Talking Shop: Engage with Empathy

Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss offers tips to deal with donors and alumni

By Emily Lombardo

Chris Voss

Chris Voss
CEO, Black Swan Group 
Former FBI Hostage Negotiator
Washington, D.C.

For 24 years, Chris Voss worked as an FBI hostage negotiator and was, at one time, its lead international kidnapping negotiator. Now retired from the bureau, he runs the Black Swan Group, a consultancy specializing in solving business communication problems with hostage negotiation techniques. His book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, is a U.S. best-seller.


Voss will be speaking at CASE's DRIVE/ Conference, which will be held Feb. 27-28 in Seattle.

How would you deal with angry alumni or donors?

Understanding where somebody's coming from and articulating that understanding diminishes 90 percent of the problem. Most people realize that no system is perfect and don't expect it to be. What they do expect is to be appreciated and respected, not necessarily agreed with. I mean, a hostage negotiator is never going to agree with a hostage taker, but we still have to get them to calm down and stop what they're doing. We do that with simple respect and appreciation. Most people think empathy is something we use when we can't agree, when in fact using empathy helps us reach an agreement a lot faster.

Can advancement professionals improve their negotiating skills? 

Anyone can become a better negotiator. Most negotiations require emotional intelligence, and that's a completely buildable skill. If you're open to learning, you pick it up faster. Receptive listening is key. During low-stakes or no-stakes conversations, do nothing but be good at really trying to understand people. You're not going to be anxious about making mistakes, because you've got no skin in the game. You can practice and get better. You'll be surprised at how quickly it will come to you.

Here's a scenario for you: An alumnus is upset about the firing of a beloved university staff member and is withholding his gift. How would you handle this?

I'd think, "What is the other person saying to himself about this?" Tell him,"We're lucky to have had you in our corner all these years and clearly better off as a result of your loyalty. It sounds like you feel ... " and then mention the stuff that may be going through the back of that person's mind. Until you can quiet that inner voice, you won't make progress. It's not that the person won't listen. It's that he can't because he's overwhelmed by the inner voice. 

Then ask, "How would you like to see us proceed?" If the real issue is not the action but the perception of the action, see if a tactical empathy fix will repair it. Now, you might not get the gift with empathy, but it's guaranteed that you will not get the gift without it.

We talked about how to deal with other people who are upset. How do you negotiate when you're the one who's feeling emotional?

There are three ways. One is to be grateful that you're in a difficult conversation. By definition, you're relatively successful to begin with, and you're lucky to be in that conversation. A second thing to do is to be genuinely curious and focus on where the other side is coming from; it has a tendency to drive fear away. The third way is to brainstorm all of the worst things that could happen and recognize that they're possible. That mere process helps you reconcile yourself to the possibility. Fear or anxiety is worse when you're running from it as opposed to when you're simply recognizing it.