5 Steal-Worthy Secrets of the World’s Best Hostage Negotiators

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Aja Frost
Aja Frost




The scene: December 6, 1975, in Marylebone, London. Detective Superintendent Peter Imbert, Scotland Yard’s chief negotiator, picks up the phone. His team has established contact with three terrorists who have barricaded themselves and two hostages inside an apartment.

Imbert has an extremely difficult mission: Extract the hostages without losing any lives. It takes six incredibly tense days of negotiation, but he eventually succeeds.

You might not think sales reps have much to learn from Imbert and the others in his field, but you’d be wrong. The stakes are clearly different in sales than in hostage situations, but the following five techniques -- sourced from some of the best negotiators in the world -- will help you and the buyer come to a mutually beneficial conclusion.

1) State Your Purpose

It’s crucial to make the other person feel like you’re working with them, not against them. This is hard to pull off in normal negotiations, so you can imagine how challenging it is when you’re talking to a hostage-taker.

Police psychologist Dr. Laurence Miller recommends starting the discussion by stating an ideal outcome that’s good for both you and the other person.

For instance, a crisis negotiator might say, “I’m here to listen to you and to try to make sure everybody stays safe.”

A sales rep, meanwhile, could begin the conversation with: “Thanks for meeting with me today to talk about your enterprise subscription. I’m looking forward to finding the best possible solution to your current needs.

“Best possible” is the operative phrase. This shows you’re striving for a win-win deal (in which both parties benefit), rather than a win-lose deal (in which one party benefits at the expense of the other).

2) Be Honest and Direct

When you’re negotiating, playing with the truth can quickly backfire.

“From a practical standpoint, if the hostage-taker feels he’s being duped, patronized, or manipulated from the outset, he’s not going to want to cooperate with you,” Miller explains.

He advises negotiators to speak with “respect, directness, lack of deception, and integrity.”

What does that look like in a sales negotiation? First, ditch the tactics meant to force the buyer’s hand. You should never threaten to back out of the deal at the last minute, give them an aggressive deadline, or try to make them feel guilty -- at least, not if you want them to trust you.

You should also be transparent about the compromises you’re making. 

“Concessions are often necessary in negotiation,” says Harvard Business School Professor Deepak Malhotra. “But they often go unappreciated and unreciprocated.” 

Malhotra tells negotiators to label their costly concessions while explaining their value to the other side. 

For example, you might say, “Frankly, finishing the website in 10 weeks instead of 15 is going to take a lot of work on our end -- but I know your company wants the redesign done by December.”

On the flip side, don’t pretend an easy-to-make compromise will be hard: It’ll stop being believable if you make every concession seem huge.

Finally, don’t misrepresent your terms or oversell your product. The prospect could easily uncover your lies with a little digging. Plus, even if they don’t find out till later, the relationship will be ruined, and your reputation with it.

3) Build Rapport

Creating rapport is a key crisis negotiation strategy. After all, a hostage-taker is far likelier to listen to someone they feel a connection with. Along the same lines, you’re going to have a much easier time negotiating with a buyer who likes and trusts you.

Build rapport the way hostage negotiators do: By matching the other person’s way of speaking.

That means using the same words and phrases, talking at a similar pace, and echoing their style -- whether that’s casual, professional, cheery, or humorous.

To make this strategy even more effective, leverage your background knowledge of the prospect.

In practice, this might mean spending a couple minutes on lighter, non-business topics at the beginning of the call. If you and the prospect both love Game of Thrones, for example, ask what they thought of the latest episode.

Or, ask a follow-up question on a topic you’ve previously discussed. For example: “Hey, how was the trip to Rhode Island?”

Finally, you can always create some goodwill by paying them a genuine compliment.

4) Use Active Listening

You might think good negotiators spend most of the conversation talking. But it’s the opposite: They spend the majority asking questions and listening.

Jeff Thompson, NYPD Detective and research scholar at Columbia University School of Law, says active listening has two benefits: It builds trust and rapport, and it helps the negotiator gather information.

At this stage of the sales process, you should already be pretty well-informed on your buyer’s pain points and goals. However, she probably has some final objections -- without uncovering these, your chances of closing are slim.

Show her you’re engaged and paying attention by recapping what she said, asking confirmation questions (like “Did I get that right?” or “Would you say that’s accurate?”), and avoiding the impulse to interrupt or answer too quickly.

5) Stay Calm

Hostage-takers are usually pretty unstable. In a mere 10 minutes, they can go from extremely angry to reasonable and back again. Negotiators, on the other hand, must stay completely calm. Reacting only pushes a hostage-taker further over the edge.

If you’re negotiating with a buyer, keeping your cool is crucial. After all, whenever you show emotion, you tell the prospect they’ve struck a nerve. Most people will use that knowledge to push forward unfavorable terms.

Plus, the person who stays calm and composed usually gets the upper hand -- even if they started the conversation with less bargaining power. 

You’re probably familiar with the strategy of taking a couple deep breaths, but how else can you avoid boiling over? Expert negotiators suggest briefly pausing the discussion. If breaking for five minutes to “get some water” isn’t possible, then shift the focus. For instance, if you’re getting frustrated haggling over a specific item, move to a different detail or bring up the implementation plan. 

Negotiations will never be easy. However, with these five techniques, you’ll have a much better shot of walking out with the best terms possible -- for everyone involved.

Which of these techniques will you use? Let us know in the comments!

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