Our Guest Today: Chris Voss
Chris Voss (@VossNegotiation) served as an FBI special agent for 24 years, specializing in international hostage negotiation.
In 2008, Chris founded the Black Swan Group, a business negotiation consulting firm offering services and learning opportunities to “anyone who needs to negotiate, persuade, or influence.”
I have struggled with business negotiation for nearly a decade. After reading Chris’ book “Never Split the Difference”, I was eager to have him as a guest on the show.
“Everything we’ve previously been taught about negotiation is wrong: you are not rational; there is no such thing as ‘fair’; compromise is the worst thing you can do; the real art of negotiation lies in mastering the intricacies of No, not Yes.”
Whether you have been told that you are already a good negotiator, or if you find negotiation intimidating and uncomfortable, this episode will help you refine your tactics and break through barriers.
- 5:30 How does Chris Voss create a playful and relaxing atmosphere for teaching negotiation?
- 7:15 Why is it a bad idea to wait for “yes” or “you are right” during a conversation?
- 9:00 “Do you have a few minutes to chat?” turns out to be a terrible pitch when you are trying to get people’s attention and respect their time.
- 13:00 Common negotiation mistakes people make but are not aware of.
- 14:45 Difference in negotiation between men and women (and why some answers to this questions could be misleading)
- 19:15: How does Chris encourage people to learn negotiation? (Comfort is the biggest barrier, not complexity)
- 22:00 How can people practice negotiation on a daily basis?
- 27:30 Is it possible to identify and avoid harmful people who are using negotiation strategies for the evil, not the good?
- 30:30 Origin stories: What was Chris like as a 10-year old boy?
- 34:30 Significant changes Chris has noticed when transitioning from a FBI agent, to a professor, to the CEO of his own business.
- 41:30 How did Chris calm himself down during stressful and (often) dangerous situations?
- 47:15 How does Chris “get out of his own way”? (We are often our own worst enemies and obstacles)
- 49:30 People & teachers Chris Voss chooses to follow and learn from
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People / Resources Mentioned:
Chris Voss: Talk at Google Headquarters
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Fei: All right. So, Chris, I’m really excited to welcome you to Feisworld. I’ve read so much about you. I am midway through your book which we’ll talk about it certainly as a theme of this podcast. But to introduce you to my audience, you’re an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Business School. You’re also a professor at the business school called Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California teaching negotiation in the MBA program. You also taught the course International Business Negotiation at Harvard University.
So before this, you spent 24 years as the FBI special agent, as the lead international kidnapping negotiator from 2003 to 2007. After you retired, you founded the Black Swan Group which is a negotiation consulting firm. So welcome, what an accomplishment.
Chris: Thank you very much, yeah. And my firm also is applying hostage negotiation to business. So we don’t do any sort of hostage negotiation per se anymore. It’s all business negotiations. So thank you very much, I’m happy to be on.
Fei: So, I must tell you that initially when I read your profile, I had somehow assumed that you’ll be intimidating to talk to. You have this wealth of knowledge that many of us, you know, simply do not have access to. But after watching your Google video talking about your book, “Never Split the Difference,” I actually find you very nurturing, very attentive to the audience as well as the interviewer, who if you remember was clearly well prepared but a bit nervous at the time facing of room full of audience. So, you know, I was wondering how do you design this approach in teaching your students and creating such atmosphere?
Chris: Well, yeah, and that’s a great point because I think it’s very important. Nurturing is one description. I mean I’m just an encouraging and positive and, you know, even occasionally playful because actually, I know…I like it for two reasons. What I call the missionary and the mercenary. All right? So the mercenary in me, I like it because it actually makes me smarter and it makes you smarter. And we’ll both think together better collaboratively if I’m encouraging, if we have fun, if you enjoy this. It helps me in a strictly mercenary sense. I’ll get a better deal.
The missionary in me because, yeah, you know, I want you to feel better about having interacted with me. I want you to feel better as a human being. I want you to wanna do business with me again and look forward to it. So yeah, it’s very intentional on my part because it does make me feel good and I like making my counterpart feel good. And it’s also profitable at the same time.
Fei: Definitely. And one message that you’ve shared multiple times that really resonated with me is, you know, don’t wait for someone to say, “You’re right” or try to outsmart the other person, partner, or a person who’s in the negotiation situation with you. It’s interesting that so much of my time spent in business in the past 10 years… By the way, I work in advertising and marketing as a producer. And now since the beginning of this year, I started my own company Feisworld Inc. I notice that now, more so than ever, with my own business, I really have to embrace your teaching and make sure that I’m not in the room and trying to outsmart everybody. Or, you know, as long as I bring them along with me, I am that much more successful.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know and for a lot of reasons. You know they’re not gonna like it if they feel outsmarted. They’re not gonna want to cooperate with you. You know, they’re gonna feel like you if you outsmart them, you make them feel stupid. And who want to do business with someone that makes them feel stupid?
And then, you know, I said recently or I mean I read recently was somebody wrote. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. So you wanna be around people that are smarter than you anyway because how else are you gonna learn? So yeah, you know, and that’s one of the real problems with negotiation, people’s negotiation stories. Like when they find out that I help get people better at negotiation, so many people have said, “Oh, let me tell you about this negotiation. Boy, I had them over a barrel.” And I thought wow, you made an enemy. You know, that’s not good for business long term. You don’t stay in business making enemies.
Fei: Mm-hmm. Yeah, a lot of your teaching is counter-intuitive, which makes me even more intrigued to listen and to actually pay attention to the details. You know your beliefs and what do you recommend, what do you recommend against. One thing that I started kind of giggling a little bit as I’m watching the video, also the Google one which I recommend. I would certainly make the link there accessible through this podcast as well is…
Chris: Thank you
Fei: …you used the example. One of my favorites is, “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” I laugh because I say that all the time. You know whether I’m cold calling someone or even when I’m calling a friend casually. You know, then you’ve basically intrigued my mind to say, “How long is a few minutes?” You make people think about first of all, “It’s never a few minutes. Do I even wanna talk to you?” So could you elaborate on that a little bit more?
Chris: Yeah. You know and that’s a classic one. Wow, what we mean and what is so well-intended is just so wrong. Because we’re saying that because we’re trying to respect the other person and we’re trying to demonstrate respect and appreciation for their times. And the opposite is the truth because like every single question we ask, we’re hoping that someone says yes. Yes is commitment so they always worry about what they let themselves in for if they say yes. “What’s gonna happen to me if I say yes?”
And that’s the sort of the stuff that clouds people’s minds and gets in the way. And “Do you have a few minutes to talk,” you know breaks down to no less than four questions. It’s you know “If I have a few minutes, do I wanna talk to you?” And if I have a few minutes and I wanna talk to you, do I wanna talk you about what you wanna talk about?” And then how long is a few minutes? And we both… you know, everybody knows people that a few minutes is 45.
Fei: That’s so true.
Chris: Yeah. And then finally the last one is “how do I get off the phone?” And you can’t think while…you can’t listen to the person while all this stuff is going through your mind.
I first saw this a long time ago when someone in hostage negotiation, they were demonstrating what’s it like to negotiate with a schizophrenic. There was a voice going in their head while you’re trying to talk to them. If you plant these sorts of questions in someone’s mind while you are talking, then it’s the same as talking to a schizophrenic and it’s so calm.
And I was sitting with a former colleague from the Department of State the other day. He’d been retired for a long time and I haven’t seen him since before I started the business. So he goes, “Yeah, I took a negotiation course.” He said, “There are three things you’ve got to do. And the first thing is you’ve got to make sure the other side understands your position.” Well again, that’s like talking to a schizophrenic because any time the other side is more focused on getting you to listen and what they have to say or what they’re worried about. What you’re saying is gonna to let them into, you’re wasting your time. So triggering yes in people’s minds or trying to trigger yes creates all this noise in their head that is just so bad.
Fei: And you just reminded me of what I wrote down on a piece of paper as I was listening to one of your podcasts yesterday. You said, “Understanding does not equal to agreement.”
Fei: I never thought of this that way because I notice exactly as you said. That when the other person trying to convince me to make me say yes or make me agree, I’m already turned off, especially when we have different positions or different understandings. But it’s often very effective, you know, mentally and it’s really a lot easier to listen to the person as the person just simply paying attention. Trying to understand where you’re coming from even if he or she doesn’t agree with you.
Chris: You know, that’s a really great point too because it’s how we accidentally turn other people off. How we turn them off from listening to us and then if we turn them off from listening to us that they’re never going to collaborate with us. You know, we’re never gonna reach an agreement. We’re never gonna reach an understanding where we both wanna proceed forward together. So all the little ways that are counter-intuitive that turn the other side off is getting out of that.
Fei: Mm-hmm. In terms of during your teaching whether it’s in the business setting or, you know, day-to-day lives. Do you see other common examples or observations from mistakes that people make that they’re not even aware of?
Chris: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, that the first two biggest one is of turning the other side off by either trying to get them to say yes or hammering them so hard for yes. Then the other side is saying , “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right.” You know? And we joke about that in my company. We always say that, “your right” is equivalent of “F you.” Only, you know, it’s “F you” but in a nice way. Like “I love you but F off, but I still love you.”
And then the other biggest thing is people taking themselves hostage in advance. And they’ll take themselves hostage in advance usually by being so determined that if they hear anything other than a yes, they become a hostage to yes. They don’t wanna hear anything else. Or what I see a lot is being a hostage of no. They say, “Well they’re gonna say no to that, that’s a nonstarter so we’ll never bring it up.” Like if you always knew what the other person was gonna say, then you’d have more money than Warren Buffett. So but we always tell ourselves, “I know what they’re gonna say. I know how they’re gonna react.” Or “You know this is a nonstarter.”
I hate that more than… I hate that so much because first of all, you don’t know. Which means you just left money on the table by not asking. And then secondly, all right so if they say no, let’s see how we can take the no to our advantage and we’ll feed it into something else. So yeah, okay. So they’ll say no to this but we can move on. You know, we won’t burst into flames. No one will burst into flames here. But they become so afraid to find out, they take themselves hostage and I hate when people won’t find out.
Fei: Mm-hmm. So this is really interesting. I wanna dissect people into a couple of groups. For instance, men and women share many traits and habits. But I’m just wondering, have you noticed any differences between the ways that they negotiate, men versus women?
Chris: Well I’ll get into it but I hate it at the same time because, you know, to use the F word fair. You know I think any time you start talking about differences or whether somebody is better or worse at something, if you say somebody is better at something that leaves the door open to say they’re naturally worse. And I don’t think that’s fair. I think women are socialized more to be more close to be empathetic, emphatic. Actually women are socialized to be sympathetic which is not the same thing. And when you’re sympathetic, you’re highly vulnerable. But it’s a much shorter step from being sympathetic to empathetic if you can understand the differences.
The basic is there’s a difference between seeing it through their eyes or walking in their shoes. If you walk in the shoes, you can feel it and that’s a handicap. But if you can see what they see, it makes you smarter. Actually, it’s one of the things that sociopaths are fantastic at. Sociopaths are wonderful at empathy and, you know, that makes some people freak out. When I wanna start a fight, I’ll say, “You know do sociopaths feel empathy?” Some people go like, “Absolutely not.” Well the truth is they absolutely do because empathy is seeing how you feel and sociopaths” emotions don’t get in their own ways and they pick apart our emotions pretty fast.
So I think women are as socialized, nurtured to be what is close to empathy than men are. I think men are nurtured a little more to put on barriers and to say no. So I think when you combine those two things, you combine empathy with the ability to say no, you get an incredibly powerful negotiator. It’s really where I’m trying to get people to go. I’m trying to get them to do both. Like it’s taking Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan and putting all those characteristics together and then you’ve got a dangerous, capable, wonderful negotiator.
Fei: I love that. You know, as you mentioned in your teaching that this process is not linear. It’s not how old you are, what gender are you, you know sort of to determine what the negotiation tactics are. I love the fact that it’s the truth in many teachings and learnings that there is no shortcut. There’s no set script to follow.
I’m so eager to tell you the story because I notice part of my own learning through negotiation and before discovering your work. And now I’m just even more enthusiastic to kind of dive into your books and your online courses. Is two years ago, I started the podcast without…you know no prior experience, no training in audio engineering and without a network of people who are in the tier ones, let’s just say, who can help me attract a lot of audience. On top of that, I am sort of double minority. I’m a woman, I am Asian, and I certainly thought for a while to think that is it even smart for me to do this. How can I possibly use that to my advantage?
So over the course of, actually, less than two years and we’re very proud that we were able to introduce a lot of the guests who we never even dreamed of talking to including yourself, Chris.
Chris: Thank you
Fei: So yeah, definitely looking back, I certainly had some failures as well. But I really agree with your approach in saying, “Look negotiation comes with practice. It’s not something…It’s not a skill you’ll obtain overnight.” And I see someone like you using negotiation almost as a second nature. For me personally, now I learned to spend less time dwelling on failures, why that didn’t work but simply to move on. So how do you coach people who isn’t, you know, just saying…sort of they have a lot of anxiety because negotiation, to people who are new to this field, is kind of uncomfortable, unfamiliar. How do you get them to be comfortable?
Chris: Yeah. You know, that’s a great question because the biggest barrier to learning this is not that it’s hard to understand. It’s that it’s uncomfortable. Which is kind of crazy because most of this even though it’s very counter-intuitive, it’s all pretty simple stuff. But it’s since it’s counter-intuitive that means it’s different. That means it’s uncomfortable and comfort is the biggest barrier not complexity. There’s no… Well there is some Nobel Prize-winning ideas in here. Because if we start talking about the concept of what loss does to people’s perceptions, that actually won the Nobel Prize. If you can wrap your mind around and it wasn’t my idea, I wish it was.
Danny Kahneman who wrote this great book called, “Thinking Fast and Slow” him and his partner Amos Tversky created prospect theory which is about what loss…you know how it distorts your perceptions. It distorts our perception of reality so much, we refer to it as bending reality. But you don’t have to be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist to know that loss stings, losses hurt, losses have over impact on how…distortive impacts on our thinking.
So that’s not complicated. That’s just uncomfortable to accept that. Instead of trying to get people to say yes all the time, developing an understanding. That’s a discomfort level, that’s not a complexity level. So that is the biggest barrier. Actually the other… Once we can get people to start getting better then the next problem is this comes to people so quickly once they get over the comfort thing. Getting good at this happens so fast.
We say the learning curve is steep, but it’s not high. That then people don’t realize it can go away just as quickly. That absolutely happened to me when I first got trained. I sort of lost my superpowers over the course of a year. I went in for a review and they told me I was horrible. I couldn’t believe it. But it came to me so quickly and so naturally that once I got it, that I didn’t feel it going away.
So you have to practice on a regular basis. Yeah, labels especially, labels and mirroring. You know, repeating of last three words of what someone just said is a mirror. You know you got to practice that or you’ll forget to do it. Pretty soon, you know, the whole yes things will sneak back into your vernacular and before you know it, you’re trying to get people say yes and that is just horrible. So it’s practice and being willing to get good at it and actually have fun with it.
Fei: So for instance, if people who are listening to this podcast, right now they’re thinking, “I wanna really start practicing today or tomorrow.” So is it possible for someone to create a situation in their daily lives such as going to Starbucks and ask for a discount or, you know, something more practical than that?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. You know I mean you can and you can do it all the time. Because first of all, any time the word yes is involved in a conversation, you are in a negotiation. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in. Everybody on the planet, if you talk to anybody at all, you probably had five conversations today no less. And three of those five had to have been negotiations. They had to involve the word yes.
So it’s even as much as taking a step back. If someone’s trying to convince you of something, you know, a great label is to say, “It sounds like this is important to you.” Practice saying that. I’m giving all your listeners the label they could use in almost every conversation, “It sounds like this is important to you.” And watch to see how the other person relax. You will see people both simultaneously light up and relax at the same time when you say, “It sounds like this is important to you.” And that’s a practice, that’s a label, that’s opening up a conversation. Just do that every day and see what happens. And then try to think of other labels to get people to talk and to get them to flesh things out.
You’ll find that actually agreement is usually is the number two thing people are after. Being understood is usually the number one thing which means if you understand them, they may agree with you.
Fei: As I’m listening, I am reflecting upon, again, how I’ve personally changed in the past two years of interviewing people because I went from feeling very uncomfortable. I’m still very nervous uncomfortable at times these days but more experienced and know how to calm myself down. You know talking to people for an hour at a time, it’s oftentimes on subjects I really know very little about such as medicine and such. Is I try to open up and I try to be really good listener. Just like you said, I do see people will relax and start telling me more about their lives, their choices, and open up. And that’s when the pocket gets really juicy too.
Chris: Right. Well I think human beings are hardwired to wanna talk and it’s just a matter of giving them a chance. Isn’t it?
Fei: Yeah. Yeah, I’m very surprised even people I thought would speak very little. You know, it’s interesting, I interviewed a very successful doctor who’s female. And her mom contacted me and said, “Wow. I’ve known my daughter her whole life and she opened up about these stories I’ve never even heard of” and I was so surprised to hear that. You know? They’re very close.
Chris: Let me say also you’ve got a natural negotiator’s voice.
Fei: Do I?
Chris: You do. You’ve actually got that rare voice of both a natural, downward inflection which is very soothing, calming, and approachable. But every time you smile, I can tell because I can hear it in your voice. And that feels good to the listener. Like we can’t see each other and when you smile, it makes me wanna smile and those two things together, dynamite. That gets people talking.
Fei: You’ve made me so happy Chris, because originally, I really wanted to turn on the camera but sometimes depending on the connection, it reduces the quality of the voice recording. I love that sort of eye-to-eye exchange. So we’ll do a little bit of that in the end because I find your presence also very powerful.
I paid attention to the interviews on YouTube that you’ve conducted that you are always communicating with your eyes. And when you’re talking to people and when they’re talking to you, I feel like they have your full attention and they’re very engaged even as interviewers.
Chris: Yes. Well I try to be attentive and because it makes it more enjoyable for both of us and then who knows what sort of interesting things, we’re gonna discover?
Fei: If you don’t mind, I’m gonna jump around. There’s one question I wrote down just before the interview. I realize it’s gonna be a little challenging to the set up so.
A very dear friend of mine very recently lost, you know, 10 of thousands of dollars to a very well-curated attack acted by multiple people, and this was like basically a bank fraud. It’s very unfortunate and we’re all glad that she’s okay. But as I was talking to her, she described these people who now I realize are very, very good negotiators. She used words such as, “she felt almost hypnotized in a way,” which we were all very surprised because this woman doesn’t typically respond to such situations. Very clear headed for the most part. I guess my question is it possible to identify these people who are possibly using their skills to harm others and how to possibly avoid these situations?
Chris: Right. Well, you know, and this kicks us right back to a little bit of the point I was making before in that sociopaths are so good at this. There was an article that I read recently Adam Grant wrote and he’s a brilliant writer. He’s got a couple of books there that I absolutely love, “Originals” and “Give and Take.” He wrote a piece called, “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence,” you know? And my book is “Operationalized Emotional Intelligence” and it is ridiculously powerful.
I’ve always joked and we’ve always joked, you know, use your powers for good and not evil. And that’s only partially joking because you do need to be aware of this. Even if you have no an intention of using the tools of influence, that’s powerful. Being aware of it to start with helps inoculate you, if you will. So it’s kind of a two-way street and there are some bargain techniques that I always talk about in business school. I say, “Look, you don’t have to do this but you have to know, it’s gonna be done to you. So you need to at least understand its impact.”
Like high anchoring, you know somebody coming up with a high price, that’s intended, designed to knock you off balance emotionally. And for the average to even the above average negotiator gives you an advantage to high anchor. With the extremely talented negotiators, high anchoring means nothing. And that triggers a whole separate debate of, you know, what sort of emotional devices are you trying to use on the other person with what skill?
But getting back to your question, I think of it in terms of just inoculation. Be aware of what can be done to you. And actually, the more and an automatic inoculation you can do is in order to keep your emotions from being manipulated. Focus on the other person’s emotions because that actually puts you in a different mindset. It’s sort of compartmentalizing. You become less vulnerable to the mojo that they’re putting on you as soon as you start thinking about what’s driving them. And I wish I had a scientific explanation of the way the compartmentalization works in our brains. But I know that if I focus very much on what emotion you’re feeling in the moment, it automatically turns all of mine down and it reduces my own vulnerabilities.
Fei: I have to do some research on that because what you said is very powerful and made a lot of sense to me. I can’t wait to share some of these learning and findings with my friend as well. Thank you so much, Chris. I really appreciate that.
Chris: Of course, yeah. Of course.
Fei: So we’ve learned a lot about negotiations and I will direct people to, again, the courses in the book. I think it’s very well curated. I do wanna learn a little bit more about you. I feel like a lot of the podcast I’ve listened to focus on your work. But, you know, I think we can’t ignore the fact that you’ve chosen, or you chose a very unusual path to become an FBI special agent. But before that all happened, one of my favorite questions is what was a 10-year-old Chris like? You know, what were you passionate about around that age? I wanna find out more.
Chris: You know I think…well, I grew up in a middle class, blue collar, small town, mid-western family. You know we were…very strong sense of both hard work and right and wrong from the very beginning. I think probably as long as I can remember, you know, we had to we had to help, we had to work. I worked for my father, he had a business. He was a hardworking, blue-collar guy, very direct, very straightforward. You know he wanted to teach us work ethic.
My mom wanted us to have fun and be kids and so was, you know, kind of Midwestern, at that time, stay-at-home mom small town U.S.A. One older sister, two younger. You know just running around like a little kid but with parents who are definitely trying to build me with decent values but not to the ridiculous extent that some people are doing with kids these days where you know they got them studying and training.
I mean there’s a female, a woman businessman here in Los Angeles. She’s got a daughter in chess lessons, she’s got her daughter playing tennis, she got her daughter doing extra study. All I think that does is just make kids annoyed if not neurotic. So, you know, I lived in just an environment that was right and wrong, work hard, try to get along well with other people, cut the grass, make your bed.
Fei: Did you notice that you used the word superpower? Did you notice or even use the word superpowers to describe some of the talents and skills that you had at the time.
Chris: You know, I don’t know. No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I was aware of it. I thought back to this a lot like was there a pivotal moment where I knew that I would be a hostage negotiator. You know and I don’t think so. Other than, I can remember one time in particular, I got in trouble. I lived in a household where, you know, Dad had the belt which was gonna get laid across your backside if you got in trouble. And then of course when Dad came home, that was what you were scared of. I remember Mom giving me a choice. She’s like, “All right, look I can spank you or your father could spank you.” I thought to myself, “Well, you know this is a no-brainer, ain’t no way you can hit as hard as he can. Plus I don’t even think you have a belt.” And so I’m like, “Sure, you know go ahead. Yeah. You know you spank me.” She was like, “All right, go to the closet and get the yardstick out.” I was like whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. This changes the equation dramatically.” You know I figured Mom, she’s a nice sweet person. She’s not supposed to be laying a stick, or a hunk of wood across my backside so.
Fei: I’m tried so hard to control myself not to laugh.
Chris: I guess, I learned the nurturing piece can bring the wood also at the same time. Maybe I learned that then.
Fei: Interesting. So, you know, going from an FBI special agent and creating your own company. But I feel like your life possibly changed a lot between going from a special agent to creating your company. What are some of the areas or, you know, more significant changes have you noticed?
Chris: Well, as much also from leaving law enforcement training to training first in universities and then people, I’ve actually learned a lot more about the value of encouraging people as opposed to being hard on them. I’ve spent and, you know, when you are teaching cops hostage negotiation, it’s a tough audience. I felt like I had to be tough on them. You know, I had to demonstrate competence but there’s an old saying, “When you are cop if you’re confronted with a gang of five or six guys, all you got to do is beat up the biggest one and nobody’s gonna give you a hard time.” Which is, you know, that’s always easier said than done.
But when I was teaching cops, I would pick out the loudest, most annoying cops in the class. I would watch them before class so I knew who they were and, you know, the smart alecks, the know-it-alls. I’d have them role-playing for me in front of the class the very first thing I did. And basically verbally just chop them down to size and consequently get everybody’s attention that way.
You know that, I don’t like that anymore. If I had to go back and do it again, I would do it differently. I would be much more encouraging. So I think in leaving the FBI and coming out into the private sector, I’ve really grown more to learn the value of positive encouragement for people. And as you mentioned before you are checking on data. Now finally, we have data that shows that our brain works up to 31% more effectively when we’re in positive frame of mind.
So again this is the missionary in me. You know we’re both happier if I make you, put you in a positive frame of mind, if I joke around with you. If in a negotiation, if I’m trying to get you to give me something, then I say, “Look, okay, here’s my last and final offer. I’ll throw in my pet frog.” If that makes you laugh, you’re gonna be more likely to give me the deal and we’ll both enjoy it more. And I’ll leave you with a positive residue afterwards so that when I come back, the last thought on your mind was the smile I put on your face when you last saw me. And I think that’s been the biggest change since I left the FBI. I’m much more consciously appreciating how much farther that’ll get me out.
I’ll give you a quick story. I spent a lot of time on the street in New York City as an FBI agent in the toughest parts of town by myself. And you learn your street persona which is kind of like, you know, cracking down persona. Like, “If you bother with me, you’re gonna get bit.” I can put up this vibe, you know this “don’t screw with me” vibe. In that if you take me on, you might win but you’re gonna get hurt in the meantime. And I can put this vibe on.
So now, when I go through an airport, you know on a busy airport how likely people are to bump into you. So if I put up my “don’t screw with me” vibe, no one bumps into me and everyone gets out of my way. And they will get out of my way when they’re about three feet away from me. They’ll feel this intense dangerous negativity and they’ll move.
Now, if I go through the same airport with the same crowd and I have a big smile on my face and I’m projecting, “Hey, I really like you, you know you’re a great human being.” Everyone will get out of my way also but sooner. They’ll get out of my way when they’re about five or six feet away from me, which gives me more space. But now instead of glaring back at me, I get a return smile. I get more room, I get more latitude, I can get to the airport quicker, and everyone I encountered was made more positive by the experience as opposed to feeling attacked. So I can do that and I know that a positive, reinforcing attitude is much more powerful and gets me much more, you know, than the bad ass attitude does.
Fei: You know I appreciated the fact that you’ve taken so many extra steps from you can simply retire, live a comfortable life but yet you’ve chosen the opposite of that. Making all these learnings, compiling notes, and make this knowledge accessible to people in everyday lives. And certainly add the business schools that you’re teaching at. I feel like there aren’t enough of you doing such things and having your voice out there.
You know in space without people meeting you in person, I feel like it will certainly encourage other people to try to do the same. You know, I’ve read some articles about negotiation or how to… You know, there’s a book called, “How to Handle Difficult Conversations” when I was working in consulting. And I wasn’t as near… You know those books I read a few pages, I’ll put it down but now I’m halfway through your book. It’s because I have, not just me but people knowing who you are, will have this tremendous respect for what you had lived through. Hostage negotiation, working in the darkest valley in New York City and you’ve dealt with real situations that mattered, sometimes it’s life or death matter. So there’s a different tone and voice and tactics that you’ve brought out to the world. That’s just, you know, in my opinion.
Chris: Well it’s, you know what, for me it’s fun, it’s cool. I really enjoy helping people do stuff that they didn’t think they could do. The first time I was pretty lucky. I got involved in a real-deal hostage negotiation fairly soon after I got trained, and it was the most incredible experience. I mean it was amazing. And so then whenever we would train a class, you know, there would always be one or two people in a class that would get into something right away. We’d tell them. I said like, “You know you’re gonna get… Somebody in this room is gonna get into something in the next month and you’re gonna go through experience of a lifetime. You’re just be… You’re gonna love it. It’s gonna be crazy. It’s gonna be life changing.” Every time it would happen, they would call me and they were still so high on the experience, I could feel it. I found that tremendously gratifying. So, yeah, helping people do cool stuff, I get a charge out of that vicariously, I still get a charge out of it.
Fei: So if you don’t mind, I’m gonna go back to one thing you mentioned, which I didn’t quite expect, is some of the dangerous situations that you’ve been in. Even though now you’re very lax and, you know, this is your jam. I can imagine just the energy in your classrooms. With that side, when you were in these tough situations and in your book you had mentioned that you have a skill which is lowering your heart rate kind of back to the normal and calm yourself down. What are some of the tips on how to do that because I think I could use a lot of it?
Chris: Well, you know, the crazy thing is it’s one of two things. The first thing is the moment I try to focus in on what the other side is feeling, I mean I’m under control. I don’t know why that works. There’s still a lot of stuff that hostage negotiators have known for the last 40 years that now scientific data is finally bearing out. I haven’t seen any reporting anywhere of scientific data contradicting the experience of hostage negotiators.
So this is one of those. I mean and to keep our hostage negotiators, keep them under control, we always taught them like you know, use the late night FM DJ voice. And that’ll keep you under control and it will calm them down.
The very first thing is do is to focus on labeling your emotion and, “It sounds like this is really important to you. It sounds like this has upset you.” There is something about flipping that switch that puts me under control. So the minute I just focus on the external that I’m faced with, my internal goes on autopilot and I’m fine. The minute that I let my internal distract me off of what I need to be paying attention to around me anyway, then the internal can become overwhelming very, very quickly. That’s just a matter of practice finding out.
So then and all the rehearsal that Navy Seals and other people like that do in dealing with stress, it’s usually along two or three lines. They’re focusing on the internal. One of the things that a guy, I coached through a kidnapping negotiation of his brother. The way he got himself under control is exactly the same way, one of the ways that Seals do. Seals say to themselves, “I could die. This is just a reality.” And accepting that it’s a reality instead of being afraid of it, immediately calms them down. Samurai were famous for focusing on death all the time because it was an acceptance of something that they’re no longer be afraid of.
In this kidnapping of a brother and I coached the brother through it, he told me afterwards. Early on he just said, “You know my brother could get killed.” I didn’t hear until a couple years later because he was phenomenal. And I said and I had him come in to speak to my business school class. I said, “You were great with the calibrated questions. You got to him so good that you made up a few of your own which were superstar questions.” And he said, “Well you know, okay, I’ll take your word for it.” He says, “And the other thing, I just accepted early on my brother could die.” I was like, “Wow, if you come and tell my business school that, then that’s all they need to know.” Because understanding that the worst case scenario could happen and then simply, “Okay, there’s nothing I could do about it.” That automatically calms people down.
And then the other thing that crazy is, I was reading in a blog post by Eric Barker just the other day. I’m an avid fan of Eric Barker’s blog. He said he was talking to Special Forces guys who said made it a point of laughing every day in their Special Forces training. If in ranger school if he could laugh once during that day, he was gonna get through that day. And that’s again laughter lightening us up and making us stronger and more resilient.
Fei: Somehow, I feel like if my brain is this like little universe some time trying to reflect upon my experience. And not being able to make sense of why did that happen, or why did I respond to it that way. You reminded me of when I was a very, very avid skater, a skateboarder. Every day I go out to training and I have this happy and yet, you know, kind of this… I would also find it kind of scary when I needed to try new tricks. I think all the skaters feel the same way. But if somehow during the training I fall, or, you know, I kind of land on my wrists or my knees but I’m okay. After that incidence, somehow my trajectory is totally different. I notice you know what, it’s not a big deal. It’s not that big of a deal to fall. Once I accept that, I realize I treat all the following situations very differently. It’s a much lower scale than that the story that you shared but it’s interesting.
Chris: No, it’s the same except… It’s a different scale but it’s exactly the same principle. Yeah, yeah, that makes sense.
Fei: I notice like because of this very significant shift in your career, helping, directing people, benefiting them directly. I wonder what was that transition like exactly? What I mean by that is and I love what you said in your book, “many times in life we are our own worst enemy, critic, or obstacle.” Same thing with so many people I’ve talked to. “I want a blog, I want a podcast” and at best they have a single blog post, they have a single podcast and they give up very easily. Do you see that in yourself that you could also be your own obstacle? If so, how did you convince yourself to say, “I’m gonna pursue this new path? I’m gonna do it?”
Chris: Yeah, I mean that’s a tough one. It’s us taking ourselves hostage again after just one thing where it didn’t work out. I suppose, I get by it because, you know, it’s the mindset of it’s gonna be okay otherwise anyway. You know giving yourself a chance to fail. I mean, I could look at a lot of different ways. It’s all in what I project that I have a stake in the game here. You know how [inaudible 00:47:41] is a failure gonna be?
There’s a lot of self-talk as to whether it’s fear-based or whether it’s abundance-based and you get lucky every now and then to be given enough perspective. I mean go spend 10 minutes on a child’s cancer ward and you’re gonna think you’re the luckiest person on the planet. Sort of… There’s a homeless shelter that I’ve been going to recently where there’s a thing for homeless kids on building life skills. You go talk to some of these kids where, you know, they’re sleeping on cots in a room that’s got 30 people in it in a mission. And they’re only allowed to be there for so long. Or some other kid is living out of a car in South Central LA.
You know sometimes getting an eyeball on somebody else’s perspective because we get caught up in our own problems. Our biggest problem is our biggest problem. So I think I’ve been lucky enough every now and then that the universe has dropped something in my lap where it said, “Look, you know, stop worrying about your problems, things could be a lot worse.” You know, by definition, anybody in the United States who’s listening to this is already ahead of the game. Because we really don’t have to get up in the morning and wonder whether or not somebody is gonna kill us. It’s a likelihood that there’s gonna be an explosion or we’re not gonna live to 35 because of a lack of sanitary conditions. But sometimes, you just gotta kind of find a way to get out of your own head to see that.
Fei: Chris, we’re on a roll here. You had mentioned, you know, news you like to read. You had mentioned a person, Eric Barker. But I feel like are there any other people, teachers that you thank for or learn from on a regular basis you’d like to share with my audience?
Chris: I like Adam Grant’s stuff an awful lot. His book “Originals” is a phenomenal book. It’s thought provoking and he’s a great writer. So I like Adam Grant’s stuff. Daniel Pink got good stuff out there. Daniel Goleman’s got good stuff out there. David Goleman is credited with coming up with the term “emotional Intelligence” to begin with. In his latest book, I think it’s called “Focus” and there’s actually a chapter on it where he breaks down the three different types of empathy. One of which he calls “cognitive empathy” which is what sociopaths do to us on a regular basis. So, you know, there are thought-provoking thinkers that are out there.
Angela Duckworth I think wrote a book called “Grit” that’s out there that, that’s very good. You know there are a lot of good thinkers out there. One of the things I like about Eric Barker’s blog is that he typically reads all these people and that distills it for me so.
Fei: I love that. Maybe that would be a good starting point for me as well.
Chris: Eric’s turned me on to a number of other books because he’s written pieces about them. He’s fascinated… his blog is really kind of like how life works and he’s very open minded. So he reads up on this stuff and, you know, I don’t know where he finds the time but I like reading his stuff. It’s good. He’s a good guy too. He’s a very good guy.
Fei: I feel the moment you just described Eric Barker, I realize that because, you know, you had a very demanding and potentially very stressful life prior. And now you’re teaching and you’re thinking all the time. Perhaps reading someone like Eric Barker’s blog, it’s almost…in a sense, it’s meditation and relaxation. Do you think?
Chris: Yeah, now, that interesting. Yeah, yeah. It’s thought provoking but not in an exhausting way. It is very relaxing to read his stuff. That’s a good point.
Fei: Yeah. Awesome. So I can’t believe this one hour went by so quickly and I promise to let you return to work in a few minutes. But is there any question, are there questions that you’re eager to be asked but I haven’t gotten to?
Chris: No. Not really. I mean, I would just really encourage your listeners just to you know be playful and courageous with this stuff. You will have so much fun trying this stuff out. Don’t take yourself hostage. Have fun with it and bring some great stuff into your life.
Fei: Oh, that’s wonderful, Chris. Before we close, where do you recommend people to learn more about you, your company, and keep in touch?
Chris: Our website which is blackswanltd.com. “BLACK” like the “color,” “SWAN” like the “bird with one N,” “LTD” like “limited,” blackswanltd.com. You can find out about the book. You know we’ve got a twice-a-month newsletter that comes out that’s very digestible with ideas to read. It’s complimentary. We got a lot of stuff that people could use to have fun with and to get better at negotiation.
Fei: Thank you so much, Chris. Do you mind if I turn on the camera real quick so? You are so wonderful. I really enjoyed this.
Chris: Yeah, I did too. Yeah, thank you very much. Yeah.