Get what you want – FBI negotiation techniques

Talking to people under stressful circumstances is super difficult. But getting someone else to see your point of view and change their minds, especially if you talk with violent people, that’s a whole other story. Fortunately, we’ve got experts who master that important skill every day and develop tactics which we can then apply to our needs. 

Why is it interesting to share those techniques with you even if you don’t work for the FBI? Because they can be used in any other setting, like business negotiations, for example, when asking for a raise or resolving a team conflict.

Some time ago the FBI’s hostage negotiation unit developed The Behavioral Change Stairway Model [1], which I’d like to share with you now. It’s a five step model that’s being used while negotiating with violet people. 

Behavioral Change Stairway Model
Behavioral Change Stairway Model

Negotiation is all about emotions

Negotiation is not a fully rational process. You can be well prepared or you can act like you don’t care. You can even use Roger Fisher’s advice to prepare your own BATNA [2] and apply other professional techniques. But you cannot forget that in the end it’s all about emotions. As Chris Voss once mentioned:

“(…) business negotiations try to pretend that emotions don’t exist. What’s your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or ‘BATNA.’ That’s to try to be completely unemotional and rational, which is a fiction about negotiation. Human beings are incapable of being rational, regardless.”

And FBI experts know it because hostage negotiation is especially emotional. That’s why they developed their own model which takes emotions fully into account. It’s crucial in crisis situations when emotions are high and people fight for what they care about. Their job is to make sure that in a short period of time they do their best to change someone else’s mind. How do they do that?

#1 Active listening

First, you need to listen to the other person’s perspective and make them aware that you’re listening. This is the most critical step in The Behavioral Change Stairway Model. And listening is not only about being silent. If you’re listening to another person and thinking about your own arguments at the same time, then you’re actually not listening. 

Chris mentioned that the lack of listening skills and not paying attention to emotions are the biggest mistakes you can make in negotiations.

“If your first objective in the negotiation, instead of making your argument, is to hear the other side out, that’s the only way you can quiet the voice in the other guy’s mind. But most people don’t do that. They don’t walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say.”

According to the papers [1], active listening is composed of core and supplemental activities. Core activities include mirroring, paraphrasing, emotional labeling, and summarizing. And supplemental activities consist of effective pauses (silence), minimal encouragers, and open-ended questions.

Active Listening
Active Listening Activities

Effective pauses are about remaining silent at the right times. You need to feel when exactly the best moment to pause is and let the other person think through what’s already been said. You can use it before or after meaningful comments. Silence increases anticipation when it’s used before meaningful words. But it can also help the subject focus on the content when you use it afterwards. For instance: “Please, tell me if I have it right (pause), you’re angry because… .”

Minimal encouragers are verbal cues that confirm you’re listening to another person. You can use the basic ones, like “uh-huh,” “yes,” “okay,” “go on.” They are supposed to be brief so as not to interrupt the interlocutor. They should be used just to show that you’re aware of what is being said to you.

Mirroring refers to repeating the last words people say to you. The reason for that is again to show the other person that you’re attentive. In hostage negotiation, its goal is to focus the discussion on a person in crisis, not on a negotiator. It seems easy, but the most important point is to be natural. The other person needs to believe you’re sincere. You cannot just automatically repeat the last word you’ve heard. That can actually annoy your interlocutor and make you look like an impostor.

Paraphrasing involves restating the content in your own words. That lets a negotiator put him- or herself in the other person’s shoes. It’s even more useful if you combine it with emotional labeling. Even if a negotiator initially misidentifies some emotions, it will show that he or she is trying to understand the subject. Examples of emotional labeling include: “you sound angry,” “I can hear the frustration in your voice,” “I see that you’re irritated.”

Summarizing allows a negotiator to clarify what a person in crisis is experiencing. It also reflects the negotiator’s effort in understanding a situation from another perspective. For instance: “Let me make sure I understand you. You’ve lost a job for no apparent reason (rephrasing) and now you’re frustrated (emotion labeling).”

Open-ended questions encourage a person to speak. The goal is to make them talk and let them decrease emotions. These are typical questions, like “what,” “why,” “how” and statements, like “tell me more about that” or “I’d like to hear more.” They minimize the risk of hearing just a simple “yes” or “no” answer and they make people talk. The less people talk, the more frustrated they can become.

#2 Empathy

It’s s a natural by-product of true active listening. If you truly listen to another person, then you automatically encourage empathy. The idea is to let a negotiator absorb some of the tension. That’s his job. Only then can he establish a relationship and find a solution with the subject through collaboration.

#3 Rapport

Ok, until now we’ve covered a one-sided relationship. One person was talking and a negotiator was actively listening. Now we can move on and go to the next level. Once the 1st and 2nd level are effectively achieved, a negotiator earns trust and affinity with another person.

The biggest benefit of that stage is that the subject is more likely to listen to a negotiator and his or her offerings. At this stage negotiator begins to offer “face saving” justifications and minimizations of a currently negative situation. The goal is to show the other person various options to end the crisis. To mitigate fault and reframe it into positive actions. 

#4 Influence 

At this stage the relationship has already been established. That means that a negotiator has built trust and the other person is more willing to accept an offer. Without the previous stages a negotiator wouldn’t be able to speak up and suggest any kind of mitigation. 

During the influence stage, a negotiator works on finding the best solution in collaboration with the subject. The main task for a negotiator now is to look for solutions that are non-violent and aligned with his or her propositions.

#5 Behavioral change

If a negotiator is able to influence a person during the previous stage, then the moment to change the behavior comes next. To act and use a common solution. This step must be taken with special caution. According to the papers [1], the most common mistakes are due to negotiators moving too fast.

If a negotiator moves through the stages too rapidly, it can break the trust. And hostage negotiation is all about emotions and trust. The other example is when a negotiator omits some stages. It can be tempting to move fast, especially when the stakes are high. But while building trust and rapport, time is your biggest enemy. Without an established positive relationship, which requires active listening, empathy, and rapport, the behavioral change is impossible. 


Even though you don’t take part in hostage negotiations on a daily basis, there are some lessons you can take away from the FBI papers. The most crucial one is that successful negotiations are not only about having persuasive arguments.

It’s not just a battle of already prepared arguments. Without putting in emotions and establishing a positive relationship first, you lower the chances of achieving a win-win situation. I like the words of Chris Voss who said that the biggest mistake people make while negotiating is that they don’t listen, don’t pay attention to emotions, but they just come to a meeting and share their own arguments instead.


[1] Vecchi, Gregory & Hasselt, Vincent & Romano, Stephen. (2005). Crisis (hostage) negotiation: Current strategies and issues in high-risk conflict resolution. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 10. 533-551. 10.1016/j.avb.2004.10.001.

[2] Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, Bruce Patton. (1991). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Penguin Books.