Hostage Crisis: How to Negotiate Through the Unthinkable with Chris Voss

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Chris: Sympathy doesn’t actually help anybody. Sympathy makes us feel good. Oh, I feel bad for you and I go back to my daily life. That doesn’t help them. Clarity helps other people. Empathy is a clear vision of what they’re seeing, how they feel about it. That’s just empathy…it’s completely understanding, with no judgment, where the other side’s coming from.
I’ve been looking forward to having Chris Voss as a guest, even though, to a lot of people, he seems like an unlikely person to be talking about empathy and communicating – because he’s a leading hostage negotiator. It turns out that his stories about negotiating for the release of hostages is just what we need to hear.

Alan: Chris, thank you so much for talking with me. You know what this? This is going to be good because you’ve been spending your life negotiating for hostages, which turns out to be pretty much the same thing as trying to communicate with somebody.
Chris: 03:26 Yes, I’m afraid so.
Alan: 03:33 The thing that hit me first was you have the same idea about empathy that I do when I tried to help people communicate better, which is you use the understanding you can have of somebody else in a tactical way. Tell me a little bit more about that from your point of view?
Chris: 03:55 Yeah, what it is is emotional intelligence and we all have it if you will. I’m not surprised to hear that you and I are in sync on it ’cause if you’ve been communicating with people for a long time it’s where you come to learn to how best to get along with people. How to have great relationships, how to be productive. It’s how people are wired.
Alan: 09:55 That’s really interesting. What about your experience? Just give us a rundown in the briefest way of…were you the top negotiator for the FBI in terms of hostages?
Chris: 10:15 Well, in terms of … I think I was the number one on international kidnapping, which is kind of two different hostage negotiations. There’s the contained where you know where the bad guys and you got them surrounded and kidnapping, you don’t know where they are and you don’t know where the hostage is. That’s really, interestingly enough, that’s much more of a business transaction. I think I was our best guy at that.
Alan: 10:36 Got it. It sounds like a really impossible situation. You don’t know where they are, you don’t know much about the hostage. You often don’t know if they’re even alive, right?
Chris: 10:47 Well, that’s the first issue. First of all, you’ve got to find out if they’re alive. Secondly, you’ve got to find out if they’re alive and the guys you’re talking to have them.
Alan: 10:56 So, somebody can just call up and say or leave in notes, ” Hey, we’ve got your mother,” and she’s just on a bus trip.
Chris: 11:06 There’s versions of that that happen on a regular basis. There’s no shortage of college students who have gotten highly intoxicated in Mexico and lost their cell phones and have the finder of the phone in a bar realize it’s going to be at least eight to 10 hours before this kid wakes up. I can call their family and tell them I’ve got their kid and I might be able to shake $10,000 out of them in wire transfer before the kid wakes up from the hangover.
Alan: 11:35 In your line of work, you get experiences most of us can’t even think of, can’t imagine. To find a guy’s phone and try to get $10,000 from it …
Chris: 11:44 Yeah, there’s some crazy stuff.
Alan: 11:46 In the course of it, I’m really fascinated to see the role that empathy plays. Your version of empathy, I think is very much what my definition of empathy is. A lot of people think empathy is feeling sorry for somebody or feeling compassionate for them. How do you define it?
Chris: 04:29 Well, all right so Daniel Goleman said there’s three kinds of empathy and one of them is cognitive, which is just completely understanding where the other side’s coming from. It doesn’t have anything to do with sympathy or compassion. It’s just complete and total identification. I completely get where you’re coming from. I don’t agree with it. I don’t disagree with it.
As an example, we had a trial in New York, a terrorism trial in civilian court, not military court, and the vast majority of our witnesses were Muslims and they testified voluntarily. We got them to testify voluntarily because I’d sit down with them and I say, “You know, you guys feel like there’s been a succession of the United States governments for the last 200 years that have been anti-Islamic.” And, they’d go, “Yeah.” I never said that was true.
Alan: 05:24 You expressed what they were feeling and thinking.
Chris: 05:27 Yeah, I never agreed. I never disagreed. I chose my words very carefully. I said, you guys feel this way.
Chris: 06:01 That’s just empathy. It’s nothing else…
Chris: 12:10 …it’s completely understanding, with no judgment, where the other side’s coming from. Now, that sounds really innocuous, it’s actually a lot harder to implement. When I first learned it on the suicide hotline way back when, they said, “You don’t help people who are in quicksand, by getting into the quicksand with them. It does them no good.”
Alan: 12:30 In other words, you don’t want to get swamped by your feeling that’s similar to theirs. You don’t want to suffer in the same way they’re suffering, but you want to understand it.
Chris: 12:42 Right, yeah. Yeah. Sympathy doesn’t actually help anybody. Sympathy makes us feel good. Oh, I feel bad for you and I go back to my daily life. That doesn’t help them. It’s self-satisfying. It doesn’t help the other person to be sympathetic. Actions help people. Clarity helps other people. Empathy is the clearest vision of what they’re seeing, how they feel about it, not agreeing with them.
Alan: 13:10 And, you don’t need to contradict them because that’s not part of seeing what they see, right? If you contradict them then you’re into an argument about their vision of the world.
Chris: 13:20 Exactly. That’s a critical point. That’s a really important aspect of it.
Alan: 13:25 You know, you remind me of a personal situation I had. My mother, unfortunately, was schizophrenic. This is an example of how this works in so many different areas of life. Her body was failing and I called an ambulance and got her to the hospital and she saw two doctors come in to examine her. She said, “I can’t let them examine me.” I said, “Why not?” She said, “Because they’re devils.” Now, I’m stuck. If I take her back to her house, she’s liable to get even sicker and die.
Chris: 13:58 Wow.
Alan: 13:59 I can’t tell her they’re not devils because that will just make her believe they’re devils even more.
Chris: 14:05 Right.
Alan: 14:05 Maybe she’ll start thinking I’m one.
Chris: 14:07 Right.
Alan: 14:08 So, I just, on the spur of the moment, I think I came up with something you might have come up with. I said, “I’m not going to deny what you know to be true, but I bet if you act as though they could help, I bet they could.” She said, “Really? You think so?” I said, “Yeah. Why don’t you try it?” She said, ” Okay,” and she let them examine her.
Now, so that worked, but if you were in that position, what do you think you would have done? Maybe you’d have made it even surer that it would work.
Chris: 14:41 First of all, that was brilliant. About two steps ahead of me. My initial reaction would probably have been like, “Wow, this is really scary for you.”
Alan: 14:54 To say to her.
Chris: 14:55 Yeah.
Alan: 14:56 Yeah.
Chris: 14:57 What I hear first is, from the suicide hotline, from the hostage negotiation, even from the business deal these days, we tend to go after the negative feelings first to see if we can defuse them simply by calling them out. So, I’m going to try to call … If there’s an overriding negative influence there, I’m going to start by calling it out because I’m going to dissolve it at least a little bit with that. That would be my first reaction.
Actually, you just sort of did that. You had straight recognition of it. Didn’t dispute it in any way, shape, or form, just let it lay there and then move to the next step.
Alan: 15:39 Gave her something to do. I gave her control, actually, which is something you recommend.
Chris: 15:44 Yeah, control’s a critical issue. Yeah. It’s amazing how much people settle down once you get them to feel like they’re in control. So, yeah, critical. Well done. You could have been a hostage negotiator.
Alan: 15:58 Thank, God I’m not. There’d be a string of dead people all across the world. I don’t think I’d be so good at it.
But what we’re talking about, I think, is an example of what you boiled down into wanting to get the other person to say ‘that’s right’ not to say ‘you’re right’, which is such an interesting distinction. I didn’t get my mother to say ‘you’re right’. She said, “You think that will work?” She was talking about that, it, not-
Chris: 15:58 Yeah.
Alan: 16:40 She wasn’t under my control with saying, “I’m giving into you. You’re right.”
Chris: 16:45 Yeah.
Alan: 16:46 What else is wrong with ‘you’re right’? Why don’t you want them to say that?
Chris: 16:50 Well, one of two things is happening. It’s resignation on the other side’s part in some way, shape, or form. It’s them feeling resignation, capitulation, loss, which none of those things are good, which means they have negative residue and it’s probably going to fester and come back to haunt you at some point in time. There’s always going to be a bit of resentment there no matter how well they control it and that’s just not good. That’s something toxic that gets planted.
Alan: 17:25 To make it really vivid, what would be an example in a conversation with, say, a hostage taker where you’re trying to get them to see something that they’re not paying attention to and you want to get them to say ‘that’s right’? How would that dialogue go?
Chris: 17:44 Well, I’ll give you one of the examples from the book, one of my favorites. We’re in a kidnapping negotiation with a terrorist, absolute sociopath on the other side. What I love to ask people a lot of time is, “Does empathy work on sociopaths?” This guy was a sociopath. He was a murderer, a rapist, and a killer.
Alan: 18:04 So, answer that question. Does it work?
Chris: 18:06 It works. We needed him to say ‘that’s right’. His justification for the $10,000,000 demand for the hostage was 500 years of oppression in the south of the Philippines, from the Spanish to the Japanese to the Americans. Violation of fishing rights, economic harm. Of course, which immediately begs the question, what is an American running around in the Philippines in 2000 have to do with what happened 500 years ago?
Alan: 18:36 Right.
Chris: 18:37 There’s no logic there.
Alan: 18:38 But, instead of pointing out the illogicality of his taking an American hostage for something that happened 500 years ago, you said something that he could agree with. What did you say?
Chris: 18:51 Well, finally, and we tried to point out the illogic of it.
Alan: 18:55 Oh, you did?
Chris: 18:55 We spend a couple of months and got absolutely nowhere. Every logical approach, every sneaky, cleaver approach we tried just fell flat on its face.
Alan: 19:04 This took months? The guy was a hostage all this time?
Chris: 19:08 Yeah. International kidnappings with terrorist groups generally take quite a while.
Alan: 19:13 And, you were trying logic and it wasn’t working, so then what did you finally come up with?
Chris: 19:19 Finally, we just said, “You know what we’re going to today? We’re going to feed back everything he said, all this nonsense, all this illogic, ridiculous justification. We’re going to summarize it all because all we want to do is get this guy to say ‘that’s right.'” We were at the point where we were stalemated, so we were willing to do this ’cause we tried everything. Everything else had failed.
I was coaching the negotiation. Every international kidnapping I worked, I coached. I coached a family member. I coached a friend. I coached an official.
Alan: 19:51 Oh, because you wouldn’t be personally on the phone. They would only want to talk to a family member. Is that it?
Chris: 19:56 Right. There’s this strategic advantage to having a non-professional on the phone.
Alan: 20:01 Ah. So, what did you finally start to coach them to say?
Chris: 20:06 Well, I coached this guy up to say feed it all back to him. Tell him they’re holding the American because of 500 years of oppression, because the Spanish, the Japanese, the Americans. Because of atrocities, because of war damages, because of violation of fishing rights. It was a really long list and justifications for the injustice. I just said, “Repeat it all back. Summarize. Over-summarize.”
Alan: 20:32 Right. This is why you’re holding him hostage because of all these abuses. What was the reaction to that?
Chris: 20:41 After we got done with our summary, there was dead silence on the phone for a couple of moments and the sociopath on the other side, the terrorist said, “That’s right.”
Alan: 20:53 He actually said the words you were looking for?
Chris: 20:55 Word for word. Word for word.
Alan: 20:58 Then, what happened?
Chris: 21:00 Well, we sat there in silence for a few moments and then my guy said, “Why don’t we talk again in a couple of days?” And, the terrorist said, “Okay.” They hung up the phone and the $10,000,000 ransom demand was never mentioned again after that conversation. It went away. It went from $10,000,000 to zero when the terrorist said ‘that’s right’.
Alan: 21:23 How long did it take to get the hostage back?
Chris: 21:27 Well, they floundered around and then they came up with a couple non-substantive demands. They wanted to have a Malaysian politician mediate, which we just didn’t agree to. What ended up happening, just a couple weeks afterwards, the terrorist became so disorganized, the American just walked away.
Alan: 21:49 All from ‘that’s right’.
Chris: 21:50 All from ‘that’s right’. Now, here’s the crazy part. About three weeks after the American walked away I was back in the Philippines and I connected back up with the guy that I coached and he said, ” You’re never going to believe who called me on the phone.” I said, “I don’t know. Who called you on the phone?” The terrorist called him on the phone and said, “Have you been promoted? You’re really good. They should promote you.”
Alan: 22:18 Wow.
Chris: 22:18 And, he hung up.
Alan: 22:19 So, even though he knew he was being maneuvered, he just respected the fact that the guy got him to a position that was more to his benefit.
Chris: 22:31 Yeah, he was okay with it. He was calling to pay his respects.
Alan: 22:35 That’s amazing. That really is tuned into empathy, isn’t it? Because you got to know what they’re going through, you have to see what their perspective is before you can repeat back to them what their perspective is.
Chris: 22:50 Yeah, you know what? It’s not that hard. The hard part is when you don’t agree with it. We want to say, “Don’t feel that way. That’s not fair. You’re wrong.” You mentioned that earlier.
Alan: 23:00 Which is not really listening. If all we respond to is our objection to what the person is saying rather than really responding to the person and what they’re saying and feeling, then we’re not really listening. We’re waiting for our chance to yell.
Chris: 23:17 Exactly. That’s right.
Alan: 23:23 I’m so glad you didn’t say ‘you’re right’. I would have lost the conversation at that point.
Chris: 23:29 Yeah, you’d have been forgiven for hanging up on me if I said that.
Alan: 23:35 You say an interesting thing in your book that you want to hear no more than you want to hear yes, which is sort of counter-intuitive. You want to hear no early on. You don’t want to hear it at the very end, right?
Chris: 23:55 I love it. All along away. When people say no, they get clarity. They feel safe. They feel protected.
Alan: 24:03 I guess they feel more in control too.
Chris: 24:06 Exactly, 1000%. I’m going to want my counterpart to feel in control because when they feel in control they actually think more clearly. They’re not scared. They’re not concerned. They’re not distracted by worrying about hidden traps.
Alan: 24:21 What’s so good about hearing no? What kind of ‘no’ do you want to hear?
Chris: 24:41 I’ll take every question that I would normally want to hear a yes to and I’ll just flip it so that the ‘no’ advances my objective. Instead of saying, “Do you agree?” I’ll say, “Do you disagree?”
Alan: 24:58 So, give me a whole sentence with that it so I get a sense of what you mean.
Chris: 25:03 All right, so I’m trying to close a client for sale of tickets to a negotiation training we gave a couple months ago in New York and they’re wavering back and forth between three and seven tickets. We only got three tickets left. So, I sent them an email and I said, “Are you against making a commitment for three tickets now?”
Alan: 25:24 Are you against making a commitment for three tickets now. In other words, you could have said, “Would you make a commitment for three tickets now?”
Alan: 25:33 But you said, are you against it, so that he. Why can’t he just say, “Yes, I’m against it because I don’t want three tickets. I want seven tickets?”
Chris: 25:43 Because I need a clear and distinct answer and plus people always hesitate before they say yes and think through all the implications and then don’t explain them.
Alan: 25:56 Ah. So, you get a ‘no’ more easily, but it’s easier for us to say no ’cause we feel we’re fending off this attack.
Chris: 26:00 Right, right. Then, also, a guy might say, “Maybe. I want to think about it.” But, if the answer’s, “No, but I want to think about it,” they’ll say, “No, but here’s what I need to know,” and they will instantly give me what all the problems are.
Alan: 26:16 I see. So, they open up to you when they have a ‘no’ as an answer.
Alan: 26:21 But, it’s carefully constructed. It’s constructed so that you’re leading them toward what you want them to be engaged by.
Chris: 26:31 Yeah, I really am. I tell you the other thing that I sent. I did both this in an email. It was a two-line email. The second line was, “Are you against … ” ‘Cause I needed the money that night. I said, “Are you against paying for the tickets before the business day starts tomorrow?”
Alan: 26:52 Now, what if they are against that? It seems like it’s too easy to say yes to that.
Chris: 26:58 It seems like it is, but the reality is, most people would rather have their fingernails pulled out then say yes.
Alan: 27:11 This is an interesting psychological insight into most people.
You know, when you talk about getting a ‘no’ from the other person and that being a valuable thing, it’s a little different, at least on the surface, from what we do in improvisation where the mantra is ‘yes, and’. I say yes to you, to whatever you come up with I say yes, and I build on that. In one sense, the ‘no’ seems to go against that, but I can see a way in which it’s not. What’s your reaction to that?
Chris: 54:28 My reaction to it is both no and yes are vastly different words depending upon which side of them you’re on.
Alan: 54:36 Meaning what?
Chris: 54:37 Well, we love to hear yes. It’s a very encouraging thing to hear, but we’re very concerned about saying it because we’re worried about what we’ve let ourselves in for. So, when you’re doing a ‘yes, and’ improv, it’s very encouraging for everyone that’s participating because everyone feels wonderfully encouraged and they’re probably going to create a better product. Then, the critical word is the ‘and’ of course, because most people are used to hearing ‘yes, but’.
Alan: 55:11 Right, exactly.
Chris: 55:11 … which is you’re wrong.
Alan: 55:13 I think that what you talk about in all of these aspects of negotiating and bargaining and that kind of thing, is very much like the ‘yes, and’ in improv. In improv, somebody says something to you in a scene and you don’t say, “No, that’s not what it is.” You say, “Yeah, that’s right and look at this. Look how interesting it is over in this part of it.” So, you acknowledge the other person’s reality and you add to it as a partner, not as a but-saying person who alters their vision of reality. That sounds like exactly what you’re doing.
Chris: 56:11 I would agree. Forgive me, but that’s right.
When we come back, Chris gets into something dear to my heart: The question of not just what you say, but how you say it. I think about this all the time because as an actor, the a line of dialogue can mean so many things. Depending on the tone, the same words can be welcoming or off-putting.
(sternly) Stay with us!
I mean…
(smiling) Stay with us.

This is Clear + Vivid – and now back to my conversation with Chris Voss.
Alan: 33:25 Your book is full of nuances, which makes it very interesting. The difference between ‘that’s right’ and ‘you’re right’ at first glance doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but when you talk about it, it’s a huge difference. There are nuances that you talk about that really interest me because a tremendous amount of what I think I’ve learned about communication has to do with the tone of voice, what you present non-verbally, both tone of voice and body language for instance. You place a lot of emphasis on saying certain things that are good to say, but not in the wrong tone of voice. Can you give me a couple examples?
Here’s a great chance because when I was reading your book, I couldn’t quite tell what tone of voice you were talking about. Now, you can really be clear about what you mean by the right tone of voice.
Chris: 34:28 Well, as a general rule, a positive, smiling tone of voice, like a voice of regard, is always going to be good because it actually causes a change in the brain and mindset of the other person. You’re 31% smarter in a positive frame of mind. Neuroscience shows us that.
Alan: 34:51 I don’t know if you’re doing now, but I’m going to close my eyes and tell me something in that tone of voice.
Chris: 34:58 Let’s say, “Alan, talking with you is just a delight.”
Alan: 35:07 Oh, yeah? How much of my money do you want? I feel very positive.
There were some specific things like you repeat what the person is saying. How am I supposed to do that? Your boss comes in and says, “I need 50 copies of this contract in an hour,” and you say, “I’m sorry. How am I supposed to do that?” Was that an example?
Chris: 35:42 Yeah, those words you could say two different ways. You could say to your boss, “How am I supposed to do that?”
Alan: 35:48 Yeah.
Chris: 35:48 It’s kind of a dumb idea. That’s what that tone of voice says. Or, you can say, “How am I supposed to do that?” That tone of voice says you’re asking for help, like you’d do it if you could.
Alan: 36:01 Yeah.
Chris: 36:03 But, you can’t and you’re asking for help. The exact same words two different deliveries. The second one the boss is going to stop and think which is the purpose of saying that.
Alan: 36:57 All right, well, I have to tell you I was tremendously impressed with your book because point after point the way you use empathy as a tool, the way you listen actively, the way you get the other person to feel in control and the way you find the importance of how similar you are to the other person and the other person warms up to you because they feel similar and common … They feel a commonality with you. All of these things are also in my book and it’s impossible to have puts thing in your book that are in my book by coincidence, so, obviously, you stole it from me and I’m going to sue you. I’m suing you. We can settle this right now if you want.
Chris: 37:50 I’m open to it.
Alan: 37:51 There’s no reason to go to court. It will cost you a huge amount of money.
Chris: 37:54 Oh, my God. You’re taking me hostage.
Alan: 37:58 Well, not really, just your money. So, how much are you willing to give me to make up for this? I mean it’s-
Chris: 38:10 How much you need?
Alan: 38:12 How much do I need?
Chris: 38:12 Yeah.
Alan: 38:13 Well, I need to be made whole because you obviously took money away from me with your book sales. They could have been buying my book instead of yours. So, how much are you going to offer me?
Chris: 38:27 Well, how about if we jointly collaborate and get even more book sales together.
Alan: 38:33 Yeah, but I got my picture on my book.
Chris: 38:36 Well, I’m nowhere near as handsome as you are. You got a definite advantage there.
Alan: 38:40 No, what I mean to say is I came up with all that stuff. I invented it and you stole it, so you owe me not only for the loss of the book sales, you owe me for the indignity of having been stolen from. It feels very bad to be stolen from so you owe me an awful lot of money.
So, let’s start at a figure. What’s the figure?
Chris: 39:01 It sounds like I’ve offended you.
Alan: 39:05 Yeah, you have offended me to some extent. That’s true. Yes, the answer is yes to that.
Chris: 39:10 But it sounds like you don’t really care about that.
Alan: 39:14 Well, why would you say that?
Chris: 39:16 Well, you’re so focused on the money. Money can never make anybody whole if it’s an offense. This doesn’t sound to me like it’s … How can you say it’s money and how can you say it’s an offense? How do those two things add up?
Alan: 39:29 Well, it’s pretty established in the law that if somebody takes your arm off, they owe you a certain amount of money for it. It sounds crazy, I know, but everybody does it that way. What are you going to do to make me feel better? You already took my ideas.
Chris: 39:48 So, it’s only a matter of you feeling better?
Alan: 39:51 No, no. The only way you can make me feel a little better is to give me the money. So, let’s say you give me $25,000,000.
Chris: 40:01 Uh, okay. A dollar a year.
Alan: 40:06 So, what makes you think … How am I supposed to live that long?
Chris: 40:12 See I can agree to any amount, it’s getting the money out of me.
Alan: 40:15 By the way, this is liable to take forever because I read your book.
Chris: 40:20 And, you’re smarter than me to begin with.
Alan: 40:24 Now, you got me. Okay, let’s say a dollar a year.
Chris: 40:28 Okay, we got a deal. Plus, I get to use your picture in the promotion of my book.
Alan: 40:34 Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You can’t come out of this even better than you got into it.
Chris: 40:38 There’s always a better deal for both sides. I want a better deal-
Alan: 40:42 You tell me the hostage taker you want the hostage back and you want an extra 50 cents. Come on.
Chris: 40:49 Yeah, I want the bank robber to give me an airplane.
Alan: 40:57 Well, that was fun. Thanks for doing that with me. I don’t know. Did I read on your face a little panic when I started to put you through it?
Chris: 41:05 It was like, “All right, he wants a boxing match here. I don’t know if I’m warmed up for this boxing match. I got to be ready to go.”
Alan: 41:12 I bet you’re ready to do it on a moments notice because the wonderful thing about what you write about and what you’ve studied for decades is that it’s not just hostage negotiations or talking to bank robbers. It works with everybody. You tell a story about your son. I don’t know if you mind getting into that story.
Chris: 41:35 Yeah.
Alan: 41:36 … as a football player. What was the problem with that?
Chris: 41:39 Yeah, well the kid was a lineman and if there’s one thing lineman like to do, it’s hit things. They put their heads down. They hit everything they see. Actually, that’s why I used to tease him all the time because, first of all, being a lineman is an exceptionally complicated job, but I used to say that’s the reason why you guys wear different color uniforms so you know not to hit each other. You hit the guy in the other uniform plus don’t hit the guy with the stripes on. That’s all-
Alan: 42:04 ‘Cause they just like to hit people.
Chris: 42:06 Yeah.
Alan: 42:06 Yeah.
Chris: 42:08 Then, they switched him from lineman to linebacker. Now, he’s-
Alan: 42:13 I don’t know the difference. What’s the difference?
Chris: 42:16 Well, he’s a defensive player. It’s a literal translation of the position because the linebacker stands in back of the line. He backs up the people that are hit.
Alan: 42:29 What, he catches people coming through. Is that it?
Chris: 42:31 Exactly, right. There’s really only one person you want the linebacker to catch and you want him to catch the ball carrier, which means the rule is don’t hit anybody by the ball carrier.
Alan: 42:40 Right, but was your son hitting everybody?
Chris: 42:43 He’s everything he can see. He wouldn’t stop. Something gets in his way, I mean, he’s like a mountain goat. He is going to crash into that and then he’s going to crash into something else. Both his coach at the time and me are saying, “Look, don’t do that anymore.”
Alan: 43:00 So, what did you do? How did you turn him around or did you?
Chris: 43:04 Finally, I said to myself, “What’s going through this kid’s mind?” I took him off to the side and I said, “You think it’s cowardly to get out of the way of somebody who’s trying to hit you. You think that dodging a block makes you less of a man.” He put his head down a little bit and he whispered, “That’s right.”
Alan: 43:29 You got ‘that’s right’ out of him.
Chris: 43:30 I got a ‘that’s right’ out of him. He started dodging blocks the very next day.
Alan: 43:36 That was enough, ’cause when I read that story, I thought, “Well, what if he said, “that’s right. I think it’s manly to do that. That’s my job and I want to be a man, so that’s what I want to do.” Somehow, there must have been something about the way you said it that made him put his head down and change his way of working.
Chris: 44:00 Well, what it is, it’s a moment of clarity. My co-author Tahl Raz, who’s a brilliant guy. He said, “I think it’s an epiphany mode.” When you trigger an epiphany in someone, they gain clarity and they see things for how they are. They gain insight. They gain understanding and he referred to it as triggering an epiphany moment. At that point in time, when a human being gains clarity, the negative emotions that they’re holding back tend to fall away and then they see the situation clearly with clarity. His job was now to get out of the way of people that were trying to block him so he could only hit one person.
Alan: 44:39 I wonder if that’s what happened when I was talking to my mother in that story I told you before. Where I pointed out to her, “Yes, they’re devils, but if you act as if they can help you, I think they can or maybe they can.” She saw, in a way, maybe something she hadn’t seen before, which is if he doesn’t have to be burdened by what she knows to be true, she could try something else.
Chris: 45:10 1,000% I think it was. With Schizophrenics, in particular, they’re even more difficult than everybody else because it’s really hard to draw a real clear bead on what they’re seeing, feeling, or thinking.
Alan: 45:22 Yeah, and they’re really seeing and hearing things that aren’t there, so often you don’t even know what that is.
Chris: 45:30 Yeah, yeah. Most emotional intelligence is an educated guess based on what you can observe and when you’re dealing with a Schizophrenic, as you said, you haven’t got that much to observe.
Alan: 45:40 I think that’s really good that you say it’s an educated guess because when I talk about reading the other person to be able to communicate with them, what are they’re going through as I talk to them, I’m trying to explain something complicated, am I getting clues from them … Right now, you’re shaking your head yes.
Chris: 45:59 Yeah, 1000%.
Alan: 46:01 I see you following me. If I don’t pay attention to that. If I see you not following me and I don’t pay attention to it, then I’m just squirting information at you and it’s not landing.
Chris: 46:16 Yeah, or like if I get a funny look on my face and you don’t pay any attention to that, right?
Alan: 46:20 I see you drifting off and looking off to the side or something, checking the lint on your sweater. I talk about that often, but what I’m really driving at is not an exact knowledge of what’s going on in your head, ’cause I probably can never have that. The best I can have is a good estimate. I can make the best estimate I can of what’s going on and I can change that as I see deeper into your expression or your tone of voice and that kind of thing.
So, it interests me that you talk about it being an estimate that you’re getting of the other person and life and death is at stake when you do that. Have you ever found yourself estimating what somebody is going through and then realizing you were totally on the wrong track?
Chris: 47:12 Well, I’ve been on the wrong track before and a lot of it is about … It almost sounds like a cliché, but the point is, not that you get it right, but that you’re trying to get it right.
I was in the middle of a bank robbery with hostages and the bank robber on the other side of the phone basically said, “No, that’s not it at all. Stop trying to school me.” I was like-
Alan: 47:38 ‘School me’, what’s that mean? What’s that mean, ‘school me’?
Chris: 47:39 Teach him, talk down to him, tell him what it is, take control of him. Basically, what I was saying to him was wrong. I was on the wrong track and I was like, “Okay. I’m sorry. I’m trying to get it right.” And, we got right on the right track as long as … He forgave me for being wrong as long as I was trying to get it right, genuinely trying to get it right.
Alan: 48:04 Yeah, yeah. That notion of respect for the other person really seems paramount no matter how crazy their point of view is or how anti-social, how offensive. To be able to see where it’s coming from and say it back to them, sounds simple, but crucial.
Chris: 48:24 And, so undervalued and in many cases, it might be all we need to get through to the other side. Yeah, but it is understated. It’s critical. It’s absolutely critical.
Alan: 48:38 Are there any areas where you think this doesn’t work?
Chris: 48:43 No. No. The two issues are between if it doesn’t work or is it going to be enough?
Alan: 48:49 What do you mean?
Chris: 48:51 Well, my former boss was Gary Nestor. In a recent miniseries about Waco, he was one of the key individuals portrayed. Learned a lot from Gary. Gary used to say, “We don’t guarantee success. We guarantee the best chance of success.” So, we will always make a situation better. Always. That might not be enough still.
Alan: 49:19 I see. Well, this has really been interesting. I thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about this. I got something that I want to ask you to do. I don’t know if anybody warned you about this, but you seem like you’re flexible.
Chris: 49:37 Okay.
Alan: 49:39 We always end the conversation with seven quick questions that I ask you to make seven quick answers to just on the spur of the moment and it’s often interesting to face your own answer to these questions. You willing?
Chris: 49:54 Yeah, let’s do it. It sounds like fun.
Alan: 49:56 Okay. What do you wish you really understood?
Chris: 50:01 Wow. How to successfully transition bad governments away without destroying a country. How do we get the Mexican government to change? How do we get bad leaders out of power?
Alan: 50:21 What do you wish other people understood about you?
Chris: 50:28 That despite the occasionally gruff exterior I’m a lot softer touch than most people realize.
Alan: 50:35 What’s the strangest question someone has ever asked you?
Chris: 50:41 When I was interviewing for Kansas City, Missouri police department, on the polygraph, one of the questions they asked was, have you ever thought about having sex with animals?
Alan: 50:56 So, did you go off the charts on that one?
Chris: 51:00 I think I was so stunned that I think all the dials and the gauges just dropped and just stopped. I was like-
Alan: 51:10 This questions not on the list, but did you think about that question a lot after that?
Chris: 51:14 I was afraid to. If it started sneaking in my head I’d be like, “Ah!”
Alan: 51:23 Well, that’s the most interesting answer to that question I think I’ve had yet. Here’s the next one. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Chris: 51:35 Wow. Ask him a no-oriented question.
Alan: 51:37 A what kind of question?
Chris: 51:40 I did this once. I said to a person, I said, “Did it ever occur to you to not talk?”
Alan: 51:51 What kind of answer did you get?
Chris: 51:53 There was a stunned silence and then the person went, “No.”
Alan: 51:59 And, kept talking.
Chris: 52:02 But, it did stop him for a while.
Alan: 52:04 That’s good. Is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Chris: 52:13 Technically the answer to that is no. In reality, I’m sorry, the serial killers that are serial child killers.
Alan: 52:23 Yeah. All right, how do you like to deliver bad news, in person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Chris: 52:33 I can do it on the phone. I’d probably rather do it in person, but I’ve done it on the phone.
Alan: 52:38 Okay, last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Chris: 52:47 Being lied to.
Alan: 56:24 Chris, thanks so much. I really enjoyed talking to you and I’m glad I had a chance to see you on the screen because I got a lot of information out of your face. Thank you for that.
Chris: 56:32 Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you very much. It was a privilege to be on with you.
Alan: 56:35 Thank you. It was really fun. Bye-bye.
Chris: 56:38 Bye-bye.

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

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Chris Voss Has had an extraordinary career resolving some of the most difficult hostage situations in recent decades. His book, “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” is an exciting account of how empathy and deep listening can turn any human interaction into a positive experience.

His company The Black Swan Group applies these principles to the world of business. You can find out more about Chris and his company at:

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!