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Negotiation Secrets from an FBI Agent

In the early 1970s, between graduate school and my FBI career, I worked as a salesman. When I became involved with and, later, led the FBI’s hostage negotiation program, the similarities between hostage negotiation and what I learned as a salesperson became evident. Many of the rules and tactics I learned as a hostage negotiator can apply equally to business negotiations.


People believe in demonstrations far more than words. For example, negotiators in Waco were telling David Koresh that everything was going to be resolved peacefully. On the other hand, what did Mr. Koresh and the Branch Davidians see when they looked out the window? Tanks! Who were they more likely to believe? A voice on the telephone or what they saw out the window?

If a salesperson promises to take care of a potential client, but does not return e-mail messages or telephone calls for three or four days, what’s being demonstrated with regard to how well the client’s requirements will be met? Saying “I understand” is not nearly as effective as demonstrating that the listener understands.

Keep it simple

Albert Einstein once said, “Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler.” There are many smart people in the FBI and in your corporation who will come up with complex answers to problems. The secret is in looking for simple answers from smart people! Those are the answers in which I have the most confidence. During an aircraft hijacking, FBI agents at the scene were concerned about a long coat the hijacker was wearing. It was speculated that the hijacker might have a bomb under the coat. Later, when asked why that particular coat was worn to the airport she said, “It was cold and it is the only coat I own.”

Suggested negotiator introduction

How one opens a negotiation can be very important. It may set the tone for hours, if not the duration of the incident. The introduction used by many police negotiators in the United States is as follows: “My name is . (No rank or title.) I am a negotiator with the _____________Police Department. I would like to help.”

In the United States, the public is familiar with what negotiators do. In one incident, negotiators were unfortunately unable to reach a subject by telephone until after shots had already been fired. After the negotiator introduction, the subject said, “You’re a negotiator? Where have you guys been? I have been waiting for you. I want to get out of here. I give up!”

Negotiators in the United States are taught not to forget to ask the subject to come out. It might seem elementary, but there have been instances in the United States when subjects have said they would have surrendered sooner if they had been asked.

Forgetting to ask for surrender is like forgetting to ask if a potential client is ready to buy at the start of a negotiation. You never know. Perhaps the client’s father or son already has your product or has invested with you and all he wants from you is the paperwork to sign his name. If you press on with a sales pitch when the client is willing to buy or invest immediately, you risk losing everything. If the subject or client declines to surrender or buy at the outset, the negotiator falls back to the negotiation process.


For law enforcement negotiators, it is very important to be reassuring because the people with whom we negotiate are almost always frightened. To a lesser degree, many of your clients might also be nervous or frightened. They could be fearful of risking their investment or spending their money unwisely. You must take the fear out of the transaction for your client.

One of the tactics police negotiators use to overcome fear is by first engaging them in successful, smaller interactions. Over time, it is demonstrated to the subject that he can talk and have small interactions without fear. Consider how your clients can have smaller transactions that have the potential for larger transactions later. Smaller transactions conducted with professionalism build trust, reduce fear and demonstrate how larger, more significant transactions will be managed in the future.

Subject's needs

Successful police negotiators are adapt at identifying the subject's needs and using them to obtain resolution. The negotiator listens for two types of needs that are almost always present. First, there are the instrumental needs, that is, the spoken, often tangible needs such as survival, food, water, comfort, and predictability of circumstances.

Then, there are the expressive needs, that is, the unspoken and often intangible needs such as power, acceptance, belonging, affection and self-worth. Expressive needs, if they emerge at all, will emerge later in the negotiation. For example, in a sales situation a client’s primary need may be to impress his new father-in-law, who is his boss, with his shrewdness as a negotiator. As a result, all kinds of issues may materialize. Few people will tell you at the outset, “Listen, I’ve got to be tough here to impress my new father-in-law,” but they might tell you later when they trust you.

Negotiators should listen for unspoken needs. One indicator that there are expressive needs not being met is when all of the instrumental needs have been met and a client still will not close a deal. Expressive needs can be very personal. The subject's shift from instrumental needs to expressive needs may indicate the development of trust and rapport and, therefore, progress in the negotiation.

The surrender or close

Law enforcement has had situations where the subject wanted to come out and negotiators had to tell the subject to stay inside the stronghold because the tactical team was not ready for him. To this observer, this circumstance is the equivalent of a client saying that he is ready to buy but your replying that you are not ready to close—not a good situation! As a result, negotiators are encouraged to discuss the arrest plan with the tactical team early in the incident.

Part of the surrender may include determining the “surrender ritual” or how the subject wants to surrender. I have observed four different surrender rituals. Some subjects want to shave and put on a clean shirt because they know that they will be appearing on the television evening news and they want to look good. Other subjects want to look like “bad guys.” A British colleague reported that he told a subject that a sweater could be put over his hands so friends, neighbors and relatives outside the house would not see him in handcuffs. The subject entwined his fingers behind his head and said, “No, I want to go out like this, just like in the movies.”

A third form of surrender ritual is that the subject sets up a circumstance that allows the tactical team to tackle him. This way, when the subject goes off to prison, he can say, “I didn’t give up. The FBI SWAT team jumped me and there must have been 10 or maybe even 25 of them but I got in some good punches before they took me down!” From the subject’s perspective, it is a good, almost true story that will get even better over time.

A final form of “surrender ritual” is to just let the situation die slowly. In two aircraft hijackings, FBI negotiators traded 25 people off the aircraft in return for food. Instead of 25 people coming off the plane, 35 people came off the plane. So, the stairs were left in place and passengers just started getting off. At the conclusion, there was no one left on the plane but the hijacker and an FBI agent, and in the other, the hijacker, FBI agent, and flight attendant remained. There was no dramatic end to either incident.

For law enforcement negotiators, the surrender is equivalent to a close in a sale. In my view, the secret to a good close is in doing everything well up to the close. If a negotiator or salesperson is having trouble with the close or the surrender, look at the entire process. Surrenders or closes do not stand alone.

It’s not over until it’s over

My advice to negotiators is to listen, care, do things as you were trained to do them and have faith in the process. If you do, you can walk away from the incident with a clear conscience knowing that you did everything you could have done. There is nothing more you can do.

Retired New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said of baseball games, “It’s not over until it’s over.” The same can be said of negotiations. As a negotiation is successfully progressing, negotiators sometimes become careless because they think that the pressure is off and the situation is over; a dangerous development. The incident is not over until the subject is in handcuffs and someone is taking him away. You, as a salesperson, may be certain that you have the potential client sold but at the last minute they back out of the deal for whatever reason. It’s not over until you have the client’s signature and his check clears the bank. In other words, it’s not over until it’s over!