How to Negotiate with Difficult People


“I’m here to sign-up for the stupid American of the day award.”  

What made me say that? I’m on the wrong side of customs in Australia and my bags are still inside. And I’m not interested in getting stranded and missing my connection, or wearing the same clothes for five days and brushing my teeth with the hotel provided toothbrush.

How did this happen? Wellllllll, the airline person at the Salt Lake City airport where I started the day assured me my bags were checked all the way through to my final destination in Hamilton island. When I found myself exiting the secure area in Sydney to change planes I just got a baaaaad feeling.

I walk up to the lost luggage counter to inquire and am told in a voice dripping with, “How stupid could you possibly be?” that “No. Just like in Los Angeles you have to retrieve your bags and carry them through Customs and to the connection. You can’t get back in.”

She goes back to her magazine. Perfect.



1. Do A Cold Read

I step back out of the office. I do a cold read.

Why should you do it? First, it automatically helps you get your own negative emotions out of the way. There’s a great saying, “Give a speech when you’re angry and it will be the best speech you’ll ever regret.” These negative thought processes limit your negotiation abilities.

Is there a long line of frustrated people already unloading their complaints on the person you want to talk to? Does they look frustrated, busy, tired, or stressed? Is it likely that they’ve been dealing with unhappy people all day? Are they pointedly not looking your direction? (This is almost always the case with airline personnel and is a big sign it’s already been a tough day for them.)

Second, I know that as I approach a situation the emotions and perceptions others have are both the biggest obstacles to what I want, and also the best levers to my goal.

You should know that too.

What happens if you don’t do this? The already tense airline representative will see you coming from a mile away. When you’re frustrated, it shows. This will impede both them and you.  

Coming soon! Sign up for our March event in Atlanta >>

2. Logic is Dumb

Is my logical explanation of what I was told in Salt Lake going to help? The most likely reaction on their part is: one stupid person listening to another stupid person does not add up to one person who should be excused from having to wait a very long time to pay for their mistake.

A logical approach sends one clear message: that you think you’re smarter than they are. It feels like being talked down to.

No one anywhere is teaching anyone that presenting a logical argument is an emotionally intelligent way to accomplish anything. People make decisions based on what they care about. That makes all decision making, by default, an emotionally driven process.

The decision to help me will be an emotional one. Do they feel like it?

What will make them feel like it?

Tactical empathy.

3. Conduct an Accusation Audit

A ridiculously powerful subset of Tactical Empathy is The Black Swan Group tool we refer to as the Accusation Audit.  When we wrote “Never Split The Difference”, we had no idea of what a consistent game-changer it would prove to be. (It’s Chapter 3 in the book.)

Here are the basics: Now that you’ve opened up your awareness to how they’re likely being hammered (cold read), conduct an audit. What accusations or over-reactions are you sincerely hoping they don’t make?

In this case, the airline agent might say that I’m being unreasonable, that I’m responsible for the mistake which makes me...irresponsible. They might secretly think that I’m blaming them and making their job more difficult.

Fortunately I’ve got some go-to openings here. Feel free to add them to your list. And remember, if you don’t feel like you’re laying it on a little thick, you’re probably not laying it on thick enough.

“I’m here to sign-up for the mistake of the day award.” (Effective pause)

“I’m about to make your day incredibly difficult.” (Effective pause)

I already know these two openings were previously used by Brandon Voss to rebook a flight he’d missed. The airline person fell all over herself, cheerily proving to Brandon she could easily handle anything he threw at her.

He got the same class of seat with no change fees, and such a more convenient departure time he actually went home and cut his grass before he left.

He was quite proud of himself over that one.

I could also use: “Bless me father for I have sinned.”  I used that one with a TSA guy in New Jersey. Instead of throwing me completely out of the secure area (which has happened to me before) when he found in my bag a water bottle with water in it (Voss water of course), he walked me right back to the head of the line so I could get immediately back through.

If you’re approaching someone for the first time and are anticipating resistance, use those predicted negatives and even amplify them in your opening statement. Most people avoid acknowledging negatives because they assume that doing so plants them in their counterpart’s mind.

On the contrary, denials plants negatives—labels diffuse them. The introduction, “I’m here to sign up for the mistake of the day award,” is preemptive empathy and actually innoculates from possible negative reactions.

4. Don’t Be Discouraged by a Apparent Rejection

What if you do all of the above, come up with a dynamite negative label, and find that your counterpart still reacts negatively—or they don’t react at all? Typically, if you’re calling out a negative in advance and your counterpart doesn’t react, it means that you need to go further.

If you’ve laid it on thick and are still being stonewalled, countering with a label like, “It seems like I missed the mark there,” can help end the moment while taking into account what your counterpart is telling you.

On the flip side—if you start off a negotiation on the right foot but notice that your counterpart is becoming more terse and aggressive as things progress—use labels to identify dynamics (affects and attitudes) in an innocent way. Saying “it sounds like [insert variable] is bothering you” in an inquisitive tone is a great way to get at the emotional drivers that are creating roadblocks to agreement.

How did my adventure turn out? Armed with some really bad directions to another office from the first person I originally contacted, I approached a door with no sign, no window and a buzzer. I felt a little like it was the door to Oz where the guys slams the opening shut after shouting “No one gets in to see the wizard!”.

I hit the next lady with a full blown dose of “I am so sorry...I’m here to sign up for the stupid American of the year award!” (yep I ramped it up even more) in an upbeat and cheery mood. She sent me to go drink coffee in a charming coffee shop nearby. She knocked herself out going through luggage and customs and delivered my bag back to me 30 minutes later at the same doorway I found her at. I made my connection in plenty of time.

The proactive diffusing of negative emotions is one of the biggest game changers that our clients are implementing.

Do a cold read, implement an accusation audit and forget about logic doing anything to help you get your way.

Tactical empathy. To borrow the Allstate motto, don’t leave home without it.

Sign up for our exclusive one-day event in Los Angeles.

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.