How FBI negotiation tactics help you give better feedback

How FBI negotiation tactics help you give better feedback

Imagine you are trying to convince someone not to jump from a building.

You’ve got one chance to say something to stop them.

What will you say?

If you don’t know, how do you find out?

You have to learn as much as you can about what got them in this situation. Only then will you know what to say to get them off that ledge.

The goal of a negotiator is to discover as much as information as possible.

Eventually, you’ll find the “black swan” that gives you the key to resolve the situation. This idea of discovery is essential for giving feedback. How do you know what you’re saying is helpful? Did it get them down from the proverbial ledge?

Negotiation is about moving the status quo in your favour. Giving feedback is the opposite. You want to move the status quo in their favour. Sometimes that means not giving any feedback at all.

Feedback is a generous gift.

It’s how we help each other improve. It grows our craft, our relationships and most importantly, humbles our ego. But, feedback isn’t always easy to receive.

So how do you give feedback that is helpful, and doesn’t get someone’s back up against a wall?

There is a brilliant book by Chris Voss called “Never Split the Difference” (non-affiliate link). It goes into great depth about the negotiation tactics he developed and used over the decades at the FBI.

I’m going to show you how the same tactics can be used to help you give great feedback.

Use ‘Tactical Empathy’

To give meaningful feedback, we need to uncover as much as we can about the context.

‘Tactical empathy’ helps us do that by building trust and psychological safety. It’s easier to uncover information when the person feels comfortable. And the more information you have to work with, the more impactful your feedback.

Tactical Empathy is where Voss labels an emotion to diffuse it, or empathise with it. He does this by saying “it seems like” or “it sounds like”.

Let’s look at an example. Your colleague has forwarded you the proposal they’ve sent to a client;

Counterpart: “I’m done with this proposal, I’m sick of it!”

You: “It sounds like you’re fed up.”

Counterpart: “Yeah, it’s been the result of a lot of sleepless nights. I’m still not happy with it. I wish I had more time still.”


Emotion labelling makes your counterpart feel heard.

Your peers are far more likely to open up when they know they are being listened to. We can then guide the conversation to discover more about the situation. The more you know, the more useful your feedback will be.


Ask open questions

To learn, we need to ask “what” and “how” questions.

These are open questions, which give an abundance of information in their answers. Unlike closed questions which only invite a “yes” or “no” response.

Open questions are also highly effective in a workshop setting, as they lead to a broader range of responses and ideas. 

Counterpart: “Yeah, it’s been the result of a lot of sleepless nights. I’m still not happy with it. I wish I had more time still.”

You: “You’re not happy with it?”

Counterpart: “No I’m not; there’s just something about it that doesn’t feel right. But I’ve sent it now, so we’ll see what happens.”

You: “What do you think it is that doesn’t feel right?”

Counterpart: “It’s the costs, I feel like we haven’t framed them in the best way”


Because we led with the motive of discovery, we learnt what in particular they struggled with.


You: “How could it be done differently?”

“Well, I’m not sure - what do you think?”


Not only do we know what they need feedback on, they’ve invited us to give them feedback, instead of having it thrust upon them.

Of course, it doesn’t always go like this. People have different attitudes towards criticism. If you can see an opportunity to give meaningful feedback - it’s still best to ask permission first.


Avoid asking why

Did you notice we haven’t asked a “why?” question?

When you’re hit with a “why?” question, you put your counterpart on the back foot. “Why?” has an accusatory tone. It can come across like you are questioning a person’s character and not their actions.

There’s a subtle but essential difference between “Why did you do that?” versus “What made you do that?”. The sting is removed from the question. “What” infers there was some external factor at play. “Why” feels like our character is on the chopping block.


Find the Black Swan

We sometimes give feedback as a gut reaction.

We see a mistake and want to correct it. However, we rarely give ourselves time to understand why things are the way they are. What you learn could end up making your intended feedback redundant.

The more you get your counterpart to talk, the more you have to work with.

You will learn things, which Chris Voss calls “Black Swans”. The sort of thing that makes you go ‘aah, I see what’s going on here’. It completely changes the face of the negotiation, or in our case — the feedback.

You need to work under the assumption that your feedback is wrong. And that there is a piece of the puzzle you dont know about that makes it redundant.



“Mirroring” is repeating back what they’ve said, in the form of a question.

Voss uses mirroring to create familiarity. It gives our counterpart the feeling of control and prompts them to go deeper. It's a tactic that is used throughout these examples. 

Counterpart: “...something about it doesn’t feel right.”

You: “... doesn’t feel right?”

Counterpart: “It’s the costs, I feel like I haven’t framed them in the best way”


It's effective because it's doing a lot of things at once. It shows you are listening. It's an open question, and it allows you to guide the conversation. Whatever you decide to mirror, becomes the focus.


Feedback is a pursuit of discovery

In a negotiation, knowledge is power.
The more you know, the more effective your feedback. At the core of these negotiation tactics is the skill of active listening. Listening is like holding up a mirror, it can allow someone to discover the feedback they need, for themselves. 

You need to be aware of your ego and why you want to give feedback.
Is it to elevate yourself and put down others? Or is it to improve the work and help them grow?

The next time your gut reaction is to offer uninvited feedback, first take some time to understand their situation. You might be surprised what you learn.


The three principles of a great “feedback negotiator”

  • Uncover the reason behind their decisions. You might learn your intended feedback isn’t helpful at all.

  • Build trust by mirroring their words and actions, which encourages open questions to help you discover new information.

  • Give control to your counterpart. Ask open questions that start with “what” and “how”. Avoid the accusatory tone of “why” questions.

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