An FBI Hostage Negotiator on How to Use Unexpected Events to Gain Leverage

"Black Swans" are those hidden and unexpected pieces of information—those unknown unknowns—whose unearthing has game-changing effects on a negotiation dynamic.

“Black Swans” are those hidden and unexpected pieces of information—those unknown unknowns—whose unearthing has game-changing effects on a negotiation dynamic. (Photo: AmyAshcraft/Flickr)

This story is an exclusive chapter excerpt from Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

At 11:30 a.m. on June 17, 1981, a beautiful 70-degree spring day with an insistent westerly breeze, thirty-seven-year-old William Griffin left the second-floor bedroom where he lived in his parent’s Rochester, New York, home and trod down the shoe-buffed stairs that led to their meticulous living room.

At the bottom he stopped, paused, and then, without a word of warning, shot off three shotgun blasts that killed his mother and a handyman who was hanging wallpaper and critically wounded his stepfather. The sound reverberated in the enclosed space.

Griffin then left the house and shot a workman and two bystanders as he jogged two blocks to the Security Trust Company, a neighborhood bank. Seconds after he entered, people began sprinting from the bank as Griffin took nine bank employees hostage and ordered the customers to leave.

For the next three and a half hours, Griffin led police and FBI agents in a violent standoff in which he shot and wounded the first two police officers who responded to the bank’s silent alarm, and shot six people who happened to be walking near the bank. Griffin shot off so many rounds—more than one hundred in all—that the police used a garbage truck to shield one officer as he was being rescued.

Waving the nine bank employees into a small office at 2:30 p.m., Griffin told the manager to call the police and deliver a message.

Outside, FBI agent Clint Van Zandt stood by while Rochester police officer Jim O’Brien picked up the phone.

“Either you come to the front entrance doors of the bank at three o’clock and have a shoot-out with him in the parking lot,” the manager blurted through her tears, “or he’s going to start killing hostages and throwing out bodies.”

Then the line went dead.

Now, never in the history of the United States had a hostage-taker killed a hostage on deadline. The deadline was always a way to focus the mind; what the bad guys really wanted was money, respect, and a helicopter. Everyone knew that. It was a permanent and inalterable known known. It was the truth.

But that permanent and inalterable truth was about to change. What came next showed the power of Black Swans, those hidden and unexpected pieces of information—those unknown unknowns—whose unearthing has game-changing effects on a negotiation dynamic.

Negotiation breakthroughs—when the game shifts inalterably in your favor—are created by those who can identify and utilize Black Swans.

Here’s how.


At exactly 3 p.m., Griffin gestured toward one of his hostages, a twenty-nine-year-old teller named Margaret Moore, and told her to walk to the glass bank doors. Petrified, Moore did as she was ordered, but first cried out that she was a single parent with a young son.

Griffin didn’t seem to hear her, or to care. Once the weeping Moore made it to the vestibule, Griffin shot off two blasts from his twelve-gauge shotgun. Both of the heavy rounds struck Moore in the midsection, violently blowing her through the glass door and almost cutting her body in half.

Outside, law enforcement was stunned into silence. It was obvious that Griffin didn’t want money or respect or an escape route. The only way he was coming out was in a body bag.

At that moment, Griffin walked over to a full-length bank window and pressed his body against the glass. He was in full view of a sniper stationed in the church across the street. Griffin knew quite well the sniper was there; earlier in the day he’d shot at him.

Less than a second after Griffin’s silhouette appeared in his scope, the sniper pulled the trigger.

Griffin crumpled to the floor, dead.


Black Swan theory tells us that things happen that were previously thought to be impossible—or never thought of at all. This is not the same as saying that sometimes things happen against one-in-a-million odds, but rather that things never imagined do come to pass.

The idea of the Black Swan was popularized by risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his bestselling books Fooled by Randomness (2001) and The Black Swan (2007), but the term goes back much further. Until the seventeenth century, people could only imagine white swans because all swans ever seen had possessed white feathers. In seventeenth-century London it was common to refer to impossible things as “Black Swans.”

But then the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh went to western Australia in 1697—and saw a black swan. Suddenly the unthinkable and unthought was real. People had always predicted that the next swan they saw would be white, but the discovery of black swans shattered this worldview.

Black Swans are just a metaphor, of course. Think of Pearl Harbor, the rise of the Internet, 9/11, and the recent banking crisis.

None of the events above was predicted—yet on reflection, the markers were all there. It’s just that people weren’t paying attention.

As Taleb uses the term, the Black Swan symbolizes the uselessness of predictions based on previous experience. Black Swans are events or pieces of knowledge that sit outside our regular expectations and therefore cannot be predicted.

This is a crucial concept in negotiation. In every negotiating session, there are different kinds of information. There are those things we know, like our counterpart’s name and their offer and our experiences from other negotiations. Those are known knowns. There are those things we are certain that exist but we don’t know, like the possibility that the other side might get sick and leave us with another counterpart. Those are known unknowns and they are like poker wild cards; you know they’re out there but you don’t know who has them. But most important are those things we don’t know that we don’t know, pieces of information we’ve never imagined but that would be game changing if uncovered. Maybe our counterpart wants the deal to fail because he’s leaving for a competitor.

These unknown unknowns are Black Swans.


With their known knowns and prior expectations so firmly guiding their approach, Van Zandt, and really, the entire FBI, were blind to the clues and connections that showed there was something outside of the predictable at play. They couldn’t see the Black Swans in front of them.

I don’t mean to single out Van Zandt here. He did all of law enforcement a service by highlighting this event and he told me and a room full of agents the story of that horrible June day during a training session at Quantico. It was an introduction to the suicide-by-cop phenomenon—when an individual deliberately creates a crisis situation to provoke a lethal response from law enforcement—but there was an even greater lesson at stake: the point of the story then, and now, was how important it is to recognize the unexpected to make sure things like Moore’s death never happen again.

On that day in June 1981, O’Brien kept calling the bank, but each time the bank employee who answered quickly hung up. It was at that moment they should have realized the situation was outside the known. Hostage-takers always talked because they always had demands; they always wanted to be heard, respected, and paid.

But this guy didn’t.

Then, midway through the standoff, a police officer entered the command post with the news that a double homicide with a third person critically wounded had been reported a few blocks away.

“Do we need to know this?” Van Zandt said. “Is there a connection?”

No one knew or found out in time. If they had, they might have uncovered a second Black Swan: that Griffin had already killed several people without making monetary demands.

And then, a few hours in, the hostage-taker had one of the hostages read a note to the police over the phone. Curiously, there were no demands. Instead, it was a rambling diatribe about Griffin’s life and the wrongs he’d endured. The note was so long and unfocused it was never read in its entirety. Because of this, one important line—another Black Swan—wasn’t registered:

“…after the police take my life…”

Because these Black Swans weren’t uncovered, Van Zandt and his colleagues never saw the situation for what it was: Griffin wanted to die, and he wanted the police to do it for him.

Nothing like this—a shootout on a deadline?—had ever happened to the FBI, so they tried to fit the information into what had happened in the past. Into the old templates. They wondered, What does he actually want? After scaring them for a bit, they expected Griffin to pick up the phone and start a dialogue. No one gets killed on deadline.

Or so they thought.


The lesson of what happened at 3 p.m. on June 17, 1981, in Rochester, New York, was that when bits and pieces of a case don’t add up it’s usually because our frames of reference are off; they will never add up unless we break free of our expectations.

Every case is new. We must let what we know—our known knowns—guide us but not blind us to what we do not know; we must remain flexible and adaptable to any situation; we must always retain a beginner’s mind; and we must never overvalue our experience or undervalue the informational and emotional realities served up moment by moment in whatever situation we face.

But those were not the only important lessons of that tragic event. If an over-reliance on known knowns can shackle a negotiator to assumptions that prevent him from seeing and hearing all that a situation presents, then perhaps an enhanced receptivity to the unknown unknowns can free that same negotiator to see and hear the things that can produce dramatic breakthroughs.

From the moment I heard the tale of June 17, 1981, I realized that I had to completely change how I approached negotiating. I began to hypothesize that in every negotiation each side is in possession of at least three Black Swans, three pieces of information that, were they to be discovered by the other side, would change everything.

My experience since has proven this to be true.

Now, I should note here that this is not just a small tweak to negotiation technique. Finding and acting on Black Swans mandates a shift in your mindset. It takes negotiation from being a one-dimensional move-countermove game of checkers to a three-dimensional game that’s more emotional, adaptive, intuitive…and truly effective.

Finding Blacks Swans is no easy task, of course. We are all to some degree blind. We do not know what is around the corner until we turn it. By definition we do not know what we don’t know.

That’s why I say that finding and understanding Black Swans requires a change of mindset. You have to open up your established pathways and embrace more intuitive and nuanced ways of listening.

This is vital to people of all walks of life, from negotiators to inventors and marketers. What you don’t know can kill you, or your deal. But to find it out is incredibly difficult. The most basic challenge is that people don’t know the questions to ask the customer, the user…the counterpart. Unless correctly interrogated, most people aren’t able to articulate the information you want. The world didn’t tell Steve Jobs that it wanted an iPad: he uncovered our need, that Black Swan, without us knowing the information was there.

The problem is that conventional questioning and research techniques are designed to confirm known knowns and reduce uncertainty. They don’t dig into the unknown.

Negotiations will always suffer from limited predictability. Your counterpart might tell you, “It’s a lovely plot of land,” without mentioning that it is also a Superfund site. They’ll say, “Are the neighbors noisy? Well, everyone makes a bit of noise, don’t they?” when the actual fact is that a heavy metal band practices there nightly.

It is the person best able to unearth, adapt to, and exploit the unknowns that will come out on top.

To uncover these unknowns, we must interrogate our world, must put out a call, and intensely listen to the response. Ask lots of questions. Read nonverbal clues and always voice your observations with your counterpart.

This is nothing beyond what you’ve been learning up to now. It is merely more intense and intuitive. You have to feel for the truth behind the camouflage; you have to note the small pauses that suggest discomfort and lies. Don’t look to verify what you expect. If you do, that’s what you’ll find. Instead, you must open yourself up to the factual reality that is in front of you.

This is why my company changed its format for preparing and engaging in a negotiation. No matter how much research our team has done prior to the interaction, we always ask ourselves, “Why are they communicating what they are communicating right now?” Remember, negotiation is more like walking on a tightrope than competing against an opponent. Focusing so much on the end objective will only distract you from the next step, and that can cause you to fall off the rope. Concentrate on the next step because the rope will lead you to the end as long as all the steps are completed.

Most people expect that Black Swans are highly proprietary or closely guarded information, when in fact the information may seem completely innocuous. Either side may be completely oblivious to its importance. Your counterpart always has pieces of information whose value they do not understand.


I’m going to come back to specific techniques for uncovering Black Swans, but first I’d like to examine what makes them so useful.

The answer is leverage. Black Swans are leverage multipliers. They give you the upper hand.

Now, “leverage” is the magic word, but it’s also one of those concepts that negotiation experts casually throw about but rarely delve into, so I’d like to do so here.

In theory, leverage is the ability to inflict loss and withhold gain. Where does your counterpart want to gain and what do they fear losing? Discover these pieces of information, we are told, and you’ll build leverage over the other side’s perceptions, actions, and decisions. In practice, where our irrational perceptions are our reality, loss and gain are slippery notions, and it often doesn’t matter what leverage actually exists against you; what really matters is the leverage they think you have on them. That’s why I say there’s always leverage: as an essentially emotional concept, it can be manufactured whether it exists or not.

Black Swans are leverage multipliers. They give you the upper hand.

Black Swans are leverage multipliers. They give you the upper hand. (Photo:Todd Quackenbush/Unsplash)

If they’re talking to you, you have leverage. Who has leverage in a kidnapping? The kidnapper or the victim’s family? Most people think the kidnapper has all the leverage. Sure, the kidnapper has something you love, but you have something they lust for. Which is more powerful? Moreover, how many buyers do the kidnappers have for the commodity they are trying to sell? What business is successful if there’s only one buyer?

Leverage has a lot of inputs, like time and necessity and competition. If you need to sell your house now, you have less leverage than if you don’t have a deadline. If you want to sell it but don’t have to, you have more. And if various people are bidding on it at once, good on you.

I should note that leverage isn’t the same thing as power. Donald Trump has tons of power, but if he’s stranded in a desert and the owner of the only store for miles has the water he wants, the vendor has the leverage.

One way to understand leverage is as a fluid that sloshes between the parties. As a negotiator you should always be aware of which side, at any given moment, feels they have the most to lose if negotiations collapse. The party who feels they have more to lose and are the most afraid of that loss has less leverage, and vice versa. To get leverage, you have to persuade your counterpart that they have something real to lose if the deal falls through.

At a taxonomic level, there are three kinds: Positive, Negative, and Normative.

Positive Leverage

Positive leverage is quite simply your ability as a negotiator to provide—or withhold—things that your counterpart wants. Whenever the other side says, “I want…” as in, “I want to buy your car,” you have positive leverage.

When they say that, you have power: you can make their desire come true; you can withhold it and thereby inflict pain; or you can use their desire to get a better deal with another party.

Here’s an example:

Three months after you’ve put your business on the market, a potential buyer finally tells you, “Yes, I’d like to buy it.” You’re thrilled, but a few days later your joy turns to disappointment when he delivers an offer so low it’s insulting. This is the only offer you have, so what do you do?

Now, hopefully you’ve had contact with other buyers, even casually. If you have, you can use the offer to create a sense of competition, and thereby kick off a bidding war. At least you’ll force them to make a choice.

But even if you don’t have other offers or the interested buyer is your first choice, you have more power than before your counterpart revealed his desire. You control what they want. That’s why experienced negotiators delay making offers—they don’t want to give up leverage.

Positive leverage should improve your psychology during negotiation. You’ve gone from a situation where you want something from the investor to a situation where you both want something from each other.

Once you have it, you can then identify other things your opponent wants. Maybe he wants to buy your firm over time. Help him do that, if he’ll increase the price. Maybe his offer is all the money he has. Help him get what he wants—your business—by saying you can only sell him 75 percent for his offer.

Negative Leverage

Negative leverage is what most civilians picture when they hear the word “leverage.” It’s a negotiator’s ability to make his counterpart suffer. And it is based on threats: you have negative leverage if you can tell your counterpart, “If you don’t fulfill your commitment/pay your bill/etc., I will destroy your reputation.”

This sort of leverage gets people’s attention because of a concept we’ve discussed: loss aversion. As effective negotiators have long known and psychologists have repeatedly proved, potential losses loom larger in the human mind than do similar gains. Getting a good deal may push us toward making a risky bet, but saving our reputation from destruction is a much stronger motivation.

So what kind of Black Swans do you look to be aware of as negative leverage? Effective negotiators look for pieces of information, often obliquely revealed, that show what is important to their counterpart: Who is their audience? What signifies status and reputation to them? What most worries them? To find this information, one method is to go outside the negotiating table and speak to a third party that knows your counterpart. The most effective method is to gather it from interactions with your counterpart.

That said, a word of warning: I do not believe in making direct threats and am extremely careful with even subtle ones. Threats can be like nuclear bombs. There will be a toxic residue that will be difficult to clean up. You have to handle the potential of negative consequences with care, or you will hurt yourself and poison or blow up the whole process.

If you shove your negative leverage down your counterpart’s throat, it might be perceived as you taking away their autonomy. People will often sooner die than give up their autonomy. They’ll at least act irrationally and shut off the negotiation.

A more subtle technique is to label your negative leverage and thereby make it clear without attacking. Sentences like “It seems like you strongly value the fact that you’ve always paid on time” or “It seems like you don’t care what position you are leaving me in” can really open up the negotiation process.

Normative Leverage

Every person has a set of rules and a moral framework. Normative leverage is using the other party’s norms and standards to advance your position. If you can show inconsistencies between their beliefs and their actions, you have normative leverage. No one likes to look like a hypocrite.

For example, if your counterpart lets slip that they generally pay a certain multiple of cash flow when they buy a company, you can frame your desired price in a way that reflects that valuation.

Discovering the Black Swans that give you normative valuation can be as easy as asking what your counterpart believes and listening openly. You want to see what language they speak, and speak it back to them.


In March 2003 I led the negotiation with a farmer who became one of the most unlikely post-9/11 terrorists you can imagine.

The drama started when Dwight Watson, a North Carolina tobacco grower, hooked up his jeep to a John Deere tractor festooned with banners and an inverted U.S. flag and towed it to Washington, D.C., to protest government policies he thought were putting tobacco farmers out of business.

When Watson got to the capital, he pulled his tractor into a pond between the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and threatened to blow it up with the “organophosphate” bombs he claimed were inside.

The capital went into lockdown as the police blocked off an eight block area from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. Coming just months after the Beltway sniper attacks and alongside the buildup to the Iraq War, the ease with which Watson threw the nation’s capital into turmoil freaked people out.

Talking on his cell phone, Watson told the Washington Post that he was on a do-or-die mission to show how reduced subsidies were killing tobacco farmers. He told the Post that God had instructed him to stage his protest and he wasn’t going to leave.

“If this is the way America will be run, the hell with it,” he said. “I will not surrender. They can blow [me] out of the water. I’m ready to go to heaven.”

The FBI deployed me to a converted RV on the National Mall, where I was to guide a team of FBI agents and U.S. Park Police as we tried to talk Watson out of killing himself and who knows how many others.

And then we got down to business.

Like you’d expect of a negotiation with a guy threatening to destroy a good part of the U.S. capital, it was righteously tense. Sharpshooters had their weapons trained on Watson, and they had the “green light” to shoot if he made any crazy moves.

In any negotiation, but especially in a tense one like this, it’s not how well you speak but how well you listen that determines your success. Understanding the “other” is a precondition to be able to speak persuasively and develop options that resonate for them. There is the surface visible negotiation and then all the things that are hidden under the surface (the secret negotiation space wherein the Black Swans dwell).

Access to this hidden space very often comes through understanding the other side’s worldview, their reason for being, their religion. Indeed, digging into your counterpart’s “religion” (sometimes involving God but not always) inherently implies moving beyond the negotiating table and into the life, emotional and otherwise, of your counterpart.

Once you’ve understood your counterpart’s worldview, you can build influence. That’s why as we talked with Watson I spent my energy trying to unearth who he was rather than logically arguing him into surrender.

From this we learned that Watson had been finding it increasingly hard to make a living on his 1,200-acre tobacco farm, which had been in his family for five generations. After being hit by a drought and having his crop quota cut by half, Watson decided he couldn’t afford the farm anymore and drove to Washington to make his point. He wanted attention, and knowing what he wanted gave us positive leverage.

Watson also told us he was a veteran, and veterans had rules. This is the kind of music you want to hear, as it provides normative leverage. He told us that he would be willing to surrender, but not right away. As a military police officer in the 82nd Airborne in the 1970s, he’d learned that if he was trapped behind enemy lines, he could withdraw with honor if reinforcements didn’t arrive within three days. But not before.

Now, we had articulated rules we could hold him to, and the admission that he could withdraw also implied that, despite his bluster about dying, he wanted to live. One of the first things you try to decide in a hostage negotiation is whether your counterpart’s vision of the future involves them living. And Watson had answered yes.

We used this information—a piece of negative leverage, as we could take away something he wanted: life—and started working it alongside the positive leverage of his desire to be heard. We emphasized to Watson that he had already made national news and if he wanted his message to survive he was going to have to live.

Watson was smart enough to understand that there was a real chance he wouldn’t make it out alive, but he still had his rules of military honor. His own desires and fears helped generate some positive and negative leverage, but they were secondary to the norms by which he lived his life.

It was tempting to just wait until the third day, but I doubted we’d get that far. With each passing hour the atmosphere was growing tenser. The capital was under siege and we had reason to believe he might have explosives. If he made one wrong move, one spastic freak out, the snipers would kill him. He’d already had several angry outbursts, so every hour that passed endangered him. He could still get himself killed.

But we couldn’t hit on that at all; we couldn’t threaten to kill him and expect that to work. The reason for that is something called the “paradox of power”—namely, the harder we push the more likely we are to be met with resistance. That’s why you have to use negative leverage sparingly.

Still, time was short and we had to speed things up. But how?

What happened next was one of those glorious examples of how deeply listening to understand your counterpart’s worldview can reveal a Black Swan that transforms a negotiation dynamic. Watson didn’t directly tell us what we needed to know, but by close attention we uncovered a subtle truth that informed everything he said.

By positioning your demands within the worldview your counterpart uses to make decisions, you show them respect and that gets you attention and results.

By positioning your demands within the worldview your counterpart uses to make decisions, you show them respect and that gets you attention and results. (Photo: Stefan Kunze/Unsplash)

About thirty-six hours in, Winnie Miller, an FBI agent on our team who’d been listening intently to subtle references Watson had been making, turned to me.

“He’s a devout Christian,” she told me. “Tell him tomorrow is the Dawn of the Third Day. That’s the day Christians believe Jesus Christ left his tomb and ascended to Heaven. If Christ came out on the Dawn of the Third Day, why not Watson?”

It was a brilliant use of deep listening. By combining that subtext of Watson’s words with knowledge of his worldview she let us show Watson that we not only were listening, but that we had also heard him.

If we’d understood his subtext correctly, this would let him end the standoff honorably and to do so with the feeling that he was surrendering to an adversary that respected him and his beliefs.

By positioning your demands within the worldview your counterpart uses to make decisions, you show them respect and that gets you attention and results. Knowing your counterpart’s religion is more than just gaining normative leverage per se. Rather, it’s gaining a holistic understanding of your counterpart’s worldview—in this case, literally a religion—and using that knowledge to inform your negotiating moves.

Using your counterpart’s religion is extremely effective in large part because it has authority over them. The other guy’s “religion” is what the market, the experts, God, or society—whatever matters to him—has determined to be fair and just. And people defer to that authority.

In the next conversation with Watson, we mentioned that the next morning was the Dawn of the Third Day. There was a long moment of silence on the other end of the line. Our Negotiation Operation Center was so quiet you could hear the heartbeat of the guy next to you.

Watson coughed.

“I’ll come out,” he said.

And he did, ending a forty-eight-hour standoff, saving himself from harm, and allowing the nation’s capital to resume its normal life.

No explosives were found.


While the importance of “knowing their religion” should be clear from Watson’s story, here are two tips for reading religion correctly:

  • Review everything you hear. You will not hear everything the first time, so double-check. Compare notes with your team members. You will often discover new information that will help you advance the negotiation.
  • Use backup listeners whose only job is to listen between the lines. They will hear things you miss.

In other words: listen, listen again, and listen some more.

We’ve seen how a holistic understanding of your counterpart’s “religion”—a huge Black Swan—can provide normative leverage that leads to negotiating results. But there are other ways in which learning your counterpart’s “religion” enables you to achieve better outcomes.


Research by social scientists has confirmed something effective negotiators have known for ages: namely, we trust people more when we view them as being similar or familiar.

People trust those who are in their in-group. Belonging is a primal instinct. And if you can trigger that instinct, that sense that, “Oh, we see the world the same way,” then you immediately gain influence.

When our counterpart displays attitudes, beliefs, ideas—even modes of dress—that are similar to our own, we tend to like and trust them more. Similarities as shallow as club memberships or college alumni status increase rapport.

That’s why in many cultures negotiators spend large amounts of time building rapport before they even think of offers. Both sides know that the information they glean could be vital to effective deal making and leverage building. It’s a bit like dogs circling each other, smelling each other’s behind.

I once worked a deal for our services with this CEO in Ohio where the similarity principle played a major role.

My counterpart was constantly making references that I recognized as being sort of born-again Christian material. As we talked he kept going back and forth on whether he should bring in his advisors. The whole issue of his advisors clearly pained him; at one point he even said, “Nobody understands me.”

At that moment I began to rack my brain for the Christian word that captured the essence of what he was saying. And then the term came to my mind, a term people often used in church to describe the duty one had to administer our own and our world’s— and therefore God’s—resources with honesty, accountability, and responsibility.

“This is really stewardship for you, isn’t it?” I said.

His voice immediately strengthened.

“Yes! You’re the only one who understands,” he said.

And he hired us at that moment. By showing that I understood his deeper reasons for being and accessing a sense of similarity, of mutual belongingness, I was able to bring him to the deal. The minute I established a kind of shared identity with this Christian, we were in. Not simply because of similarity alone, but because of the understanding implied by that moment of similarity.


Once you know your counterpart’s religion and can visualize what he truly wants out of life, you can employ those aspirations as a way to get him to follow you.

Every engineer, every executive, every child—all of us want to believe we are capable of the extraordinary. As children, our daydreams feature ourselves as primary players in great moments: an actor winning an Oscar, an athlete hitting the game-winning shot. As we grow older, however, our parents, teachers, and friends talk more of what we can’t and shouldn’t do than what is possible. We begin to lose faith.

But when someone displays a passion for what we’ve always wanted and conveys a purposeful plan of how to get there, we allow our perceptions of what’s possible to change. We’re all hungry for a map to joy, and when someone is courageous enough to draw it for us, we naturally follow.

So when you ascertain your counterpart’s unattained goals, invoke your own power and follow-ability by expressing passion for their goals—and for their ability to achieve them.

Ted Leonsis is great at this. As the owner of the Washington Wizards professional basketball team and the Washington Capitals professional hockey team, he is always talking about creating the immortal moments in sports that people will tell their grandchildren about. Who doesn’t want to come to an agreement with someone who is going to make them immortal?


Research studies have shown that people respond favorably to requests made in a reasonable tone of voice and followed with a “because” reason.

In a famous study from the late 1970s, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer and her colleagues approached people waiting for copy machines and asked if they could cut the line. Sometimes they gave a reason; sometimes they didn’t. What she found was crazy: without her giving a reason, 60 percent let her through, but when she did give one, more than 90 percent did. And it didn’t matter if the reason made sense. (“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I cut in line because I have to make copies?” worked great.) People just responded positively to the framework.

While idiotic reasons worked with something simple like photocopying, on more complicated issues you can increase your effectiveness by offering reasons that reference your counterpart’s religion. Had that Christian CEO offered me a lowball offer when he agreed to hire my firm, I might have answered, “I’d love to but I too have a duty to be a responsible steward of my resources.”


It’s not human nature to embrace the unknown. It scares us. When we are confronted by it, we ignore it, we run away, or we label it in ways that allow us to dismiss it. In negotiations, that label most often takes the form of the statement, “They’re crazy!”

That’s one reason I’ve been highly critical of some of the implementation of America’s hostage negotiation policy—which is that we don’t negotiate with those we refer broadly to as “the Terrorists,” including groups from the Taliban to ISIS.

The rationale for this nonengagement is summarized well by the journalist Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst: “Negotiations with religious fanatics who have delusions of grandeur generally do not go well.”

The alternative we’ve chosen is to not understand their religion, their fanaticism, and their delusions. Instead of negotiations that don’t go well, we shrug our shoulders and say, “They’re crazy!”

But that’s absolutely wrongheaded. We must understand these things. I’m not saying that because I’m a softheaded pacifist (the FBI doesn’t hire agents like that) but because I know understanding such things is the best way to discover the other side’s vulnerabilities and wants and thereby gain influence. You can’t get that stuff unless you talk.


No one is immune to “They’re crazy!” You can see it rear its head in every kind of negotiation, from parenting to congressional deal making to corporate bargaining.

But the moment when we’re most ready to throw our hands up and declare “They’re crazy!” is often the best moment for discovering Black Swans that transform a negotiation. It is when we hear or see something that doesn’t make sense—something “crazy”—that a crucial fork in the road is presented: push forward, even more forcefully, into that which we initially can’t process; or take the other path, the one to guaranteed failure, in which we tell ourselves that negotiating was useless anyway.

In their great book Negotiation Genius, professors Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman provide a look at the common reasons negotiators mistakenly call their counterparts crazy. I’d like to talk through them here.


Often the other side is acting on bad information, and when people have bad information they make bad choices. There’s a great computer industry term for this: GIGO—Garbage In, Garbage Out.

As an example, Malhotra talks about a student of his who was in a dispute with an ex-employee who claimed he was owed $130,000 in commissions for work he had done before being fired; he was threatening a lawsuit.

Confused, the executive turned to the company’s accountants. There he discovered the problem: the accounts had been a mess when the employee was fired but had since been put into order. With the clean information, the accountants assured the executive that in fact the employee owed the company $25,000.

Eager to avoid a lawsuit, the executive called the employee, explained the situation, and made an offer: if the employee dropped the lawsuit he could keep the $25,000. To his surprise, the employee said that he was going forward with the suit anyway; he acted irrational, crazy.

Malhotra told his student that the problem was not craziness, but a lack of information and trust. So the executive had an outside accounting firm audit the numbers and send the results to the employee.

The result? The employee dropped the suit.

The clear point here is that people operating with incomplete information appear crazy to those who have different information. Your job when faced with someone like this in a negotiation is to discover what they do not know and supply that information.


In any negotiation where your counterpart is acting wobbly, there exists a distinct possibility that they have things they can’t do but aren’t eager to reveal. Such constraints can make the sanest counterpart seem irrational. The other side might not be able to do something because of legal advice, or because of promises already made, or even to avoid setting a precedent.

Or they may just not have the power to close the deal.

That last situation is one that a client of mine faced as he was trying to land Coca-Cola as a client for his marketing firm.

Time constraints

Time constraints can make the sanest counterpart seem irrational. (Photo: Loic Djim/Unsplash)

The guy had been negotiating a deal for months and it was getting on to November. He was petrified that if he didn’t close it before the calendar year ended he would have to wait for Coca-Cola to set a new budget and he might lose the client.

The problem was that his contact had suddenly stopped responding. So we told him to send a version of our classic email for nonresponders, the one that always works: “Have you given up on finalizing this deal this year?”

Then something weird happened. The Coca-Cola contact didn’t respond to the perfect email. What was up?

This was superficially quite irrational, but the contact had been a straight-up guy until then. We told our client this could mean only one thing: that the guy had given up on closing the deal by the end of the year, but he didn’t want to admit it. There had to be some constraint.

With this knowledge in hand, we had our client dig deep. After a batch of phone calls and emails he tracked down someone who knew his contact. And it turned out we had been right: the contact’s division had been in chaos for weeks, and in the midst of corporate infighting he had completely lost influence. Not surprisingly, he was embarrassed to admit it. That’s why he was avoiding my client.

To put it simply, he had major constraints.


Think back to William Griffin, the first man ever to kill a hostage on deadline.

What the FBI and police negotiators on the scene simply did not know was that his main interest was not negotiating a deal to release the hostages for money. He wanted to be killed by a cop. Had they been able to dig up that hidden interest, they might have been able to avoid some of that day’s tragedy.

The presence of hidden interests isn’t as rare as you might think. Your counterpart will often reject offers for reasons that have nothing to do with their merits.

A client may put off buying your product so that their calendar year closes before the invoice hits, increasing his chance for a promotion. Or an employee might quit in the middle of a career-making project, just before bonus season, because he or she has learned that colleagues are making more money. For that employee, fairness is as much an interest as money.

Whatever the specifics of the situation, these people are not acting irrationally. They are simply complying with needs and desires that you don’t yet understand, what the world looks like to them based on their own set of rules. Your job is to bring these Black Swans to light.

As we’ve seen, when you recognize that your counterpart is not irrational, but simply ill-informed, constrained, or obeying interests that you do not yet know, your field of movement greatly expands. And that allows you to negotiate much more effectively.

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

Tahl Raz is a New York Times bestselling author and digital entrepreneur. He’s also the co-author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

An FBI Hostage Negotiator on How to Use Unexpected Events to Gain Leverage