When negotiating, beware the “F-word”

25 July 2015

Earlier this year The Atlantic published a fascinating transcript with Chris Voss, who was at a time the FBI’s international hostage negotiator. It was titled “Ask a hostage negotiator: What’s the best way to get a raise?”.

In this conversation, Voss shares a number of useful insights, not just limited to hostage negotiations.

One of the more interesting things that Voss discussed relates to fairness:

“We call fairness the “F-word.” … you’ll find that fairness comes out on almost every single negotiation, and when it gets thrown out there, it’s a word that punches people’s buttons in one of the most subtle ways possible.”

So it’s worth keeping in mind that “fairness” will be on both parties minds, and that it’s an emotive issue.

He continues:

“If I’m a negotiator, I’ll use it against you because I know that I can knock you back on your heels emotionally. If we’re in a deal, and I want to be a cutthroat, I’m going to say, “Look, I’ve given you a fair offer.” Now, for you to protest against that, what I’ve just done is accuse you of being unfair towards me. And that’s why the cutthroats do it because nobody sees it. It is a stealth attack from a cutthroat negotiator.”

So: used strategically, someone who is unscrupulous can set a mousetrap using the idea of “fairness”. If they use this technique, they’re betting on the other party being uncomfortable with suggesting that they’re being – gasp! – unfair.

Voss explains that you can “take a proactive approach and… diffuse it before the missile gets launched”. One way of doing this is to preface conversations by stating something to the following effect:

“I want to make sure you feel I’ve treated you fairly. And the minute you think I haven’t, I want you to tell me.”



About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

In his spare time, Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or that he is an orthodontist. He is none of those things. In reality, Sonnie is a financial planner based in Christchurch. Through his business, Fairhaven Wealth (www.fairhavenwealth.co.nz), he provides independent, advice-only, fixed-fee financial planning services. Sonnie is a “recovering lawyer”: he has specialised in trusts and personal client work. He has also worked as a financial services lawyer for many years.

You may also like

Money and time travel

Predict your future! (featuring some personal predictions of my own)

There are many different types of “financial adviser”

Sign up to the NZ Wealth & Risk mailing list