Chris Voss


Tactical Empathy for Modern Negotiating Success


Chris Voss is a famous negotiator, professor, and businessman well-known for his high-profile FBI career, and his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it. Voss has revolutionized negotiation tactics and greatly impacted how organizations and individuals globally understand and negotiate with one another.

Voss has developed negotiation tactics throughout his lengthy professional career, gaining respect from individuals across disciplines. Voss’s primary philosophy in his negotiation processes surrounds the premise that individuals want to be understood and accepted, and that collaboration and empathy are at the core of good negotiations.

Persuasion is not about how bright or smooth or forceful you are. It’s about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea. So don’t beat them with logic or brute force. Ask them questions that open paths to your goals. It’s not about you.

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Tactical Empathy - The key to negotiation is engaging emotional intelligence

Tactical empathy is an innovative approach to negotiating. This strategy utilizes different aspects of behavioral science to the advantage of the negotiator. Tactical empathy was coined by Chris Voss, which he developed through his experiences as a professional negotiator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Tactical empathy is an approach centered around collaboration and empathy rather than aggressive and abrasive negotiation tactics.1 Voss refers to empathy as becoming utterly aware of the other person’s perspective and understanding their viewpoints and emotions. Simply put, tactical empathy is the act of understanding another persons’ mindset and feelings and making them feel understood.1

An example of tactical empathy involves a famous instance in Chris Voss’s career. In 1998, while Voss was the head of the NYC FBI Crisis Negotiation team, he describes a hostage situation where for six hours, Voss spoke through the apartment door of a Harlem apartment with three heavily armed fugitives. Throughout the six-hour process, Voss calmly repeated statements such as “it looks like you don’t want to come out,” and “it looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.2 ” Voss used tactical empathy to perceive the fugitives’ emotions and repeat them back to them, demonstrating to them his understanding of the situation and their feelings. Eventually, the fugitives came out of the apartment, stating that “we didn’t want to get caught or get shot, but you calmed us down. We finally believed you wouldn’t go away, so we just came out.3 ” When reflecting on the experience, Voss explains how he de-escalated the event by identifying the fugitives’ emotions, labeling them, and then discussing calming with the fugitives to ensure to them that he understands their feelings and viewpoints.

“Conflict brings out truth, creativity, and resolution.”

― Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

Before Voss’s tactical empathy approach in negotiations, traditional negotiating techniques were more stoic and strict. Voss’s impact has been widespread. He has taught this style of negotiation to peers within the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as students and business people. Chris Voss describes tactical empathy as emotional intelligence on steroids.4 The ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart and the vocalization of that recognition is key to tactical empathy in negotiation.

Labeling - Identifying emotions and stating them out loud

Labeling is an innovative negotiation technique rooted in behavioral science, which is used to diffuse situations by making others feel listened to and understood. Voss used labeling throughout his career as a negotiator and has stated that it is his most essential negotiation tactics.

“Mirrors work magic. Repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar. Mirroring is the art of insinuating similarity, which facilitates bonding. Use mirrors to encourage the other side to empathize and bond with you, keep people talking, buy your side time to regroup, and encourage your counterparts to reveal their strategy.”

― Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It

Labeling in negotiations was derived from the behavioral science concept of affect labeling, an implicit emotional regulation strategy. The origins of affect labeling are unknown and date back to the beginning of psychotherapy. Keeping journals is a century-long example of affect labeling.5 Voss states that the three steps to labeling which include: detecting emotional states of individuals, labeling the emotional state and saying it out loud, and finally staying silent and letting the other individual process the label.6

To test the power of labeling, researchers examined the amygdala, and it’s reactions to negative images. The amygdala is the nerve center for emotions in the human brain. The experiment was conducted by putting participants in fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment), and observing the electrical activity in their brains as they saw different photos. After showing participants a negative image, researchers then would ask them what they were feeling, and to identify that feeling and label it. The electrical activity in the negative part of the amygdala would decrease each time a participant would self-label their emotions. Researchers noted that recognizing the negative emotion and labeling lowered the impact of the negativity on the amygdala.7

“He who has learned to disagree without being disagreeable has discovered the most valuable secret of negotiation.”

― Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

Labeling is a simple and effective method used in negotiating. Outside of negotiations, labeling has impacted disciplines ranging from social media and therapy. Voss’s use of labeling in negotiation has notably changed the FBI’s practices and the work of his clients and students. Labeling negative emotions aids in diffusing them, while labeling positive emotions reinforces them in negotiation. Voss states that the golden rule when negotiating with individuals is that humans all want to be appreciated and understood.7 Labeling is a starting point to pursue this universal appreciation.

Historical Biography

Chris Voss, now the famous American negotiator, was born in Mt.Pleasant, Iowa.8 Voss earned a Bachelor of Science from Iowa State University and then a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.9 10 Voss acquired his knowledge of negotiation through an array of experiences throughout his career. He held a 24-year tenure in the FBI and was trained to negotiate by the FBI, Scotland Yard, and Harvard Law School.4

“If you approach a negotiation thinking the other guy thinks like you, you are wrong. That’s not empathy, that’s a projection.”

― Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

Throughout Voss’s time at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he worked on over 150 international hostage cases. Eventually, Voss led the international kidnapping negotiator team for the FBI, as their chief international hostage and kidnapping negotiator from 2003 to 2007.4 Notably, Voss worked as a case agent on cases such as the TWA Flight 800 catastrophe, the TERRSTOP (the Blind Sheikh Case), and he negotiated the surrender of the first hostage in the Chase Manhattan bank robbery.4 Voss retired from the FBI in 2007 and founded the Black Swan Group, a company of negotiation experts that offer negotiation training for businesses and individuals.11 Voss now has a long academic career, having taught business negotiations as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University, while also teaching at Harvard University and the University of Southern California.4

Aside from the milestones and successes throughout his career, Chris Voss is most well-known for his negotiating tactics developed throughout his experiences at the FBI. His negotiation philosophy on tactical empathy is his most famous contribution. The steps of tactical empathy, involve detecting the emotional states of those you are negotiating with, labeling their emotions, and then being silent.12 Voss’s tactical empathy is now widely taught in schools and through his consulting services and has strongly impacted the Negotiation Unit at the FBI.13

Chris Voss has worked on a handful of famous negotiation cases, including the Jill Carrol case in Iraq, and the Steve Centanni case in the Gaza Strip in 2006.14 15

Additionally, Chris Voss has worked alongside many other prominent government officials and FBI colleagues throughout his career.

“The beauty of empathy is that it doesn’t demand that you agree with the other person’s ideas”

― Chris Voss,Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

Chris Voss Media Output

  1. TEDx Talk Speech: TEDX Talk – Never Split The Difference | Chris Voss | TEDxUniversityofNevada

In this TEDx speech, Chris Voss provides an overview of his negotiation tactics, providing concise behavioral science explanations and real-life examples from his experience.

  1. Chris Voss’ Book: Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It[20] (2016) ISBN 9781473535169

Chris Voss’s book provides an in-depth overview of his negotiation tactics and experiences.

  1. Chris Voss’ Masterclass: Chris Voss Teaches the Art of Negotiation 

For a more thorough understanding of the art of negotiation, Chris Voss now provides lectures for Masterclass, making his techniques relevant to professionals across disciplines.


  1. Tactical Empathy. (2019, December 17). Retrieved from
  2. Bariso, J. (2018, June 07). The FBI’s Best Negotiator Says This Is the 1 Thing You Need to Influence Anyone. Retrieved from
  3.  Voss, C., & Raz, T. (2016). Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it (First edition.). New York, NY: Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
  5. Makdisi, George (1986). “The Diary in Islamic Historiography: Some Notes”. History and Theory. 25 (2): 173–185. doi:10.2307/2505304. ISSN 0018-2656. JSTOR 2505304.
  6. Torre JB, Lieberman MD (2018-03-20). “Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation”. Emotion Review. 10 (2): 116–124. doi:10.1177/1754073917742706. ISSN 1754-0739. S2CID 46664580.
  7. 12-Minute Summary by Freshsales: Never Split the Difference. (2020, May 18). Retrieved August from
  8. Roth, Clare; Kieffer, Ben (Jul 12, 2016). “FBI Kidnapping Negotiatior and Iowa Native Explains Why You Should “Never Split the Difference””. Retrieved Dec 30, 2019.
  9. “Georgetown University Faculty Directory”.
  10. Riley, Una (Feb 9, 2015). “Una Riley meets Chris Voss”. Professional Security Magazine.
  11. Wartenberg, Steve (Sep 20, 2009). “Negotiating expert wins fans with his ‘no’ strategy”. Columbia Dispatch.
  12. Melnyck, R. (2019, May 30). Tactical Empathy: This is How to Use it to Negotiate Better! Retrieved from
  13. Voss, C. (n.d.). Are You Tactical-Empathy Curious? Retrieved from
  14. Riley, Una (Feb 9, 2015). “Una Riley meets Chris Voss”. Professional Security Magazine. Retrieved Dec 13, 2016.
  15. Vardi, N. (2012, July 16). Kidnap Inc. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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