Holiday Advice

Who Pudding & Roast Beast, 2014, RiddimRyder. Courtesy of the artist (Facebook, Instagram).

Disarm an Angry Uncle Like a Pro

Make it through a family holiday gathering in one piece with these tactics from the FBI’s former lead international kidnapping negotiator.

Bank robberies, kidnappings, and holiday get-togethers, Chris Voss has the skills to get through them all. As the FBI’s former lead international kidnapping negotiator, he suggests you can rely on the same tactics whether you’re convincing someone not to kill a hostage or persuading them not to launch into a political shouting match across the dinner table.

Voss has been passing his tools along as a teacher at Georgetown University and the University of Southern California, with his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, and as founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group, a consulting firm that provides training and advice to Fortune 500 companies. He’s on Twitter as @VossNegotiation.


I think a good place to start is the concept of highly improbable situations—aka “Black Swan events.” In your book, you talk about how discovering a negotiating partner’s hidden assumptions makes Black Swans manageable or even avoidable.

If you can begin to identify Black Swans it can make a huge difference. To use a phrase I’ve heard Tony Robbins use: A two-millimeter adjustment makes a massive difference over the long term because the long term comes more quickly than we imagine.

A lot of times the Black Swans occur in the overlap of what each of us is hiding from the other side. In any given interaction there’s stuff you’re keeping from the other side, even if you’re talking to a family member or close friend. We’re carrying stuff around inside of us that can be from yesterday or from 30 years ago. And it’s stuff the other side doesn’t really know. If that’s true, then our counterpart, our adversary, colleague, sibling, is doing the same thing. They have stuff that we don’t know about. And the Black Swan is where those two unknowns overlap.

What’s an example of a Black Swan from your own life?

I had a conversation a couple years ago with my older sister. I always viewed her high school days as ending spectacularly. She literally dated the captain of the football team. Meanwhile, my high school days were very frustrating.

So, I’m in town for my high school reunion. I’ve been back for several, but my older sister hasn’t been back for any. We’re sitting down and talking, and I said to her that I was unhappy most of my time in high school. She looked at me with shock because she figured that since I was coming back to these reunions and stayed in touch with classmates that my high school years were roses and happiness. She was surprised, and this wasn’t even a negotiation. Just a conversation. That indicated to me that there was a lot of stuff at that time in her life that I didn’t have an understanding of.

We’ve got these overlaps in our lives that the other person doesn’t know about—that’s where the Black Swans come from.

What if we want to uncover one of our own Black Swans—before it occurs, of course?

You shouldn’t have to look that hard because it’s stuff that you would have thought was blatantly obvious. I would have thought it was blatantly obvious to my sister that my recollection of high school was unhappy, but it wasn’t. In many cases, the Black Swans are staring us in the face, but we’ve lived with them for so long that we don’t realize what’s obvious to us is subtle to the other person. We take it for granted that they should have figured it out, and then we’re unhappy that they didn’t because it was so obvious to us.

One assumption that may be shared by everyone at dinner is fear of the meal being ruined by argument. Often acknowledging anxiety relieves it.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that our caveman brains are wired to see 15 out of the three actual problems that we encounter. If it wasn’t for that, human beings may have died out a long time ago because we’d never learn. Since we haven’t outgrown that, we start rehearsing the meals in our brains before we even have them, and imagine a lot of arguments that might not even be happen.


People are not used to having those we interact with express actual concern for our emotional state. Most of the time it’s people wanting to correct our emotions.


What can people do to not psych themselves out in advance of a family holiday dinner?

This is going to sound ridiculously simple, but just identify it in your brain. If you were to say, “I’m feeling really anxious about this dinner,” there’s actually solid data that shows that simple identification process dials down the anxiety. It doesn’t reinforce it.

If you do an MRI of someone’s brain you can view the portion of the amygdala that magnifies fear, and when you see someone identify the fear by saying, “I’m feeling afraid,” the electrical impulses drops. It sounds simple, but self-identification—or external identification by someone else—reduces symptoms.

How would we identify it in someone else?

If they have an anxious look on their face, you can just say, “Hey, long day, huh?” And then they’ll likely think, “Hey, it has been a long day. What am I exuding that would make someone say that?” It’ll both dial down their anxiety and make them feel appreciated. If I see someone with an angry look on their face, they had that look before I got to them. They may have memories that added to their anger, but they’ve been struggling with that anger for a while. You’d be amazed with the amount of people across the board whose heads are cleared for at least a moment just by someone asking, “Hey, long day, huh?”

And if you’re feeling anxious, how do you effectively let someone know that at the family gathering?

First you say to yourself, “This has got me feeling anxious,” and you’ll feel better when you say that to yourself. I love the apology. There’s some criticism about people apologizing too much or inappropriately, but I like an apology as a precursor. I’ll just say, “I’m sorry, but I feel a little anxious right now.” And people really appreciate hearing that from you because you’re showing respect for them as a human being by saying, “I may not be doing that great of a job interacting with you right now and I’m sorry ‘cause it’s kinda my fault.”

This also reminds me of the part of your book where you disarm the person you’re negotiating with by expressing genuine concern for their emotional state. You surprise your negotiating partner and quickly endear them to you.

Exactly. People are not used to having those we interact with express actual concern for our emotional state. Most of the time it’s people wanting to correct our emotional state. It’s more of a, “Yes, but,” as in, “Yes, you’re feeling this way but you should actually be feeling this way.” Not that many people are enthusiastic about being corrected. Especially when we didn’t ask for it. There’s a difference between someone actually expressing an appreciation for how we’re feeling and people trying to correct us, and we get a lot of people trying to correct us on a regular basis. Very little straight appreciation.

After an exchange like that, we can turn to open-ended questions.

The “what” and “how” are the bread and butter of the open-ended question. One of the biggest things, especially during the holidays, is that “why” makes people feel accused. When our emotions are closer to the surface, asking someone “why?” may set them off faster than normal. When we’re kids and we did something wrong, our parents would ask, “Why did you do that?” And it’s been drilled into our heads that “Why?” is a precursor to being judged and punished. So we have to be careful with “why.”


Some people may be an open nerve and not ready to joke around, but you can stick to the process and not be demeaning—humor is often a disguised attack.


Does the open-ended question also have the effect of wearing down whomever you’re talking to?

It can. Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel for Economic Sciences, wrote a great book called Thinking, Fast and Slow. He says “slow thinking” is another term for “deep thinking”—the kind of question that stops someone in their tracks because they have to dedicate so many resources to answering that question. Triggering deep thinking is accomplished using “what” or “how” questions because they don’t set off alarm bells like a “why” question does. And deep thinking can be exhausting, if that’s your intent, but it’s what you want to achieve if you actually want the other person to think deeply about what you just said. You want a thoughtful answer, and that can be a part of your holiday strategy as well.

You also discuss in the book how asking questions in such a way that the other person is able to respond with a “no” gives them a feeling of security so they’re more comfortable. How could that be worked into a holiday discussion?

Triggering “no” takes some practice, but it’s easier than you think because the vast majority of questions we ask each other are closed-ended questions where the answer is a “yes.” “Do you want to enjoy your holiday dinner? Yes.” Let’s say a member of your family always shows up late and you want to ask them so they’re more inclined to show up early. You can say, “Is it ridiculous for us to want you to be there on time?” The answer to that is “no.” So most of the questions you want to ask can be flipped into a “no” by asking “Is it ridiculous?” “Is it a bad idea?” “Are you against?” Those can be put in front of nearly any one of our “yes”-focused questions so we still get the outcome we want but it just comes in the form of a “no.” People don’t feel trapped with “no.” They feel liberated, more comfortable.

And does that still work if you ask those questions in a way that makes them funny? Like, you’re having dinner and you ask someone, in a humorous way, “Would it be ridiculous for you to pass the mashed potatoes?”

Funny is a great thing for everybody’s brain. Lighthearted humor and playfulness are good for the person who uses it and it’s good for the recipient. Some people may be an open nerve and not ready to joke around, but you can stick to the process and also be playful and lighthearted and not demeaning—because humor is often used as a disguised attack. Sarcasm, for example, is mean and condescending, but good-natured humor is useful for everybody.

Playful, good-natured humor is one way to help maintain a good mood, and so is tactical empathy—a technique from your book that uses empathy to calibrate people to focus on the positive.

We know so much more about empathy now than when the term started to gain traction over 50 years ago. It’s not your grandfather’s empathy. We can use empathy tactically to disarm negatives through identification and we can use it tactically to increase positives. If we’re at a family dinner and we know in advance someone is going to be railing away at, say, the injustices they perceive in the world, then we can flip that coin and focus on what they like. If you’re railing against injustices, then you like justice. So you can say, “Ever since we were kids justice has been very important to you,” and you can pick out the positives that were the motivator for their pattern of behavior. That will bring out the positive in them as well.

Because if someone is focused on the negatives, then their general mindset in that moment is such that they’d see the negative in anything? And this technique gets them to focus on the positive?

Yes, it refocuses them toward the positive and they won’t fight it because it’s true.


It’s easier to genuinely care about what people think if you don’t feel that caring requires you to agree with them. It’s an autonomy issue.


And how quickly does that refocusing occur once tactical empathy is employed?

As a practitioner, I’ve noticed that you may have to hit somebody three times. If I see someone’s in a bad mood, me feeding them the positive aspect of it once is probably not going to be enough. I may see a slight change, but they’re in a vicious circle, so I’ll probably have to hit them three straight times so that it starts to sink in and for it to become self-reinforcing.

And how do we deploy tactical empathy so that it doesn’t become a “Yes, but…?”

You leave the “but” part out. That’s what it boils down to. It sounds simplistic, but we usually get ourselves in trouble with the second half of what we say. So a lot of times it’s learning the negotiation technique known as the affected pause: aka “shut up.” If we can learn to drop in an affected pause just before we say “but,” we’ll be in good shape.

I think the apprehension one might feel about a dinner is evidence of that relationship not being as strong as it could be, but thanks to these techniques you could have an enjoyable meal and conversation and get your relationship closer to the sort of place where you feel less apprehension about future get-togethers. Do the techniques themselves entail acting as if you already have that stronger relationship, acting as if you already genuinely care?

What’s giving me pause is “acting like you genuinely care.” [Laughs]. It’s like they say: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that everything else is a breeze.” It’s easier to genuinely care about what people think if we don’t feel that caring about what someone has to say requires that I agree with what they have to say. It’s an autonomy issue. I’m willing to say that autonomy is a huge driver in human nature—period—but we also live in a country that’s founded on the idea of autonomy. “Give me liberty or give me death” is about autonomy. So if I can release myself from the requirement that I agree, it’s a lot easier for me to care about what you think because I’m still free to disagree.

It seems fair to say an enjoyable meal and a meaningful conversation also set the stage for changing someone’s mind—which might be something you’re interested in if you’re arguing at dinner. Could these techniques be used to change someone’s mind too?

When we start talking about changing minds we’re usually talking about changing solutions and not necessarily changing minds. There are a variety of solutions that might be effective. We all kind of want the same things: for people to have happier lives, and more productive lives for ourselves. It’s how we get there once we get there on the priorities. So a lot of times if you change the discussion of the thoughts to “what makes you think that?” instead of “I think you’re wrong,” it becomes a more open discussion. Again, a lot of times when we have these conversations we say, “Why would you say that?” and “why” makes a lot of people feel accused, so if you change your “whys” to “whats,” that signals genuine curiosity and openness. Then someone’s more likely to say, “If you can make the case, I’m willing to be persuaded.”