By Jack Duddy, Isabel Power, and Laurie Twine - Ogilvy Consulting’s Behavioural Science Practice

Have you ever left a situation feeling like you didn’t get what you actually wanted? Or even left an argument feeling like you lost even though you know that you were right, but couldn’t quite articulate why?

These are similar scenarios for many in their professional life, personal life and even on the world political stage. We can, however learn from those who have built their life on constructing arguments, deals and negotiations. Those like Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator and co-author of the book Never Split the Difference. He believes his most successful negotiation outcomes came about when he employed simple psychological insights. 

Whilst (we hope that) most of you do not encounter life and death hostage negotiations on a daily basis, you will be surprised by how much negotiating you do every day. In the words of Chris himself “life is a negotiation” and the majority of interactions we have at work and at home are negotiations that boil down to the expression of a simple, animalistic urge: I want.

This can be manifested as: 
I want a pay rise”
I want the kids to go to bed at 9pm”
I want you to like and share this blog post around social media…”  (worth a try)

Try and picture what your daily negotiations might be.  

We have pulled six psychological insights used by Chris and other leading thinkers in the field of persuasion, that you can use in everyday life.

Before we jump in, remember: “Negotiation is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery. The goal is to uncover as much information as possible”.

1. Labelling 
Assure them that what they are feeling is okay

What to do: Identify what someone may feel or is currently feeling and call it out.  
This is best done with small phrases such as: ‘It sounds like or it seems like’

This can be one of the most powerful techniques when it is used effectively because labelling allows us to identify with a counterpart and show that we understand the position they are in. This also tells them that the emotional reaction they are having to what you’re saying is normal or even expected, and therefore not a barrier. 

Even when this is done incorrectly there can still be some benefit. As long as you have listened to someone and listened to their reaction, an incorrect label gives the person the opportunity to explain how they feel in another way. Either way you are closer to understanding someone’s circumstance, which ultimately is what your counterpart desires.

A couple to try

“This may make you feel shocked, but… ” 
“It seems like you are upset by this…”
“It sounds like you are getting frustrated…”

2. Illusion of control

Make them feel like they are “active” in the negotiation and not just a bystander

What to do: Ask “how am I supposed to do that”

Control is incredibly important. If individuals feel vulnerable they are likely to act defensively which can break off communications and there is no progress without communication. So, you may ask ‘How I am supposed to move forward the conversation while making my counterpart feel that they have control’. Chris believes you should be posing almost this exact question to them.

When someone is trying to negotiate something out of you, asking your counterpart ‘How am I supposed to do that?’, forces them to consider your position and offer options. This is exactly what you want them to do, to see your side of the negotiation, offer solutions and then you are in the position of saying “yes or no”.

So how can you move the conversation forward whilst making your counterpart feel as if they are still in control.

3. Similarity ‘Mirroring’
Make them think you are on their wavelength and find similarities between you.

What to do: Copy the other person’s tone, body movement and language.

This may shock you to hear… but humans are surprisingly fickle. Even though we may be selfishly trying to get the most out of a situation, we can be incredibly swayed by whether we like the person in front of us. There are tricks and techniques to achieve this “like” factor which can be grouped together under the term “Mirroring”.

Mirroring is when you match another person in their body language, vocal tone and even the words they say. This makes you appear similar to each other which triggers the heuristic we have that “similarity = likeability + trust”.

One tactic is to simply repeat the words that someone is saying back to them. If you are using the same words, verbs, adjectives and jargon then they believe you are on their wave-length and the disconnect of “are they understanding me?” disappears.

Another mirroring tactic is to copy body-language. Stand or sit similarly to the other person during a conversation. But be subtle and natural. If they sit back in their chair, wait a moment and casually sit back as well, if they are sat forward and engaged then match this position with theirs to also seem engaged. Again, this indicates that there is a connection between the two of you and that you are not “against” each other in this negotiation. 

4. ‘That’s Right’

Understand and validate their position

What to do: Summarise their position as you understand it. Pause and wait for their response.

People find it incredibly important to feel understood. In fact, chemicals actually change in our brain when we feel like someone is listening to us and we are much more open to discussion. Getting your counterpart to say ‘that’s right’ is important because it is a subconscious signal that they actually believe you understand their perspective.

What’s even better about hearing ‘that’s right’ is that you have not only reassured them and validated their position, but it also acts as confirmation that you have understood them and therefore you are able to move the conversation forward.

So how can you hear these magical two words? Whilst phrases like ‘yes’ or ‘you’re right’ may seem like you have hit the jackpot, they can be used as a defence mechanism. These phrases are used when people are exhausted and want to shut down communications. In order to avoid these generic responses do not ask a closed question such as ‘is that right’ as this puts pressure on the individual to give a quick response.  Instead, paraphrase their position and use the ‘power of the pause’ to trigger a ‘that’s right’. 

5. Execute action

Break stalemates by asking ‘calibrated questions’

What to do: Ask questions that begin with ‘What’ or ‘How’ to move the conversation forward. For example, ‘Taking this position into account, how can we move the deal forward’

Sometimes in negotiations you can find yourselves in situations when both sides appear to understand each other’s point of view and there have even be echoes of the golden ‘that’s right’, yet the discussion has reached an impasse.

Calibrated questions can move the discussion forward into action. By using this type of question, you not only repeat and therefore validate each other’s position it also helps the issues become three-dimensional. Which can help you and your counterpart think of better answers.

In order to be as effective as possible use ‘What’ and ‘How’s’ rather than ‘Why’s as these are non-threatening terms.

6. ‘NO’

Use ‘no’ to open up new paths of negotiation

What to do: Flip normal questions on their head to become no-orientated questions. Instead of ‘do you agree with this?’ try ‘is there anything you disagree with?

If you have been trying to implement all the above and you are still finding your counterpart comes back with ‘no’ then all is not lost. This actually offers you more opportunities than hearing a ‘yes’ because it paves the way for further discussion.

‘No’ is a protective word, whereas saying ‘yes’ means committing yourself to something you may not want to do in the future.  Therefore, people have a natural inclination to say no.

We can capitalise on this by flipping some of our questions into ‘No-oriented questions’. Voss believes with this approach people are more likely to concede to your demands indirectly. He tells a story where he got access to a roped off VIP area in a restaurant, when, instead of explicitly asking for permission, he asked “Would it be horrible if we sat in this section?”

For those paying close attention you may have noticed this spells L-I-S-T-E-N. This is the principle that underpins almost all the literature and tactics on hostage negotiations. Listen to what the other person is saying, not just through their words but their entire body. This is your greatest tactic and only that way can you find out where they really stand, why they are saying what they are and to eliminate any sticking points.

Remember, at the end of the day, even though they may not seem it at the time, you are always talking to another person. In many ways they are just like you, and in just as many ways you are just like them. And just like them you are subject to the same biases and psychological techniques. 

It seems like you really enjoyed this blog. Is it ridiculous for us to suggest you read our other blogs too?


This was originally published on OBehave here.


Voss, C., & Raz, T. (2016). Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it. Random House.