Illustration of a group of people talking or training negotiation skills for business during a meeting.

Negotiation Skills for Business: The Greatest Tips from a Former FBI Negotiator


This article is just one of a series of business lessons (including negotiation skills for business) for entrepreneurs from legendary experts. For the next articles, remember to subscribe (for free!) to my list here.

Listen to “Learning Negotiation Techniques with a Former FBI Agent – Isopraxism, Calibrated Questions and etc.” on Spreaker.

Why negotiation skills for business are important? (Or: How they helped my company during the Pandemic crisis).

Back in May 2020, one of my businesses (a touristic budget accommodation) was at serious risk due to the Coronavirus crisis and subsequent lockdown.

I needed to either renegotiate a better deal with the landowner or we would deplete our financial reserves in a matter of months.

I had one week before the negotiation, so I went online to look for some resources to help me. That’s when I discovered Chris Voss, a former FBI senior negotiator which is now an acclaimed writer and the founder of a consulting firm called The Black Swan Group.

(Ps: I am not receiving any monetary or financial incentive from either him or his company to write this article. It is purely based on my own positive experience).

Here, I’ll share some of his insights that helped me the most to negotiate my business out of the crisis, and that can be extremely helpful to other entrepreneurs.

Who is Chris Voss

Chris Voss is the author of the national bestseller Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. In 2008, he founded The Black Swan Group, which uses hostage negotiation to solve commercial communication issues

Until 2008, Chris was the FBI’s chief international kidnapping negotiator and represented the FBI on the National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group. He also served 14 years on the New York City Joint Terrorist Task Force. He negotiated the surrender of the first hostage-taker in the Chase Manhattan bank heist hostage abduction.

During Chris’s 24-year FBI career, he was trained in negotiation by the FBI, Scotland Yard, and Harvard Law School.

More about sharp business skills you can discover in our list of books recommended by Jeff Bezos.

Negotiation techniques I recommend (Or: How I lowered my rent, reduced my expenses, and saved my company)

Below are the 3 negotiation techniques from Chris that I used.

If you are familiar with his masterclass or book, you know that there are multiple other techniques, but for my enterprise, the 3 below yielded the best results during negotiations with suppliers and customers.

Mirroring in negotiation (or: Isopraxism)

If you’ve ever watched The Office, you’ll recall Andy Bernard imitating his superiors’ words and referring to this as “mirroring”. I assure you that it is not as silly as it appears, and it works. It even worked for a snob like Andy.

Mirroring, also known as isopraxism, is essentially imitation.

People and animals tend to mimic one another to provide comfort. These copies are often unintentional and occur in body language as well as speech and tone of voice. When it happens, we are not fully aware of it.

However, if you are on a date and the other part begins to replicate your hand movements, take it as a sign of bonding.

Bonding and rapport result in trust. So you can probably guess where this is going. Trust is a necessary component of effective negotiation.

We avoid what is unfamiliar and seek out what we can trust. A pack of wolves hunts together.

As serious as all of that appears to be, the FBI’s use of this technique is almost comical. A mirror, for their negotiators, is when you repeat the last three words, or the critical one to three words, of what the other party just said.

Mirroring is the FBI negotiation manual’s closest equivalent to a Jedi mind trick. Simple, but incredibly effective.

Did I employ this tactic in my negotiations?

Yes, I did until I realized my counterpart (the landlord) was also employing this tactic with me. This created some amusing situations, such as the repetition of the same expression three times.

Still, it worked.

All the Hows of a First-Time Business Owner: There is a thin line between bankruptcy and the freedom to be an entrepreneur
An idea for a present for yourself (or to any entrepreneur).

The late-night FM DJ voice

What happens when two alpha roosters are put in a cage or two aggressive Pitbulls in a small space? 

Playing pitbull against another pitbull will leave you bruised and unsatisfied. Chris Voss, on the other hand, has a different strategy for dealing with aggressive opponents. It is broken down into four to five steps:

  • Make use of the late-night FM DJ voice. If you’re not sure what that means, imagine the laidback, relaxed tone of voice of someone that is half Morgan Freeman and half Matthew McConaughey.
  • Begin with “I’m sorry…”
  • Use Isopraxism (see previous paragraphs)
  • Keep silent for a moment. Allow at least four seconds for the Isopraxism to work its magic.
  • Repeat. Slow it down during this process.

One of the most common mistakes made by negotiators is trying to achieve end goals too soon. People can tell when you’re in a rush, and they can tell when they’re not being heard.

This can jeopardize the trust you’ve built, tear down the rapport, and throw all of your previous efforts into the garbage. Quiet your inner critic, and focus solely on the other person’s words. 

My schedule always includes a time buffer for unexpected changes in the course of business meetings or negotiations with suppliers.

This extra time allows me to not rush the meeting, to properly listen to what the opposing party has to say and to calmly design a common ground where we can both compromise and benefit mutually.


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The most effective of all negotiation techniques for business: Calibrated Questions

This was the most among all negotiation skills for business I learned from Chris Voss:

Calibrated questions wield tremendous influence.

To begin, what are calibrated questions?

They are questions that avoid verbs or words like “can,” “is,” “are,” “do,” or “does.” Those verbs form closed-ended questions. If a question is closed-ended, it can be answered with “yes” or “no.” You don’t want that.

A simple yes or no reveals little about the other side of the negotiation and gives you no leverage. Avoid them by asking open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions begin with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how.” They motivate the opposing party to think before developing and articulating their position. The best questions are the ones that begin with “what” and “how.”

This is because who, when, and where frequently just invite the counterpart to tell facts or opinions without much thought. The word “why” should be used with caution because it can backfire, presenting an unfavorable accusatory tone.

When was the last time you saw a clinical doctor? What questions did he pose to you? Most of them were probably open-ended, so he could have a better outlook of you, the patient.

Open-ended questions also encourage the other party to speak, slowing down the pace of the negotiation. They assist you in remaining calm, biting your tongue, and avoiding knee-jerk reactions.

Pause.

Inquire.

Allow the other to speak. Collect more data and, if possible, enlist the help of the other side to find possible solutions.

This brings us to the most important calibrated question in a negotiation: 

“How am I supposed to do that?”

If you ask that question in a respectful tone, your position will be transformed into a request for assistance. It will invite the counterpart to join your battle on your side and help you, whether with monetary or non-monetary incentives.

If the other side gives you no suggestion, he is implicitly admitting that your demands are reasonable. In either case, you are strengthening your position.


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Conclusion: Negotiation skills for business

Here are the 3 negotiation skills for business (or also negotiation techniques) that I used the most.
There are other strategies taught by Chris Voss and used by FBI negotiators, but for my company, the three listed below were the most effective while negotiating with suppliers and clients.

  • Isopraxism (also known as mirroring): Mirroring is repeating your negotiator’s key phrases. It is a vital negotiation tool. It works well when you’re repeating words your partner has just spoken. Mirroring helps the other side know you’re listening and taking their opinions seriously.
  • The late-night FM DJ voice: Adopt a calm, smooth tone of voice. Speaking in this tone slows you down, calms your breath and brain, and relaxes the other person. Slowing down the conversation guides the other person and allows you to think.
  • Calibrated Questions: These are open-ended questions designed to shift the negotiation’s power dynamic and force the other side to consider your position. In other words, they let the other part see things from your perspective while maintaining everyone’s autonomy. One of the best examples is “How am I supposed to do that?”.

Best Books for Young Entrepreneurs in 2022 [Must Read!]

For more insights for entrepreneurs and small businesses, I recommend this book: All the Hows of a First-Time Business Owner: There is a thin line between bankruptcy and the freedom to be an entrepreneur

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Levi Borba is the founder of expatriateconsultancy.com, creator of the channel Small Business Hacks and The Expat, and a best-selling author. Subscribe to my articles (for free) and receive (also for free) the ebook “The Blueprint for First-Time Business Owners”.

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