Ask a Hostage Negotiator: What's the Best Way to Get a Raise?

It's possible to get a higher salary without taking anyone captive.

Amr Dalsh / Reuters

The question that most people ask themselves as they walk into their boss's office to negotiate their salaries is likely some variant of "What am I going to say?" But according to hostage negotiator Chris Voss, that might be the least important thing to keep in mind when negotiating.

Voss, now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, spent 24 years at the FBI. It was as an FBI agent that he started to get interested in hostage negotiations. At the time, a supervisor told him to start by volunteering at a suicide hotline to gain the set of listening abilities that a hostage negotiator needs. By 1992, he was training at the FBI's school for negotiators, and from 2004 to 2007, he was the FBI's lead international hostage negotiator. After retirement, Voss founded The Black Swan Group to bring negotiation know-how to the business world.

I recently spoke with Voss about how to use negotiation strategies to better ask for raises at work. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Bourree Lam: Is there a disconnect between what people commonly think a negotiation is and what it actually involves?

Chris Voss: Absolutely. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don't know you're in. We use that at my company. People typically only believe they're in a negotiation when dollars are involved. And maybe sometimes they're smart enough to see if there's a commodity that you can count being exchanged. And of course the commodity that we most commonly exchange is money.

In reality, every single negotiation involves another commodity that's far more important to us which is time—minutes, hours, our investment in time. So even if you're talking about dollars, the commodity of time is always there because there has to be a discussion about how the commodity of dollars is moved ... This is what I learned in hostage negotiation, a ransom demand is irrelevant. Trying to get the money is the challenge ... Price is only one term in any negotiation. In a job negotiation, your salary is only one term. And typically you could take almost any price, or any salary and make that a great deal or a lousy deal depending on the terms.

Lam: How to get the money is a little more straightforward in a salary negotiation as opposed to a hostage negotiation. So what terms are we talking about in a job negotiation?

Chris Voss

Voss: In a job negotiation, the implementation of that deal is your success that also causes the company to succeed. Most people just say, "Hey look, just pay me a high enough salary and I'll be a superstar." Or "I'm so good, as long as you pay me enough I'm going to be worth it." Two things: What if the position you're taking doesn't give you any sort of authority or influence? Something as small as the job title. You can't implement anything you want to do if you don't have the authority beyond soft power, based on your position to get people to listen to you. You can't be successful without that, and that's one of many terms.

Lam: What are the basics of negotiation strategy and can you describe what we should pay attention to? For example, what's tactical listening?

Voss: You have to have an understanding of what you're listening for, and it's much more important to have thought that out in advance ... one of the key issues in this is listening for a future between you and the other party ... For a hostage negotiator, when I've got a guy barricaded in a bank or I've got fugitives barricaded in the 27th floor of a high rise apartment—which I've had—the first thing I want to say to him is: "I'm here to make sure you get out alive."

Lam: That's interesting because when most people go into salary negotiations, they're often overly focused on what to say—the script—and not listening.

Voss: Yeah exactly, they're focused on what to say and they're really focused on one objective. Everybody's very focused on getting a good salary, and so then the problem with those two things are the more focused you are, the more you have blinders on. We like to say that the key to flexibility is don't be so sure of what you want that you wouldn't take something better. If you're focused on the number, you're not seeing the other possibilities.

We'll get back to how you can push that number higher. One of the ways is to talk about other things. The more pleasant you are in an interaction ... there's some data out there that says that people are six times more likely to get what they want if they're likable. So you put yourself in a position to push very hard the more likable that you are. People most of the time think that in order to push very hard, "I gotta be tough." In reality it's the opposite: The nicer you are, the harder you can push.

Lam: I think most people struggle with that because those two things seem to work against each other. How do you put those two things together, being nice and pushing hard?

Voss: First thing is understanding that it works. Once you know that then it's easy to have confidence in the approach. If I say something to you with a smile, I know you're more likely to collaborate than if I'm being really direct ... that's exactly what a hostage negotiator does. The more easy we are, the more reassuring we are, the harder we can push.

Lam: What do you mean by pushing?

Voss: It's reminding the other side of what you would like, and what's also very important are calibrated questions. Every question you ask anyone impacts them on two levels: an emotional and an intellectual level. We construct and calibrate every question to have an emotional impact; most people only think of the intellectual impact. We want to have an influence on what that emotional impact is.

Lam: Can you give me an example?

Voss: So if someone says, "Let's revisit your raise in 3 months," what you want to do is not let that go. Put them in a position that makes them sound like that's an unacceptable response. You ask this question and in this way: "How am I supposed to do that?" You have to use those exact words. There are two or three possible answers to that, and you want to be prepared for all three. One is "You're right, you can't." The very worst possible answer that everyone imagines is "Because you have to." How bad is that? The reality is that there's no downside to that answer, and that's maybe 20 percent of the time.

Lam: Why is that not bad? My instincts say that's bad.

Voss: First of all, you found out they're not going to budge, which makes you 10 times smarter than you were 60 seconds ago. Part of the purpose of what we said is to diagnose whether there's any room in their position. That's critical to how you move forward. Is there any room and can I navigate it? So now you've just found out there's no room, which makes you smarter. And now you can make an informed decision, you know for sure there's only one or two choices—and that's walk away or agree.

Lam: When you hear something you don't want to hear in a negotiation, is it important to stay calm and realize you're "smarter"?

Voss: Yes, the real way to do that is the more you're focusing on how the other side is reacting the less you react. It's like a magic trick of keeping your own emotions under control. By listening very intently to the other side and also maintaining a positive external demeanor, that moves you from the very emotional side of your brain into the very rational side. That automatically helps you stay calm.

Lam: What about other kinds of deflections? What if your manager says, "It's not a good time," or "We don't negotiate," or "We don't have the budget"? Is there anything you can say to find out if that's really their position?

Voss:  The first is the question. The second is to say the statement: "It seems like there's nothing you can do." People do not like to feel powerless, what it does is it makes the other side feel like they might be somewhat powerless. They're going to want to search for answers. And certainly for someone higher than you in the hierarchy, the last thing they want to look to you, a subordinate, is to look powerless. It threatens their identity and authority. They're not going to be comfortable saying yes to that ... The key to any negotiation with the people you work for is deference, there's great power in deference. So you can make a statement if you're being very deferential. All you're doing is making an observation about the environment, you're not accusing them directly of that. You're not making a judgement.

Lam: How much research should a person do before negotiation?

Voss: The important thing is context. The research is helpful, but it may or may not have any impact on your company's ability to pay you that. You have to understand market prices, but you also have to understand a market price does not impact a buyer's ability to pay. Your employer might not be able to pay the price you're looking for ... they actually want to see you not give in and be very pleasant at the same time because they know that's how you're going to deal with them in a continuing basis as you work with them. And they don't want a colleague who gives in, but they also don't want a colleague who's a jerk.

Lam: What do you think about mentioning competing offers during a salary negotiation? There's a feeling that it's hard to know one's market price without a competing offer, or that not having a competing offer means not having any bargaining chips. Is it seen as uncooperative? Is it better to just focus on performance and goals?

Voss: You never want the other side to feel like you're taking them hostage. And so a lot of people have really ruined their opportunities by trying to create an auction, and the other side feels very manipulated by that, and that's very problematic. And especially if they don't have the ability to pay. They might not have the ability to give you the salary you're looking for. And so now you kind of take them hostage, and they're going to resent that as well. I don't counsel that. The thing that I most frequently coach current and former students ... we just don't talk about competing salaries because the other side is going to resent it. It's a lot more important to talk about the abilities that they have and the goals for the future that they have.

Lam: What's the most useful thing to keep in mind for negotiation that you've heard from your students?

Voss: The most useful thing to keep in mind really is this is a bit of an audition for how you're going to interact with these people if you make the team. So they want someone who is pleasant and doesn't give in. That's what they're hoping for because at some point in time, you're going to be their champion, and they're going to want you to be able to stand up for them the same way that you stand up for yourself and maintain good relationships. Then, within that context, you've got a lot of latitude.

Once you can do those two things, you've now got an awful lot of latitude to be able to pleasantly persist, if you will, because people are going to want to collaborate with you. They're going to want to find solutions, especially if you want to invest in their future as well. How do you turn this from being all about you to being about us? Because now they want to take a chance on you. They want to give you more latitude if it's about us. It becomes us when you start talking with them about 'how do we prosper together? How can I be involved in making sure this company prospers?'

Lam: What do you recommend with respect to anchoring? One nightmare for employees negotiating salary is when a company asks you to name a price. What's a good way to deal with this tricky question?

Voss: The first thing to do is say, very gently, "Are you making me an offer, or are you fishing for information?" That's the first response, and you have to wait to see how they respond from that point forward. Now, understand that in any negotiation, and this is a negotiation like any other, they've got a range of numbers in mind to begin with, and what they're trying to do is they're trying to collect information so that they properly categorize you, and then you land in that range. Now, the harder that you force to get to the top of that range, the less give there's going to be on other issues that might be more important, so it's generally not a good idea to get to the absolute top of that range.

But the next thing to ask is, after you've asked a couple of times and you say to the other side, "Alright, I'm sure you have a range in mind." And people are a lot more comfortable responding with a range than responding with a given number. They're much more likely to respond. So what you've done is, you want to continue to be responsive to their question, but you're not putting yourself in a position where you're going to get cornered over a number. And this is not the same thing as stalling. This is responding to different things within what they've said as opposed to ducking the answer entirely. And then, what you should do is, if you know the market, if they're still pushing you, pushing you, pushing you, pushing you and they still haven't thrown a number out, what you need to do then is throw out a range yourself, and it's got to be a high range.

Lam: What's the role of empathy in negotiations?

Voss: I view it as being critical. It's critical to negotiations. Typically what people think is, "I either have to be assertive or I have to be empathetic." So what that means is, in order for me to try to push even harder for what I want, that means I have to be less understanding of their position, which, when you put it like that, it makes absolutely no sense ... That sounds like nonsense when you put it like that, but nobody realizes that's what they're saying. "I want to push harder for what I'm going to get, so I need to push harder instead of being understanding." And we've actually taken a bit of a spin on empathy, and we refer to it as a 'proactive empathy.' Because now that you begin to recognize that everything you say is going to have an emotional impact on the other side, and most of these impacts are eminently predictable, what you now do is you begin to navigate these emotions before they even occur, if that doesn't sound like too much mumbo-jumbo.

Lam: That actually just sounds hard to do.

Voss: It takes some practice, and I think you had a question about preparation as well. And that's exactly the issue. Most people only prepare for the numbers, they don't prepare for the emotional dynamics that the negotiation is going to engage in. So this is just simply adding in your preparation, adding a little bit more preparation to understand the emotional dynamics. Like if I ask you for more money than you can pay, you're obviously going to become uncomfortable with that. You don't have to be a genius to know that. It's effectively a proactive application of emotional intelligence.

Lam: Research has shown that women negotiate starting offers at a much lower rate than men. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recommends that women use "we" and communal language to negotiate in order to avoid social costs. What do you think of that approach?

Voss: It's a good approach in that what you're trying to do there is you're trying to create the collaborative relationship there. What I would do is take it a step farther. You know, the hostage negotiator, from the very beginning, "I want to talk about how I'm going to help you with your future. I'm here to make sure that you live." That's all about me salvaging your future. So let's take the Sheryl Sandberg and take it the next level up to the hostage negotiator approach. Sheryl Sandberg is about here and now. Let's be partners now. And a hostage negotiator is: Here's a vision of the future that we both exist in. So that's taking what she's talking about a step farther. How do you hire me in a way that your company flourishes because you hired me? And all of a sudden, the other side, the emotional impact there is, "Wow, you want me to flourish. You're not here just to make you well and happy, you want to make me wealthy too by our collaboration."

How is you giving me what I want a path to what you want? Everybody's interactions is we all say to ourselves, what's in it for me? Why should I do this for this person? Well, it gets me what I want. And what's the thing that we can all agree to begin with. In business, we can all agree that we want to be wealthy. A hostage negotiator's agreement with the guy who's barricaded is, "I want you to live." So if my approach to you is, "I want you to be famous for hiring me. I want your promotions in many cases to come because I was so successful because you hired me, working for you. I propelled your career as a great hire." You want to say things that make the other side stop and think and then rethink their position. And they'll only rethink that position if it benefits them. So that's how you take, in an employment negotiation, you want them to rethink their position where they're thinking of you as being a critical component of their future success.

Lam: Is the bottom line to keep everybody feeling good?

Voss: It is because the profitability of any agreement, the success of any agreement, comes from implementation. And you need happy partners because you need them to implement. So you only find out if you make your money after the agreement when you go to implement it. And if they're mad at me, if they're unhappy with me, then that implementation is horrible. Every chance they get to not do something, they're going to cut a corner, or they're going to deny me a benefit because they're going to be mad about how I got them into the agreement. They're going to remember how I got them into the agreement. I know they're going to remember how we got into it. I need them to remember it in a positive way.

Lam: So you're also saying that people hold grudges?

Voss: It's deeper than that because they might not need to. Somebody might not hold a grudge. What you're really looking for is not just people to do what they're supposed to do, but when they need to go out of their way for you, they may simply just not go out of their way when they could have. They may not have given you that extra. That's not necessarily holding grudges. We look at somebody who's holding a grudge and just waiting to get us back to do something to us. Maybe all they're going to do is simply fail to help us out when they could have.

Lam: Do you focus on fairness?

Voss: That's really tricky. We call fairness the "F-word." Fairness is the "F-word." Well, and actually, if you start to listen for it, you'll find that fairness comes out on almost every single negotiation, and when it gets thrown out there, it's a word that punches people's buttons in one of the most subtle ways possible. And so people use it in one of two ways. If I'm a negotiator, I'll use it against you because I know that I can knock you back on your heels emotionally. If we're in a deal, and I want to be a cutthroat, I'm going to say, "Look, I've given you a fair offer." Now, for you to protest against that, what I've just done is accuse you of being unfair towards me. And that's why the cutthroats do it because nobody sees it. It is a stealth attack from a cutthroat negotiator.

Knowing that it's there and knowing that it comes up in every negotiation, again we've got to be proactive about it. And so, instead of me saying, "What I offered you was fair." Before I get to the offer, I'll say, "I want to make sure you feel I've treated you fairly. And the minute you think I haven't, I want you to tell me." Not only do you give that out, you encourage them to take that out.

I was coaching a client in an internal compensation negotiation recently, where he knew they were trying to give him less than what they owed him, and he needed to make his case as to why they were wrong. So what I told him to do was, I said at the very beginning, you tell them that if at moment you're being unfair with them, for them to stop you. And what he did was then he laid out his entire case without interruption when otherwise they would've been looking to interrupt him. And then because all his points were valid, then when he shut up. He went silent. He did what we call an 'effective pause.' Their reaction was, well, there wasn't anything that you said that was unfair. So it tends to keep people in sort of a rational frame of mind and make them more open to listening to you.

That's the emotional calculation you're going for. Either the "F-word" is going to come out, after people are upset and they throw out the "F-word" you know that not only are you in trouble at the moment you've been in trouble for a while. Or you take a proactive approach and you diffuse it before the missile gets launched.