s really valuable information, and we appreciate it.

Chris Voss: Thanks, Jon, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Jon Sabes: We’ll talk soon. Have a great day.

Chris Voss: Bye.

Jon Sabes: (Music) Ok, that was Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference, CEO founder of The Black Swan Group. Again, highly encourage you to stay informed and in tuned to what Chris is up to. His tools and techniques are proven to work. We’re implementing them here, and we look forward to working more with Chris and The Black Swan Group, so I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Chris Voss, and you have a great day. Keep being the best version of yourself.