Customer Service Lessons From A Hostage Negotiator

Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss explains how tempting it is to think events unfold like a game of chess. We think, “he said this, we offered that, they countered, etc.” It seems logical, but it’s a dangerous assumption. While clear openings and endgames exist both in hostage negotiations and chess, every move changes the tension on the board, and not necessarily in a linear way. Recognizing these differences is an advantage, and we don’t need to be negotiating hostages to borrow his analogy.


Voss says we should envision tension springs attached to each piece. When one piece moves, all of the other pieces move just a tiny bit too. Because of these shifts, we can only ever think 2-3 moves in advance before the whole board looks different. This is Voss’ critical point. The whole board changes in the real world, not so in chess.


In a conversation with a client, we can use Voss’ “2-3 moves” rule to not get too far ahead of ourselves. While we often have a pretty good idea of what either of us will say or do next, we have to stay open-minded about how every incremental move exerts pressure on all of the other pieces. Nervousness about one decision is connected to uncertainty about a plan. Overconfidence in one decision may be linked to a disregard for risk in a broader strategy. We are always trying to find context and read the shifts in tension. Every move exposes relevant information.  


There’s an expression this brings to mind – “Strong opinions, weakly held.” Our strong opinions about where the conversation is going is important, but weakly holding onto them in an effort to remain flexible is even more important. When we’re flexible, we’re present. When we’re present, we are aware of all of the pieces that are in play, we know where there’s tension, and our radar is up for how the next piece of relevant information will alter the board.


Professionals, like Voss, know how to play their game extremely well. Remember to always plot a few moves in advance, read the tension to test expectations, and embrace the unexpected.

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