Methods of Persuasion: How to Use FBI Empathy


Do try this method of persuasion at home.

FBI Empathy = Revenue

Is revenue boring?

FBI empathy is the same as what we refer to as “tactical empathy” in our book “Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

What is it? It’s knowingly and intentionally influencing your counterpart’s emotions to make deals. It’s how you give your family a better life.

methods of persuasion

It’s recognition of their perspective and articulating what you see in a strategic, even proactive manner. Especially when you don’t “like” their perspective.

You’re driving for a “that’s right” and NOT a “yes,” to the stuff that you’re gonna hate to say.

(“Bless me, father, for I have sinned” has gotten me out of many jams.)

What scares you will be the stuff (that to say it) will sound like it’s against your interest.

Though really all it is, is being strategically, and fearlessly self-effacing.

Are you afraid to be self-effacing?

It may be harder than you think.

Your ego will get in your way.

I knew we’d hit on the right approach when the FBI hostage negotiation program’s working definition of empathy was the same as Harvard’s.

Harvard: (As articulated in Robert Mnookin’s book “Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes” - Mnookin is the head of the Harvard Program on Negotiation.)

“The process of demonstrating an accurate, nonjudgmental understanding of the other side’s needs, issues, and perspective.”

He goes on to say:

“Empathy does not require people to have sympathy for another’s plight – – to ‘feel their pain.’ Nor is empathy about being nice... Empathizing with someone, therefore, does not mean agreeing with or even necessarily liking the other side.”

The FBI’s hostage negotiation definition?

“Identification / understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.”

So, pretty much the same definitions.

This resonates with the same type of principle recently written about Elon Musk’s reading strategy. He liked to read 2 different books simultaneously to discover universal principles that worked under vastly different circumstances.

Harvard to hostage negotiation? Seems different enough, right?

And when you get it, there’s no limit on where you can apply it.

I’m about to miss a flight out of Malaysia on my way to Australia. I’m facing an immigration line to leave the country that looks every bit of 40 minutes long and my flight boards in 20 minutes. The breakdowns that have caused me to get in this position were all under my control or oversight.

I cut the line (of 40 people) to the Malaysian government bureaucrat who is taking his time and likely not impressed with the selfish concerns of an American who’s failed to get out in front of his schedule.

Me: “I am so sorry. I’m afraid I’m late. My flight boards in 20 minutes and if you don’t let me through, I’m going to miss my flight.”

Him: “Why were you late?” (Unsmiling – He is also looking at the next guy in
the line that I have jumped in front of and clearly thinking about
sending me to the back.)

Me: “It was completely my fault. I’m probably going to be the stupidest person you talk to today.” (What do you think he was thinking at that moment? FBI Empathy /Tactical empathy to the rescue.)

Him: (What is he now thinking? “That’s right.” He smiles, reaches for my passport and ticket – stamps them)
“Have a nice flight.”

Later that week.

I’m delayed in the TSA security checkpoint at Newark Airport. They’ve snagged me because I’ve left a few ounces of water in my “Voss” water bottle in my carry-on shoulder bag. I want to keep the bottle because it’s “Voss”! (and it also has a larger opening to pour in the bizarre vitamins I take.)

The TSA guy is giving me sideways glare/glances as he’s got several bags to check & would rather be doing something else. I smile. No smile in return.

He walks over to get my bag, and when he picks it up, I say, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”

His expression remains unamused.

He takes 3 steps towards me to walk me to the table where he’ll open the bag and says. “How long since your last confession my son?”

“An hour. I do a lot of things wrong.”

He lets me drink the rest of the water in front of him (they’re supposed to throw it out), personally walks me back to the front of the security line (once again cutting in front of 40 people – they’re just supposed to expel you back outside the secure area) and makes sure I get on my way with only momentary delay.

Relationships = Revenue
FBI / Tactical Empathy = Relationships
“That’s right = FBI / Tactical Empathy
“That’s right” = Revenue

Stephen Covey said: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” Why do we do this? So we can be understood – and get the relationship – and get the deal.

Do the hard part. Call out how they see you as wrong politely, but fearlessly.

FBI Empathy = Revenue.

Do try this method of persuasion at home.

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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.