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Never split the difference

I was intimidated.
I’d spent more than two decades in the FBI, including
fifteen years negotiating hostage situations from New York
to the Philippines and the Middle East, and I was on top of
my game. At any given time, there are ten thousand FBI
agents in the Bureau, but only one lead international
kidnapping negotiator. That was me.
But I’d never experienced a hostage situation so tense,
so personal.
“We’ve got your son, Voss. Give us one million dollars
or he dies.”
Pause. Blink. Mindfully urge the heart rate back to
Sure, I’d been in these types of situations before. Tons of
them. Money for lives. But not like this. Not with my son on
the line. Not $1 million. And not against people with fancy
degrees and a lifetime of negotiating expertise.
You see, the people across the table—my negotiating
counterparts—were Harvard Law School negotiating
I’d come up to Harvard to take a short executive negotiating
course, to see if I could learn something from the business
world’s approach. It was supposed to be quiet and calm, a
little professional development for an FBI guy trying to
widen his horizons.
But when Robert Mnookin, the director of the Harvard
Negotiation Research Project, learned I was on campus, he
invited me to his office for a coffee. Just to chat, he said.
I was honored. And scared. Mnookin is an impressive
guy whom I’d followed for years: not only is he a Harvard
law professor, he’s also one of the big shots of the conflict
resolution field and the author of Bargaining with the Devil:
When to Negotiate, When to Fight.1
To be honest, it felt unfair that Mnookin wanted me, a
former Kansas City beat cop, to debate negotiation with
him. But then it got worse. Just after Mnookin and I sat
down, the door opened and another Harvard professor
walked in. It was Gabriella Blum, a specialist in international
negotiations, armed conflict, and counterterrorism, who’d
spent eight years as a negotiator for the Israeli National
Security Council and the Israel Defense Forces. The toughas-
nails IDF.

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