We Asked an FBI Hostage Negotiator How Britain Should Negotiate Brexit

By James O Malley on at

If you want a vision of Britain’s future, imagine a seemingly endless series of boring technical negotiations with our European friends. Following the Brexit vote on June 23rd, our number one national priority is to negotiate our divorce with the continent that we used to be so in love with. Who will have the big telly? How often will we get to visit the kids? And, umm, how will we know how many fish we can each catch without a Common Fisheries Policy? And so on.

Over the weekend Theresa May, the prime minister, announced that the formal process for leaving, and thus the proper negotiations, will begin no later than the end of March next year.

The bad news for us is that when we enter the negotiations, we’re at a massive disadvantage, as Europe has everything we want: a single market we’d like to sell to, 400m people, 27 member states and an incentive to screw us so that nobody else thinks of quitting. So basically, we need to get our shit together if we’re going to Brexit successfully.

And this is why we at Giz UK thought we’d ask a former FBI hostage negotiator how Britain can make sure that it gets a good deal.

Chris Voss spent 24 years at the FBI and was the agency’s chief international kidnapping negotiator; he has worked on negotiations in hot-spots all around the world, from Iraq to Colombia to the Gaza Strip. Since retiring, Voss has started his own company to help with negotiations and has even written his own book about the art of negotiating, called Never Split the Difference.

Earning Respect

I started by asking Chris how we should approach the negotiation from the outset. He explained to me how in negotiations there are always two different types of issues: emotional issues and substantive issues. “I don't want to try to solve emotional issues with substantive concessions because then you're wasting your substantive concessions,” he explained. “If they're emotional maybe there's an emotional non-monetary non-substantive move.”

Chris conceptualises these substantive issues in monetary terms: how much is a certain concession going to cost him? How much would it be worth to win on a specific point? And he doesn’t want to waste real money – substance – on satisfying emotional needs.

“Sometimes a demonstration of respect is worth a lot of money. People get themselves backed into a corner. My dollars are precious to me, so I don't want to spend my dollars over emotional problems.”

He thinks demonstrations of respect are crucial: “it builds fastest when you go first,” he says.

“A lot of the times reasons for not doing things are more important than the reasons for doing something. The negatives are the biggest barriers. If you can clear the [emotional] negatives away, the positives will take over and make the deal for you. And if you don’t clear the negative emotional barriers away the positives will never make the deal because there will always be a lingering resentment.”

So perhaps on day one, Britain’s negotiators should suggest something European for lunch, rather than fish & chips?

Chris explains that building this respect is something that hostage negotiators learn to do instinctively. “We're going to work out what's bothering you, as opposed to what we can offer you. That's why hostage negotiators make deals all the time where they get everything they want for nothing.”

How we imagine the negotiations will look.

And this is why, in Chris’s view, Britain’s negotiators should use the approach taken by American billionaire investor Warren Buffett: Rather than open by talking about what we can do for Europe if we get a favourable deal, we should instead offer a mea culpa. According to Chris, when Buffett sends out letters to his investors, he starts by apologising for any screw-ups, because this clears minds and builds credibility. It also, subtly, shows that he is fearless. So perhaps we should start by handing over a “Sorry about the referendum” card?

Psychological Tricks

So once the negotiations get down to business, how can we get an advantage? Chris says that ideally what we want to do is for the other side to talk themselves into our position. So that, eventually, they’ll start suggesting what you want as their own idea. The way to do this is simple: we should keep asking “What” and “How” questions, and every time they say something we agree with simply say “wow, that was brilliant”.

Creating these positive feelings feeds into the emotional / substantive dichotomy, and Chris believes that however eloquent or in command of the facts our negotiators are around the table, what is going to matter more is the feeling once both sides walk away. “I’m going to want the negatives to diminish and the positives to increase”, he says.

Why so serious? Well, we are discussing the financial sector's passporting arrangements.

One technique is to simply describe back to the other side their world view as they see it, so that it demonstrates that we understand where they are coming from. Chris suggests that our negotiators acknowledge that, for example, there could be a perception that we’re isolationist or look down on the rest of Europe.

“It's walking a really fine line between empathy and agreement”, he explains, “so I can acknowledge and appreciate your perceptions of me without agreeing with any of them”.

In fact, this is also Chris’s analysis for the EU referendum as a whole: the reason the Remain campaign didn’t win is because it focused too much on the economic plusses and minuses, rather than on the emotional appeal.

“If you get into a situation that makes no sense financially because of emotional issues then you're not going to solve that situation with dollar answers to emotional issues,” he says.

Brexit Strategies

One of the biggest challenges that Britain faces is that the EU comes as a package deal; what we really want is only a few bits and pieces. For example, we want to be able to sell to the single market, but in the infinite wisdom of voters it appears that we also want to be able to restrict all of the scary foreigners from freely coming here. Is there any negotiating techniques we can use to tease these issues apart, so we can get what we want?

Chris says that most of the time in negotiations people are negotiating over perceived gains – that the other side should do what we want, because it will garner them certain benefits. But Chris believes this approach is flawed, because what really motivates people is a sense of loss.

To explain this he cites the Nobel Prize winning foundational theory of behavioural economics, called Prospect Theory. First theorised by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, it posits that people emotionally feel losses more so than equivalent gains. “You're more likely to get somebody to do something to avoid a loss than you are to accomplish a gain.”

So rather than try to explain to Europe why restricting freedom of movement might be a good thing, we should instead focus on explaining the downsides of whether or not Britain is allowed to continue trading freely.

Is there an opportunity for us to divide and conquer, I wondered? Given that Britain will be negotiating with 27 other countries, they will all have slightly different incentives and interests. Should we try to split them up, or play them off against each other? Chris didn’t think it was a good idea.

”As soon as you start splitting up the other side you start winning short term gains and your long term gains go away”, he says. He gives the example of the oft-cited claim that Israel is really good at keeping its opponents divided. While this might work in the short term, as it prevents them from putting up a united front in opposition, it hurts longer term chances of finding a solution to the Middle East’s problems, and hurts the prospects of any long term economic gains for the region. “It can be very seductive to be at causing disarray in the other side but all your long term gains go away”, he warns.

When Theresa May took office, she created a couple of new cabinet positions to prepare for Brexit. There’s now the Department of Exiting the European Union, and also a new Minister for International Trade; the idea behind that latter position being to forge new trade deals with the likes of China and Australia. But this made me wonder: could this hurt our negotiations with Europe? How will Europe feel when it sees us flirting with other trading partners? So could it hurt us?

“It depends on what you’re trying to do,” Chris says. “Once you start trying to play people off against each other intentionally then people have a tendency to get mad and walk away even when it's against their best interests. So that's a great way to make people walk away from good deals. [But] as long as your negotiations are in good faith and are being done with integrity then there's nothing wrong with it. You shouldn't have any partner who doesn't want you to be healthy because if you're a healthy economic partner then you're good for them.”

And finally then...how can we know when to walk away? How can we know if talking to Europe is even worth it? What if things get really bad? When should we just say “screw you guys, I’m going home” to our former European colleagues?

Chris thinks we can figure this out with two questions. He suggests we ask ourselves: “is the other side trying to hurt me?” and “Is the other side untrustworthy?”. If they’re trying to hurt us, but we can trust them, it still might be worth carrying on (presumably to mitigate the pain). If they don’t want to hurt us, but are untrustworthy it might be worth carrying on, presumably because we can work to build that trust. But they’re trying to hurt us, and are untrustworthy? That appears to be the moment when we want to start flipping tables.

So best of luck to Britain’s negotiators. They’re going to need it. And if a former FBI hostage negotiator can’t help, I’m not sure who can.

Never Split the Difference is available now.