How to bargain like a hostage negotiator

Effective negotiators are quick to establish credibility, restore calm and devise an exit strategy.

In 1987, Terry Waite, then in Beirut as an envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, was taken hostage by members of an Islamic militia group. After his release 1,760 days later, Waite dedicated his life to travelling the world as a hostage negotiator. Talking to the BBC’s Focus Magazine, Waite explained there are several key qualities a hostage negotiator must convey in order to succeed: credibility, relatability and trustworthiness. “If you can do that,” he said, you can “try and see a way through the problem which doesn’t involve compromis[ing] your principles.”

On the news and in the movies, where most of us have witnessed hostage negotiators in action, the ability to talk one’s way in and out of highly combustible situations with minimal collateral damage can save lives. But transferred to the workplace, says Steven Mehta, a Los Angeles – based lawyer and mediator, and the author of 112 Ways to Succeed in Any Negotiation or Mediation, these very same skills may just help you save your job.

Mehta argues that the psychological underpinnings of hostage negotiation are often applicable in volatile workplace scenarios, including negotiating severance, asking for a raise, or smoothing things over after a major crisis. “[These techniques] will help you in every situation,” he says, “but especially the more emotional ones.”

According to Mehta, transporting your inner high-stakes negotiator into the workplace is a seven-step process. First, he says, you must establish open lines of communication with your adversary: “Studies show that the more that people like you, the more they’re open to your message.”

Next, he says, identify who is ultimately in charge. If, for example, you’re asking your boss for a raise, is he or she the one who makes the final call? If not, ask your boss if the decision maker can join the negotiation. (“If you’re talking to the lackey, it’s not going to do you any good,” he says.)

Third, restore calm to a charged situation. Asking for a raise may not seem like a hostile act, but considering today’s economy, it may come across as one to your employer. Restoring calm mostly happens by listening to the other side, says Mehta. “Listen to understand, not to argue.” Next, ask questions – and lots of them – to gather information to build your case. “The more you ask open-ended questions, the more power you have,” he says. Once you understand your adversary’s position, you can begin to brainstorm a working strategy to resolve the crisis. Top negotiators don’t do this alone: it’s a collaborative process with the other side.

With your adversary softened up, it’s time to persuade him or her to see things your way. A hint: Don’t just insist “I want a raise,” Mehta says. Instead, explain where you’re coming from, what you’re hoping for, and why it would benefit the company. And steer clear of ultimatums. “People don’t respond well to threats,” says Mehta. Consider any and all solutions. If more money really is out of the question, how about a shorter workweek? “Be creative.”

Finally, with a deal just about struck, make sure you have an exit strategy that will leave both parties feeling secure and satisfied. “To save face, hostage-takers will make last-minute demands, like ‘I don’t want to go out in cuffs!'” he says. “Your boss might want to give you the raise but may need to save face with their boss. Everyone has to justify to someone.” If you’ve brainstormed 10 different ways to improve your compensation, for example, be willing to concede one or two. Follow these steps, says Mehta, and you’ll walk away a winner.

In any high-stakes bargaining situation, good negotiators always pay special attention to their adversary’s emotional needs in order to ensure their own needs are met. Colleen Plamondon, an Edmonton account executive with a long history in sales, has a stellar negotiating track record – but she’s seen plenty of deals implode. Too often, she says, people are too firm with their demands. “You have to come to grips with the fact that the other side has to win, too,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve felt that I’ve ever lost a negotiation. And I don’t think that any of my opponents have, either.”