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    The Great Secret to Successful Negotiation

    By Tom Moon, MFT

    If you are having a hard time resolving a disagreement or a conflict with someone in your life, you might want to take some advice from Christopher Voss. He spent 24 years working in hostage negotiation, with four of them as the FBI’s chief international hostage and kidnapping negotiator. Now retired, he teaches the FBI’s negotiating secrets to businesses. There is one technique he emphasizes above all others for successful completion of any negotiation. What is that one sure-fire secret negotiation technique?

    Shut up and listen.

    Most of the time when we’re trying to convince someone to do something, whether it is to release hostages, close a business deal, or agree about where to go to dinner, we make the same elementary mistake of focusing on making our own case instead of trying to understand the other person’s point of view.

    “If while you’re making your argument,” Voss points out, “the only time the other side is silent is because they’re thinking about their own argument, they’ve got a voice in their head that’s talking to them. They’re not listening to you. When they’re making their argument to you, you’re thinking about your argument, that’s the voice in your head that’s talking to you.”

    “So, it’s very much like dealing with a schizophrenic, he continues. “If your first objective in the negotiation, instead of making your argument, is to hear the other side out, that’s the only way you can quiet the voice in the other guy’s mind. But most people don’t do that. They don’t walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They walk into a negotiation wanting to make an argument. They don’t pay attention to emotions and they don’t listen.”

    The very first step in the FBI negotiation guidelines is active listening, which just happens to be the same technique that couple’s therapists have been using for decades. In active listening, you put your goals for the outcome on the back burner, and focus instead on listening to the other person. You also work on making sure that person knows you are listening by facing him or her, making eye contact, and not allowing yourself to be distracted. Be attentive, but as relaxed as possible.

    Since your only purpose at this point is to understand the other person’s point of view, do not disagree, or argue. Do not plan what you are going to say when it is your turn to speak. Nod your head, and make brief comments (‘yes’) to signal that you are hearing what is being said. Do not interrupt, as that will convey negative messages, such as, “I’m more important than you are,” or, “I don’t care what you think.”

    Pay close attention to what the speaker’s body language is conveying. Remember that words convey only a fraction of the message. Speak only when the speaker stops or pauses, and then repeat back the gist of what he or she said. Let the speaker correct you if you got something wrong. Ask questions, but only for the purpose of eliciting more information about the other person’s point of view.

    The second step is to empathize—that is, to try to feel what the other person is feeling, and convey that through facial expressions and body language. This is crucial. Empathy is the heart of good listening. The third step is achieved when you arrive at some level of rapport with the other person, that is, when the other person starts to empathize with you, too. Only after you have listened, empathized with the other person, and arrived at some level of rapport, does the work of negotiating mutually agreeable solutions begin.

    In hostage negotiation, of course, the desired outcome—such as not shooting a hostage—is clear and does not change. But when couples negotiate, an important fourth step is to keep an open mind, which means not to assume that your desired outcome is the only right one. If you have first achieved empathy and rapport in a negotiation with your partner, you also almost automatically avoid devaluing your partner’s point of view, which, in turn, means that you are more willing to allow yourself to be influenced by your partner. This open-mindedness will make it more likely that you will be able to arrive at a mutually satisfying outcome.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website