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Negotiation Tips: “Stop me if this sounds unfair."

posted Feb 9, 2018, 3:30 PM by Joyce Evans   [ updated Feb 9, 2018, 3:32 PM ]
Here is the latest in a series of occasional articles on “Negotiation Tips” from former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss who spoke at a previous Association educational program.

By Chris Voss

Everything in life is a negotiation. Sometimes, the stakes are quite low. Other times, people can feel like they have life and death on the line. During my 24 years with the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit as lead international kidnapping interrogator, I used many different techniques in life-and-death negotiation situations. Let me share a couple of important words that REALTORS® can use when negotiating a transaction.

First, a common misconception is to want to hear the word “yes.” Our culture seems to have an addiction to hearing “yes.” However, if you want to be a great negotiator, stop your desperation for  “yes.” The problem with “yes” is that your client may think that you’re trying to get them to agree and they perceive it as a trap.

Instead of “yes,” let me emphasize the power of empathy, or what I call “tactical empathy.” Whether you’re dealing with threats to company assets, people or general business dealings, empathy is one of the most powerful tools. Listening for insight into your counterpart’s point of view can give you an opportunity to connect with them and change their mindset.

So, rather than “yes,” your goal should be to hear, “That’s right.” Those are magic words. When someone believes what you have said is the unequivocal truth, their reply will be, “That’s right.” And they are confirming they feel empathy for you. It's the confirmation that you've met the objective Stephen Covey set out for us: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

If you can understand someone’s perspective so well that you can summarize it back to them to the point where they say “that’s right,” then you’ve laid a foundation for trust-based influence and a successful negotiation. Practice getting those two words in your conversations and I think you’ll be pleased with the results. For example, we used this technique during hostage negotiations with a terrorist in the Philippines. When the negotiator demonstrated his complete understanding of the other’s perspective, it entirely changed the terrorist’s mindset so dramatically that we were in a completely different negotiation. 

Another word that can powerfully change negotiations is “fair.” It’s so powerful that I call it the “F-word.” As human beings, we’re swayed by how much we feel we’re being respected. Human beings need to feel they’re being treated fairly. People will sign the agreement if they feel they’ve been treated fairly, but they will lash out if they don’t.

A decade of brain-imaging studies has shown that human neural activity, particularly in the emotion-regulating insular cortex, reflects a degree of unfairness in social interactions. Even non-human primates are hardwired to reject unfairness. In one famous study, two capuchin monkeys were set to perform the same task, but one was rewarded with sweet grapes while the other received cucumbers. In response to such blatant unfairness, the cucumber-fed monkey literally went bananas.

However, be careful when you use the word “fair.” One of the most destructive ways to use the word is to say, “I only want what’s fair” or “we just want what’s fair.” It’s a judo-like defensive move that will destabilize the other side and break rapport. It is a harmful form of manipulation. For example, think back to the last time someone made this implicit accusation of unfairness to you, and I bet you will admit that it triggered feelings of defensiveness and discomfort. These feelings are often subconscious and can often lead to anger.

Another way not to use “ fair” is to say, “this is a fair offer” or, “we’ve given you a fair offer.” When someone says this, it’s basically accusing someone of be ing dense or dishonest. It’s a jab that distracts s your attention and manipulates s in ways that end up being harmful to the relationship.

If you find yourself in this situation, the best reaction is to simply mirror the “F” that has just been lobbed at you. “Fair?” you’d respond, pausing to let the word’s power do to them as it was intended to do to you. Follow that with a label: “It seems like you’re ready to provide the evidence that supports that,” which alludes to opening their books or otherwise handing over information that will either contradict their claim to fairness or give you more data to work with than you had previously. Right away, you have declawed the attack.

The best way to use the word “fair” is by saying, “stop me if any of this sounds unfair.” This way is positive and constructive. It sets the stage for honest and empathetic negotiation.

Here’s how I use it: Early on in a negotiation, I will say, “I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly at all times. So please stop me at any time if you feel I’m being unfair, and we’ll address it.” It’s simple, clear and sets me up as an honest dealer. With that statement, I am letting people know it is okay to use that word with me if they use it honestly. As a negotiator, you should strive for a reputation of being fair. Your reputation precedes you. Let it precede you in a way that paves success.

Chris Voss is the founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group and author of “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It.”