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A Former FBI Kidnapping Negotiator Shares His Best Tips for Leveling Up Your Negotiation Game A career business expert and hostage negotiation expert for the National Security Council shares what the best negotiators do to achieve desired outcomes.

By Randy Garn Edited by Matt Scanlon

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

How are your negotiation skills? I'd expect most of us, if answering truthfully, would say either "subpar" or "seriously lacking." And this is completely understandable: Negotiation is tough and often uncomfortable, but (almost) always pivotal. It bleeds into seemingly every element of our lives — and is an imperative life hack if we want to improve the outcome of… just about anything.

Most people are poor negotiators simply because that skill has not been modeled for them well, if at all. The good news is that it's both an art and skill that can be learned, just like public speaking, creative thinking or even a pretty golf swing…especially if you have a good teacher.

Fortunately, I have the best in the business.

Recently, I sat down with a good friend, Chris Voss. As the former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and its hostage negotiation representative for the National Security Council's Hostage Working Group, he has honed this ability to a fine edge. Perhaps you've seen his MasterClass, "The Art of Negotiating," or heard of his business The Black Swan Group, which teaches the art of negotiation in business. You might have even seen the recently released film, Tactical Empathy, a documentary biopic on Voss that highlights the importance of understanding any individuals you're negotiating with.

Harnessing this wealth of experience, we discussed key concepts that will help anyone improve in this vital capability.

Related: 4 Things to Do When You're in a Negotiation

Why do most negotiations fail?

We've all been a part of failed negotiations. These can be of minor importance or high-stakes and high-pressure. I asked Voss why so many seem to fall through. He offered three main reasons.

"First, we fail to gather information," he says. "We go in firing, ready to talk, convince and present, [when] we really should go in and ask questions, gather important information and set proper expectations."

Voss also mentioned the importance of "high anchoring." The term refers to "…drawing our attention to the positive qualities of the item or individual being discussed, as in the case of a salary negotiation," he says, adding that we tend to provide high anchors before understanding terms or conditions. This can be detrimental to the shape of a negotiation moving forward.

The final reason Voss gave for why negotiations fail had to do with basic misunderstanding — the tendency for both parties to fail to fully appreciate one another.

"Most of the time, we think we failed as communicators and explainers," he says, "but that's rarely the issue. You need to ensure that both parties are being understood and can do this through summarizing and asking clarifying questions."

Related: 3 Mindsets That Will Ensure the Upper Hand in Any Negotiation

The three types of negotiators

Voss and I also talked about how to become a better negotiator on the back end, and in exploring that he outlined three major personality categories: "Aggressive," "Analyst" and "Ambassador," and why it's critical to identify which type you are.

"The aggressive types don't ask questions," he says. "They typically talk first. They're great at establishing where they stand but typically fail to create understanding, strategize or create good relationships. The analyst never wants to be surprised. They do their research: Some may take weeks to research and plan to be 10 steps ahead, and that's about seven steps too many. The problem with that approach is that we're dealing with human beings who get scared, change their minds and act emotionally."

"The ambassador, meanwhile, is great with relationships," Voss continues. "They're hopeful and optimistic but are bad with details. They get a 'Yes' and think the paperwork has already been signed."

I followed up by asking which of the three types was preferred, as well as how to remedy their respective weaknesses. Voss's response surprised me.

"It's not about remedying anything," he says. "It's about adding on to what you already are. Each type has characteristics that are both essential and inadequate. It's important to be optimistic and hopeful within the context of a deal. You need to strategize and research. You also need to let the other person know where you stand. Each type of negotiator has qualities that are essential but inadequate when they stand alone."

Related: Listen Closely to What People Ask You. That's Where to Find Your Hidden Power.

Practice methods

Given how important it is to assess what you're good at and what sort of skills you need to develop to complement natural tendencies, I asked Voss for some practical tips.

First, he explains, focus on one attribute you want to improve. Let's say the need is to focus on gathering information — so find low-stakes opportunities in which you can practice. This could be with a barista, a waiter or a grocery store clerk — just experiment so that you can tweak and reassess. (Try this exercise four times, he suggests).

The next step is to get into a more uncomfortable situation, but in which the stakes are still low. Meet with someone who is going to say "No" no matter what. Then meet with another who's going to say "Yes" no matter what. The outcome is already determined, so you've got nothing to lose and only experience to gain. This not only helps us quiet the fear center in our brain but also allows us to feel more at ease in higher-pressure situations.

Related: 3 Top Tips for Managing Stress and Anxiety as an Entrepreneur

The result is you'll become a better negotiator — and one who creates more win-win situations for everyone involved.

Randy Garn

Investor / Entrepreneur

Randy Garn is a passionate entrepreneur, speaker, and New York Times best-selling author. He has mastered the art of customer acquisition, marketing, sales and how it relates to overall lifetime customer experience for many top experts, CEOs and influencers today. 

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