Former FBI Lead Negotiator Chris Voss Speaks at UF LAW

Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, came to speak to UF Law students and faculty on Monday afternoon. (PC: UF Law)

The University of Florida Levin College of Law Gators for Alternative Dispute Resolution (GADR) and the Institute of Dispute Resolution (IDR) hosted Chris Voss in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom on Monday. 

The lecture focused on the main approaches for high-stakes negotiation and how it could be applied to any form of negotiation.

“So long as the parties involved in the negotiation are human beings,” Voss said.

Voss is a former FBI lead negotiator for international kidnapping, the CEO of Black Swan Group and co-author of “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.”

“Why are you all here?” Voss asked following his introduction.

He proceeded to walk up and down the classroom, seeking a response for why his audience of predominately law school students and attorneys had come to listen to a hostage negotiator.

Just by this one simple question, Voss had already made his first point: Don’t ask “why” questions in a negotiation.

“Why makes people defensive,” he said.

His audience saw firsthand the proof in this statement. Asking the individuals in the audience the reason they chose to come seemed to have everyone on edge and uneasy with giving an answer.

Voss immediately grabbed everyone’s attention.

“I learned that mastery doesn’t just come from the books – no matter what any expert tells you. Mastery comes from putting yourself out there and a long process of trial and error,” said Patrick Brathwaite, 2L, pictured above speaking to Voss. (PC: UF Law)

He went on to explain the science behind how the approaches he uses for negotiating will work in just about any situation.

In the one-hour lecture, Voss shared two of these approaches: Ask “calibrated no” questions and truly follow the “seek first to understand, then to be understood” maxim.

The first concept may seem a little strange because people, especially lawyers, are typically taught to ask questions that are “easy yes” responses, Voss said.

There is an idea that if one can get someone to say yes to the easy questions, it is more likely to get an affirmative answer to the question one is actually seeking, he said.

However, this “yes momentum” does not work, according to Voss. It is a trap; the other side knows one is going some place with it. He said this approach is something people are almost too used to at this point.

Instead of asking the yes-geared questions that have been ingrained into most, Voss recommended adopting a new, better habit: Ask a “calibrated no” question.

This type of question leads to true implementation, Voss said. It loosens the tongue of whomever one is talking to and gets them to answer the questions that need to be answered before even asking them.

“We hope the students and other attendees learned something about negotiation techniques, or at least just found the talk engaging,” said Michelle Leute, president of GADR and 3L at Levin.

As for his other piece of advice, Voss reminded his audience that while the “seek first to understand, then to be understood” approach is likely not a novelty, it is still rarely followed.

“It was a positive experience overall for our organization because we were able to get students interested in an aspect of alternative dispute resolution,” Leute said, “something that we feel is invaluable to the legal education.” (PC: UF Law)

It is impossible to explain a point to someone who is fixated on asserting his or her own argument, he said. The best way to fix this is to listen to what he or she has to say and then repeat it until the other person finally says, “That’s right.”

“If one really shows understanding, then there is a better chance of being understood,” Voss said.

As the lecture drew to a close, he left the crowd with one last piece of wisdom:

“When all is said and done, you want the person with whom you’ve been negotiating with to walk away saying, ‘I’d talk to you again if I had to.'”

About Katie O'Sullivan 13 Articles
Katie is currently a 1L at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Prior to law school, Katie graduated Magna Cum Laude at the University of South Florida, where she received a Bachelor of Art in Political Science. She is no stranger to writing - she earned her minor in mass communications and spent a year as a writer for an online newspaper in Tampa. In what little spare time a law student has, Katie enjoys reading (anything, but her textbooks) and wasting time on her Xbox.