4 Steps to Gaining the Upper Hand in a Negotiation


The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is to give the other party the illusion of control. But how do you flip the control dynamic on its head?



How Should You Try to Gain Control?

First, start by watching this quick, master-class video on using labelsThis segues into the first of four steps you need to know:

  1. Use labels.
  2. Employ effective pauses.
  3. Ask calibrated questions.
  4. Adjust tone of voice.

Now, if you’re worried about gaining control in a negotiation, there are likely two common misconceptions taking place: 1) you ask closed-ended questions that you hope the answer to is “yes”, and 2) you fear silence.

When you take this approach, you feel whoever is talking has control and you’re horrified at the prospect of letting the other person say anything other than “yes” or “you’re right.”

However, what this “control-oriented” approach really results in is frustration. People rarely stick to what they’ve agreed to, so you’ll end up getting a counterfeit “yes.” You’ll also feel that the people you encounter tend to not listen to what you’re saying.

Use Labels

Ready to flip the script and take control of the conversation? The step is to use labels. Basic labels come in the form of:

  • “It seems like ...”
  • “It sounds like ...”
  • “It looks like ...”  

In response to the ever deadly “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” (we never know what they really want to talk about or how long they intend to trap us), you might respond with, “It sounds like you have something on your mind.”

Employ Effective Pauses

After any great question or great label, then you’ve got to go silent (i.e., use an effective pause). You’ve got to “shut the front door,” as we say.  Let them answer. Be cool. And 90 percent of the time, they will. Especially if they fear silence.

Ask Calibrated Questions

Still nothing? The next step is the calibrated question. At The Black Swan Group, we don’t use the term open-ended question because it’s a little too general.  

All questions have an emotional impact based on the structure, the context, and whom you’re asking the question. The most approachable and least threatening are the “What?” and “How?” questions.

“What’s the biggest challenge you face?” is a favorite of many negotiators. It’s a staple from a list of questions from Jim Camp’s book Start With No. Jim and his guys referred to these as interrogative-led questions. It is in fact a great “What?” question and can yield an absolute treasure trove of information.

An advanced technique is to ask this question three different ways in quick succession. (Please note, this is not asking three different questions in succession but the same question three slightly different ways.) For example:

  • “What’s the biggest challenge you face?”  
  • “What are you up against here?”  
  • “What causes the most frequent breakdowns?”

This method actually helps the person think, makes the issues more three-dimensional, and gets you better answers.

Again, follow this with silence (the effective pause) so you don’t squash your skills!

Adjust Tone of Voice

Lastly, tone of voice is the artist’s touch to negotiation. The smile in your voice when you speak not only instills encouragement in the other party to respond, but  data now suggests that our brains also work up to 31 percent more effectively when we’re in a positive frame of mind. This means people will give you good answers and like doing it.  

People are six times more likely to make a deal with someone they like. A friendly tone should be your default voice 95 percent of the time.

The other 5 percent of the time, you need the downward-inflecting “late-night FM DJ voice.”  This is the voice of complete calm. You don’t have to “talk over” people with it. You can wait for the right moment to calmly state whatever you have to say that must be written in stone without inflaming the situation. It just is.

If the person you’re negotiating with struggles against this, just repeat what you’ve said again, only with a bit of encouragement in your voice so the person doesn’t see you as an adversary; instead, the situation will seem like the adversary. You’ll also need the “smile” in your voice to bring others out of their initial reaction to the voice of authority and encourage them back into collaboration.

Control doesn’t produce results. Collaboration does. Guide others away from needing control (while you retain the upper hand), and you will get the job done.

To summarize:

  1. Use labels.
  2. Employ effective pauses.
  3. Ask calibrated questions.
  4. Adjust tone of voice.

Make it rain!

increase sales

Chris Voss

About The Author

Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a firm that solves business negotiation problems with hostage negotiation strategies. Chris founded the Black Swan Group, in 2008 upon his retirement from the FBI where he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Chris is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches business negotiation in both M.B.A. programs.