A hard bargain

Chris Voss saved the lives of countless hostages during his career as an FBI negotiator and some of the techniques he deployed in life-or-death situations have everyday applications

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The role of hostage negotiator has been glamourised on screen many times, from Inside Man to Captain Phillips and more recently in global Netflix hit Money Heist. The reality, however, is less romantic and far more harrowing.

For more than two decades Chris Voss was part of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit and between 2003 and 2007 was the organisation’s chief international hostage and kidnapping negotiator. He worked on more than 150 hostage negotiations.

“Politicians’ aim is always to compromise, claim victory and then go home, when in reality what they are left with is half a loss.”

Born in Mt Pleasant, Iowa, Voss studied industrial administration at Iowa State University before beginning his law enforcement career as a SWAT officer at the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office. It was then he became interested in negotiation and this led to a move to New York, where he swiftly rose through the ranks of FBI hostage negotiators to become a member of the NYC Joint Terrorism Task Force. Later, his attention would switch to major international cases as his skills were further honed by Scotland Yard and Harvard Law School.

While he has secured many people’s freedom, Voss has also been left devastated in the face of tragic outcomes. The turbulent nature of his profession was best exemplified by successive negotiations in the Philippines in the early 2000s.

Abu Sayyaf – a violent Filipino separatist group that has more recently been absorbed into Islamic State – became infamous for its kidnappings at the turn of the century. Publicly it claimed to be driven by jihad, though experts have suggested that financing the organisation was the real motivation.

Voss initially enjoyed successful negotiations with Abu Sayyaf.

“Things were going well. We were able to deactivate the anger and the negativity of the terrorists and secure the release of a hostage,” Voss tells Big Issue North after delivering a “negotiation Masterclass” at the Global Citizen Forum in the United Arab Emirates.

“I can remember that we even had a bizarre moment when the principal negotiator for the terrorists called afterwards to express that he felt respected by the process. That just doesn’t happen.”

It proved to be a false dawn a month later when Abu Sayyaf launched a brutal campaign, starting on the Das Palmas Island Resort in Palawan. The group quickly demonstrated its intent by murdering American hostage Guillermo Sobero and the crisis lasted more than a year, with around 100 hostages taken.

Although many were released, it ended in tragedy in 2002 as American missionary Martin Burnham and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were killed in an operation to free them.

“All the players had changed and it was a massive train wreck from the start,” Voss reflects sadly. “A lot of Filipinos died and two out of the three Americans captured were killed. We did everything that we knew how to do but it wasn’t enough. It was the darkest moment of my professional career.”

Voss went on to negotiate the release of American journalist Jill Carroll, captured in Baghdad by Iraqi insurgents and held for three months. In the same year he worked on the kidnapping of another American journalist, Steve Centanni, held in Gaza by gunmen from a group called the Holy Jihad Brigades. He managed other hostage cases in Colombia and Haiti.

Now a consultant and trainer with his own company Black Swan Group, Voss co-authored Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It in 2016 with journalist Tahl Raz and believes everyone is capable of improving their negotiation skills.

The American argues that the world is split into three types of people: “fight” – those who are assertive; “flight” – those who are highly analytical; and “make friends” – those who focus on relationship building. To be a successful negotiator, Voss argues, you need all three.

“You need to be able to fight, to make it clear what you want, otherwise success is impossible. You need the flight-type focus on ramifications, and you need to be able to forge relationships.

“Everyone has at least one of these approaches in-built, and the challenge is to learn the complementary skills.”

Voss’s services are highly sought-after by companies but he also helps individuals looking to become better negotiators. And he insists some of his biggest successes have been when tenants get better deals from landlords or even stave off evictions. For individuals, then, what is the best piece of advice he can offer?

“Make the other person feel heard,” Voss says. “That means letting them go first, repeating back what they say, paraphrasing it, checking in. When somebody feels heard, they get doses of different neurochemicals and that leads to better collaboration.

“When someone feels heard, they tend to be more honest, they tend to bond with you and, importantly, they tend to want less. What more do you want from negotiation other than the person to be honest with you, to bond with you, and to be less greedy?”

While individual citizens provide Voss with some of his most rewarding moments, politicians have become a constant source of frustration for the negotiator.

“They all have their stupid, embarrassing moments of course but I just think that, across the board, politicians don’t make good negotiators.

“Their aim is always to compromise, claim victory and then go home when in reality what they are left with is half a loss. Politicians get away with this all the time in a way that business leaders never could because they are judged on financial results and need to answer to shareholders. Politicians are poor negotiators.”

One political figure who has consistently made claims to the contrary is former US President Donald Trump. He ran for office as the self-styled “dealmaker-in-chief” and in his now infamous book Art of the Deal claimed that deals were “my art form”. Voss isn’t so sure.

“He doesn’t finish well. He does a good job of starting things off. He’s not afraid to talk to anybody and I admired the fact he went and personally met with [North Korea leader] Kim Jong-un as the idea that previous presidents were ‘too good’ to go meet him is ridiculous.

“If Trump felt he could get a deal, he had no problem going and speaking to anybody and I think that’s extremely admirable. However, he didn’t finish anything. The greatest negotiation that occurred under his administration was the Abraham Accords. And his son-in-law Jared Kushner did that.”

That historic agreement saw Israel and the Gulf states of UAE and Bahrain – followed later by Sudan and Morocco – normalise diplomatic relations for the first time. It was a coup for Trump and Kushner but the pair were also responsible for moments of major antagonism in the Middle East, notably the decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The US has often played a central role in negotiations. George Bush Sr’s attempts to host peace talks in the early 1990s yielded no notable results, while the Clinton administration successfully brokered peace between Jordan and Israel in 1994. Six years later, the Camp David summit brought together Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Bearak but fell short of a solution.

The brokering of peace between Israel and Palestine represents the holy grail for any professional negotiator, according to Voss.

“Although lots of progress has been made in so many different ways over the years and lots of lives have been saved, lasting peace has never been achieved.

“There is so much pain and anguish on all sides and I think that anyone involved in negotiation, if they love the profession, if they love the possibility of really helping people, they would love to get involved with the Arab-Israeli negotiation.”

Successfully negotiating peace in the Middle East would warrant being immortalised on the silver screen but Voss insists he doesn’t make a habit of watching cinematic depictions of negotiation. He feels movies tend to over-simplify the relationships between those on either side and lack the nuance of real-life hostage situations.

“The closest thing that was ever any good was a movie called The Negotiator with Samuel Jackson and Kevin Spacey,” Voss chuckles. “Now a lot of that was bad, but it had more good than any of the others.

“I understand Hollywood has got to dramatise things but some of the stuff they have negotiators say is horrible. The classic is: ‘I know where you come from, I can understand.’ If you actually said that to someone, they’d just turn around and tell you to fuck off.

“I stick to the Marvel Avengers stuff. It’s more realistic.”

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