Chris Voss: Negotiating for Hostages, Negotiating for Business

Chris Voss, former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI, speaking at the Council

When you are dealing with a life-and-death situation negotiating for the release of hostages, the phrase you want to hear from the kidnappers is not "you are right" but "that is right". The apparently small semantic difference between those two phrases can mean the difference between a successful outcome and a failure in a hostage situation, but also in any other form of negotiation, according to Chris Voss, the former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI. He spoke to LAWAC members and guests at a Global Café breakfast meeting on Tuesday.

After 24 years with the Bureau, 15 as a hostage negotiator, Voss came to the conclusion that all types of negotiation are similar, even if the stakes are very different. He also learnt that "the most dangerous negotiation is the one you don't know you are in."

Voss, who handled 150 separate hostage situations around the world, and only failed to get the hostages back in "less than 10, more than 5" of those cases, said that kidnappers are either "crusaders, criminals or crazies" - and the negotiator has to work out very early on which one of those three types he or she is dealing with to negotiate successfully. Many kidnappers demonstrate sociopathic tendencies, which means they are "eminently predictable, because they are driven by self-preservation, since they are the most important thing in their own lives." [Incidentally Voss said that women are overrepresented among hostage negotiators relative to their overall numbers in the FBI, and it is his personal opinion that female agents are often better negotiators than male agents.]

Contrary to popular belief - and sometimes to the statements of some US officials - Voss said that US policy is not to refuse to talk to terrorists and never pay ransom. "The policy is we are willing to talk to anyone, and we will deny them the benefits of ransom. We do allow sting operations where some money exchanges hands" - in a controlled way where ideally the US can track the money and use it to get to the kidnappers. The money doesn't come from the US government, but can come from a family member or a company.

Even in cases where there is no likelihood of tracking a ransom, or where no ransom demand is even made, Voss says that nonetheless the hostage negotiator "always has leverage" - as long as the kidnappers continue to talk. He cited the example of the ISIS killers who have publicly beheaded American and other hostages and posted the video on YouTube. Because the very act of ISIS posting videos and sending tweets about their horrific actions is in itself a form of communication, there are ways of subverting that communication. "Kidnappers are always looking for a commodity," said Voss. "It can be ransom, or publicity, or international reaction." ISIS, he said, are seeking recruits. In the case of ISIS, he said, "they even like it when we call them barbarians, because some of their recruits want to be seen as barbarians. So let's change the publicity and see how they react to it. Let's brand them instead as cowards and criminals - nobody wants to be associated with a bunch of cowards."

He also said that even in cases where it might be unlikely or even impossible to get the hostages back alive, it is still important for the hostage negotiators to reach out to the families. If the family feels they have been abandoned - as happened with the family of James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by ISIS last August - they are more likely to go to the media and attack the US government. "The terrorists like the PR of Americans criticizing their own government."

As it happened, two LAWAC members in the audience on Tuesday had been kidnapped - one in Cambodia and one in Rio in Brazil, and when Voss was asked what advice he would give to anyone who was unfortunate enough to find themselves taken hostage, he pointed out that victims have an impact on their captors as well as vice versa. He cited the example of Terry Anderson, the Associated Press reporter who was kidnapped and held for six and a half years in Lebanon. Anderson's insight was to stop resisting the fact of his kidnapping. "You say 'I am your hostage, and because of that you have obligations towards me'", rather than arguing with your captors about their right to hold you, which can lead to violence. "You can even do something as little as making sure they use your name - it is harder from them to hurt you if they use your name."

One of the toughest experiences for any hostage negotiator is when they fail, and the hostages they are trying to win back are killed. Voss had one such case in the Philippines, where after some heavy negotiating he thought he had won the release of three American hostages when a $300,000 ransom payment was handed over. The kidnappers seemed ready to keep their end of the bargain. Then it all went wrong, the hostages were not handed over, the kidnapping group apparently split with one side stealing the money from the other - and a subsequent rescue attempt ended in two of the three being shot. Deeply aggrieved by the loss of the hostages' lives and frustrated that he and his team had somehow misread the negotiations, Voss decided to reach outside law enforcement. He requested the Bureau send him to the business negotiation immersion class run by Harvard Law School - he was the first FBI agent to attend the course. It was on the last day of the 13-day course that Voss realized that hostage negotiations and business negotiations essentially utilize the same skill sets, albeit in very different situations. "I am convinced that hostage negotiating skills are applicable to daily life," said Voss, who has a book - Killer Deals - coming out next April on how hostage negotiating skills can be used in business negotiations.

This applies to the semantic difference between "that's right" and "you are right". "If you think about it in your own life, when you say 'you're right' to someone, you are just trying to get them to go away," said Voss. But following the psychologist Carl Rogers and his person-centered theories, Voss said "that's right" suggests "a different psychological reaction" - something closer to empathy, a feeling that the speaker feels they are being respected. "'That's right' indicates they feel you understand them," says Voss. And at that point a deal becomes possible.