The #1 Tactic for Negotiating with Someone More Powerful than You

Published August 27, 2019


Conflict ManagementLeading Others


It’s how I gained the upper hand on international kidnappers.

Strategically applied deference in the form of “How?” Then make solving your problem the path to their goal. This is really one of the central premises of my book Never Split The Difference—Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

This combines 2 principles:

  1. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in.
  2. The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control.

So, if you’re in a negotiation at all, you have leverage, even if their only communication with you is to threaten you. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. They’re communicating. You may even have leverage if the negotiation hasn’t “officially” begun, if you’ve identified something they want.

Let’s turn leverage on its head. Who has the leverage (power) in a kidnapping? Most people say the kidnapper. But, please consider these two things: How many buyers does the kidnapper have? To win a negotiation, you have to win in their world. In their world, kidnappers are simply commodities dealers. To us, it’s a horrific experience; to them it’s a commodities deal. I’ve even had kidnappers describe themselves to me as buyers and sellers of a commodity. With one buyer in the whole world, who has the leverage? 

The Control Factor

Next, the kidnapper has something we love (our friend or family member), but we have something they lust for—money. I’d suggest that lust is the stronger driver.

Since the more “powerful” negotiator often sees himself (or herself as the case may be) as more powerful and is often in a rush to exert control, once we give it to them, they are often caught a little off balance (in a way that favors us) and they drop their guard. Asking a great “How?” question is a way to give a more powerful counterpart the illusion of control. It makes them feel in charge. And powerful people love to answer the “how” question.

With kidnappers, the sequence is simply “How do we know our son is alive?” “How are we supposed to pay you if we don’t know our son is alive?” There are other things that go along with this, but this is the cornerstone that everything is built around—natural “how” questions that are tailored for the circumstances.


Forced Empathy

The great thing about a properly constructed “how” question is that it causes the person who is being asked to stop and think about it on a number of levels, often causing them to take a look at you in a way that we call “forced empathy.” They don’t even know what you are doing to them.

These are just a few examples of effective “how” questions. And the key to them all is asking them with a deferential tone of voice. There is great power in deference.

Let’s go with “How am I supposed to do that?” as my favorite way to say no. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking they’re going to raise their voice and say, “Because you have to.” That’s actually where you want to end up because that tells you that you’ve pushed them to their limit without them breaking it off and walking away. (Which by answering you they haven’t done.)

The first time or two, they will respond with some sort of wiggle room. One of my USC students was bargaining to lease a home in the Hollywood Hills. It’s a very strong real estate market with lots of demand. The broker has all the power, right? But is there still room to negotiate?

The first, “How is my client supposed to pay that?” was met with a concession in terms. This was followed by a paraphrase and using a mirror technique of simply repeating the last 1-3 words, or a selected 1-3 words. The negotiation continued on other terms until they came back to the price term.

Again, “How is my client supposed to pay that?” Answer: “Well if your client wants to live there, they’ll have to pay it.” The answer was just simply stated as a matter of fact. No anger. Just a statement. And, bang, it was a done deal.

The “how” question found what room there was to be had and is one of the most powerful methods to both negotiate with a more powerful opponent (counterpart) and find out what else there is on the table.


This article originally appeared on LinkedIn here.

About the Author
Chris Voss is a 2019 Global Leadership Summit Speaker.

Chris Voss

CEO & Founder

The Black Swan Group

Chris Voss founded The Black Swan Group, a firm that provides training and advises Fortune 500 companies through complex negotiations. A 24-year veteran of the FBI, he was the lead international kidnapping negotiator and was trained not only by the FBI, but by Scotland Yard and Harvard Law School. In his book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, Voss breaks down these strategies so that anyone can use them in the workplace, in business or at home.

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