Want to Be a Great Interviewer? Think Like a Hostage Negotiator

Few people reflexively think hostage negotiations for tips on how to interview. They should!

Chris Voss was the lead hostage negotiator for the FBI. He was a skilled practitioner who learned and innovated through trial and error over many years of tense, high stakes negotiations with highly dangerous, oft unpredictable adversaries around the world. In 2016, Voss wrote a book titled Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your Life Depended on It. It is a veritable treasure trove of lessons learned and insights.

While a hostage negotiator and a job interviewer engage in markedly different endeavors, they share a fundamental need to learn as much as possible about the person on the other side of the table. The objective in one instance is to leverage that knowledge into an effective strategy to end a dangerous situation while in the other instance it is to make an accurate assessment of fit for a job and company.

Voss is not afraid to be controversial. For example, among his early observations, ‘You should engage the process with a mindset of discovery. Your goal at the outset is to extract and observe as much information as possible. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons that really smart people often have trouble being negotiators – they’re so smart they think they don’t have anything to discover”.

Before we get to the meat of what Voss has to say, here are a few of the preparatory table stakes that he lays out:

Focus – Make your sole and all encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say. In that model of true ‘active listening’, you’ll disarm your counterpart. You will make them feel safe. … get them feeling safe enough to talk and talk and talk some more. Trust and safety need to be present for a real conversation to begin.
While making someone the sole focus of one’s attention sounds easy enough in a one on one situation, it should not be assumed to be easy. The FBI will deploy multiple people listening to calls in hostage negotiations – one listening for the mood of the hostage taker, one listening for clues or ‘tells’ that might give a read on what they are facing, one parsing the words etc. etc. As Voss says, “The fact that the FBI has come to the conclusion that it needs so many people should be a wake-up call. It’s really not that easy to listen well. We are easily distracted, we engage in selective listening, hearing only what we want to hear, our minds acting on a cognitive bias for consistency rather than trust…. we are easily overwhelmed by too much information’.

Slow it Down – If we are too much in a hurry, people can feel as though they are not being heard and we risk undermining the rapport and trust we have built….when you slow the process down, you calm it down.

Attitude and Voice Matters – Voss recommends using a positive playful voice (easy going and good natured – light and encouraging). He recommends relaxing and smiling while you are talking, even on the phone. People will pick up on it. People focus on what to say but it’s how we are (our general demeanor and delivery) that is both the easiest thing to enact and the most immediately effective mode of influence. When we radiate warmth and acceptance, conversations just seem to flow. When we enter a room with a level of comfort and enthusiasm, we attract people towards us. You smile at someone on the street and they reflexively smile back. Incidentally, sterile, cold environments for interviewing run contrary to these objectives.
As for Voss’ more specific advice, they include…

Use Mirroring – Mirroring is essentially imitation. Voss asserts that we copy each other to comfort each other. It insinuates similarity. Simply explained, the idea is to repeat the last three words (or the most critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. As Voss says, “Of all of the tools used by the FBI negotiators mirroring is the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick”. Though simple, Voss argues it is ‘uncannily effective’. Mirroring triggers an instinct ‘and your counterpart will inevitably elaborate on what was just said and sustain the process of connecting’. The intention behind mirroring should be ‘please help me understand’. Ask someone what they meant by their last comment ‘and you are likely to incite irritation and defensiveness. A mirror however will get the clarity you want while signaling respect and concern for what the person is saying’. Voss acknowledges that mirroring feels awkward at first and takes practice to perfect.

Silence is Golden – Mirroring requires you to be comfortable with the silence that ensues. Wait for the other person to respond. It can feel like an eternity at first but it works. Don’t worry, the other party will fill in the silence.
We will outline Voss’ other insights, including the use of labelling, tactical empathy and strategic open-ended probes in our next post…..

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777

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